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The Woman in White, Page 37

Wilkie Collins


  [2] The manner in which Mr. Fairlie's Narrative and other Narrativesthat are shortly to follow it, were originally obtained, forms thesubject of an explanation which will appear at a later period.

  It is the grand misfortune of my life that nobody will let me alone.

  Why--I ask everybody--why worry ME? Nobody answers that question, andnobody lets me alone. Relatives, friends, and strangers all combine toannoy me. What have I done? I ask myself, I ask my servant, Louis,fifty times a day--what have I done? Neither of us can tell. Mostextraordinary!

  The last annoyance that has assailed me is the annoyance of beingcalled upon to write this Narrative. Is a man in my state of nervouswretchedness capable of writing narratives? When I put this extremelyreasonable objection, I am told that certain very serious eventsrelating to my niece have happened within my experience, and that I amthe fit person to describe them on that account. I am threatened if Ifail to exert myself in the manner required, with consequences which Icannot so much as think of without perfect prostration. There isreally no need to threaten me. Shattered by my miserable health and myfamily troubles, I am incapable of resistance. If you insist, you takeyour unjust advantage of me, and I give way immediately. I willendeavour to remember what I can (under protest), and to write what Ican (also under protest), and what I can't remember and can't write,Louis must remember and write for me. He is an ass, and I am aninvalid, and we are likely to make all sorts of mistakes between us.How humiliating!

  I am told to remember dates. Good heavens! I never did such a thing inmy life--how am I to begin now?

  I have asked Louis. He is not quite such an ass as I have hithertosupposed. He remembers the date of the event, within a week ortwo--and I remember the name of the person. The date was towards theend of June, or the beginning of July, and the name (in my opinion aremarkably vulgar one) was Fanny.

  At the end of June, or the beginning of July, then, I was reclining inmy customary state, surrounded by the various objects of Art which Ihave collected about me to improve the taste of the barbarous people inmy neighbourhood. That is to say, I had the photographs of mypictures, and prints, and coins, and so forth, all about me, which Iintend, one of these days, to present (the photographs, I mean, if theclumsy English language will let me mean anything) to present to theinstitution at Carlisle (horrid place!), with a view to improving thetastes of the members (Goths and Vandals to a man). It might besupposed that a gentleman who was in course of conferring a greatnational benefit on his countrymen was the last gentleman in the worldto be unfeelingly worried about private difficulties and familyaffairs. Quite a mistake, I assure you, in my case.

  However, there I was, reclining, with my art-treasures about me, andwanting a quiet morning. Because I wanted a quiet morning, of courseLouis came in. It was perfectly natural that I should inquire what thedeuce he meant by making his appearance when I had not rung my bell. Iseldom swear--it is such an ungentlemanlike habit--but when Louisanswered by a grin, I think it was also perfectly natural that I shoulddamn him for grinning. At any rate, I did.

  This rigorous mode of treatment, I have observed, invariably bringspersons in the lower class of life to their senses. It brought Louisto HIS senses. He was so obliging as to leave off grinning, and informme that a Young Person was outside wanting to see me. He added (withthe odious talkativeness of servants), that her name was Fanny.

  "Who is Fanny?"

  "Lady Glyde's maid, sir."

  "What does Lady Glyde's maid want with me?"

  "A letter, sir----"

  "Take it."

  "She refuses to give it to anybody but you, sir."

  "Who sends the letter?"

  "Miss Halcombe, sir."

  The moment I heard Miss Halcombe's name I gave up. It is a habit ofmine always to give up to Miss Halcombe. I find, by experience, thatit saves noise. I gave up on this occasion. Dear Marian!

  "Let Lady Glyde's maid come in, Louis. Stop! Do her shoes creak?"

  I was obliged to ask the question. Creaking shoes invariably upset mefor the day. I was resigned to see the Young Person, but I was NOTresigned to let the Young Person's shoes upset me. There is a limiteven to my endurance.

  Louis affirmed distinctly that her shoes were to be depended upon. Iwaved my hand. He introduced her. Is it necessary to say that sheexpressed her sense of embarrassment by shutting up her mouth andbreathing through her nose? To the student of female human nature inthe lower orders, surely not.

