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The Woman in White, Page 16

Wilkie Collins


  (of Chancery Lane, Solicitor)


  I write these lines at the request of my friend, Mr. Walter Hartright.They are intended to convey a description of certain events whichseriously affected Miss Fairlie's interests, and which took place afterthe period of Mr. Hartright's departure from Limmeridge House.

  There is no need for me to say whether my own opinion does or does notsanction the disclosure of the remarkable family story, of which mynarrative forms an important component part. Mr. Hartright has takenthat responsibility on himself, and circumstances yet to be relatedwill show that he has amply earned the right to do so, if he chooses toexercise it. The plan he has adopted for presenting the story toothers, in the most truthful and most vivid manner, requires that itshould be told, at each successive stage in the march of events, by thepersons who were directly concerned in those events at the time oftheir occurrence. My appearance here, as narrator, is the necessaryconsequence of this arrangement. I was present during the sojourn ofSir Percival Glyde in Cumberland, and was personally concerned in oneimportant result of his short residence under Mr. Fairlie's roof. Itis my duty, therefore, to add these new links to the chain of events,and to take up the chain itself at the point where, for the presentonly Mr. Hartright has dropped it.

  I arrived at Limmeridge House on Friday the second of November.

  My object was to remain at Mr. Fairlie's until the arrival of SirPercival Glyde. If that event led to the appointment of any given dayfor Sir Percival's union with Miss Fairlie, I was to take the necessaryinstructions back with me to London, and to occupy myself in drawingthe lady's marriage-settlement.

  On the Friday I was not favoured by Mr. Fairlie with an interview. Hehad been, or had fancied himself to be, an invalid for years past, andhe was not well enough to receive me. Miss Halcombe was the firstmember of the family whom I saw. She met me at the house door, andintroduced me to Mr. Hartright, who had been staying at Limmeridge forsome time past.

  I did not see Miss Fairlie until later in the day, at dinner-time. Shewas not looking well, and I was sorry to observe it. She is a sweetlovable girl, as amiable and attentive to every one about her as herexcellent mother used to be--though, personally speaking, she takesafter her father. Mrs. Fairlie had dark eyes and hair, and her elderdaughter, Miss Halcombe, strongly reminds me of her. Miss Fairlieplayed to us in the evening--not so well as usual, I thought. We had arubber at whist, a mere profanation, so far as play was concerned, ofthat noble game. I had been favourably impressed by Mr. Hartright onour first introduction to one another, but I soon discovered that hewas not free from the social failings incidental to his age. There arethree things that none of the young men of the present generation cando. They can't sit over their wine, they can't play at whist, and theycan't pay a lady a compliment. Mr. Hartright was no exception to thegeneral rule. Otherwise, even in those early days and on that shortacquaintance, he struck me as being a modest and gentlemanlike youngman.

  So the Friday passed. I say nothing about the more serious matterswhich engaged my attention on that day--the anonymous letter to MissFairlie, the measures I thought it right to adopt when the matter wasmentioned to me, and the conviction I entertained that every possibleexplanation of the circumstances would be readily afforded by SirPercival Glyde, having all been fully noticed, as I understand, in thenarrative which precedes this.

  On the Saturday Mr. Hartright had left before I got down to breakfast.Miss Fairlie kept her room all day, and Miss Halcombe appeared to me tobe out of spirits. The house was not what it used to be in the time ofMr. and Mrs. Philip Fairlie. I took a walk by myself in the forenoon,and looked about at some of the places which I first saw when I wasstaying at Limmeridge to transact family business, more than thirtyyears since. They were not what they used to be either.

  At two o'clock Mr. Fairlie sent to say he was well enough to see me.HE had not altered, at any rate, since I first knew him. His talk wasto the same purpose as usual--all about himself and his ailments, hiswonderful coins, and his matchless Rembrandt etchings. The moment Itried to speak of the business that had brought me to his house, heshut his eyes and said I "upset" him. I persisted in upsetting him byreturning again and again to the subject. All I could ascertain wasthat he looked on his niece's marriage as a settled thing, that herfather had sanctioned it, that he sanctioned it himself, that it was adesirable marriage, and that he should be personally rejoiced when theworry of it was over. As to the settlements, if I would consult hisniece, and afterwards dive as deeply as I pleased into my own knowledgeof the family affairs, and get everything ready, and limit his share inthe business, as guardian, to saying Yes, at the right moment--why, ofcourse he would meet my views, and everybody else's views, withinfinite pleasure. In the meantime, there I saw him, a helplesssufferer, confined to his room. Did I think he looked as if he wantedteasing? No. Then why tease him?

