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The Woman in White, Page 15

Wilkie Collins


  As we walked round to the front of the house a fly from the railwayapproached us along the drive. Miss Halcombe waited on the door-stepsuntil the fly drew up, and then advanced to shake hands with an oldgentleman, who got out briskly the moment the steps were let down. Mr.Gilmore had arrived.

  I looked at him, when we were introduced to each other, with aninterest and a curiosity which I could hardly conceal. This old manwas to remain at Limmeridge House after I had left it, he was to hearSir Percival Glyde's explanation, and was to give Miss Halcombe theassistance of his experience in forming her judgment; he was to waituntil the question of the marriage was set at rest; and his hand, ifthat question were decided in the affirmative, was to draw thesettlement which bound Miss Fairlie irrevocably to her engagement.Even then, when I knew nothing by comparison with what I know now, Ilooked at the family lawyer with an interest which I had never feltbefore in the presence of any man breathing who was a total stranger tome.

  In external appearance Mr. Gilmore was the exact opposite of theconventional idea of an old lawyer. His complexion was florid--hiswhite hair was worn rather long and kept carefully brushed--his blackcoat, waistcoat, and trousers fitted him with perfect neatness--hiswhite cravat was carefully tied, and his lavender-coloured kid glovesmight have adorned the hands of a fashionable clergyman, without fearand without reproach. His manners were pleasantly marked by the formalgrace and refinement of the old school of politeness, quickened by theinvigorating sharpness and readiness of a man whose business in lifeobliges him always to keep his faculties in good working order. Asanguine constitution and fair prospects to begin with--a longsubsequent career of creditable and comfortable prosperity--a cheerful,diligent, widely-respected old age--such were the general impressions Iderived from my introduction to Mr. Gilmore, and it is but fair to himto add, that the knowledge I gained by later and better experience onlytended to confirm them.

  I left the old gentleman and Miss Halcombe to enter the house together,and to talk of family matters undisturbed by the restraint of astranger's presence. They crossed the hall on their way to thedrawing-room, and I descended the steps again to wander about thegarden alone.

  My hours were numbered at Limmeridge House--my departure the nextmorning was irrevocably settled--my share in the investigation whichthe anonymous letter had rendered necessary was at an end. No harmcould be done to any one but myself if I let my heart loose again, forthe little time that was left me, from the cold cruelty of restraintwhich necessity had forced me to inflict upon it, and took my farewellof the scenes which were associated with the brief dream-time of myhappiness and my love.

  I turned instinctively to the walk beneath my study-window, where I hadseen her the evening before with her little dog, and followed the pathwhich her dear feet had trodden so often, till I came to the wicketgate that led into her rose garden. The winter bareness spreaddrearily over it now. The flowers that she had taught me todistinguish by their names, the flowers that I had taught her to paintfrom, were gone, and the tiny white paths that led between the bedswere damp and green already. I went on to the avenue of trees, wherewe had breathed together the warm fragrance of August evenings, wherewe had admired together the myriad combinations of shade and sunlightthat dappled the ground at our feet. The leaves fell about me from thegroaning branches, and the earthy decay in the atmosphere chilled me tothe bones. A little farther on, and I was out of the grounds, andfollowing the lane that wound gently upward to the nearest hills. Theold felled tree by the wayside, on which we had sat to rest, was soddenwith rain, and the tuft of ferns and grasses which I had drawn for her,nestling under the rough stone wall in front of us, had turned to apool of water, stagnating round an island of draggled weeds. I gainedthe summit of the hill, and looked at the view which we had so oftenadmired in the happier time. It was cold and barren--it was no longerthe view that I remembered. The sunshine of her presence was far fromme--the charm of her voice no longer murmured in my ear. She hadtalked to me, on the spot from which I now looked down, of her father,who was her last surviving parent--had told me how fond of each otherthey had been, and how sadly she missed him still when she enteredcertain rooms in the house, and when she took up forgotten occupationsand amusements with which he had been associated. Was the view that Ihad seen, while listening to those words, the view that I saw now,standing on the hill-top by myself? I turned and left it--I wound myway back again, over the moor, and round the sandhills, down to thebeach. There was the white rage of the surf, and the multitudinousglory of the leaping waves--but where was the place on which she hadonce drawn idle figures with her parasol in the sand--the place wherewe had sat together, while she talked to me about myself and my home,while she asked me a woman's minutely observant questions about mymother and my sister, and innocently wondered whether I should everleave my lonely chambers and have a wife and a house of my own? Windand wave had long since smoothed out the trace of her which she hadleft in those marks on the sand, I looked over the wide monotony of thesea-side prospect, and the place in which we two had idled away thesunny hours was as lost to me as if I had never known it, as strange tome as if I stood already on a foreign shore.

