The woman in white, p.24
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       The Woman in White, p.24

           Wilkie Collins

  19th.--More discoveries in the inexhaustible mine of Sir Percival'svirtues.

  To-day I approached the subject of my proposed sojourn under his wife'sroof when he brings her back to England. I had hardly dropped my firsthint in this direction before he caught me warmly by the hand, and saidI had made the very offer to him which he had been, on his side, mostanxious to make to me. I was the companion of all others whom he mostsincerely longed to secure for his wife, and he begged me to believethat I had conferred a lasting favour on him by making the proposal tolive with Laura after her marriage, exactly as I had always lived withher before it.

  When I had thanked him in her name and mine for his consideratekindness to both of us, we passed next to the subject of his weddingtour, and began to talk of the English society in Rome to which Laurawas to be introduced. He ran over the names of several friends whom heexpected to meet abroad this winter. They were all English, as well asI can remember, with one exception. The one exception was Count Fosco.

  The mention of the Count's name, and the discovery that he and his wifeare likely to meet the bride and bridegroom on the continent, putsLaura's marriage, for the first time, in a distinctly favourable light.It is likely to be the means of healing a family feud. Hitherto MadameFosco has chosen to forget her obligations as Laura's aunt out of sheerspite against the late Mr. Fairlie for his conduct in the affair of thelegacy. Now however, she can persist in this course of conduct nolonger. Sir Percival and Count Fosco are old and fast friends, andtheir wives will have no choice but to meet on civil terms. MadameFosco in her maiden days was one of the most impertinent women I evermet with--capricious, exacting, and vain to the last degree ofabsurdity. If her husband has succeeded in bringing her to her senses,he deserves the gratitude of every member of the family, and he mayhave mine to begin with.

  I am becoming anxious to know the Count. He is the most intimatefriend of Laura's husband, and in that capacity he excites my strongestinterest. Neither Laura nor I have ever seen him. All I know of himis that his accidental presence, years ago, on the steps of the Trinitadel Monte at Rome, assisted Sir Percival's escape from robbery andassassination at the critical moment when he was wounded in the hand,and might the next instant have been wounded in the heart. I rememberalso that, at the time of the late Mr. Fairlie's absurd objections tohis sister's marriage, the Count wrote him a very temperate andsensible letter on the subject, which, I am ashamed to say, remainedunanswered. This is all I know of Sir Percival's friend. I wonder ifhe will ever come to England? I wonder if I shall like him?

  My pen is running away into mere speculation. Let me return to sobermatter of fact. It is certain that Sir Percival's reception of myventuresome proposal to live with his wife was more than kind, it wasalmost affectionate. I am sure Laura's husband will have no reason tocomplain of me if I can only go on as I have begun. I have alreadydeclared him to be handsome, agreeable, full of good feeling towardsthe unfortunate and full of affectionate kindness towards me. Really,I hardly know myself again, in my new character of Sir Percival'swarmest friend.

  20th.--I hate Sir Percival! I flatly deny his good looks. I considerhim to be eminently ill-tempered and disagreeable, and totally wantingin kindness and good feeling. Last night the cards for the marriedcouple were sent home. Laura opened the packet and saw her future namein print for the first time. Sir Percival looked over her shoulderfamiliarly at the new card which had already transformed Miss Fairlieinto Lady Glyde--smiled with the most odious self-complacency, andwhispered something in her ear. I don't know what it was--Laura hasrefused to tell me--but I saw her face turn to such a deadly whitenessthat I thought she would have fainted. He took no notice of thechange--he seemed to be barbarously unconscious that he had saidanything to pain her. All my old feelings of hostility towards himrevived on the instant, and all the hours that have passed since havedone nothing to dissipate them. I am more unreasonable and more unjustthan ever. In three words--how glibly my pen writes them!--in threewords, I hate him.

  21st.--Have the anxieties of this anxious time shaken me a little, atlast? I have been writing, for the last few days, in a tone of levitywhich, Heaven knows, is far enough from my heart, and which it hasrather shocked me to discover on looking back at the entries in myjournal.

  Perhaps I may have caught the feverish excitement of Laura's spiritsfor the last week. If so, the fit has already passed away from me, andhas left me in a very strange state of mind. A persistent idea hasbeen forcing itself on my attention, ever since last night, thatsomething will yet happen to prevent the marriage. What has producedthis singular fancy? Is it the indirect result of my apprehensions forLaura's future? Or has it been unconsciously suggested to me by theincreasing restlessness and irritability which I have certainlyobserved in Sir Percival's manner as the wedding-day draws nearer andnearer? Impossible to say. I know that I have the idea--surely thewildest idea, under the circumstances, that ever entered a woman'shead?--but try as I may, I cannot trace it back to its source.

