The woman in white, p.11
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       The Woman in White, p.11

           Wilkie Collins
 

  XI

  Not a word more was said, on either side, as we walked back to thehouse. Miss Halcombe hastened immediately to her sister's room, and Iwithdrew to my studio to set in order all of Mr. Fairlie's drawingsthat I had not yet mounted and restored before I resigned them to thecare of other hands. Thoughts that I had hitherto restrained, thoughtsthat made my position harder than ever to endure, crowded on me nowthat I was alone.

  She was engaged to be married, and her future husband was Sir PercivalGlyde. A man of the rank of Baronet, and the owner of property inHampshire.

  There were hundreds of baronets in England, and dozens of landowners inHampshire. Judging by the ordinary rules of evidence, I had not theshadow of a reason, thus far, for connecting Sir Percival Glyde withthe suspicious words of inquiry that had been spoken to me by the womanin white. And yet, I did connect him with them. Was it because he hadnow become associated in my mind with Miss Fairlie, Miss Fairlie being,in her turn, associated with Anne Catherick, since the night when I haddiscovered the ominous likeness between them? Had the events of themorning so unnerved me already that I was at the mercy of any delusionwhich common chances and common coincidences might suggest to myimagination? Impossible to say. I could only feel that what had passedbetween Miss Halcombe and myself, on our way from the summer-house, hadaffected me very strangely. The foreboding of some undiscoverabledanger lying hid from us all in the darkness of the future was strongon me. The doubt whether I was not linked already to a chain of eventswhich even my approaching departure from Cumberland would be powerlessto snap asunder--the doubt whether we any of us saw the end as the endwould really be--gathered more and more darkly over my mind. Poignantas it was, the sense of suffering caused by the miserable end of mybrief, presumptuous love seemed to be blunted and deadened by the stillstronger sense of something obscurely impending, something invisiblythreatening, that Time was holding over our heads.

  I had been engaged with the drawings little more than half an hour,when there was a knock at the door. It opened, on my answering; and,to my surprise, Miss Halcombe entered the room.

  Her manner was angry and agitated. She caught up a chair for herselfbefore I could give her one, and sat down in it, close at my side.

  "Mr. Hartright," she said, "I had hoped that all painful subjects ofconversation were exhausted between us, for to-day at least. But it isnot to be so. There is some underhand villainy at work to frighten mysister about her approaching marriage. You saw me send the gardener onto the house, with a letter addressed, in a strange handwriting, toMiss Fairlie?"

  "Certainly."

  "The letter is an anonymous letter--a vile attempt to injure SirPercival Glyde in my sister's estimation. It has so agitated andalarmed her that I have had the greatest possible difficulty incomposing her spirits sufficiently to allow me to leave her room andcome here. I know this is a family matter on which I ought not toconsult you, and in which you can feel no concern or interest----"

  "I beg your pardon, Miss Halcombe. I feel the strongest possibleconcern and interest in anything that affects Miss Fairlie's happinessor yours."

  "I am glad to hear you say so. You are the only person in the house,or out of it, who can advise me. Mr. Fairlie, in his state of healthand with his horror of difficulties and mysteries of all kinds, is notto be thought of. The clergyman is a good, weak man, who knows nothingout of the routine of his duties; and our neighbours are just the sortof comfortable, jog-trot acquaintances whom one cannot disturb in timesof trouble and danger. What I want to know is this: ought I at once totake such steps as I can to discover the writer of the letter? or oughtI to wait, and apply to Mr. Fairlie's legal adviser to-morrow? It is aquestion--perhaps a very important one--of gaining or losing a day.Tell me what you think, Mr. Hartright. If necessity had not alreadyobliged me to take you into my confidence under very delicatecircumstances, even my helpless situation would, perhaps, be no excusefor me. But as things are I cannot surely be wrong, after all that haspassed between us, in forgetting that you are a friend of only threemonths' standing."

  She gave me the letter. It began abruptly, without any preliminaryform of address, as follows--

  "Do you believe in dreams? I hope, for your own sake, that you do. Seewhat Scripture says about dreams and their fulfilment (Genesis xl. 8,xli. 25; Daniel iv. 18-25), and take the warning I send you before itis too late.

  "Last night I dreamed about you, Miss Fairlie. I dreamed that I wasstanding inside the communion rails of a church--I on one side of thealtar-table, and the clergyman, with his surplice and his prayer-book,on the other.

  "After a time there walked towards us, down the aisle of the church, aman and a woman, coming to be married. You were the woman. You lookedso pretty and innocent in your beautiful white silk dress, and yourlong white lace veil, that my heart felt for you, and the tears cameinto my eyes.