  The empty silence of the beach struck cold to my heart. I returned tothe house and the garden, where traces were left to speak of her atevery turn.

  On the west terrace walk I met Mr. Gilmore. He was evidently in searchof me, for he quickened his pace when we caught sight of each other.The state of my spirits little fitted me for the society of a stranger;but the meeting was inevitable, and I resigned myself to make the bestof it.

  "You are the very person I wanted to see," said the old gentleman. "Ihad two words to say to you, my dear sir; and if you have no objectionI will avail myself of the present opportunity. To put it plainly,Miss Halcombe and I have been talking over family affairs--affairswhich are the cause of my being here--and in the course of ourconversation she was naturally led to tell me of this unpleasant matterconnected with the anonymous letter, and of the share which you havemost creditably and properly taken in the proceedings so far. Thatshare, I quite understand, gives you an interest which you might nototherwise have felt, in knowing that the future management of theinvestigation which you have begun will be placed in safe hands. Mydear sir, make yourself quite easy on that point--it will be placed inMY hands."

  "You are, in every way, Mr. Gilmore, much fitter to advise and to actin the matter than I am. Is it an indiscretion on my part to ask ifyou have decided yet on a course of proceeding?"

  "So far as it is possible to decide, Mr. Hartright, I have decided. Imean to send a copy of the letter, accompanied by a statement of thecircumstances, to Sir Percival Glyde's solicitor in London, with whom Ihave some acquaintance. The letter itself I shall keep here to show toSir Percival as soon as he arrives. The tracing of the two women I havealready provided for, by sending one of Mr. Fairlie's servants--aconfidential person--to the station to make inquiries. The man has hismoney and his directions, and he will follow the women in the event ofhis finding any clue. This is all that can be done until Sir Percivalcomes on Monday. I have no doubt myself that every explanation whichcan be expected from a gentleman and a man of honour, he will readilygive. Sir Percival stands very high, sir--an eminent position, areputation above suspicion--I feel quite easy about results--quiteeasy, I am rejoiced to assure you. Things of this sort happenconstantly in my experience. Anonymous letters--unfortunatewoman--sad state of society. I don't deny that there are peculiarcomplications in this case; but the case itself is, most unhappily,common--common."

  "I am afraid, Mr. Gilmore, I have the misfortune to differ from you inthe view I take of the case."

  "Just so, my dear sir--just so. I am an old man, and I take thepractical view. You are a young man, and you take the romantic view.Let us not dispute about our views. I live professionally in anatmosphere of disputation, Mr. Hartright, and I am only too glad toescape from it, as I am escaping here. We will w
ait for events--yes,yes, yes--we will wait for events. Charming place this. Goodshooting? Probably not, none of Mr. Fairlie's land is preserved, Ithink. Charming place, though, and delightful people. You draw andpaint, I hear, Mr. Hartright? Enviable accomplishment. What style?"

  We dropped into general conversation, or rather, Mr. Gilmore talked andI listened. My attention was far from him, and from the topics onwhich he discoursed so fluently. The solitary walk of the last twohours had wrought its effect on me--it had set the idea in my mind ofhastening my departure from Limmeridge House. Why should I prolong thehard trial of saying farewell by one unnecessary minute? What furtherservice was required of me by any one? There was no useful purpose tobe served by my stay in Cumberland--there was no restriction of time inthe permission to leave which my employer had granted to me. Why notend it there and then?

  I determined to end it. There were some hours of daylight stillleft--there was no reason why my journey back to London should notbegin on that afternoon. I made the first civil excuse that occurredto me for leaving Mr. Gilmore, and returned at once to the house.

  On my way up to my own room I met Miss Halcombe on the stairs. She saw,by the hurry of my movements and the change in my manner, that I hadsome new purpose in view, and asked what had happened.

  I told her the reasons which induced me to think of hastening mydeparture, exactly as I have told them here.

