The woman in white, p.13
The Woman in White, p.13Wilkie Collins
The exposed situation of the churchyard had obliged me to be cautiousin choosing the position that I was to occupy.
The main entrance to the church was on the side next to theburial-ground, and the door was screened by a porch walled in on eitherside. After some little hesitation, caused by natural reluctance toconceal myself, indispensable as that concealment was to the object inview, I had resolved on entering the porch. A loophole window waspierced in each of its side walls. Through one of these windows Icould see Mrs. Fairlie's grave. The other looked towards the stonequarry in which the sexton's cottage was built. Before me, frontingthe porch entrance, was a patch of bare burial-ground, a line of lowstone wall, and a strip of lonely brown hill, with the sunset cloudssailing heavily over it before the strong, steady wind. No livingcreature was visible or audible--no bird flew by me, no dog barked fromthe sexton's cottage. The pauses in the dull beating of the surf werefilled up by the dreary rustling of the dwarf trees near the grave, andthe cold faint bubble of the brook over its stony bed. A dreary sceneand a dreary hour. My spirits sank fast as I counted out the minutesof the evening in my hiding-place under the church porch.
It was not twilight yet--the light of the setting sun still lingered inthe heavens, and little more than the first half-hour of my solitarywatch had elapsed--when I heard footsteps and a voice. The footstepswere approaching from the other side of the church, and the voice was awoman's.
"Don't you fret, my dear, about the letter," said the voice. "I gaveit to the lad quite safe, and the lad he took it from me without aword. He went his way and I went mine, and not a living soul followedme afterwards--that I'll warrant."
These words strung up my attention to a pitch of expectation that wasalmost painful. There was a pause of silence, but the footsteps stilladvanced. In another moment two persons, both women, passed within myrange of view from the porch window. They were walking straighttowards the grave; and therefore they had their backs turned towards me.
One of the women was dressed in a bonnet and shawl. The other wore along travelling-cloak of a dark-blue colour, with the hood drawn overher head. A few inches of her gown were visible below the cloak. Myheart beat fast as I noted the colour--it was white.
After advancing about half-way between the church and the grave theystopped, and the woman in the cloak turned her head towards hercompanion. But her side face, which a bonnet might now have allowed meto see, was hidden by the heavy, projecting edge of the hood.
"Mind you keep that comfortable warm cloak on," said the same voicewhich I had already heard--the voice of the woman in the shawl. "Mrs.Todd is right about your looking too particular, yesterday, all inwhite. I'll walk about a little while you're here, churchyards beingnot at all in my way, whatever they may be in yours. Finish what youwant to do before I come back, and let us be sure and get home againbefore night."
With those words she turned about, and retracing her steps, advancedwith her face towards me. It was the face of an elderly woman, brown,rugged, and healthy, with nothing dishonest or suspicious in the lookof it. Close to the church she stopped to pull her shawl closer roundher.
"Queer," she said to herself, "always queer, with her whims and herways, ever since I can remember her. Harmless, though--as harmless,poor soul, as a little child."
She sighed--looked about the burial-ground nervously--shook her head,as if the dreary prospect by no means pleased her, and disappearedround the corner of the church.
I doubted for a moment whether I ought to follow and speak to her ornot. My intense anxiety to find myself face to face with her companionhelped me to decide in the negative. I could ensure seeing the womanin the shawl by waiting near the churchyard until she cameback--although it seemed more than doubtful whether she could give methe information of which I was in search. The person who had deliveredthe letter was of little consequence. The person who had written it wasthe one centre of interest, and the one source of information, and thatperson I now felt convinced was before me in the churchyard.
While these ideas were passing through my mind I saw the woman in thecloak approach close to the grave, and stand looking at it for a littlewhile. She then glanced all round her, and taking a white linen clothor handkerchief from under her cloak, turned aside towards the brook.The little stream ran into the churchyard under a tiny archway in thebottom of the wall, and ran out again, after a winding course of a fewdozen yards, under a similar opening. She dipped the cloth in thewater, and returned to the grave. I saw her kiss the white cross, thenkneel down before the inscription, and apply her wet cloth to thecleansing of it.
