The woman in white, p.18
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       The Woman in White, p.18

           Wilkie Collins
 

  "MADAM,--I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, inquiringwhether my daughter, Anne, was placed under medical superintendencewith my knowledge and approval, and whether the share taken in thematter by Sir Percival Glyde was such as to merit the expression of mygratitude towards that gentleman. Be pleased to accept my answer inthe affirmative to both those questions, and believe me to remain, yourobedient servant,

  "JANE ANNE CATHERICK."

  Short, sharp, and to the point; in form rather a business-like letterfor a woman to write--in substance as plain a confirmation as could bedesired of Sir Percival Glyde's statement. This was my opinion, andwith certain minor reservations, Miss Halcombe's opinion also. SirPercival, when the letter was shown to him, did not appear to be struckby the sharp, short tone of it. He told us that Mrs. Catherick was awoman of few words, a clear-headed, straightforward, unimaginativeperson, who wrote briefly and plainly, just as she spoke.

  The next duty to be accomplished, now that the answer had beenreceived, was to acquaint Miss Fairlie with Sir Percival's explanation.Miss Halcombe had undertaken to do this, and had left the room to go toher sister, when she suddenly returned again, and sat down by theeasy-chair in which I was reading the newspaper. Sir Percival had goneout a minute before to look at the stables, and no one was in the roombut ourselves.

  "I suppose we have really and truly done all we can?" she said, turningand twisting Mrs. Catherick's letter in her hand.

  "If we are friends of Sir Percival's, who know him and trust him, wehave done all, and more than all, that is necessary," I answered, alittle annoyed by this return of her hesitation. "But if we areenemies who suspect him----"

  "That alternative is not even to be thought of," she interposed. "Weare Sir Percival's friends, and if generosity and forbearance can addto our regard for him, we ought to be Sir Percival's admirers as well.You know that he saw Mr. Fairlie yesterday, and that he afterwards wentout with me."

  "Yes. I saw you riding away together."

  "We began the ride by talking about Anne Catherick, and about thesingular manner in which Mr. Hartright met with her. But we soondropped that subject, and Sir Percival spoke next, in the mostunselfish terms, of his engagement with Laura. He said he had observedthat she was out of spirits, and he was willing, if not informed to thecontrary, to attribute to that cause the alteration in her mannertowards him during his present visit. If, however, there was any moreserious reason for the change, he would entreat that no constraintmight be placed on her inclinations either by Mr. Fairlie or by me.All he asked, in that case, was that she would recall to mind, for thelast time, what the circumstances were under which the engagementbetween them was made, and what his conduct had been from the beginningof the courtship to the present time. If, after due reflection onthose two subjects, she seriously desired that he should withdraw hispretensions to the honour of becoming her husband--and if she wouldtell him so plainly with her own lips--he would sacrifice himself byleaving her perfectly free to withdraw from the engagement."

  "No man could say more than that, Miss Halcombe. As to my experience,few men in his situation would have said as much."

  She paused after I had spoken those words, and looked at me with asingular expression of perplexity and distress.

  "I accuse nobody, and I suspect nothing," she broke out abruptly. "ButI cannot and will not accept the responsibility of persuading Laura tothis marriage."

  "That is exactly the course which Sir Percival Glyde has himselfrequested you to take," I replied in astonishment. "He has begged younot to force her inclinations."

  "And he indirectly obliges me to force them, if I give her his message."

  "How can that possibly be?"

  "Consult your own knowledge of Laura, Mr. Gilmore. If I tell her toreflect on the circumstances of her engagement, I at once appeal to twoof the strongest feelings in her nature--to her love for her father'smemory, and to her strict regard for truth. You know that she neverbroke a promise in her life--you know that she entered on thisengagement at the beginning of her father's fatal illness, and that hespoke hopefully and happily of her marriage to Sir Percival Glyde onhis deathbed."

  I own that I was a little shocked at this view of the case.

  "Surely," I said, "you don't mean to infer that when Sir Percival spoketo you yesterday he speculated on such a result as you have justmentioned?"

  Her frank, fearless face answered for her before she spoke.

  "Do you think I would remain an instant in the company of any man whomI suspected of such baseness as that?" she asked angrily.

