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The Woman in White, Page 20

Wilkie Collins


  Leaving by an early train, I got to Limmeridge in time for dinner. Thehouse was oppressively empty and dull. I had expected that good Mrs.Vesey would have been company for me in the absence of the youngladies, but she was confined to her room by a cold. The servants wereso surprised at seeing me that they hurried and bustled absurdly, andmade all sorts of annoying mistakes. Even the butler, who was oldenough to have known better, brought me a bottle of port that waschilled. The reports of Mr. Fairlie's health were just as usual, andwhen I sent up a message to announce my arrival, I was told that hewould be delighted to see me the next morning but that the sudden newsof my appearance had prostrated him with palpitations for the rest ofthe evening. The wind howled dismally all night, and strange crackingand groaning noises sounded here, there, and everywhere in the emptyhouse. I slept as wretchedly as possible, and got up in a mighty badhumour to breakfast by myself the next morning.

  At ten o'clock I was conducted to Mr. Fairlie's apartments. He was inhis usual room, his usual chair, and his usual aggravating state ofmind and body. When I went in, his valet was standing before him,holding up for inspection a heavy volume of etchings, as long and asbroad as my office writing-desk. The miserable foreigner grinned inthe most abject manner, and looked ready to drop with fatigue, whilehis master composedly turned over the etchings, and brought theirhidden beauties to light with the help of a magnifying glass.

  "You very best of good old friends," said Mr. Fairlie, leaning backlazily before he could look at me, "are you QUITE well? How nice of youto come here and see me in my solitude. Dear Gilmore!"

  I had expected that the valet would be dismissed when I appeared, butnothing of the sort happened. There he stood, in front of his master'schair, trembling under the weight of the etchings, and there Mr.Fairlie sat, serenely twirling the magnifying glass between his whitefingers and thumbs.

  "I have come to speak to you on a very important matter," I said, "andyou will therefore excuse me, if I suggest that we had better be alone."

  The unfortunate valet looked at me gratefully. Mr. Fairlie faintlyrepeated my last three words, "better be alone," with every appearanceof the utmost possible astonishment.

  I was in no humour for trifling, and I resolved to make him understandwhat I meant.

  "Oblige me by giving that man permission to withdraw," I said, pointingto the valet.

  Mr. Fairlie arched his eyebrows and pursed up his lips in sarcasticsurprise.

  "Man?" he repeated. "You provoking old Gilmore, what can you possiblymean by calling him a man? He's nothing of the sort. He might havebeen a man half an hour ago, before I wanted my etchings, and he may bea man half an hour hence, when I don't want them any longer. Atpresent he is simply a portfolio stand. Why object, Gilmore, to aportfolio stand?"

  "I DO object. For the third time, Mr. Fairlie, I beg that we may bealone."

  My tone and manner left him no alternative but to comply with myrequest. He looked at the servant, and pointed peevishly to a chair athis side.

  "Put down the etchings and go away," he said. "Don't upset me bylosing my place. Have you, or have you not, lost my place? Are yousure you have not? And have you put my hand-bell quite within my reach?Yes? Then why the devil don't you go?"

  The valet went out. Mr. Fairlie twisted himself round in his chair,polished the magnifying glass with his delicate cambric handkerchief,and indulged himself with a sidelong inspection of the open volume ofetchings. It was not easy to keep my temper under these circumstances,but I did keep it.

  "I have come here at great personal inconvenience," I said, "to servethe interests of your niece and your family, and I think I haveestablished some slight claim to be favoured with your attention inreturn."

  "Don't bully me!" exclaimed Mr. Fairlie, falling back helplessly in thechair, and closing his eyes. "Please don't bully me. I'm not strongenough."

  I was determined not to let him provoke me, for Laura Fairlie's sake.

  "My object," I went on, "is to entreat you to reconsider your letter,and not to force me to abandon the just rights of your niece, and ofall who belong to her. Let me state the case to you once more, and forthe last time."

  Mr. Fairlie shook his head and sighed piteously.

  "This is heartless of you, Gilmore--very heartless," he said. "Nevermind, go on."

  I put all the points to him carefully--I set the matter before him inevery conceivable light. He lay back in the chair the whole time I wasspeaking with his eyes closed. When I had done he opened themindolently, took his silver smelling-bottle from the table, and sniffedat it with an air of gentle relish.

  "Good Gilmore!" he said between the sniffs, "how very nice this is ofyou! How you reconcile one to human nature!"

