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The Woman in White, Page 23

Wilkie Collins

  December 16th.--A whole fortnight has passed, and I have not onceopened these pages. I have been long enough away from my journal tocome back to it with a healthier and better mind, I hope, so far as SirPercival is concerned.

  There is not much to record of the past two weeks. The dresses arealmost all finished, and the new travelling trunks have been sent herefrom London. Poor dear Laura hardly leaves me for a moment all day,and last night, when neither of us could sleep, she came and crept intomy bed to talk to me there. "I shall lose you so soon, Marian," shesaid; "I must make the most of you while I can."

  They are to be married at Limmeridge Church, and thank Heaven, not oneof the neighbours is to be invited to the ceremony. The only visitorwill be our old friend, Mr. Arnold, who is to come from Polesdean togive Laura away, her uncle being far too delicate to trust himselfoutside the door in such inclement weather as we now have. If I werenot determined, from this day forth, to see nothing but the bright sideof our prospects, the melancholy absence of any male relative ofLaura's, at the most important moment of her life, would make me verygloomy and very distrustful of the future. But I have done with gloomand distrust--that is to say, I have done with writing about either theone or the other in this journal.

  Sir Percival is to arrive to-morrow. He offered, in case we wished totreat him on terms of rigid etiquette, to write and ask our clergymanto grant him the hospitality of the rectory, during the short period ofhis sojourn at Limmeridge, before the marriage. Under thecircumstances, neither Mr. Fairlie nor I thought it at all necessaryfor us to trouble ourselves about attending to trifling forms andceremonies. In our wild moorland country, and in this great lonelyhouse, we may well claim to be beyond the reach of the trivialconventionalities which hamper people in other places. I wrote to SirPercival to thank him for his polite offer, and to beg that he wouldoccupy his old rooms, just as usual, at Limmeridge House.

  17th.--He arrived to-day, looking, as I thought, a little worn andanxious, but still talking and laughing like a man in the best possiblespirits. He brought with him some really beautiful presents injewellery, which Laura received with her best grace, and, outwardly atleast, with perfect self-possession. The only sign I can detect of thestruggle it must cost her to preserve appearances at this trying time,expresses itself in a sudden unwillingness, on her part, ever to beleft alone. Instead of retreating to her own room, as usual, she seemsto dread going there. When I went upstairs to-day, after lunch, to puton my bonnet for a walk, she volunteered to join me, and again, beforedinner, she threw the door open between our two rooms, so that we mighttalk to each other while we were dressing. "Keep me always doingsomething," she said; "keep me always in company with somebody. Don'tlet me think--that is all I ask now, Marian--don't let me think."

  This sad change in her only increases her attractions for Sir Percival.He interprets it, I can see, to his own advantage. There is a feverishflush in her cheeks, a feverish brightness in her eyes, which hewelcomes as the return of her beauty and the recovery of her spirits.She talked to-day at dinner with a gaiety and carelessness so false, soshockingly out of her character, that I secretly longed to silence herand take her away. Sir Percival's delight and surprise appeared to bebeyond all expression. The anxiety which I had noticed on his facewhen he arrived totally disappeared from it, and he looked, even to myeyes, a good ten years younger than he really is.

  There can be no doubt--though some strange perversity prevents me fromseeing it myself--there can be no doubt that Laura's future husband isa very handsome man. Regular features form a personal advantage tobegin with--and he has them. Bright brown eyes, either in man orwoman, are a great attraction--and he has them. Even baldness, when itis only baldness over the forehead (as in his case), is rather becomingthan not in a man, for it heightens the head and adds to theintelligence of the face. Grace and ease of movement, untiringanimation of manner, ready, pliant, conversational powers--all theseare unquestionable merits, and all these he certainly possesses.Surely Mr. Gilmore, ignorant as he is of Laura's secret, was not toblame for feeling surprised that she should repent of her marriageengagement? Any one else in his place would have shared our good oldfriend's opinion. If I were asked, at this moment, to say plainly whatdefects I have discovered in Sir Percival, I could only point out two.One, his incessant restlessness and excitability--which may be caused,naturally enough, by unusual energy of character. The other, hisshort, sharp, ill-tempered manner of speaking to the servants--whichmay be only a bad habit after all. No, I cannot dispute it, and I willnot dispute it--Sir Percival is a very handsome and a very agreeableman. There! I have written it down at last, and I am glad it's over.

  18th.--Feeling weary and depressed this morning, I left Laura with Mrs.Vesey, and went out alone for one of my brisk midday walks, which Ihave discontinued too much of late. I took the dry airy road over themoor that leads to Todd's Corner. After having been out half an hour,I was excessively surprised to see Sir Percival approaching me from thedirection of the farm. He was walking rapidly, swinging his stick, hishead erect as usual, and his shooting jacket flying open in the wind.When we met he did not wait for me to ask any questions--he told me atonce that he had been to the farm to inquire if Mr. or Mrs. Todd hadreceived any tidings, since his last visit to Limmeridge, of AnneCatherick.

  "You found, of course, that they had heard nothing?" I said.

  "Nothing whatever," he replied. "I begin to be seriously afraid thatwe have lost her. Do you happen to know," he continued, looking me inthe face very attentively "if the artist--Mr. Hartright--is in aposition to give us any further information?"

  "He has neither heard of her, nor seen her, since he left Cumberland,"I answered.

  "Very sad," said Sir Percival, speaking like a man who wasdisappointed, and yet, oddly enough, looking at the same time like aman who was relieved. "It is impossible to say what misfortunes maynot have happened to the miserable creature. I am inexpressiblyannoyed at the failure of all my efforts to restore her to the care andprotection which she so urgently needs."

  This time he really looked annoyed. I said a few sympathising words,and we then talked of other subjects on our way back to the house.Surely my chance meeting with him on the moor has disclosed anotherfavourable trait in his character? Surely it was singularly considerateand unselfish of him to think of Anne Catherick on the eve of hismarriage, and to go all the way to Todd's Corner to make inquiriesabout her, when he might have passed the time so much more agreeably inLaura's society? Considering that he can only have acted from motivesof pure charity, his conduct, under the circumstances, shows unusualgood feeling and deserves extraordinary praise. Well! I give himextraordinary praise--and there's an end of it.