The Woman in White, Page 8Wilkie Collins
When I entered the room, I found Miss Halcombe and an elderly ladyseated at the luncheon-table.
The elderly lady, when I was presented to her, proved to be MissFairlie's former governess, Mrs. Vesey, who had been briefly describedto me by my lively companion at the breakfast-table, as possessed of"all the cardinal virtues, and counting for nothing." I can do littlemore than offer my humble testimony to the truthfulness of MissHalcombe's sketch of the old lady's character. Mrs. Vesey looked thepersonification of human composure and female amiability. A calmenjoyment of a calm existence beamed in drowsy smiles on her plump,placid face. Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunterthrough life. Mrs. Vesey SAT through life. Sat in the house, early andlate; sat in the garden; sat in unexpected window-seats in passages;sat (on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking;sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything,before she answered Yes, or No, to the commonest question--always withthe same serene smile on her lips, the same vacantly-attentive turn ofthe head, the same snugly-comfortable position of her hands and arms,under every possible change of domestic circumstances. A mild, acompliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never byany chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive sincethe hour of her birth. Nature has so much to do in this world, and isengaged in generating such a vast variety of co-existent productions,that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused todistinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on atthe same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remainmy private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages whenMrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequencesof a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.
"Now, Mrs. Vesey," said Miss Halcombe, looking brighter, sharper, andreadier than ever, by contrast with the undemonstrative old lady at herside, "what will you have? A cutlet?"
Mrs. Vesey crossed her dimpled hands on the edge of the table, smiledplacidly, and said, "Yes, dear."
"What is that opposite Mr. Hartright? Boiled chicken, is it not? Ithought you liked boiled chicken better than cutlet, Mrs. Vesey?"
Mrs. Vesey took her dimpled hands off the edge of the table and crossedthem on her lap instead; nodded contemplatively at the boiled chicken,and said, "Yes, dear."
"Well, but which will you have, to-day? Shall Mr. Hartright give yousome chicken? or shall I give you some cutlet?"
Mrs. Vesey put one of her dimpled hands back again on the edge of thetable; hesitated drowsily, and said, "Which you please, dear."
"Mercy on me! it's a question for your taste, my good lady, not formine. Suppose you have a little of both? and suppose you begin withthe chicken, because Mr. Hartright looks devoured by anxiety to carvefor you."
Mrs. Vesey put the other dimpled hand back on the edge of the table;brightened dimly one moment; went out again the next; bowed obediently,and said, "If you please, sir."
Surely a mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless oldlady! But enough, perhaps, for the present, of Mrs. Vesey.
All this time, there were no signs of Miss Fairlie. We finished ourluncheon; and still she never appeared. Miss Halcombe, whose quick eyenothing escaped, noticed the looks that I cast, from time to time, inthe direction of the door.
"I understand you, Mr. Hartright," she said; "you are wondering whathas become of your other pupil. She has been downstairs, and has gotover her headache; but has not sufficiently recovered her appetite tojoin us at lunch. If you will put yourself under my charge, I think Ican undertake to find her somewhere in the garden."
She took up a parasol lying on a chair near her, and led the way out,by a long window at the bottom of the room, which opened on to thelawn. It is almost unnecessary to say that we left Mrs. Vesey stillseated at the table, with her dimpled hands still crossed on the edgeof it; apparently settled in that position for the rest of theafternoon.
As we crossed the lawn, Miss Halcombe looked at me significantly, andshook her head.
"That mysterious adventure of yours," she said, "still remains involvedin its own appropriate midnight darkness. I have been all the morninglooking over my mother's letters, and I have made no discoveries yet.However, don't despair, Mr. Hartright. This is a matter of curiosity;and you have got a woman for your ally. Under such conditions successis certain, sooner or later. The letters are not exhausted. I havethree packets still left, and you may confidently rely on my spendingthe whole evening over them."
Here, then, was one of my anticipations of the morning stillunfulfilled. I began to wonder, next, whether my introduction to MissFairlie would disappoint the expectations that I had been forming ofher since breakfast-time.