  "No, no," she said, earnestly and kindly, "leave us like a friend--breakbread with us once more. Stay here and dine, stay here and helpus to spend our last evening with you as happily, as like our firstevenings, as we can. It is my invitation--Mrs. Vesey's invitation----"she hesitated a little, and then added, "Laura's invitation as well."

  I promised to remain. God knows I had no wish to leave even the shadowof a sorrowful impression with any one of them.

  My own room was the best place for me till the dinner bell rang. Iwaited there till it was time to go downstairs.

  I had not spoken to Miss Fairlie--I had not even seen her--all thatday. The first meeting with her, when I entered the drawing-room, wasa hard trial to her self-control and to mine. She, too, had done herbest to make our last evening renew the golden bygone time--the timethat could never come again. She had put on the dress which I used toadmire more than any other that she possessed--a dark blue silk,trimmed quaintly and prettily with old-fashioned lace; she came forwardto meet me with her former readiness--she gave me her hand with thefrank, innocent good-will of happier days. The cold fingers thattrembled round mine--the pale cheeks with a bright red spot burning inthe midst of them--the faint smile that struggled to live on her lipsand died away from them while I looked at it, told me at what sacrificeof herself her outward composure was maintained. My heart could takeher no closer to me, or I should have loved her then as I had neverloved her yet.

  Mr. Gilmore was a great assistance to us. He was in high good-humour,and he led the conversation with unflagging spirit. Miss Halcombeseconded him resolutely, and I did all I could to follow her example.The kind blue eyes, whose slightest changes of expression I had learntto interpret so well, looked at me appealingly when we first sat downto table. Help my sister--the sweet anxious face seemed to say--helpmy sister, and you will help me.

  We got through the dinner, to all outward appearance at least, happilyenough. When the ladies had risen from table, and Mr. Gilmore and Iwere left alone in the dining-room, a new interest presented itself tooccupy our attention, and to give me an opportunity of quieting myselfby a few minutes of needful and welcome silence. The servant who hadbeen despatched to trace Anne Catherick and Mrs. Clements returned withhis report, and was shown into the dining-room immediately.

  "Well," said Mr. Gilmore, "what have you found out?"

  "I have found out, sir," answered the man, "that both the women tooktickets at our station here for Carlisle."

  "You went to Carlisle, of course, when you heard that?"

  "I did, sir, but I am sorry to say I could find no further trace ofthem."

  "You inquired at the railway?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "And at the different inns?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "And you left the statement I wrote for you at the police station?"

  "I did, sir."

  "Well, my friend, you have done all you could, and I have done all Icould, and there the matter must rest till further notice. We haveplayed our trump cards, Mr. Hartright," continued the old gentlemanwhen the servant had withdrawn. "For the present, at least, the womenhave outmanoeuvred us, and our only resource now is to wait till SirPercival Glyde comes here on Monday next. Won't you fill your glassagain? Good bottle of port, that--sound, substantial, old wine. I havegot better in my own cellar, though."

  We returned to the drawing-room--the room in which the happiestevenings of my life had been passed--the room which, after this lastnight, I was never to see again. Its aspect was altered since the dayshad shortened and the weather had grown cold. The glass doors on theterrace side were closed, and hidden by thick curtains. Instead of thesoft twilight obscurity, in which we used to sit, the bright radiantglow of lamplight now dazzled my eyes. All was changed--indoors andout all was changed.

  Miss Halcombe and Mr. Gilmore sat down together at the card-table--Mrs.Vesey took her customary chair. There was no restraint on thedisposal of THEIR evening, and I felt the restraint on the disposal ofmine all the more painfully from observing it. I saw Miss Fairlielingering near the music-stand. The time had been when I might havejoined her there. I waited irresolutely--I knew neither where to gonor what to do next. She cast one quick glance at me, took a piece ofmusic suddenly from the stand, and came towards me of her own accord.

  "Shall I play some of those little melodies of Mozart's which you usedto like so much?" she asked, opening the music nervously, and lookingdown at it while she spoke.

  Before I could thank her she hastened to the piano. The chair near it,which I had always been accustomed to occupy, stood empty. She strucka few chords--then glanced round at me--then looked back again at hermusic.

  "Won't you take your old place?" she said, speaking very abruptly andin very low tones.