  I liked to feel her hearty indignation flash out on me in that way. Wesee so much malice and so little indignation in my profession.

  "In that case," I said, "excuse me if I tell you, in our legal phrase,that you are travelling out of the record. Whatever the consequencesmay be, Sir Percival has a right to expect that your sister shouldcarefully consider her engagement from every reasonable point of viewbefore she claims her release from it. If that unlucky letter hasprejudiced her against him, go at once, and tell her that he hascleared himself in your eyes and in mine. What objection can she urgeagainst him after that? What excuse can she possibly have for changingher mind about a man whom she had virtually accepted for her husbandmore than two years ago?"

  "In the eyes of law and reason, Mr. Gilmore, no excuse, I daresay. Ifshe still hesitates, and if I still hesitate, you must attribute ourstrange conduct, if you like, to caprice in both cases, and we mustbear the imputation as well as we can."

  With those words she suddenly rose and left me. When a sensible womanhas a serious question put to her, and evades it by a flippant answer,it is a sure sign, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, that she hassomething to conceal. I returned to the perusal of the newspaper,strongly suspecting that Miss Halcombe and Miss Fairlie had a secretbetween them which they were keeping from Sir Percival, and keepingfrom me. I thought this hard on both of us, especially on Sir Percival.

  My doubts--or to speak more correctly, my convictions--were confirmedby Miss Halcombe's language and manner when I saw her again later inthe day. She was suspiciously brief and reserved in telling me theresult of her interview with her sister. Miss Fairlie, it appeared,had listened quietly while the affair of the letter was placed beforeher in the right point of view, but when Miss Halcombe next proceededto say that the object of Sir Percival's visit at Limmeridge was toprevail on her to let a day be fixed for the marriage she checked allfurther reference to the subject by begging for time. If Sir Percivalwould consent to spare her for the present, she would undertake to givehim his final answer before the end of the year. She pleaded for thisdelay with such anxiety and agitation, that Miss Halcombe had promisedto use her influence, if necessary, to obtain it, and there, at MissFairlie's earnest entreaty, all further discussion of the marriagequestion had ended.

  The purely temporary arrangement thus proposed might have beenconvenient enough to the young lady, but it proved somewhatembarrassing to the writer of these lines. That morning's post hadbrought a letter from my partner, which obliged me to return to townthe next day by the afternoon train. It was extremely probable that Ishould find no second opportunity of presenting myself at LimmeridgeHouse during the remainder of the year. In that case, supposing MissFairlie ultimately decided on holding to her engagement, my necessarypersonal communication with her, before I drew her settlement, wouldbecome something like a downright impossibility, and we should beobliged to commit to writing questions which ought always to bediscussed on both sides by word of mouth. I said nothing about thisdifficulty until Sir Percival had been consulted on the subject of thedesired delay. He was too gallant a gentleman not to grant the requestimmediately. When Miss Halcombe informed me of this I told her that Imust absolutely speak to her sister before I left Limmeridge, and itwas, therefore, arranged that I should see Miss Fairlie in her ownsitting-room the next morning. She did not come down to dinner, orjoin us in the
evening. Indisposition was the excuse, and I thoughtSir Percival looked, as well he might, a little annoyed when he heardof it.

  The next morning, as soon as breakfast was over, I went up to MissFairlie's sitting-room. The poor girl looked so pale and sad, and cameforward to welcome me so readily and prettily, that the resolution tolecture her on her caprice and indecision, which I had been forming allthe way upstairs, failed me on the spot. I led her back to the chairfrom which she had risen, and placed myself opposite to her. Hercross-grained pet greyhound was in the room, and I fully expected abarking and snapping reception. Strange to say, the whimsical littlebrute falsified my expectations by jumping into my lap and poking itssharp muzzle familiarly into my hand the moment I sat down.

  "You used often to sit on my knee when you were a child, my dear," Isaid, "and now your little dog seems determined to succeed you in thevacant throne. Is that pretty drawing your doing?"

  I pointed to a little album which lay on the table by her side andwhich she had evidently been looking over when I came in. The pagethat lay open had a small water-colour landscape very neatly mounted onit. This was the drawing which had suggested my question--an idlequestion enough--but how could I begin to talk of business to her themoment I opened my lips?

