The woman in white, p.14
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       The Woman in White, p.14

           Wilkie Collins
 

  XIV

  Half an hour later I was back at the house, and was informing MissHalcombe of all that had happened.

  She listened to me from beginning to end with a steady, silentattention, which, in a woman of her temperament and disposition, wasthe strongest proof that could be offered of the serious manner inwhich my narrative affected her.

  "My mind misgives me," was all she said when I had done. "My mindmisgives me sadly about the future."

  "The future may depend," I suggested, "on the use we make of thepresent. It is not improbable that Anne Catherick may speak morereadily and unreservedly to a woman than she has spoken to me. If MissFairlie----"

  "Not to be thought of for a moment," interposed Miss Halcombe, in hermost decided manner.

  "Let me suggest, then," I continued, "that you should see AnneCatherick yourself, and do all you can to win her confidence. For myown part, I shrink from the idea of alarming the poor creature a secondtime, as I have most unhappily alarmed her already. Do you see anyobjection to accompanying me to the farmhouse to-morrow?"

  "None whatever. I will go anywhere and do anything to serve Laura'sinterests. What did you say the place was called?"

  "You must know it well. It is called Todd's Corner."

  "Certainly. Todd's Corner is one of Mr. Fairlie's farms. Ourdairymaid here is the farmer's second daughter. She goes backwards andforwards constantly between this house and her father's farm, and shemay have heard or seen something which it may be useful to us to know.Shall I ascertain, at once, if the girl is downstairs?"

  She rang the bell, and sent the servant with his message. He returned,and announced that the dairymaid was then at the farm. She had not beenthere for the last three days, and the housekeeper had given her leaveto go home for an hour or two that evening.

  "I can speak to her to-morrow," said Miss Halcombe, when the servanthad left the room again. "In the meantime, let me thoroughlyunderstand the object to be gained by my interview with Anne Catherick.Is there no doubt in your mind that the person who confined her in theAsylum was Sir Percival Glyde?"

  "There is not the shadow of a doubt. The only mystery that remains isthe mystery of his MOTIVE. Looking to the great difference between hisstation in life and hers, which seems to preclude all idea of the mostdistant relationship between them, it is of the last importance--evenassuming that she really required to be placed under restraint--to knowwhy HE should have been the person to assume the serious responsibilityof shutting her up----"

  "In a private Asylum, I think you said?"

  "Yes, in a private Asylum, where a sum of money, which no poor personcould afford to give, must have been paid for her maintenance as apatient."

  "I see where the doubt lies, Mr. Hartright, and I promise you that itshall be set at rest, whether Anne Catherick assists us to-morrow ornot. Sir Percival Glyde shall not be long in this house withoutsatisfying Mr. Gilmore, and satisfying me. My sister's future is mydearest care in life, and I have influence enough over her to give mesome power, where her marriage is concerned, in the disposal of it."

  We parted for the night.

  After breakfast the next morning, an obstacle, which the events of theevening before had put out of my memory, interposed to prevent ourproceeding immediately to the farm. This was my last day at LimmeridgeHouse, and it was necessary, as soon as the post came in, to followMiss Halcombe's advice, and to ask Mr. Fairlie's permission to shortenmy engagement by a month, in consideration of an unforeseen necessityfor my return to London.

  Fortunately for the probability of this excuse, so far as appearanceswere concerned, the post brought me two letters from London friendsthat morning. I took them away at once to my own room, and sent theservant with a message to Mr. Fairlie, requesting to know when I couldsee him on a matter of business.

  I awaited the man's return, free from the slightest feeling of anxietyabout the manner in which his master might receive my application.With Mr. Fairlie's leave or without it, I must go. The consciousness ofhaving now taken the first step on the dreary journey which washenceforth to separate my life from Miss Fairlie's seemed to haveblunted my sensibility to every consideration connected with myself. Ihad done with my poor man's touchy pride--I had done with all my littleartist vanities. No insolence of Mr. Fairlie's, if he chose to beinsolent, could wound me now.

  The servant returned with a message for which I was not unprepared.Mr. Fairlie regretted that the state of his health, on that particularmorning, was such as to preclude all hope of his having the pleasure ofreceiving me. He begged, therefore, that I would accept his apologies,and kindly communicate what I had to say in the form of a letter.Similar messages to this had reached me, at various intervals, duringmy three months' residence in the house. Throughout the whole of thatperiod Mr. Fairlie had been rejoiced to "possess" me, but had neverbeen well enough to see me for a second time. The servant took everyfresh batch of drawings that I mounted and restored back to his masterwith my "respects," and returned empty-handed with Mr. Fairlie's "kindcompliments," "best thanks," and "sincere regrets" that the state ofhis health still obliged him to remain a solitary prisoner in his ownroom. A more satisfactory arrangement to both sides could not possiblyhave been adopted. It would be hard to say which of us, under thecircumstances, felt the most grateful sense of obligation to Mr.Fairlie's accommodating nerves.