  "They were tears of pity, young lady, that heaven blesses and insteadof falling from my eyes like the everyday tears that we all of us shed,they turned into two rays of light which slanted nearer and nearer tothe man standing at the altar with you, till they touched his breast.The two rays sprang ill arches like two rainbows between me and him. Ilooked along them, and I saw down into his inmost heart.

  "The outside of the man you were marrying was fair enough to see. Hewas neither tall nor short--he was a little below the middle size. Alight, active, high-spirited man--about five-and-forty years old, tolook at. He had a pale face, and was bald over the forehead, but haddark hair on the rest of his head. His beard was shaven on his chin,but was let to grow, of a fine rich brown, on his cheeks and his upperlip. His eyes were brown too, and very bright; his nose straight andhandsome and delicate enough to have done for a woman's. His hands thesame. He was troubled from time to time with a dry hacking cough, andwhen he put up his white right hand to his mouth, he showed the redscar of an old wound across the back of it. Have I dreamt of the rightman? You know best, Miss Fairlie and you can say if I was deceived ornot. Read next, what I saw beneath the outside--I entreat you, read,and profit.

  "I looked along the two rays of light, and I saw down into his inmostheart. It was black as night, and on it were written, in the redflaming letters which are the handwriting of the fallen angel, 'Withoutpity and without remorse. He has strewn with misery the paths ofothers, and he will live to strew with misery the path of this woman byhis side.' I read that, and then the rays of light shifted and pointedover his shoulder; and there, behind him, stood a fiend laughing. Andthe rays of light shifted once more, and pointed over your shoulder;and there behind you, stood an angel weeping. And the rays of lightshifted for the third time, and pointed straight between you and thatman. They widened and widened, thrusting you both asunder, one fromthe other. And the clergyman looked for the marriage-service in vain:it was gone out of the book, and he shut up the leaves, and put it fromhim in despair. And I woke with my eyes full of tears and my heartbeating--for I believe in dreams.

  "Believe too, Miss Fairlie--I beg of you, for your own sake, believe asI do. Joseph and Daniel, and others in Scripture, believed in dreams.Inquire into the past life of that man with the scar on his hand,before you say the words that make you his miserable wife. I don'tgive you this warning on my account, but on yours. I have an interestin your well-being that will live as long as I draw breath. Yourmother's daughter has a tender place in my heart--for your mother wasmy first, my best, my only friend."

  There the extraordinary letter ended, without signature of any sort.

  The handwriting afforded no prospect of a clue. It was traced on ruledlines, in the cramped, conventional, copy-book character technicallytermed "small hand." It was feeble and faint, and defaced by blots, buthad otherwise nothing to distinguish it.

  "That is not an illiterate letter," said Miss Halcombe, "and at thesame time, it is surely too incoherent to be the letter of an educatedperson in the higher ranks of life. The reference to the bridal dressand veil, and other little
expressions, seem to point to it as theproduction of some woman. What do you think, Mr. Hartright?"

  "I think so too. It seems to me to be not only the letter of a woman,but of a woman whose mind must be----"

  "Deranged?" suggested Miss Halcombe. "It struck me in that light too."

  I did not answer. While I was speaking, my eyes rested on the lastsentence of the letter: "Your mother's daughter has a tender place inmy heart--for your mother was my first, my best, my only friend." Thosewords and the doubt which had just escaped me as to the sanity of thewriter of the letter, acting together on my mind, suggested an idea,which I was literally afraid to express openly, or even to encouragesecretly. I began to doubt whether my own faculties were not in dangerof losing their balance. It seemed almost like a monomania to betracing back everything strange that happened, everything unexpectedthat was said, always to the same hidden source and the same sinisterinfluence. I resolved, this time, in defence of my own courage and myown sense, to come to no decision that plain fact did not warrant, andto turn my back resolutely on everything that tempted me in the shapeof surmise.

  "If we have any chance of tracing the person who has written this," Isaid, returning the letter to Miss Halcombe, "there can be no harm inseizing our opportunity the moment it offers. I think we ought tospeak to the gardener again about the elderly woman who gave him theletter, and then to continue our inquiries in the village. But firstlet me ask a question. You mentioned just now the alternative ofconsulting Mr. Fairlie's legal adviser to-morrow. Is there nopossibility of communicating with him earlier? Why not to-day?"