  I might, perhaps, have been a little astonished at this extraordinaryabsence of all self-assertion on Mr. Fairlie's part, in the characterof guardian, if my knowledge of the family affairs had not beensufficient to remind me that he was a single man, and that he hadnothing more than a life-interest in the Limmeridge property. Asmatters stood, therefore, I was neither surprised nor disappointed atthe result of the interview. Mr. Fairlie had simply justified myexpectations--and there was an end of it.

  Sunday was a dull day, out of doors and in. A letter arrived for mefrom Sir Percival Glyde's solicitor, acknowledging the receipt of mycopy of the anonymous letter and my accompanying statement of the case.Miss Fairlie joined us in the afternoon, looking pale and depressed,and altogether unlike herself. I had some talk with her, and venturedon a delicate allusion to Sir Percival. She listened and said nothing.All other subjects she pursued willingly, but this subject she allowedto drop. I began to doubt whether she might not be repenting of herengagement--just as young ladies often do, when repentance comes toolate.

  On Monday Sir Percival Glyde arrived.

  I found him to be a most prepossessing man, so far as manners andappearance were concerned. He looked rather older than I had expected,his head being bald over the forehead, and his face somewhat marked andworn, but his movements were as active and his spirits as high as ayoung man's. His meeting with Miss Halcombe was delightfully heartyand unaffected, and his reception of me, upon my being presented tohim, was so easy and pleasant that we got on together like old friends.Miss Fairlie was not with us when he arrived, but she entered the roomabout ten minutes afterwards. Sir Percival rose and paid hiscompliments with perfect grace. His evident concern on seeing thechange for the worse in the young lady's looks was expressed with amixture of tenderness and respect, with an unassuming delicacy of tone,voice, and manner, which did equal credit to his good breeding and hisgood sense. I was rather surprised, under these circumstances, to seethat Miss Fairlie continued to be constrained and uneasy in hispresence, and that she took the first opportunity of leaving the roomagain. Sir Percival neither noticed the restraint in her reception ofhim, nor her sudden withdrawal from our society. He had not obtrudedhis attentions on her while she was present, and he did not embarrassMiss Halcombe by any allusion to her departure when she was gone. Histact and taste were never at fault on this or on any other occasionwhile I was in his company at Limmeridge House.

  As soon as Miss Fairlie had left the room he spared us allembarrassment on the subject of the anonymous letter, by adverting toit of his own accord. He had stopped in London on his way fromHampshire, had seen his solicitor, had read the documents forwarded byme, and had travelled on to Cumberland, anxious to satisfy our minds bythe speediest and the fullest explanation that words could convey. Onhearing him express himself to this effect, I offered him the originalletter, which I had kept for his inspection. He thanked me, anddeclined to look at it, saying that he had seen the copy, and that hewas quite willing to leave the original in our hands.

statement itself, on which he immediately entered, was as simpleand satisfactory as I had all along anticipated it would be.

  Mrs. Catherick, he informed us, had in past years laid him under someobligations for faithful services rendered to his family connectionsand to himself. She had been doubly unfortunate in being married to ahusband who had deserted her, and in having an only child whose mentalfaculties had been in a disturbed condition from a very early age.Although her marriage had removed her to a part of Hampshire fardistant from the neighbourhood in which Sir Percival's property wassituated, he had taken care not to lose sight of her--his friendlyfeeling towards the poor woman, in consideration of her past services,having been greatly strengthened by his admiration of the patience andcourage with which she supported her calamities. In course of time thesymptoms of mental affliction in her unhappy daughter increased to sucha serious extent, as to make it a matter of necessity to place herunder proper medical care. Mrs. Catherick herself recognised thisnecessity, but she also felt the prejudice common to persons occupyingher respectable station, against allowing her child to be admitted, asa pauper, into a public Asylum. Sir Percival had respected thisprejudice, as he respected honest independence of feeling in any rankof life, and had resolved to mark his grateful sense of Mrs.Catherick's early attachment to the interests of himself and hisfamily, by defraying the expense of her daughter's maintenance in atrustworthy private Asylum. To her mother's regret, and to his ownregret, the unfortunate creature had discovered the share whichcircumstances had induced him to take in placing her under restraint,and had conceived the most intense hatred and distrust of him inconsequence. To that hatred and distrust--which had expressed itselfin various ways in the Asylum--the anonymous letter, written after herescape, was plainly attributable. If Miss Halcombe's or Mr. Gilmore'srecollection of the document did not confirm that view, or if theywished for any additional particulars about the Asylum (the address ofwhich he mentioned, as well as the names and addresses of the twodoctors on whose certificates the patient was admitted), he was readyto answer any question and to clear up any uncertainty. He had donehis duty to the unhappy young woman, by instructing his solicitor tospare no expense in tracing her, and in restoring her once more tomedical care, and he was now only anxious to do his duty towards MissFairlie and towards her family, in the same plain, straightforward way.