  I sat down at once to write the letter, expressing myself in it ascivilly, as clearly, and as briefly as possible. Mr. Fairlie did nothurry his reply. Nearly an hour elapsed before the answer was placedin my hands. It was written with beautiful regularity and neatness ofcharacter, in violet-coloured ink, on note-paper as smooth as ivory andalmost as thick as cardboard, and it addressed me in these terms--

  "Mr. Fairlie's compliments to Mr. Hartright. Mr. Fairlie is moresurprised and disappointed than he can say (in the present state of hishealth) by Mr. Hartright's application. Mr. Fairlie is not a man ofbusiness, but he has consulted his steward, who is, and that personconfirms Mr. Fairlie's opinion that Mr. Hartright's request to beallowed to break his engagement cannot be justified by any necessitywhatever, excepting perhaps a case of life and death. If thehighly-appreciative feeling towards Art and its professors, which it isthe consolation and happiness of Mr. Fairlie's suffering existence tocultivate, could be easily shaken, Mr. Hartright's present proceedingwould have shaken it. It has not done so--except in the instance of Mr.Hartright himself.

  "Having stated his opinion--so far, that is to say, as acute nervoussuffering will allow him to state anything--Mr. Fairlie has nothing toadd but the expression of his decision, in reference to the highlyirregular application that has been made to him. Perfect repose ofbody and mind being to the last degree important in his case, Mr.Fairlie will not suffer Mr. Hartright to disturb that repose byremaining in the house under circumstances of an essentially irritatingnature to both sides. Accordingly, Mr. Fairlie waives his right ofrefusal, purely with a view to the preservation of his owntranquillity--and informs Mr. Hartright that he may go."

  I folded the letter up, and put it away with my other papers. The timehad been when I should have resented it as an insult--I accepted it nowas a written release from my engagement. It was off my mind, it wasalmost out of my memory, when I went downstairs to the breakfast-room,and informed Miss Halcombe that I was ready to walk with her to thefarm.

  "Has Mr. Fairlie given you a satisfactory answer?" she asked as we leftthe house.

  "He has allowed me to go, Miss Halcombe."

  She looked up at me quickly, and then, for the first time since I hadknown her, took my arm of her own accord. No words could haveexpressed so delicately that she understood how the permission to leavemy employment had been granted, and that she gave me her sympathy, notas my superior, but as my friend. I had not felt the man's insolentletter, but I felt deeply the woman's atoning kindness.

  On our way to the farm we arranged that Miss Halcombe was to enter thehouse alone, and that I was to wait outsi
de, within call. We adoptedthis mode of proceeding from an apprehension that my presence, afterwhat had happened in the churchyard the evening before, might have theeffect of renewing Anne Catherick's nervous dread, and of rendering heradditionally distrustful of the advances of a lady who was a strangerto her. Miss Halcombe left me, with the intention of speaking, in thefirst instance, to the farmer's wife (of whose friendly readiness tohelp her in any way she was well assured), while I waited for her inthe near neighbourhood of the house.

  I had fully expected to be left alone for some time. To my surprise,however, little more than five minutes had elapsed before Miss Halcombereturned.

  "Does Anne Catherick refuse to see you?" I asked in astonishment.

  "Anne Catherick is gone," replied Miss Halcombe.

  "Gone?"

  "Gone with Mrs. Clements. They both left the farm at eight o'clockthis morning."

  I could say nothing--I could only feel that our last chance ofdiscovery had gone with them.

  "All that Mrs. Todd knows about her guests, I know," Miss Halcombe wenton, "and it leaves me, as it leaves her, in the dark. They both cameback safe last night, after they left you, and they passed the firstpart of the evening with Mr. Todd's family as usual. Just beforesupper-time, however, Anne Catherick startled them all by beingsuddenly seized with faintness. She had had a similar attack, of aless alarming kind, on the day she arrived at the farm; and Mrs. Toddhad connected it, on that occasion, with something she was reading atthe time in our local newspaper, which lay on the farm table, and whichshe had taken up only a minute or two before."

  "Does Mrs. Todd know what particular passage in the newspaper affectedher in that way?" I inquired.

  "No," replied Miss Halcombe. "She had looked it over, and had seennothing in it to agitate any one. I asked leave, however, to look itover in my turn, and at the very first page I opened I found that theeditor had enriched his small stock of news by drawing upon our familyaffairs, and had published my sister's marriage engagement, among hisother announcements, copied from the London papers, of Marriages inHigh Life. I concluded at once that this was the paragraph which hadso strangely affected Anne Catherick, and I thought I saw in it, also,the origin of the letter which she sent to our house the next day."