"And how did you get on with Mr. Fairlie?" inquired Miss Halcombe, aswe left the lawn and turned into a shrubbery. "Was he particularlynervous this morning? Never mind considering about your answer, Mr.Hartright. The mere fact of your being obliged to consider is enoughfor me. I see in your face that he WAS particularly nervous; and, as Iam amiably unwilling to throw you into the same condition, I ask nomore."
We turned off into a winding path while she was speaking, andapproached a pretty summer-house, built of wood, in the form of aminiature Swiss chalet. The one room of the summer-house, as weascended the steps of the door, was occupied by a young lady. She wasstanding near a rustic table, looking out at the inland view of moorand hill presented by a gap in the trees, and absently turning over theleaves of a little sketch-book that lay at her side. This was MissFairlie.
How can I describe her? How can I separate her from my own sensations,and from all that has happened in the later time? How can I see heragain as she looked when my eyes first rested on her--as she shouldlook, now, to the eyes that are about to see her in these pages?
The water-colour drawing that I made of Laura Fairlie, at an afterperiod, in the place and attitude in which I first saw her, lies on mydesk while I write. I look at it, and there dawns upon me brightly,from the dark greenish-brown background of the summer-house, a light,youthful figure, clothed in a simple muslin dress, the pattern of itformed by broad alternate stripes of delicate blue and white. A scarfof the same material sits crisply and closely round her shoulders, anda little straw hat of the natural colour, plainly and sparingly trimmedwith ribbon to match the gown, covers her head, and throws its softpearly shadow over the upper part of her face. Her hair is of so faintand pale a brown--not flaxen, and yet almost as light; not golden, andyet almost as glossy--that it nearly melts, here and there, into theshadow of the hat. It is plainly parted and drawn back over her ears,and the line of it ripples naturally as it crosses her forehead. Theeyebrows are rather darker than the hair; and the eyes are of thatsoft, limpid, turquoise blue, so often sung by the poets, so seldomseen in real life. Lovely eyes in colour, lovely eyes in form--largeand tender and quietly thoughtful--but beautiful above all things inthe clear truthfulness of look that dwells in their inmost depths, andshines through all their changes of expression with the light of apurer and a better world. The charm--most gently and yet mostdistinctly expressed--which they shed over the whole face, so coversand transforms its little natural human blemishes elsewhere, that it isdifficult to estimate the relative merits and defects of the otherfeatures. It is hard to see that the lower part of the face is toodelicately refined away towards the chin to be in full and fairproportion with the upper part; that the nose, in escaping the aquilinebend (always hard and cruel in a woman, no matter how abstractedlyperfect it may be), has erred a little in the other extreme, and hasmissed the ideal straightness of line; and that the sweet, sensitivelips are subject to a slight nervous contraction, when she smiles,which draws them upward a little at one corner, towards the cheek. Itmight be possible to note these blemishes in another woman's face butit is not easy to dwell on them in hers, so subtly are they connectedwith all that is individual and characteristic in her expression, andso closely does the expression
depend for its full play and life, inevery other feature, on the moving impulse of the eyes.
Does my poor portrait of her, my fond, patient labour of long and happydays, show me these things? Ah, how few of them are in the dimmechanical drawing, and how many in the mind with which I regard it! Afair, delicate girl, in a pretty light dress, trifling with the leavesof a sketch-book, while she looks up from it with truthful, innocentblue eyes--that is all the drawing can say; all, perhaps, that even thedeeper reach of thought and pen can say in their language, either. Thewoman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptionsof beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remainedunknown to us till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep forwords, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, byother charms than those which the senses feel and which the resourcesof expression can realise. The mystery which underlies the beauty ofwomen is never raised above the reach of all expression until it hasclaimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls. Then, andthen only, has it passed beyond the narrow region on which light falls,in this world, from the pencil and the pen.