  Let me do the girl justice. Her shoes did NOT creak. But why do YoungPersons in service all perspire at the hands? Why have they all got fatnoses and hard cheeks? And why are their faces so sadly unfinished,especially about the corners of the eyelids? I am not strong enough tothink deeply myself on any subject, but I appeal to professional men,who are. Why have we no variety in our breed of Young Persons?

  "You have a letter for me, from Miss Halcombe? Put it down on thetable, please, and don't upset anything. How is Miss Halcombe?"

  "Very well, thank you, sir."

  "And Lady Glyde?"

  I received no answer. The Young Person's face became more unfinishedthan ever, and I think she began to cry. I certainly saw somethingmoist about her eyes. Tears or perspiration? Louis (whom I have justconsulted) is inclined to think, tears. He is in her class of life,and he ought to know best. Let us say, tears.

  Except when the refining process of Art judiciously removes from themall resemblance to Nature, I distinctly object to tears. Tears arescientifically described as a Secretion. I can understand that asecretion may be healthy or unhealthy, but I cannot see the interest ofa secretion from a sentimental point of view. Perhaps my ownsecretions being all wrong together, I am a little prejudiced on thesubject. No matter. I behaved, on this occasion, with all possiblepropriety and feeling. I closed my eyes and said to Louis--

  "Endeavour to ascertain what she means."

  Louis endeavoured, and the Young Person endeavoured. They succeeded inconfusing each other to such an extent that I am bound in commongratitude to say, they really amused me. I think I shall send for themagain when I am in low spirits. I have just mentioned this idea toLouis. Strange to say, it seems to make him uncomfortable. Poor devil!

  Surely I am not expected to repeat my niece's maid's explanation of hertears, interpreted in the English of my Swiss valet? The thing ismanifestly impossible. I can give my own impressions and feelingsperhaps. Will that do as well? Please say, Yes.

  My idea is that she began by telling me (through Louis) that her masterhad dismissed her from her mistress's service. (Observe, throughout,the strange irrelevancy of the Young Person. Was it my fault that shehad lost her place?) On her dismissal, she had gone to the inn tosleep. (I don't keep the inn--why mention it to ME?) Between sixo'clock and seven Miss Halcombe had come to say good-bye, and had givenher two letters, one for me, and one for a gentleman in London. (I amnot a gentleman in London--hang the gentleman in London!) She hadcarefully put the two letters into her bosom (what have I to do withher bosom?); she had been very unhappy, when Miss Halcombe had goneaway again; she had not had the heart to put bit or drop between herlips till it was near bedtime, and then, when it was close on nineo'clock, she had thought she should like a cup of tea. (Am Iresponsible for any of these vulgar fluctuations, which begin withunhappiness and end with tea?) Just as she was WARMING THE POT (I givethe words on the authority of Louis, who says he knows what they mean,and wishes to explain, but I snub him on principle)--just as she waswarming the pot the door opened, and she was STRUCK OF A HEAP (her ownwords again, and perfectly unintelligible this time to Louis, as wellas to myself) by the appearance in the inn parlour of her ladyship theCountess. I give my niece's maid's description of my sister's titlewith a sense of the highest relish. My poor dear sister is a tiresomewoman who married a foreigner. To resume: the door opened, herladyship the Countess appeared in t
he parlour, and the Young Person wasstruck of a heap. Most remarkable!

  I must really rest a little before I can get on any farther. When Ihave reclined for a few minutes, with my eyes closed, and when Louishas refreshed my poor aching temples with a little eau-de-Cologne, Imay be able to proceed.

  Her ladyship the Countess----

  No. I am able to proceed, but not to sit up. I will recline anddictate. Louis has a horrid accent, but he knows the language, and canwrite. How very convenient!