  "I may take it on the last night," I answered.

  She did not reply--she kept her attention riveted on the music--musicwhich she knew by memory, which she had played over and over again, informer times, without the book. I only knew that she had heard me, Ionly knew that she was aware of my being close to her, by seeing thered spot on the cheek that was nearest to me fade out, and the facegrow pale all over.

  "I am very sorry you are going," she said, her voice almost sinking toa whisper, her eyes looking more and more intently at the music, herfingers flying over the keys of the piano with a strange feverishenergy which I had never noticed in her before.

  "I shall remember those kind words, Miss Fairlie, long after to-morrowhas come and gone."

  The paleness grew whiter on her face, and she turned it farther awayfrom me.

  "Don't speak of to-morrow," she said. "Let the music speak to us ofto-night, in a happier language than ours."

  Her lips trembled--a faint sigh fluttered from them, which she triedvainly to suppress. Her fingers wavered on the piano--she struck afalse note, confused herself in trying to set it right, and dropped herhands angrily on her lap. Miss Halcombe and Mr. Gilmore looked up inastonishment from the card-table at which they were playing. Even Mrs.Vesey, dozing in her chair, woke at the sudden cessation of the music,and inquired what had happened.

  "You play at whist, Mr. Hartright?" asked Miss Halcombe, with her eyesdirected significantly at the place I occupied.

  I knew what she meant--I knew she was right, and I rose at once to goto the card-table. As I left the piano Miss Fairlie turned a page ofthe music, and touched the keys again with a surer hand.

  "I WILL play it," she said, striking the notes almost passionately. "IWILL play it on the last night."

  "Come, Mrs. Vesey," said Miss
Halcombe, "Mr. Gilmore and I are tired ofecarte--come and be Mr. Hartright's partner at whist."

  The old lawyer smiled satirically. His had been the winning hand, andhe had just turned up a king. He evidently attributed Miss Halcombe'sabrupt change in the card-table arrangements to a lady's inability toplay the losing game.

  The rest of the evening passed without a word or a look from her. Shekept her place at the piano, and I kept mine at the card-table. Sheplayed unintermittingly--played as if the music was her only refugefrom herself. Sometimes her fingers touched the notes with a lingeringfondness--a soft, plaintive, dying tenderness, unutterably beautifuland mournful to hear; sometimes they faltered and failed her, orhurried over the instrument mechanically, as if their task was a burdento them. But still, change and waver as they might in the expressionthey imparted to the music, their resolution to play never faltered.She only rose from the piano when we all rose to say Good-night.

  Mrs. Vesey was the nearest to the door, and the first to shake handswith me.

  "I shall not see you again, Mr. Hartright," said the old lady. "I amtruly sorry you are going away. You have been very kind and attentive,and an old woman like me feels kindness and attention. I wish youhappy, sir--I wish you a kind good-bye."

  Mr. Gilmore came next.

  "I hope we shall have a future opportunity of bettering ouracquaintance, Mr. Hartright. You quite understand about that littlematter of business being safe in my hands? Yes, yes, of course. Blessme, how cold it is! Don't let me keep you at the door. Bon voyage, mydear sir--bon voyage, as the French say."

  Miss Halcombe followed.

  "Half-past seven to-morrow morning," she said--then added in a whisper,"I have heard and seen more than you think. Your conduct to-night hasmade me your friend for life."

  Miss Fairlie came last. I could not trust myself to look at her when Itook her hand, and when I thought of the next morning.

  "My departure must be a very early one," I said. "I shall be gone,Miss Fairlie, before you----"

  "No, no," she interposed hastily, "not before I am out of my room. Ishall be down to breakfast with Marian. I am not so ungrateful, not soforgetful of the past three months----"

  Her voice failed her, her hand closed gently round mine--then droppedit suddenly. Before I could say "Good-night" she was gone.

  The end comes fast to meet me--comes inevitably, as the light of thelast morning came at Limmeridge House.

  It was barely half-past seven when I went downstairs, but I found themboth at the breakfast-table waiting for me. In the chill air, in thedim light, in the gloomy morning silence of the house, we three satdown together, and tried to eat, tried to talk. The struggle topreserve appearances was hopeless and useless, and I rose to end it.

  As I held out my hand, as Miss Halcombe, who was nearest to me, tookit, Miss Fairlie turned away suddenly and hurried from the room.