Think of her as you thought of the first woman who quickened the pulseswithin you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir. Let the kind,candid blue eyes meet yours, as they met mine, with the one matchlesslook which we both remember so well. Let her voice speak the musicthat you once loved best, attuned as sweetly to your ear as to mine.Let her footstep, as she comes and goes, in these pages, be like thatother footstep to whose airy fall your own heart once beat time. Takeher as the visionary nursling of your own fancy; and she will grow uponyou, all the more clearly, as the living woman who dwells in mine.
Among the sensations that crowded on me, when my eyes first looked uponher--familiar sensations which we all know, which spring to life inmost of our hearts, die again in so many, and renew their brightexistence in so few--there was one that troubled and perplexed me: onethat seemed strangely inconsistent and unaccountably out of place inMiss Fairlie's presence.
Mingling with the vivid impression produced by the charm of her fairface and head, her sweet expression, and her winning simplicity ofmanner, was another impression, which, in a shadowy way, suggested tome the idea of something wanting. At one time it seemed like somethingwanting in HER: at another, like something wanting in myself, whichhindered me from understanding her as I ought. The impression wasalways strongest in the most contradictory manner, when she looked atme; or, in other words, when I was most conscious of the harmony andcharm of her face, and yet, at the same time, most troubled by thesense of an incompleteness which it was impossible to discover.Something wanting, something wanting--and where it was, and what itwas, I could not say.
The effect of this curious caprice of fancy (as I thought it then) wasnot of a nature to set me at my ease, during a first interview withMiss Fairlie. The few kind words of welcome which she spoke found mehardly self-possessed enough to thank her in the customary phrases ofreply. Observing my hesitation, and no doubt attributing it, naturallyenough, to some momentary shyness on my part, Miss Halcombe took thebusiness of talking, as easily and readily as usual, into her own hands.
"Look there, Mr. Hartright," she said, pointing to the sketch-book onthe table, and to the little delicate wandering hand that was stilltrifling with it. "Surely you will acknowledge that your model pupilis found at last? The moment she hears that you are in the house, sheseizes her inestimable sketch-book, looks universal Nature straight inthe face, and longs to begin!"
Miss Fairlie laughed with a ready good-humour, which broke out asbrightly as if it had been part of the sunshine above us, over herlovely face.
"I must not take credit to myself where no credit is due," she said,her clear, truthful blue eyes looking alternately at Miss Halcombe andat me. "Fond as I am of drawing, I am so conscious of my own ignorancethat I am more afraid than anxious to begin. Now I know you are here,Mr. Hartright, I find myself looking over my sketches, as I used tolook over my lessons when I was a little girl, and when I was sadlyafraid that I should turn out not fit to be heard."
She made the confession very prettily and simply, and, with quaint,childish earnestness, drew the sketch-book away close to her own sideof the table. Miss Halcombe cut the knot of the little embarrassmentforthwith, in her resolute, downright way.
"Good, bad, or indifferent," she said, "the pupil's sketches must passthrough the fiery ordeal of the master's judgment--and there's an endof it. Suppose we take them with us in the carriage, Laura, and letMr. Hartright see them, for the first time, under circumstances ofperpetual jolting and interruption? If we can only confuse him allthrough the drive, between Nature as it is, when he looks up at theview, and Nature as it is not when he looks down again at oursketch-books, we shall drive him into the last desperate refuge ofpaying us compliments, and shall slip through his professional fingerswith our pet feathers of vanity all unruffled."
"I hope Mr. Hartright will pay ME no compliments," said Miss Fairlie,as we all left the summer-house.
"May I venture to inquire why you express that hope?" I asked.
"Because I shall believe all that you say to me," she answered simply.
In those few words she unconsciously gave me the key to her wholecharacter: to that generous trust in others which, in her nature, grewinnocently out of the sense of her own truth. I only knew itintuitively then. I know it by experience now.
We merely waited to rouse good Mrs. Vesey from the place which shestill occupied at the deserted luncheon-table, before we entered theopen carriage for our promised drive. The old lady and Miss Halcombeoccupied the back seat, and Miss Fairlie and I sat together in front,with the sketch-book open between us, fairly exhibited at last to myprofessional eyes. All serious criticism on the drawings, even if Ihad been disposed to volunteer it, was rendered impossible by MissHalcombe's lively resolution to see nothing but the ridiculous side ofthe Fine Arts, as practised by herself, her sister, and ladies ingeneral. I can remember the conversation that passed far more easilythan the sketches that I mechanically looked over. That part of thetalk, especially, in which Miss Fairlie took any share, is still asvividly impressed on my memory as if I had heard it only a few hoursago.