After considering how I could show myself with the least possiblechance of frightening her, I resolved to cross the wall before me, toskirt round it outside, and to enter the churchyard again by the stilenear the grave, in order that she might see me as I approached. Shewas so absorbed over her employment that she did not hear me cominguntil I had stepped over the stile. Then she looked up, started to herfeet with a faint cry, and stood facing me in speechless and motionlessterror.
"Don't be frightened," I said. "Surely you remember me?"
I stopped while I spoke--then advanced a few steps gently--then stoppedagain--and so approached by little and little till I was close to her.If there had been any doubt still left in my mind, it must have beennow set at rest. There, speaking affrightedly for itself--there wasthe same face confronting me over Mrs. Fairlie's grave which had firstlooked into mine on the high-road by night.
"You remember me?" I said. "We met very late, and I helped you to findthe way to London. Surely you have not forgotten that?"
Her features relaxed, and she drew a heavy breath of relief. I saw thenew life of recognition stirring slowly under the death-like stillnesswhich fear had set on her face.
"Don't attempt to speak to me just yet," I went on. "Take time torecover yourself--take time to feel quite certain that I am a friend."
"You are very kind to me," she murmured. "As kind now as you werethen."
She stopped, and I kept silence on my side. I was not granting timefor composure to her only, I was gaining time also for myself. Underthe wan wild evening light, that woman and I were met together again, agrave between us, the dead about us, the lonesome hills closing usround on every side. The time, the place, the circumstances underwhich we now stood face to face in the evening stillness of that drearyvalley--the lifelong interests which might hang suspended on the nextchance words that passed between us--the sense that, for aught I knewto the contrary, the whole future of Laura Fairlie's life might bedetermined, for good or for evil, by my winning or losing theconfidence of the forlorn creature who stood trembling by her mother'sgrave--all threatened to shake the steadiness and the self-control onwhich every inch of the progress I might yet make now depended. Itried hard, as I felt this, to possess myself of all my resources; Idid my utmost to turn the few moments for reflection to the bestaccount.
"Are you calmer now?" I said, as soon as I thought it time to speakagain. "Can you talk to me without feeling frightened, and withoutforgetting that I am a friend?"
"How did you come here?" she asked, without noticing what I had justsaid to her.
"Don't you remember my telling you, when we last met, that I was goingto Cumberland? I have been in Cumberland ever since--I have beenstaying all the time at Limmeridge House."
"At Limmeridge House!" Her pale face brightened as she repeated thewords, her wandering eyes fixed on me with a sudden interest. "Ah, howhappy you must have been!" she said, looking at me eagerly, without ashadow of its former distrust left in her expression.
I took advantage of her newly-aroused confidence in me to observe herface, with an attention and a curiosity which I had hitherto restrainedmyself from showing, for caution's sake. I looked at her, with my mindfull of that other lovely face which had so ominously recalled her tomy memory on the terrace by moonlight. I had seen Anne Catherick'slikeness in Miss Fairlie. I now saw
I shuddered at the thought. There was something horrible in the blindunreasoning distrust of the future which the mere passage of it throughmy mind seemed to imply. It was a welcome interruption to be roused byfeeling Anne Catherick's hand laid on my shoulder. The touch was asstealthy and as sudden as that other touch which had petrified me fromhead to foot on the night when we first met.
"You are looking at me, and you are thinking of something," she said,with her strange breathless rapidity of utterance. "What is it?"
"Nothing extraordinary," I answered. "I was only wondering how youcame here."
"I came with a friend who is very good to me. I have only been heretwo days."
"And you found your way to this place yesterday?"
"How do you know that?"
"I only guessed it."
She turned from me, and knelt down before the inscription once more.
"Where should I go if not here?" she said. "The friend who was betterthan a mother to me is the only friend I have to visit at Limmeridge.Oh, it makes my heart ache to see a stain on her tomb! It ought to bekept white as snow, for her sake. I was tempted to begin cleaning ityesterday, and I can't help coming back to go on with it to-day. Isthere anything wrong in that? I hope not. Surely nothing can be wrongthat I do for Mrs. Fairlie's sake?"