  I was the first to speak in answer to this appeal. My own course wasplain to me. It is the great beauty of the Law that it can dispute anyhuman statement, made under any circumstances, and reduced to any form.If I had felt professionally called upon to set up a case against SirPercival Glyde, on the strength of his own explanation, I could havedone so beyond all doubt. But my duty did not lie in thisdirection--my function was of the purely judicial kind. I was to weighthe explanation we had just heard, to allow all due force to the highreputation of the gentleman who offered it, and to decide honestlywhether the probabilities, on Sir Percival's own showing, were plainlywith him, or plainly against him. My own conviction was that they wereplainly with him, and I accordingly declared that his explanation was,to my mind, unquestionably a satisfactory one.

  Miss Halcombe, after looking at me very earnestly, said a few words, onher side, to the same effect--with a certain hesitation of manner,however, which the circumstances did not seem to me to warrant. I amunable to say, positively, whether Sir Percival noticed this or not.My opinion is that he did, seeing that he pointedly resumed thesubject, although he might now, with all propriety, have allowed it todrop.

  "If my plain statement of facts had only been addressed to Mr.Gilmore," he said, "I should consider any further reference to thisunhappy matter as unnecessary. I may fairly expect Mr. Gilmore, as agentleman, to believe me on my word, and when he has done me thatjustice, all discussion of the subject between us has come to an end.But my position with a lady is not the same. I owe to her--what Iwould concede to no man alive--a PROOF of the truth of my assertion.You cannot ask for that proof, Miss Halcombe, and it is therefore myduty to you, and still more to Miss Fairlie, to offer it. May I begthat you will write at once to the mother of this unfortunate woman--toMrs. Catherick--to ask for her testimony in support of the explanationwhich I have just offered to you."

  I saw Miss Halcombe change colour, and look a little uneasy. SirPercival's suggestion, politely as it was expressed, appeared to her,as it appeared to me, to point very delicately at the hesitation whichher manner had betrayed a moment or two since.

  "I hope, Sir Percival, you don't do me the injustice to suppose that Idistrust you," she said quickly.

  "Certainly not, Miss Halcombe. I make my proposal purely as an act ofattention to YOU. Will you excuse my obstinacy if I still venture topress it?"

  He walked to the writing-table as he spoke, drew a chair to it, andopened the paper case.

  "Let me beg you to write the note," he said, "as a favour to ME. Itneed not occupy you more than a few minutes. You have only to ask Mrs.Catherick two questions. First, if her daughter was placed in theAsylum with her knowledge and approval. Secondly, if the share I tookin the matter was such as to merit the expression of her gratitudetowards myself? Mr. Gilmore's mind is at ease on this unpleasantsubject, and your mind is at ease--pray set my mind at ease also bywriting the note."

  "You oblige me to grant your request, Sir Percival, when I would muchrather refuse it."

  With those words Miss Halcombe rose from her place and went to thewriting-table. Sir Percival thanked her, handed her a pen, and thenwalked away towards the fireplace. Miss Fairlie's little Italiangreyhound was lying on the rug. He held out his hand, and called tothe dog good-humouredly.

  "Come, Nina," he said, "we remember each other, don't we?"

  The little beast, cowardly and cross-grained, as pet-dogs usually are,looked up at him sharply, shrank away from his outstretched hand,whined, shivered, and hid itself under a sofa. It was scarcelypossible that he could have been put out by such a trifle as a dog'sreception of him, but I observed, nevertheless, that he walked awaytowards the window very suddenly. Perhaps his temper is irritable attimes. If so, I can sympathise with him. My temper is irritable attimes too.

  Miss Halcombe was not long in writing the note. When it was done sherose from the writing-table, and handed the open sheet of paper to SirPercival. He bowed, took it from her, folded it up immediately withoutlooking at the contents, sealed it, wrote the address, and handed itback to her in silence. I never saw anything more gracefully and morebecomingly done in my life.