Yes! let me acknowledge that on this first day I let the charm of herpresence lure me from the recollection of myself and my position. Themost trifling of the questions that she put to me, on the subject ofusing her pencil and mixing her colours; the slightest alterations ofexpression in the lovely eyes that looked into mine with such anearnest desire to learn all that I could teach, and to discover allthat I could show, attracted more of my attention than the finest viewwe passed through, or the grandest changes of light and shade, as theyflowed into each other over the waving moorland and the level beach.At any time, and under any circumstances of human interest, is it notstrange to see how little real hold the objects of the natural worldamid which we live can gain on our hearts and minds? We go to Naturefor comfort in trouble, and sympathy in joy, only in books. Admirationof those beauties of the inanimate world, which modern poetry solargely and so eloquently describes, is not, even in the best of us,one of the original instincts of our nature. As children, we none ofus possess it. No uninstructed man or woman possesses it. Those whoselives are most exclusively passed amid the ever-changing wonders of seaand land are also those who are most universally insensible to everyaspect of Nature not directly associated with the human interest oftheir calling. Our capacity of appreciating the beauties of the earthwe live on is, in truth, one of the civilised accomplishments which weall learn as an Art; and, more, that very capacity is rarely practisedby any of us except when our minds are most indolent and mostunoccupied. How much share have the attractions of Nature ever had inthe pleasurable or painful interests and emotions of ourselves or ourfriends? What space do they ever occupy in the thousand littlenarratives of personal experience which pass every day by word of mouthfrom one of us to the other? All that our minds can compass, all that
our hearts can learn, can be accomplished with equal certainty, equalprofit, and equal satisfaction to ourselves, in the poorest as in therichest prospect that the face of the earth can show. There is surelya reason for this want of inborn sympathy between the creature and thecreation around it, a reason which may perhaps be found in thewidely-differing destinies of man and his earthly sphere. The grandestmountain prospect that the eye can range over is appointed toannihilation. The smallest human interest that the pure heart can feelis appointed to immortality.
We had been out nearly three hours, when the carriage again passedthrough the gates of Limmeridge House.
On our way back I had let the ladies settle for themselves the firstpoint of view which they were to sketch, under my instructions, on theafternoon of the next day. When they withdrew to dress for dinner, andwhen I was alone again in my little sitting-room, my spirits seemed toleave me on a sudden. I felt ill at ease and dissatisfied with myself,I hardly knew why. Perhaps I was now conscious for the first time ofhaving enjoyed our drive too much in the character of a guest, and toolittle in the character of a drawing-master. Perhaps that strangesense of something wanting, either in Miss Fairlie or in myself, whichhad perplexed me when I was first introduced to her, haunted me still.Anyhow, it was a relief to my spirits when the dinner-hour called meout of my solitude, and took me back to the society of the ladies ofthe house.
I was struck, on entering the drawing-room, by the curious contrast,rather in material than in colour, of the dresses which they now wore.While Mrs. Vesey and Miss Halcombe were richly clad (each in the mannermost becoming to her age), the first in silver-grey, and the second inthat delicate primrose-yellow colour which matches so well with a darkcomplexion and black hair, Miss Fairlie was unpretendingly and almostpoorly dressed in plain white muslin. It was spotlessly pure: it wasbeautifully put on; but still it was the sort of dress which the wifeor daughter of a poor man might have worn, and it made her, so far asexternals went, look less affluent in circumstances than her owngoverness. At a later period, when I learnt to know more of MissFairlie's character, I discovered that this curious contrast, on thewrong side, was due to her natural delicacy of feeling and naturalintensity of aversion to the slightest personal display of her ownwealth. Neither Mrs. Vesey nor Miss Halcombe could ever induce her tolet the advantage in dress desert the two ladies who were poor, to leanto the side of the one lady who was rich.