The old grateful sense of her benefactress's kindness was evidently theruling idea still in the poor creature's mind--the narrow mind whichhad but too plainly opened to no other lasting impression since thatfirst impression of her younger and happier days. I saw that my bestchance of winning her confidence lay in encouraging her to proceed withthe artless employment which she had come into the burial-ground topursue. She resumed it at once, on my telling her she might do so,touching the hard marble as tenderly as if it had been a sentientthing, and whispering the words of the inscription to herself, over andover again, as if the lost days of her girlhood had returned and shewas patiently learning her lesson once more at Mrs. Fairlie's knees.
"Should you wonder very much," I said, preparing the way as cautiouslyas I could for the questions that were to come, "if I owned that it isa satisfaction to me, as well as a surprise, to see you here? I feltvery uneasy about you after you left me in the cab."
She looked up quickly and suspiciously.
"Uneasy," she repeated. "Why?"
"A strange thing happened after we parted that night. Two men overtookme in a chaise. They did not see where I was standing, but theystopped near me, and spoke to a policeman on the other side of the way."
She instantly suspended her employment. The hand holding the dampcloth with which she had been cleaning the inscription dropped to herside. The other hand grasped the marble cross at the head of thegrave. Her face turned towards me slowly, with the blank look ofterror set rigidly on it once more. I went on at all hazards--it wastoo late now to draw back.
"The two men spoke to the policeman," I said, "and asked him if he hadseen you. He had not seen you; and then one of the men spoke again,and said you had escaped from his Asylum."
She sprang to her feet as if my last words had set the pursuers on hertrack.
"Stop! and hear the end," I cried. "Stop! and you shall know how Ibefriended you. A word from me would have told the men which way youhad gone--and I never spoke that word. I helped your escape--I made itsafe and certain. Think, try to think. Try to understand what I tellyou."
My manner seemed to influence her more than my words. She made aneffort to grasp the new idea. Her hands shifted the damp clothhesitatingly from one to the other, exactly as they had shifted thelittle travelling-bag on the night when I first saw her. Slowly thepurpose of my words seemed to force its way through the confusion andagitation of her mind. Slowly her features relaxed, and her eyeslooked at me with their expression gaining in curiosity what it wasfast losing in fear.
"YOU don't think I ought to be back in the Asylum, do you?" she said.
"Certainly not. I am glad you escaped from it--I am glad I helped you."
"Yes, yes, you did help me indeed; you helped me at the hard part," shewent on a little vacantly. "It was easy to escape, or I should nothave got away. They never suspected me as they suspected the others.I was so quiet, and so obedient, and so easily frightened. The findingLondon was the hard part, and there you helped me. Did I thank you atthe time? I thank you now very kindly."
"Was the Asylum far from where you met me? Come! show that you believeme to be your friend, and tell me where it was."
She mentioned the place--a private Asylum, as its situation informedme; a private Asylum not very far from the spot where I had seenher--and then, with evident suspicion of the use to which I might puther answer, anxiously repeated her former inquiry, "You don't think Iought to be taken back, do you?"
"Once again, I am glad you escaped--I am glad you prospered well afteryou left me," I answered. "You said you had a friend in London to goto. Did you find the friend?"
"Yes. It was very late, but there was a girl up at needle-work in thehouse, and she helped me to rouse Mrs. Clements. Mrs. Clements is myfriend. A good, kind woman, but not like Mrs. Fairlie. Ah no, nobodyis like Mrs. Fairlie!"
"Is Mrs. Clements an old friend of yours? Have you known her a longtime?"
"Yes, she was a neighbour of ours once, at home, in Hampshire, andliked me, and took care of me when I was a little girl. Years ago,when she went away from us, she wrote down in my Prayer-book for mewhere she was going to live in London, and she said, 'If you are everin trouble, Anne, come to me. I have no husband alive to say me nay,and no children to look after, and I will take care of you.' Kindwords, were they not? I suppose I remember them because they were kind.It's little enough I remember besides--little enough, little enough!"
"Had you no father or mother to take care of you?"
"Father?--I never saw him--I never heard mother speak of him. Father?Ah, dear! he is dead, I suppose."
"And your mother?"
"I don't get on well with her. We are a trouble and a fear to eachother."