  "There can be no doubt in either case. But what did you hear about hersecond attack of faintness yesterday evening?"

  "Nothing. The cause of it is a complete mystery. There was nostranger in the room. The only visitor was our dairymaid, who, as Itold you, is one of Mr. Todd's daughters, and the only conversation wasthe usual gossip about local affairs. They heard her cry out, and sawher turn deadly pale, without the slightest apparent reason. Mrs. Toddand Mrs. Clements took her upstairs, and Mrs. Clements remained withher. They were heard talking together until long after the usualbedtime, and early this morning Mrs. Clements took Mrs. Todd aside, andamazed her beyond all power of expression by saying that they must go.The only explanation Mrs. Todd could extract from her guest was, thatsomething had happened, which was not the fault of any one at thefarmhouse, but which was serious enough to make Anne Catherick resolveto leave Limmeridge immediately. It was quite useless to press Mrs.Clements to be more explicit. She only shook her head, and said that,for Anne's sake, she must beg and pray that no one would question her.All she could repeat, with every appearance of being seriously agitatedherself, was that Anne must go, that she must go with her, and that thedestination to which they might both betake themselves must be kept asecret from everybody. I spare you the recital of Mrs. Todd'shospitable remonstrances and refusals. It ended in her driving themboth to the nearest station, more than three hours since. She triedhard on the way to get them to speak more plainly, but without success;and she set them down outside the station-door, so hurt and offended bythe unceremonious abruptness of their departure and their unfriendlyreluctance to place the least confidence in her, that she drove away inanger, without so much as stopping to bid them good-bye. That isexactly what has taken place. Search your own memory, Mr. Hartright,and tell me if anything happened in the burial-ground yesterday eveningwhich can at all account for the extraordinary departure of those twowomen this morning."

  "I should like to account first, Miss Halcombe, for the sudden changein Anne Catherick which alarmed them at the farmhouse, hours after sheand I had parted, and when time enough had elapsed to quiet any violentagitation that I might have been unfortunate enough to cause. Did youinquire particularly about the gossip which was going on in the roomwhen she turned faint?"

  "Yes. But Mrs. Todd's household affairs seem to have divided herattention that evening with the talk in the farmhouse parlour. Shecould only tell me that it was 'just the news,'--meaning, I suppose,that they all talked as usual about each other."

  "The dairymaid's memory may be better than her mother's," I said. "Itmay be as well for you to speak to the girl, Miss Halcombe, as soon aswe get back."

  My suggestion was acted on the moment we returned to the house. MissHalcombe led me round to the servants' offices, and we found the girlin the dairy, with her sleeves tucked up to her shoulders, cleaning alarge milk-pan and singing blithely over her work.

  "I have brought this gentleman to see your dairy, Hannah," said MissHalcombe. "It is one of the sights of the house, and it always doesyou credit."

  The girl blushed and curtseyed, and said shyly that she hoped shealways did her best to keep things neat and clean.

  "We have just come from your father's," Miss Halcombe continued. "Youwere there yesterday evening, I hear, and you found visitors at thehouse?"

  "Yes, miss."

  "One of them was taken faint and ill, I am told. I suppose nothing wassaid or done to frighten her? You were not talking of anything veryterrible, were you?"

  "Oh no, miss!" said the girl, laughing. "We were only talking of thenews."

  "Your sisters told you the news at Todd's Corner, I suppose?"

  "Yes, miss."

  "And you told them the news at Limmeridge House?"

  "Yes, miss. And I'm quite sure nothing was said to frighten the poorthing, for I was talking when she was taken ill. It gave me quite aturn, miss, to see it, never having been taken faint myself."

  Before any more questions could be put to her, she was called away toreceive a basket of eggs at the dairy door. As she left us I whisperedto Miss Halcombe--

  "Ask her if she happened to mention, last night, that visitors wereexpected at Limmeridge House."

  Miss Halcombe showed me, by a look, that she understood, and put thequestion as soon as the dairymaid returned to us.

  "Oh yes, miss, I mentioned that," said the girl simply. "The companycoming, and the accident to the brindled cow, was all the news I had totake to the farm."

  "Did you mention names? Did you tell them that Sir Percival Glyde wasexpected on Monday?"

  "Yes, miss--I told them Sir Percival Glyde was coming. I hope therewas no harm in it--I hope I didn't do wrong."

  "Oh no, no harm. Come, Mr. Hartright, Hannah will begin to think us inthe way, if we interrupt her any longer over her work."

  We stopped and looked at one another the moment we were alone again.

  "Is there any doubt in your mind, NOW, Miss Halcombe?"

  "Sir Percival Glyde shall remove that doubt, Mr. Hartright--or LauraFairlie shall never be his wife."