  This last day has been all confusion and wretchedness. How can I writeabout it?--and yet, I must write. Anything is better than broodingover my own gloomy thoughts.

  Kind Mrs. Vesey, whom we have all too much overlooked and forgotten oflate, innocently caused us a sad morning to begin with. She has been,for months past, secretly making a warm Shetland shawl for her dearpupil--a most beautiful and surprising piece of work to be done by awoman at her age and with her habits. The gift was presented thismorning, and poor warm-hearted Laura completely broke down when theshawl was put proudly on her shoulders by the loving old friend andguardian of her motherless childhood. I was hardly allowed time toquiet them both, or even to dry my own eyes, when I was sent for by Mr.Fairlie, to be favoured with a long recital of his arrangements for thepreservation of his own tranquillity on the wedding-day.

  "Dear Laura" was to receive his present--a shabby ring, with heraffectionate uncle's hair for an ornament, instead of a precious stone,and with a heartless French inscription inside, about congenialsentiments and eternal friendship--"dear Laura" was to receive thistender tribute from my hands immediately, so that she might have plentyof time to recover from the agitation produced by the gift before sheappeared in Mr. Fairlie's presence. "Dear Laura" was to pay him alittle visit that evening, and to be kind enough not to make a scene."Dear Laura" was to pay him another little visit in her wedding-dressthe next morning, and to be kind enough, again, not to make a scene."Dear Laura" was to look in once more, for the third time, before goingaway, but without harrowing his feelings by saying WHEN she was goingaway, and without tears--"in the name of pity, in the name ofeverything, dear Marian, that is most affectionate and most domestic,and most delightfully and charmingly self-composed, WITHOUT TEARS!" Iwas so exasperated by this miserable selfish trifling, at such a time,that I should certainly have shocked Mr. Fairlie by some of the hardestand rudest truths he has ever heard in his life, if the arrival of Mr.Arnold from Polesdean had not called me away to new duties downstairs.

  The rest of the day is indescribable. I believe no one in the housereally knew how it passed. The confusion of small events, all huddledtogether one on the other, bewildered everybody. There were dressessent home that had been forgotten--there were trunks to be packed andunpacked and packed again--there were presents from friends far andnear, friends high and low. We were all needlessly hurried, allnervously expectant of the morrow. Sir Percival, especially, was toorestless now to remain five minutes together in the same place. Thatshort, sharp cough of his troubled him more than ever. He was in andout of doors all day long, and he seemed to grow so inquisitive on asudden, that he questioned the very strangers who came on small errandsto the house. Add to all this, the one perpetual thought in Laura'smind and mine, that we were to part the next day, and the hauntingdread, unexpressed by either of us, and yet ever present to both, thatthis deplorable marriage might prove to be the one fatal error of herlife and the one hopeless sorrow of mine. For the f
irst time in allthe years of our close and happy intercourse we almost avoided lookingeach other in the face, and we refrained, by common consent, fromspeaking together in private through the whole evening. I can dwell onit no longer. Whatever future sorrows may be in store for me, I shallalways look back on this twenty-first of December as the mostcomfortless and most miserable day of my life.

  I am writing these lines in the solitude of my own room, long aftermidnight, having just come back from a stolen look at Laura in herpretty little white bed--the bed she has occupied since the days of hergirlhood.

  There she lay, unconscious that I was looking at her--quiet, more quietthan I had dared to hope, but not sleeping. The glimmer of thenight-light showed me that her eyes were only partially closed--thetraces of tears glistened between her eyelids. My littlekeepsake--only a brooch--lay on the table at her bedside, with herprayer-book, and the miniature portrait of her father which she takeswith her wherever she goes. I waited a moment, looking at her frombehind her pillow, as she lay beneath me, with one arm and hand restingon the white coverlid, so still, so quietly breathing, that the frillon her night-dress never moved--I waited, looking at her, as I haveseen her thousands of times, as I shall never see her again--and thenstole back to my room. My own love! with all your wealth, and all yourbeauty, how friendless you are! The one man who would give his heart'slife to serve you is far away, tossing, this stormy night, on the awfulsea. Who else is left to you? No father, no brother--no livingcreature but the helpless, useless woman who writes these sad lines,and watches by you for the morning, in sorrow that she cannot compose,in doubt that she cannot conquer. Oh, what a trust is to be placed inthat man's hands to-morrow! If ever he forgets it--if ever he injures ahair of her head!----

  THE TWENTY-SECOND OF DECEMBER. Seven o'clock. A wild, unsettledmorning. She has just risen--better and calmer, now that the time hascome, than she was yesterday.