A trouble and a fear to each other! At those words the suspicioncrossed my mind, for the first time, that her mother might be theperson who had placed her under restraint.
"Don't ask me about mother," she went on. "I'd rather talk of Mrs.Clements. Mrs. Clements is like you, she doesn't think that I ought tobe back in the Asylum, and she is as glad as you are that I escapedfrom it. She cried over my misfortune, and said it must be kept secretfrom everybody."
Her "misfortune." In what sense was she using that word? In a sensewhich might explain her motive in writing the anonymous letter? In asense which might show it to be the too common and too customary motivethat has led many a woman to interpose anonymous hindrances to themarriage of the man who has ruined her? I resolved to attempt theclearing up of thi
"What misfortune?" I asked.
"The misfortune of my being shut up," she answered, with everyappearance of feeling surprised at my question. "What other misfortunecould there be?"
I determined to persist, as delicately and forbearingly as possible.It was of very great importance that I should be absolutely sure ofevery step in the investigation which I now gained in advance.
"There is another misfortune," I said, "to which a woman may be liable,and by which she may suffer lifelong sorrow and shame."
"What is it?" she asked eagerly.
"The misfortune of believing too innocently in her own virtue, and inthe faith and honour of the man she loves," I answered.
She looked up at me with the artless bewilderment of a child. Not theslightest confusion or change of colour--not the faintest trace of anysecret consciousness of shame struggling to the surface appeared in herface--that face which betrayed every other emotion with suchtransparent clearness. No words that ever were spoken could haveassured me, as her look and manner now assured me, that the motivewhich I had assigned for her writing the letter and sending it to MissFairlie was plainly and distinctly the wrong one. That doubt, at anyrate, was now set at rest; but the very removal of it opened a newprospect of uncertainty. The letter, as I knew from positivetestimony, pointed at Sir Percival Glyde, though it did not name him.She must have had some strong motive, originating in some deep sense ofinjury, for secretly denouncing him to Miss Fairlie in such terms asshe had employed, and that motive was unquestionably not to be tracedto the loss of her innocence and her character. Whatever wrong hemight have inflicted on her was not of that nature. Of what naturecould it be?
"I don't understand you," she said, after evidently trying hard, andtrying in vain, to discover the meaning of the words I had last said toher.
"Never mind," I answered. "Let us go on with what we were talkingabout. Tell me how long you stayed with Mrs. Clements in London, andhow you came here."
"How long?" she repeated. "I stayed with Mrs. Clements till we bothcame to this place, two days ago."
"You are living in the village, then?" I said. "It is strange I shouldnot have heard of you, though you have only been here two days."
"No, no, not in the village. Three miles away at a farm. Do you knowthe farm? They call it Todd's Corner."
I remembered the place perfectly--we had often passed by it in ourdrives. It was one of the oldest farms in the neighbourhood, situatedin a solitary, sheltered spot, inland at the junction of two hills.
"They are relations of Mrs. Clements at Todd's Corner," she went on,"and they had often asked her to go and see them. She said she wouldgo, and take me with her, for the quiet and the fresh air. It was verykind, was it not? I would have gone anywhere to be quiet, and safe, andout of the way. But when I heard that Todd's Corner was nearLimmeridge--oh! I was so happy I would have walked all the way barefootto get there, and see the schools and the village and Limmeridge Houseagain. They are very good people at Todd's Corner. I hope I shallstay there a long time. There is only one thing I don't like aboutthem, and don't like about Mrs. Clements----"
"What is it?"
"They will tease me about dressing all in white--they say it looks soparticular. How do they know? Mrs. Fairlie knew best. Mrs. Fairliewould never have made me wear this ugly blue cloak! Ah! she was fond ofwhite in her lifetime, and here is white stone about her grave--and Iam making it whiter for her sake. She often wore white herself, andshe always dressed her little daughter in white. Is Miss Fairlie welland happy? Does she wear white now, as she used when she was a girl?"
Her voice sank when she put the questions about Miss Fairlie, and sheturned her head farther and farther away from me. I thought Idetected, in the alteration of her manner, an uneasy consciousness ofthe risk she had run in sending the anonymous letter, and I instantlydetermined so to frame my answer as to surprise her into owning it.