  "No," she said, looking away from the drawing rather confusedly, "it isnot my doing."

  Her fingers had a restless habit, which I remembered in her as a child,of always playing with the first thing that came to hand whenever anyone was talking to her. On this occasion they wandered to the album,and toyed absently about the margin of the little water-colour drawing.The expression of melancholy deepened on her face. She did not look atthe drawing, or look at me. Her eyes moved uneasily from object toobject in the room, betraying plainly that she suspected what mypurpose was in coming to speak to her. Seeing that, I thought it bestto get to the purpose with as little delay as possible.

  "One of the errands, my dear, which brings me here is to bid yougood-bye," I began. "I must get back to London to-day: and, before Ileave, I want to have a word with you on the subject of your ownaffairs."

  "I am very sorry you are going, Mr. Gilmore," she said, looking at mekindly. "It is like the happy old times to have you here.

  "I hope I may be able to come back and recall those pleasant memoriesonce more," I continued; "but as there is some uncertainty about thefuture, I must take my opportunity when I can get it, and speak to younow. I am your old lawyer and your old friend, and I may remind you, Iam sure, without offence, of the possibility of your marrying SirPercival Glyde."

  She took her hand off the little album as suddenly as if it had turnedhot and burnt her. Her fingers twined together nervously in her lap,her eyes looked down again at the floor, and an expression ofconstraint settled on her face which looked almost like an expressionof pain.

  "Is it absolutely necessary to speak of my marriage engagement?" sheasked in low tones.

  "It is necessary to refer to it," I answered, "but not to dwell on it.Let us merely say that you may marry, or that you may not marry. Inthe first case, I must be prepared, beforehand, to draw yoursettlement, and I ought not to do that without, as a matter ofpoliteness, first consulting you. This may be my only chance ofhearing what your wishes are. Let us, therefore, suppose the case ofyour marrying, and let me inform you, in as few words as possible, whatyour position is now, and what you may make it, if you please, in thefuture."

  I explained to her the object of a marriage-settlement, and then toldher exactly what her prospects were--in the first place, on her comingof age, and in the second place, on the decease of her uncle--markingthe distinction between the property in which she had a life-interestonly, and the property which was left at her own control. She listenedattentively, with the constrained expression still on her face, and herhands still nervously clasped together in her lap.

  "And now," I said in conclusion, "tell me if you can think of anycondition which, in the case we have supposed, you would wish me tomake for you--subject, of course, to your guardian's approval, as youare not yet of age."

  She moved uneasily in her chair, then looked in my face on a suddenvery earnestly.

  "If it does happen," she began faintly, "if I am----"

  "If you are married," I added, helping her out.

  "Don't let him part me from Marian," she cried, with a sudden outbreakof energy. "Oh, Mr. Gilmore, pray make it law that Marian is to livewith me!"

  Under other circumstances I might, perhaps, have been amused at thisessentially feminine interpretation of my question, and of the longexplanation which had preceded it. But her looks and tones, when shespoke, were of a kind to make me more than serious--they distressed me.Her words, few as they were, betrayed a desperate clinging to the pastwhich boded ill for the future.

  "Your having Marian Halcombe to live with you can easily be settled byprivate arrangement," I said. "You hardly understood my question, Ithink. It referred to your own property--to the disposal of yourmoney. Supposing you were to make a will when you come of age, whowould you like the money to go to?"

  "Marian has been mother and sister both to me," said the good,affectionate girl, her pretty blue eyes glistening while she spoke."May I leave it to Marian, Mr. Gilmore?"

  "Certainly, my love," I answered. "But remember what a large sum itis. Would you like it all to go to Miss Halcombe?"

  She hesitated; her colour came and went, and her hand stole back againto the little album.

  "Not all of it," she said. "There is some one else besides Marian----"

  She stopped; her colour heightened, and the fingers of the hand thatrested upon the album beat gently on the margin of the drawing, as ifher memory had set them going mechanically with the remembrance of afavourite tune.

  "You mean some other member of the family besides Miss Halcombe?" Isuggested, seeing her at a loss to proceed.

  The heightening colour spread to her forehead and her neck, and thenervous fingers suddenly clasped themselves fast round the edge of thebook.