When the dinner was over we returned together to the drawing-room.Although Mr. Fairlie (emulating the magnificent condescension of themonarch who had picked up Titian's brush for him) had instructed hisbutler to consult my wishes in relation to the wine that I might preferafter dinner, I was resolute enough to resist the temptation of sittingin solitary grandeur among bottles of my own choosing, and sensibleenough to ask the ladies' permission to leave the table with themhabitually, on the civilised foreign plan, during the period of myresidence at Limmeridge House.
The drawing-room, to which we had now withdrawn for the rest of theevening, was on the ground-floor, and was of the same shape and size asthe breakfast-room. Large glass doors at the lower end opened on to aterrace, beautifully ornamented along its whole length with a profusionof flowers. The soft, hazy twilight was just shading leaf and blossomalike into harmony with its own sober hues as we entered the room, andthe sweet evening scent of the flowers met us with its fragrant welcomethrough the open glass doors. Good Mrs. Vesey (always the first of theparty to sit down) took possession of an arm-chair in a corner, anddozed off comfortably to sleep. At my request Miss Fairlie placedherself at the piano. As I followed her to a seat near the instrument,I saw Miss Halcombe retire into a recess of one of the side windows, toproceed with the search through her mother's letters by the last quietrays of the evening light.
How vividly that peaceful home-picture of the drawing-room comes backto me while I write! From the place where I sat I could see MissHalcombe's graceful figure, half of it in soft light, half inmysterious shadow, bending intently over the letters in her lap; while,nearer to me, the fair profile of the player at the piano was justdelicately defined against the faintly-deepening background of theinner wall of the room. Outside, on the terrace, the clusteringflowers and long grasses and creepers waved so gently in the lightevening air, that the sound of their rustling never reached us. Thesky was without a cloud, and the dawning mystery of moonlight began totremble already in the region of the eastern heaven. The sense ofpeace and seclusion soothed all thought and feeling into a rapt,unearthly repose; and the balmy quiet, that deepened ever with thedeepening light, seemed to hover over us with a gentler influencestill, when there stole upon it from the piano the heavenly tendernessof the music of Mozart. It was an evening of sights and sounds neverto forget.
We all sat silent in the places we had chosen--Mrs. Vesey stillsleeping, Miss Fairlie still playing, Miss Halcombe still reading--tillthe light failed us. By this time the moon had stolen round to theterrace, and soft, mysterious rays of light were slanting alreadyacross the lower end of the room. The change from the twilightobscurity was so beautiful that we banished the lamps, by commonconsent, when the servant brought them in, and kept the large roomunlighted, except by the glimmer of the two candles at the piano.
For half an hour more the music still went on. After that the beautyof the moonlight view on the terrace tempted Miss Fairlie out to lookat it, and I followed her. When the candles at the piano had beenlighted Miss Halcombe had changed her place, so as to continue herexamination of the letters by their assistance. We left her, on a lowchair, at one side of the instrument, so absorbed over her reading thatshe did not seem to notice when we moved.
We had been out on the terrace together, just in front of the glassdoors, hardly so long as five minutes, I should think; and Miss Fairliewas, by my advice, just tying her white handkerchief over her head as aprecaution against the night air--when I heard Miss Halcombe'svoice--low, eager, and altered from its natural lively tone--pronouncemy name.
"Mr. Hartright," she said, "will you come here for a minute? I want tospeak to you."
I entered the room again immediately. The piano stood about half-waydown along the inner wall. On the side of the instrument farthest fromthe terrace Miss Halcombe was sitting with the letters scattered on herlap, and with one in her hand selected from them, and held close to thecandle. On the side nearest to the terrace there stood a low ottoman,on which I took my place. In this position I was not far from the glassdoors, and I could see Miss Fairlie plainly, as she passed and repassedthe opening on to the terrace, walking slowly from end to end of it inthe full radiance of the moon.