"Miss Fairlie was not very well or very happy this morning," I said.
She murmured a few words, but they were spoken so confusedly, and insuch a low tone, that I could not even guess at what they meant.
"Did you ask me why Miss Fairlie was neither well nor happy thismorning?" I continued.
"No," she said quickly and eagerly--"oh no, I never asked that."
"I will tell you without your asking," I went on. "Miss Fairlie hasreceived your letter."
She had been down on her knees for some little time past, carefullyremoving the last weather-stains left about the inscription while wewere speaking together. The first sentence of the words I had justaddressed to her made her pause in her occupation, and turn slowlywithout rising from her knees, so as to face me. The second sentenceliterally petrified her. The cloth she had been holding dropped fromher hands--her lips fell apart--all the little colour that there wasnaturally in her face left it in an instant.
"How do you know?" she said faintly. "Who showed it to you?" The bloodrushed back into her face--rushed overwhelmingly, as the sense rushedupon her mind that her own words had betrayed her. She struck her handstogether in despair. "I never wrote it," she gasped affrightedly; "Iknow nothing about it!"
"Yes," I said, "you wrote it, and you know about it. It was wrong tosend such a letter, it was wrong to frighten Miss Fairlie. If you hadanything to say that it was right and necessary for her to hear, youshould have gone yourself to Limmeridge House--you should have spokento the young lady with your own lips."
She crouched down over the flat stone of the grave, till her face washidden on it, and made no reply.
"Miss Fairlie will be as good and kind to you as her mother was, if youmean well," I went on. "Miss Fairlie will keep your secret, and notlet you come to any harm. Will you see her to-morrow at the farm?Will you meet her in the garden at Limmeridge House?"
"Oh, if I could die, and be hidden and at rest with YOU!" Her lipsmurmured the words close on the grave-stone, murmured them in tones ofpassionate endearment, to the dead remains beneath. "You know how Ilove your child, for your sake! Oh, Mrs. Fairlie! Mrs. Fairlie! tell mehow to save her. Be my darling and my mother once more, and tell mewhat to do for the best."
I heard her lips kissing the stone--I saw her hands beating on itpassionately. The sound and the sight deeply affected me. I stoopeddown, and took the poor helpless hands tenderly in mine, and tried tosoothe her.
It was useless. She snatched her hands from me, and never moved herface from the stone. Seeing the urgent necessity of quieting her atany hazard and by any means, I appealed to the only anxiety that sheappeared to feel, in connection with me and with my opinion of her--theanxiety to convince me of her fitness to be mistress of her own actions.
"Come, come," I said gently. "Try to compose yourself, or you willmake me alter my opinion of you. Don't let me think that the personwho put you in the Asylum might have had some excuse----"
The next words died away on my lips. The instant I risked that chancereference to the person who had put her in the Asylum she sprang up onher knees. A most extraordinary and startling change passed over her.Her face, at all ordinary times so touching to look at, in its nervoussensitiveness, weakness, and uncertainty, became suddenly darkened byan expression of maniacally intense hatred and fear, which communicateda wild, unnatural force to every feature. Her eyes dilated in the dimevening light, like the eyes of a wild animal. She caught up the cloththat had fallen at her side, as if it had been a living creature thatshe could kill, and crushed it in both her hands with such convulsivestrength, that the few drops of moisture left in it trickled down onthe stone beneath her.
"Talk of something else," she said, whispering through her teeth. "Ishall lose myself if you talk of that."
Every vestige of the gentler thoughts which had filled her mind hardlya minute since seemed to be swept from it now. It was evident that theimpression left by Mrs. Fairlie's kindness was not, as I had supposed,the only strong i
It was hard to give up pursuing the inquiry to that final point, but Iforced myself to abandon all idea of continuing it. Seeing her as Isaw her now, it would have been cruel to think of anything but thenecessity and the humanity of restoring her composure.
"I will talk of nothing to distress you," I said soothingly.
"You want something," she answered sharply and suspiciously. "Don'tlook at me like that. Speak to me--tell me what you want."
"I only want you to quiet yourself, and when you are calmer, to thinkover what I have said."