  "Give me a plain answer to a plain question, Mr. Fairlie. I tell youagain, Sir Percival Glyde has no shadow of a claim to expect more thanthe income of the money. The money itself if your niece has nochildren, ought to be under her control, and to return to her family.If you stand firm, Sir Percival must give way--he must give way, I tellyou, or he exposes himself to the base imputation of marrying MissFairlie entirely from mercenary motives."

  Mr. Fairlie shook the silver smelling-bottle at me playfully.

  "You dear old Gilmore, how you do hate rank and family, don't you? Howyou detest Glyde because he happens to be a baronet. What a Radicalyou are--oh, dear me, what a Radical you are!"

  A Radical!!! I could put up with a good deal of provocation, but, afterholding the soundest Conservative principles all my life, I could NOTput up with being called a Radical. My blood boiled at it--I startedout of my chair--I was speechless with Indignation.

  "Don't shake the room!" cried Mr. Fairlie--"for Heaven's sake don'tshake the room! Worthiest of all possible Gilmores, I meant no offence.My own views are so extremely liberal that I think I am a Radicalmyself. Yes. We are a pair of Radicals. Please don't be angry. Ican't quarrel--I haven't stamina enough. Shall we drop the subject?Yes. Come and look at these sweet etchings. Do let me teach you tounderstand the heavenly pearliness of these lines. Do now, there's agood Gilmore!"

  While he was maundering on in this way I was, fortunately for my ownself-respect, returning to my senses. When I spoke again I wascomposed enough to treat his impertinence with the silent contempt thatit deserved.

  "You are entirely wrong, sir," I said, "in supposing that I speak fromany prejudice against Sir Percival Glyde. I may regret that he has sounreservedly resigned himself in this matter to his lawyer's directionas to make any appeal to himself impossible, but I am not prejudicedagainst him. What I have said would equally apply to any other man inhis situation, high or low. The principle I maintain is a recognisedprinciple. If you were to apply at the nearest town here, to the firstrespectable solicitor you could find, he would tell you as a strangerwhat I tell you as a friend. He would inform you that it is againstall rule to abandon the lady's money entirely to the man she marries.He would decline, on grounds of common legal caution, to give thehusband, under any circumstances whatever, an interest of twentythousand pounds in his wife's death."

  "Would he really, Gilmore?" said Mr. Fairlie. "If he said anythinghalf so horrid, I do assure you I should tinkle my bell for Louis, andhave him sent out of the house immediately."

  "You shall not irritate me, Mr. Fairlie--for your niece's sake and forher father's sake, you shall not irritate me. You shall take the wholeresponsibility of this discreditable settlement on your own shouldersbefore I leave the room."

  "Don't!--now please don't!" said Mr. Fairlie. "Think how precious yourtime is, Gilmore, and don't throw it away. I would dispute with you ifI could, but I can't--I haven't stamina enough. You want to upset me,to upset yourself, to upset Glyde, and to upset Laura; and--oh, dearme!--all for the sake of the very last thing in the world that islikely to happen. No, dear friend, in the interests of peace andquietness, positively No!"

  "I am to understand, then, that you hold by the determination exp
ressedin your letter?"

  "Yes, please. So glad we understand each other at last. Sit downagain--do!"

  I walked at once to the door, and Mr. Fairlie resignedly "tinkled" hishand-bell. Before I left the room I turned round and addressed him forthe last time.

  "Whatever happens in the future, sir," I said, "remember that my plainduty of warning you has been performed. As the faithful friend andservant of your family, I tell you, at parting, that no daughter ofmine should be married to any man alive under such a settlement as youare forcing me to make for Miss Fairlie."

  The door opened behind me, and the valet stood waiting on the threshold.

  "Louis," said Mr. Fairlie, "show Mr. Gilmore out, and then come backand hold up my etchings for me again. Make them give you a good lunchdownstairs. Do, Gilmore, make my idle beasts of servants give you agood lunch!"

  I was too much disgusted to reply--I turned on my heel, and left him insilence. There was an up train at two o'clock in the afternoon, and bythat train I returned to London.

  On the Tuesday I sent in the altered settlement, which practicallydisinherited the very persons whom Miss Fairlie's own lips had informedme she was most anxious to benefit. I had no choice. Another lawyerwould have drawn up the deed if I had refused to undertake it.

  My task is done. My personal share in the events of the family storyextends no farther than the point which I have just reached. Other pensthan mine will describe the strange circumstances which are now shortlyto follow. Seriously and sorrowfully I close this brief record.Seriously and sorrowfully I repeat here the parting words that I spokeat Limmeridge House:--No daughter of mine should have been married toany man alive under such a settlement as I was compelled to make forLaura Fairlie.

  The End of Mr. Gilmore's Narrative.