  "Better so," said Miss Halcombe, when the door had closed--"better so,for you and for her."

  I waited a moment before I could speak--it was hard to lose her,without a parting word or a parting look. I controlled myself--I triedto take leave of Miss Halcombe in fitting terms; but all the farewellwords I would fain have spoken dwindled to one sentence.

  "Have I deserved that you should write to me?" was all I could say.

  "You have nobly deserved everything that I can do for you, as long aswe both live. Whatever the end is you shall know it."

  "And if I can ever be of help again, at any future time, long after thememory of my presumption and my folly is forgotten . . ."

  I could add no more. My voice faltered, my eyes moistened in spite ofme.

  She caught me by both hands--she pressed them with the strong, steadygrasp of a man--her dark eyes glittered--her brown complexion flusheddeep--the force and energy of her face glowed and grew beautiful withthe pure inner light of her generosity and her pity.

  "I will trust you--if ever the time comes I will trust you as my friendand HER friend, as my brother and HER brother." She stopped, drew menearer to her--the fearless, noble creature--touched my forehead,sister-like, with her lips, and called me by my Christian name. "Godbless you, Walter!" she said. "Wait here alone and compose yourself--Ihad better not stay for both our sakes--I had better see you go fromthe balcony upstairs."

  She left the room. I turned away towards the window, where nothingfaced me but the lonely autumn landscape--I turned away to mastermyself, before I too left the room in my turn, and left it for ever.

  A minute passed--it could hardly have been more--when I heard the dooropen again softly, and the rustling of a woman's dress on the carpetmoved towards me. My heart beat violently as I turned round. MissFairlie was approaching me from the farther end of the room.

  She stopped and hesitated when our eyes met, and when she saw that wewere alone. Then, with that courage which women lose so often in thesmall emergency, and so seldom in the great, she came on nearer to me,strangely pale and strangely quiet, drawing one hand after her alongthe table by which she walked, and holding something at her side in theother, which was hidden by the folds of her dress.

  "I only went into the drawing-room," she said, "to look for this. Itmay remind you of your visit here, and of the friends you leave behindyou. You told me I had improved very much when I did it, and I thoughtyou might like----"

  She turned her head away, and offered me a little sketch, drawnthroughout by her own pencil, of the summer-house in which we had firstmet. The paper trembled in her hand as she held it out to me--trembledin mine as I took it from her.

  I was afraid to say what I felt--I only answered, "It shall never leaveme--all my life long it shall be the treasure that I prize most. I amvery grateful for it--very grateful to you, for not letting me go awaywithout bidding you good-bye."

  "Oh!" she said innocently, "how could I let you go, after we havepassed so many happy days together!"

  "Those days may never return, Miss Fairlie--my way of life and yoursare very far apart. But if a time should come, when the devotion of mywhole heart and soul and strength will give you a moment's happiness,or spare you a moment's sorrow, will you try to remember the poordrawing-master who has taught you? Miss Halcombe has promised to trustme--will you promise too?"

  The farewell sadness in the kind blue eyes shone dimly through hergathering tears.

  "I promise it," she said in broken tones. "Oh, don't look at me likethat! I promise it with all my heart."

  I ventured a little nearer to her, and held out my hand.

  "You have many friends who love you, Miss Fairlie. Your happy futureis the dear object of many hopes. May I say, at parting, that it isthe dear object of MY hopes too?"

  The tears flowed fast down her cheeks. She rested one trembling handon the table to steady herself while she gave me the other. I took itin mine--I held it fast. My head drooped over it, my tears fell on it,my lips pressed it--not in love; oh, not in love, at that last moment,but in the agony and the self-abandonment of despair.

  "For God's sake, leave me!" she said faintly.

  The confession of her heart's secret burst from her in those pleadingwords. I had no right to hear them, no right to answer them--they werethe words that banished me, in the name of her sacred weakness, fromthe room. It was all over. I dropped her hand, I said no more. Theblinding tears shut her out from my eyes, and I dashed them away tolook at her for the last time. One look as she sank into a chair, asher arms fell on the table, as her fair head dropped on them wearily.One farewell look, and the door had closed upon her--the great gulf ofseparation had opened between us--the image of Laura Fairlie was amemory of the past already.

  The End of Hartright's Narrative.