  Her ladyship, the Countess, explained her unexpected appearance at theinn by telling Fanny that she had come to bring one or two littlemessages which Miss Halcombe in her hurry had forgotten. The YoungPerson thereupon waited anxiously to hear what the messages were, butthe Countess seemed disinclined to mention them (so like my sister'stiresome way!) until Fanny had had her tea. Her ladyship wassurprisingly kind and thoughtful about it (extremely unlike my sister),and said, "I am sure, my poor girl, you must want your tea. We can letthe messages wait till afterwards. Come, come, if nothing else willput you at your ease, I'll make the tea and have a cup with you." Ithink those were the words, as reported excitably, in my presence, bythe Young Person. At any rate, the Countess insisted on making thetea, and carried her ridiculous ostentation of humility so far as totake one cup herself, and to insist on the girl's taking the other.The girl drank the tea, and according to her own account, solemnisedthe extraordinary occasion five minutes afterwards by fainting deadaway for the first time in her life. Here again I use her own words.Louis thinks they were accompanied by an increased secretion of tears.I can't say myself. The effort of listening being quite as much as Icould manage, my eyes were closed.

  Where did I leave off? Ah, yes--she fainted after drinking a cup of teawith the Countess--a proceeding which might have interested me if I hadbeen her medical man, but being nothing of the sort I felt bored byhearing of it, nothing more. When she came to herself in half anhour's time she was on the sofa, and nobody was with her but thelandlady. The Countess, finding it too late to remain any longer atthe inn, had gone away as soon as the girl showed signs of recovering,and the landlady had been good enough to help her upstairs to bed.

  Left by herself, she had felt in her bosom (I regret the necessity ofreferring to this part of the subject a second time), and had found thetwo letters there quite safe, but strangely crumpled. She had beengiddy in the night, but had got up well enough to travel in themorning. She had put the letter addressed to that obtrusive stranger,the gentleman in London into the post, and had now delivered the otherletter into my hands as she was told. This was the plain truth, andthough she could not blame herself for any intentional neglect, she wassadly troubled in her mind, and sadly in want of a word of advice. Atthis point Louis thinks the secretions appeared again. Perhaps theydid, but it is of infinitely greater importance to mention that at thispoint also I lost my patience, opened my eyes, and interfered.

  "What is the purport of all this?" I inquired.

  My niece's irrelevant maid stared, and stood speechless.

  "Endeavour to explain," I said to my servant. "Translate me, Louis."

  Louis endeavoured and translated. In other words, he descendedimmediately into a bottomless pit of confusion, and the Young Personfollowed him down. I really don't know when I have been so amused. Ileft them at the bottom of the pit as long as they diverted me. Whenthey ceased to divert me, I exerted my intelligence, and pulled them upagain.

  It is unnecessary to say that my interference enabled me, in due courseof time, to ascertain the purport of the Young Person's remarks.

  I discovered that she was uneasy in her mind, because the train ofevents that she had just described to me had prevented her fromreceiving those supplementary messages which Miss Halcombe hadintrusted to the Countess to deliver. She was afraid the messagesmight have been of great importance to her mistress's interests. Herdread of Sir Percival had deterred her from going to Blackwater Parklate at night to inquire about them, and Miss Halcombe's own directionsto her, on no account to miss the train in the morning, had preventedher from waiting at the inn the next day. She was most anxious thatthe misfortune of her fainting-fit should not lead to the secondmisfortune of making her mistress think her neglectful, and she wouldhumbly beg to ask me whether I would advise her to write herexplanations and excuses to Miss Halcombe, requesting to receive themessages by letter, if it was not too late. I make no apologies forthis extremely prosy paragraph. I have been ordered to write it.There are people, unaccountable as it may appear, who actually takemore interest in what my niece's maid said to me on this occasion thanin what I said to my niece's maid. Amusing perversity!

  "I should feel very much obliged to you, sir, if you would kindly tellme what I had better do," remarked the Young Person.

  "Let things stop as they are," I said, adapting my language to mylistener. "I invariably let things stop as they are. Yes. Is thatall?"

  "If you think it would be a liberty in me, sir, to write, of course Iwouldn't venture to do so. But I am so very anxious to do all I can toserve my mistress faithfully----"

  People in the lower class of life never know when or how to go out of aroom. They invariably require to be helped out by their betters. Ithought it high time to help the Young Person out. I did it with twojudicious words--


  Something outside or inside this singular girl suddenly creaked. Louis,who was looking at her (which I was not), says she creaked when shecurtseyed. Curious. Was it her shoes, her stays, or her bones? Louisthinks it was her stays. Most extraordinary!