  "There is some one else," she said, not noticing my last words, thoughshe had evidently heard them; "there is some one else who might like alittle keepsake if--if I might leave it. There would be no harm if Ishould die first----"

  She paused again. The colour that had spread over her cheeks suddenly,as suddenly left them. The hand on the album resigned its hold,trembled a little, and moved the book away from her. She looked at mefor an instant--then turned her head aside in the chair. Herhandkerchief fell to the floor as she changed her position, and shehurriedly hid her face from me in her hands.

  Sad! To remember her, as I did, the liveliest, happiest child that everlaughed the day through, and to see her now, in the flower of her ageand her beauty, so broken and so brought down as this!

  In the distress that she caused me I forgot the years that had passed,and the change they had made in our position towards one another. Imoved my chair close to her, and picked up her handkerchief from thecarpet, and drew her hands from her face gently. "Don't cry, my love,"I said, and dried the tears that were gathering in her eyes with my ownhand, as if she had been the little Laura Fairlie of ten long years ago.

  It was the best way I could have taken to compose her. She laid herhead on my shoulder, and smiled faintly through her tears.

  "I am very sorry for forgetting myself," she said artlessly. "I havenot been well--I have felt sadly weak and nervous lately, and I oftencry without reason when I am alone. I am better now--I can answer youas I ought, Mr. Gilmore, I can indeed."

  "No, no, my dear," I replied, "we will consider the subject as donewith for the present. You have said enough to sanction my taking thebest possible care of your interests, and we can settle details atanother opportunity. Let us have done with business now, and talk ofsomething else."

  I led her at once into speaking on other topics. In ten minutes' timeshe was in better spirits, and I rose to take my leave.

  "Come here again," she said ea
rnestly. "I will try to be worthier ofyour kind feeling for me and for my interests if you will only comeagain."

  Still clinging to the past--that past which I represented to her, in myway, as Miss Halcombe did in hers! It troubled me sorely to see herlooking back, at the beginning of her career, just as I look back atthe end of mine.

  "If I do come again, I hope I shall find you better," I said; "betterand happier. God bless you, my dear!"

  She only answered by putting up her cheek to me to be kissed. Evenlawyers have hearts, and mine ached a little as I took leave of her.

  The whole interview between us had hardly lasted more than half anhour--she had not breathed a word, in my presence, to explain themystery of her evident distress and dismay at the prospect of hermarriage, and yet she had contrived to win me over to her side of thequestion, I neither knew how nor why. I had entered the room, feelingthat Sir Percival Glyde had fair reason to complain of the manner inwhich she was treating him. I left it, secretly hoping that mattersmight end in her taking him at his word and claiming her release. Aman of my age and experience ought to have known better than tovacillate in this unreasonable manner. I can make no excuse formyself; I can only tell the truth, and say--so it was.

  The hour for my departure was now drawing near. I sent to Mr. Fairlieto say that I would wait on him to take leave if he liked, but that hemust excuse my being rather in a hurry. He sent a message back,written in pencil on a slip of paper: "Kind love and best wishes, dearGilmore. Hurry of any kind is inexpressibly injurious to me. Praytake care of yourself. Good-bye."

  Just before I left I saw Miss Halcombe for a moment alone.

  "Have you said all you wanted to Laura?" she asked.

  "Yes," I replied. "She is very weak and nervous--I am glad she has youto take care of her."

  Miss Halcombe's sharp eyes studied my face attentively.

  "You are altering your opinion about Laura," she said. "You arereadier to make allowances for her than you were yesterday."

  No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of wordswith a woman. I only answered--

  "Let me know what happens. I will do nothing till I hear from you."

  She still looked hard in my face. "I wish it was all over, and wellover, Mr. Gilmore--and so do you." With those words she left me.

  Sir Percival most politely insisted on seeing me to the carriage door.

  "If you are ever in my neighbourhood," he said, "pray don't forget thatI am sincerely anxious to improve our acquaintance. The tried andtrusted old friend of this family will be always a welcome visitor inany house of mine."

  A really irresistible man--courteous, considerate, delightfully freefrom pride--a gentleman, every inch of him. As I drove away to thestation I felt as if I could cheerfully do anything to promote theinterests of Sir Percival Glyde--anything in the world, except drawingthe marriage settlement of his wife.