"I want you to listen while I read the concluding passages in thisletter," said Miss Halcombe. "Tell me if you think they throw anylight upon your strange adventure on the road to London. The letter isaddressed by my mother to her second husband, Mr. Fairlie, and the daterefers to a period of between eleven and twelve years since. At thattime Mr. and Mrs. Fairlie, and my half-sister Laura, had been livingfor years in this house; and I was away from them completing myeducation at a school in Paris."
She looked and spoke earnestly, and, as I thought, a little uneasily aswell. At the moment when she raised the letter to the candle beforebeginning to read it, Miss Fairlie passed us on the terrace, looked infor a moment, and seeing that we were engaged, slowly walked on.
Miss Halcombe began to read as follows:--
"'You will be tired, my dear Philip, of hearing perpetually about myschools and my scholars. Lay the blame, pray, on the dull uniformityof life at Limmeridge, and not on me. Besides, this time I havesomething really interesting to tell you about a new scholar.
"'You know old Mrs. Kempe at the village shop. Well, after years ofailing, the doctor has at last given her up, and she is dying slowlyday by day. Her only living relation, a sister, arrived last week totake care of her. This sister comes all the way from Hampshire--hername is Mrs. Catherick. Four days ago Mrs. Catherick came here to seeme, and brought her onl
y child with her, a sweet little girl about ayear older than our darling Laura----'"
As the last sentence fell from the reader's lips, Miss Fairlie passedus on the terrace once more. She was softly singing to herself one ofthe melodies which she had been playing earlier in the evening. MissHalcombe waited till she had passed out of sight again, and then wenton with the letter--
"'Mrs. Catherick is a decent, well-behaved, respectable woman;middle-aged, and with the remains of having been moderately, onlymoderately, nice-looking. There is something in her manner and in herappearance, however, which I can't make out. She is reserved aboutherself to the point of downright secrecy, and there is a look in herface--I can't describe it--which suggests to me that she has somethingon her mind. She is altogether what you would call a walking mystery.Her errand at Limmeridge House, however, was simple enough. When sheleft Hampshire to nurse her sister, Mrs. Kempe, through her lastillness, she had been obliged to bring her daughter with her, throughhaving no one at home to take care of the little girl. Mrs. Kempe maydie in a week's time, or may linger on for months; and Mrs. Catherick'sobject was to ask me to let her daughter, Anne, have the benefit ofattending my school, subject to the condition of her being removed fromit to go home again with her mother, after Mrs. Kempe's death. Iconsented at once, and when Laura and I went out for our walk, we tookthe little girl (who is just eleven years old) to the school that veryday.'"
Once more Miss Fairlie's figure, bright and soft in its snowy muslindress--her face prettily framed by the white folds of the handkerchiefwhich she had tied under her chin--passed by us in the moonlight. Oncemore Miss Halcombe waited till she was out of sight, and then went on--
"'I have taken a violent fancy, Philip, to my new scholar, for a reasonwhich I mean to keep till the last for the sake of surprising you. Hermother having told me as little about the child as she told me ofherself, I was left to discover (which I did on the first day when wetried her at lessons) that the poor little thing's intellect is notdeveloped as it ought to be at her age. Seeing this I had her up tothe house the next day, and privately arranged with the doctor to comeand watch her and question her, and tell me what he thought. Hisopinion is that she will grow out of it. But he says her carefulbringing-up at school is a matter of great importance just now, becauseher unusual slowness in acquiring ideas implies an unusual tenacity inkeeping them, when they are once received into her mind. Now, my love,you must not imagine, in your off-hand way, that I have been attachingmyself to an idiot. This poor little Anne Catherick is a sweet,affectionate, grateful girl, and says the quaintest, prettiest things(as you shall judge by an instance), in the most oddly sudden,surprised, half-frightened way. Although she is dressed very neatly,her clothes show a sad want of taste in colour and pattern. So Iarranged, yesterday, that some of our darling Laura's old white frocksand white hats should be altered for Anne Catherick, explaining to herthat little girls of her complexion looked neater and better all inwhite than in anything else. She hesitated and seemed puzzled for aminute, then flushed up, and appeared to understand. Her little handclasped mine suddenly. She kissed it, Philip, and said (oh, soearnestly!), "I will always wear white as long as I live. It will helpme to remember you, ma'am, and to think that I am pleasing you still,when I go away and see you no more." This is only one specimen of thequaint things she says so prettily. Poor little soul! She shall have astock of white frocks, made with good deep tucks, to let out for her asshe grows----'"
Miss Halcombe paused, and looked at me across the piano.