  "I can only explain," replied Miss Halcombe, "by entering into certainparticulars, connected with my sister's marriage-engagement, which Idid not think it necessary or desirable to mention to you this morning.One of Sir Percival Glyde's objects in coming here on Monday, is to fixthe period of his marriage, which has hitherto been left quiteunsettled. He is anxious that the event should take place before theend of the year."

  "Does Miss Fairlie know of that wish?" I asked eagerly.

  "She has no suspicion of it, and after what has happened, I shall nottake the responsibility upon myself of enlightening her. Sir Percivalhas only mentioned his views to Mr. Fairlie, who has told me himselfthat he is ready and anxious, as Laura's guardian, to forward them. Hehas written to London, to the family solicitor, Mr. Gilmore. Mr.Gilmore happens to be away in Glasgow on business, and he has repliedby proposing to stop at Limmeridge House on his way back to town. Hewill arrive to-morrow, and will stay with us a few days, so as to allowSir Percival time to plead his own cause. If he succeeds, Mr. Gilmorewill then return to London, taking with him his instructions for mysister's marriage-settlement. You understand now, Mr. Hartright, why Ispeak of waiting to take legal advice until to-morrow? Mr. Gilmore isthe old and tried friend of two generations of Fairlies, and we cantrust him, as we could trust no one else."

  The marriage-settlement! The mere hearing of those two words stung mewith a jealous despair that was poison to my higher and betterinstincts. I began to think--it is hard to confess this, but I mustsuppress nothing from beginning to end of the terrible story that I nowstand committed to reveal--I began to think, with a hateful eagernessof hope, of the vague charges against Sir Percival Glyde which theanonymous letter contained. What if those wild accusations rested on afoundation of truth? What if their truth could be proved before thefatal words of consent were spoken, and the marriage-settlement wasdrawn? I have tried to think since, that the feeling which thenanimated me began and ended in pure devotion to Miss Fairlie'sinterests, but I have never succeeded in deceiving myself intobelieving it, and I must not now attempt to deceive others. Thefeeling began and ended in reckless, vindictive, hopeless hatred of theman who was to marry her.

  "If we are to find out anything," I said, speaking under the newinfluence which was now directing me, "we had better not let anotherminute slip by us unemployed. I can only suggest, once more, thepropriety of questioning the gardener a second time, and of inquiringin the village immediately afterwards."

  "I think I may be of help to you in both cases," said Miss Halcombe,rising. "Let us go, Mr. Hartright, at once, and do the best we cantogether."

  I had the door in my hand to open it for her--but I stopped, on asudden, to ask an important question before we set forth.

  "One of the paragraphs of the anonymous letter," I said, "contains somesentences of minute personal description. Sir Percival Glyde's name isnot mentioned, I know--but does that description at all resemble him?"

  "Accurately--even in stating his age to be forty-five----"

  Forty-five; and she was not yet twenty-one! Men of his age marriedwives of her age every day--and experience had shown those marriages tobe often the happiest ones. I knew that--and yet even the mention ofhis age, when I contrasted it with hers, added to my blind hatred anddistrust of him.

  "Accurately," Miss Halcombe continued, "even to the scar on his righthand, which is the scar of a wound that he received years since when hewas travelling in Italy. There can be no doubt that every peculiarityof his personal appearance is thoroughly well known to the writer ofthe letter."

  "Even a cough that he is troubled with is mentioned, if I rememberright?"

  "Yes, and mentioned correctly. He treats it lightly himself, though itsometimes makes his friends anxious about him."

  "I suppose no whispers have ever been heard against his character?"

  "Mr. Hartright! I hope you are not unjust enough to let that infamousletter influence you?"

  I felt the blood rush into my cheeks, for I knew that it HAD influencedme.

  "I hope not," I answered confusedly. "Perhaps I had no right to askthe question."

  "I am not sorry you asked it," she said, "for it enables me to dojustice to Sir Percival's reputation. Not a whisper, Mr. Hartright,has ever reached me, or my family, against him. He has foughtsuccessfully two contested elections, and has come out of the ordealunscathed. A man who can do that, in England, is a man whose characteris established."

  I opened the door for her in silence, and followed her out. She hadnot convinced me. If the recording angel had come down from heaven toconfirm her, and had opened his book to my mortal eyes, the recordingangel would not have convinced me.

  We found the gardener at work as usual. No amount of questioning couldextract a single answer of any importance from the lad's impenetrablestupidity. The woman who had given him the letter was an elderlywoman; she had not spoken a word to him, and she had gone away towardsthe south in a great hurry. That was all the gardener could tell us.

  The village lay southward of the house. So to the village we went next.