  "You insist on my posting this letter, Sir Percival?" said MissHalcombe.

  "I beg you will post it," he answered. "And now that it is written andsealed up, allow me to ask one or two last questions about the unhappywoman to whom it refers. I have read the communication which Mr.Gilmore kindly addressed to my solicitor, describing the circumstancesunder which the writer of the anonymous letter was identified. Butthere are certain points to which that statement does not refer. DidAnne Catherick see Miss Fairlie?"

  "Certainly not," replied Miss Halcombe.

  "Did she see you?"


  "She saw nobody from the house then, except a certain Mr. Hartright,who accidentally met with her in the churchyard here?"

  "Nobody else."

  "Mr. Hartright was employed at Limmeridge as a drawing-master, Ibelieve? Is he a member of one of the Water-Colour Societies?"

  "I believe he is," answered Miss Halcombe.

  He paused for a moment, as if he was thinking over the last answer, andthen added--

  "Did you find out where Anne Catherick was living, when she was in thisneighbourhood?"

  "Yes. At a farm on the moor, called Todd's Corner."

  "It is a duty we all owe to the poor creature herself to trace her,"continued Sir Percival. "She may have said something at Todd's Cornerwhich may help us to find her. I will go there and make inquiries onthe chance. In the meantime, as I cannot prevail on myself to discussthis painful subject wit
h Miss Fairlie, may I beg, Miss Halcombe, thatyou will kindly undertake to give her the necessary explanation,deferring it of course until you have received the reply to that note."

  Miss Halcombe promised to comply with his request. He thanked her,nodded pleasantly, and left us, to go and establish himself in his ownroom. As he opened the door the cross-grained greyhound poked out hersharp muzzle from under the sofa, and barked and snapped at him.

  "A good morning's work, Miss Halcombe," I said, as soon as we werealone. "Here is an anxious day well ended already."

  "Yes," she answered; "no doubt. I am very glad your mind is satisfied."

  "My mind! Surely, with that note in your hand, your mind is at easetoo?"

  "Oh yes--how can it be otherwise? I know the thing could not be," shewent on, speaking more to herself than to me; "but I almost wish WalterHartright had stayed here long enough to be present at the explanation,and to hear the proposal to me to write this note."

  I was a little surprised--perhaps a little piqued also--by these lastwords.

  "Events, it is true, connected Mr. Hartright very remarkably with theaffair of the letter," I said; "and I readily admit that he conductedhimself, all things considered, with great delicacy and discretion.But I am quite at a loss to understand what useful influence hispresence could have exercised in relation to the effect of SirPercival's statement on your mind or mine."

  "It was only a fancy," she said absently. "There is no need to discussit, Mr. Gilmore. Your experience ought to be, and is, the best guide Ican desire."

  I did not altogether like her thrusting the whole responsibility, inthis marked manner, on my shoulders. If Mr. Fairlie had done it, Ishould not have been surprised. But resolute, clear-minded MissHalcombe was the very last person in the world whom I should haveexpected to find shrinking from the expression of an opinion of her own.

  "If any doubts still trouble you," I said, "why not mention them to meat once? Tell me plainly, have you any reason to distrust Sir PercivalGlyde?"

  "None whatever."

  "Do you see anything improbable, or contradictory, in his explanation?"

  "How can I say I do, after the proof he has offered me of the truth ofit? Can there be better testimony in his favour, Mr. Gilmore, than thetestimony of the woman's mother?"

  "None better. If the answer to your note of inquiry proves to besatisfactory, I for one cannot see what more any friend of SirPercival's can possibly expect from him."

  "Then we will post the note," she said, rising to leave the room, "anddismiss all further reference to the subject until the answer arrives.Don't attach any weight to my hesitation. I can give no better reasonfor it than that I have been over-anxious about Laura lately--andanxiety, Mr. Gilmore, unsettles the strongest of us."

  She left me abruptly, her naturally firm voice faltering as she spokethose last words. A sensitive, vehement, passionate nature--a womanof ten thousand in these trivial, superficial times. I had known herfrom her earliest years--I had seen her tested, as she grew up, in morethan one trying family crisis, and my long experience made me attach animportance to her hesitation under the circumstances here detailed,which I should certainly not have felt in the case of another woman. Icould see no cause for any uneasiness or any doubt, but she had made mea little uneasy, and a little doubtful, nevertheless. In my youth, Ishould have chafed and fretted under the irritation of my ownunreasonable state of mind. In my age, I knew better, and went outphilosophically to walk it off.