"Did the forlorn woman whom you met in the high-road seem young?" sheasked. "Young enough to be two- or three-and-twenty?"
"Yes, Miss Halcombe, as young as that."
"And she was strangely dressed, from head to foot, all in white?"
"All in white."
While the answer was passing my lips Miss Fairlie glided into view onthe terrace for the third time. Instead of proceeding on her walk, shestopped, with her back turned towards us, and, leaning on thebalustrade of the terrace, looked down into the garden beyond. My eyesfixed upon the white gleam of her muslin gown and head-dress in themoonlight, and a sensation, for which I can find no name--a sensationthat quickened my pulse, and raised a fluttering at my heart--began tosteal over me.
"All in white?" Miss Halcombe repeated. "The most important sentencesin the letter, Mr. Hartright, are those at the end, which I will readto you immediately. But I can't help dwelling a little upon thecoincidence of the white costume of the woman you met, and the whitefrocks which produced that strange answer from my mother's littlescholar. The doctor may have been wrong when he discovered the child'sdefects of intellect, and predicted that she would 'grow out of them.'She may never have grown out of them, and the old grateful fancy aboutdressing in white, which was a serious feeling to the girl, may be aserious feeling to the woman still."
I said a few words in answer--I hardly know what. All my attention wasconcentrated on the white gleam of Miss Fairlie's muslin dress.
"Listen to the last sentences of the letter," said Miss Halcombe. "Ithink they will surprise you."
As she raised the letter to the light of the candle, Miss Fairlieturned from the balustrade, looked doubtfully up and down the terrace,advanced a step towards the glass doors, and then stopped, facing us.
Meanwhile Miss Halcombe read me the last sentences to which she hadreferred--
"'And now, my love, seeing that I am at the end of my paper, now forthe real reason, the surprising reason, for my fondness for little AnneCatherick. My dear Philip, although she is not half so pretty, she is,nevertheless, by one of those extraordinary caprices of accidentalresemblance which one sometimes sees, the living likeness, in her hair,her complexion, the colour of her eyes, and the shape of her face----'"
I started up from the ottoman before Miss Halcombe could pronounce thenext words. A thrill of the same feeling which ran through me when thetouch was laid upon my shoulder on the lonely high-road chilled meagain.
There stood Miss Fairlie, a white figure, alone in the moonlight; inher attitude, in the turn of her head, in her complexion, in the shapeof her face, the living image, at that distance and under thosecircumstances, of the woman in white! The doubt which had troubled mymind for hours and hours past flashed into conviction in an instant.That "something wanting" was my own recognition of the ominous likenessbetween the fugitive from the asylum and my pupil at Limmeridge House.
"You see it!" said Miss Halcombe. She dropped the useless letter, andher eyes flashed as they met mine. "You see it now, as my mother sawit eleven years since!"
"I see it--more unwillingly than I can say. To associate that forlorn,friendless, lost woman, even by an accidental likeness only, with MissFairlie, seems like casting a shadow on the future of the brightcreature who stands looking at us now. Let me lose the impressionagain as soon as possible. Call her in, out of the drearymoonlight--pray call her in!"
"Mr. Hartright, you surprise me. Whatever women may be, I thought thatmen, in the nineteenth century, were above superstition."
"Pray call her in!"
"Hush, hush! She is coming of her own accord. Say nothing in herpresence. Let this discovery of the likeness be kept a secret betweenyou and me. Come in, Laura, come in, and wake Mrs. Vesey with thepiano. Mr. Hartright is petitioning for some more music, and he wantsit, this time, of the lightest and liveliest kind."