"Said?" She paused--twisted the cloth in her hands, backwards andforwards, and whispered to herself, "What is it he said?" She turnedagain towards me, and shook her head impatiently. "Why don't you helpme?" she asked, with angry suddenness.
"Yes, yes," I said, "I will help you, and you will soon remember. I askyou to see Miss Fairlie to-morrow and to tell her the truth about theletter."
"Ah! Miss Fairlie--Fairlie--Fairlie----"
The mere utterance of the loved familiar name seemed to quiet her. Herface softened and grew like itself again.
"You need have no fear of Miss Fairlie," I continued, "and no fear ofgetting into trouble through the letter. She knows so much about italready, that you will have no difficulty in telling her all. Therecan be little necessity for concealment where there is hardly anythingleft to conceal. You mention no names in the letter; but Miss Fairlieknows that the person you write of is Sir Percival Glyde----"
The instant I pronounced that name she started to her feet, and ascream burst from her that rang through the churchyard, and made myheart leap in me with the terror of it. The dark deformity of theexpression which had just left her face lowered on it once more, withdoubled and trebled intensity. The shriek at the name, the reiteratedlook of hatred and fear that instantly followed, told all. Not even alast doubt now remained. Her mother was guiltless of imprisoning herin the Asylum. A man had shut her up--and that man was Sir PercivalGlyde.
The scream had reached other ears than mine. On one side I heard thedoor of the sexton's cottage open; on the other I heard the voice ofher companion, the woman in the shawl, the woman whom she had spoken ofas Mrs. Clements.
"I'm coming! I'm coming!" cried the voice from behind the clump ofdwarf trees.
In a moment more Mrs. Clements hurried into view.
"Who are you?" she cried, facing me resolutely as she set her foot onthe stile. "How dare you frighten a poor helpless woman like that?"
She was at Anne Catherick's side, and had put one arm around her,before I could answer. "What is it, my dear?" she said. "What has hedone to you?"
"Nothing," the poor creature answered. "Nothing. I'm only frightened."
Mrs. Clements turned on me with a fearless indignation, for which Irespected her.
"I should be heartily ashamed of myself if I deserved that angry look,"I said. "But I do not deserve it. I have unfortunately startled herwithout intending it. This is not the first time she has seen me. Askher yourself, and she will tell you that I am incapable of willinglyharming her or any woman."
I spoke distinctly, so that Anne Catherick might hear and understandme, and I saw that the words and their meaning had reached her.
"Yes, yes," she said--"he was good to me once--he helped me----" Shewhispered the rest into her friend's ear.
"Strange, indeed!" said Mrs. Clements, with a look of perplexity. "Itmakes all the difference, though. I'm sorry I spoke so rough to you,sir; but you must own that appearances looked suspicious to a stranger.It's more my fault than yours, for humouring her whims, and letting herbe alone in such a place as this. Come, my dear--come home now."
I thought the good woman looked a little uneasy at the prospect of thewalk back, and I offered to go with them until they were both withinsight of home. Mrs. Clements thanked me civilly, and declined. Shesaid they were sure to meet some of the farm-labourers as soon as theygot to the moor.
"Try to forgive me," I said, when Anne Catherick took her friend's armto go away. Innocent as I had been of any intention to terrify andagitate her, my heart smote me as I looked at the poor, pale,frightened face.
"I will try," she answered. "But you know too much--I'm afraid you'llalways frighten me now."
Mrs. Clements glanced at me, and shook her head pityingly.
"Good-night, sir," she said. "You couldn't help it, I know but I wishit was me you had frightened, and not her."
They moved away a few steps. I thought they had left me, but Annesuddenly stopped, and separated herself from her friend.
"Wait a little," she said. "I must say good-bye."
She returned to the grave, rested both hands tenderly on the marblecross, and kissed it.
"I'm better now," she sighed, looking up at me quietly. "I forgiveyou."
She joined her companion again, and they left the burial-ground. I sawthem stop near the church and speak to the sexton's wife, who had comefrom the cottage, and had waited, watching us from a distance. Thenthey went on again up the path that led to the moor. I looked afterAnne Catherick as she disappeared, till all trace of her had faded inthe twilight--looked as anxiously and sorrowfully as if that was thelast I was to see in this weary world of the woman in white.
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