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The Woman in White, Page 40

Wilkie Collins


  (Housekeeper at Blackwater Park)


  I am asked to state plainly what I know of the progress of MissHalcombe's illness and of the circumstances under which Lady Glyde leftBlackwater Park for London.

  The reason given for making this demand on me is, that my testimony iswanted in the interests of truth. As the widow of a clergyman of theChurch of England (reduced by misfortune to the necessity of acceptinga situation), I have been taught to place the claims of truth above allother considerations. I therefore comply with a request which I mightotherwise, through reluctance to connect myself with distressing familyaffairs, have hesitated to grant.

  I made no memorandum at the time, and I cannot therefore be sure to aday of the date, but I believe I am correct in stating that MissHalcombe's serious illness began during the last fortnight or ten daysin June. The breakfast hour was late at Blackwater Park--sometimes aslate as ten, never earlier than half-past nine. On the morning towhich I am now referring, Miss Halcombe (who was usually the first tocome down) did not make her appearance at the table. After the familyhad waited a quarter of an hour, the upper housemaid was sent to seeafter her, and came running out of the room dreadfully frightened. Imet the servant on the stairs, and went at once to Miss Halcombe to seewhat was the matter. The poor lady was incapable of telling me. Shewas walking about her room with a pen in her hand, quite light-headed,in a state of burning fever.

  Lady Glyde (being no longer in Sir Percival's service, I may, withoutimpropriety, mention my former mistress by her name, instead of callingher my lady) was the first to come in from her own bedroom. She was sodreadfully alarmed and distressed that she was quite useless. TheCount Fosco, and his lady, who came upstairs immediately afterwards,were both most serviceable and kind. Her ladyship assisted me to getMiss Halcombe to her bed. His lordship the Count remained in thesitting-room, and having sent for my medicine-chest, made a mixture forMiss Halcombe, and a cooling lotion to be applied to her head, so as tolose no time before the doctor came. We applied the lotion, but wecould not get her to take the mixture. Sir Percival undertook to sendfor the doctor. He despatched a groom, on horseback, for the nearestmedical man, Mr. Dawson, of Oak Lodge.

  Mr. Dawson arrived in less than an hour's time. He was a respectableelderly man, well known all round the country, and we were much alarmedwhen we found that he considered the case to be a very serious one.

  His lordship the Count affably entered into conversation with Mr.Dawson, and gave his opinions with a judicious freedom. Mr. Dawson,not over-courteously, inquired if his lordship's advice was the adviceof a doctor, and being informed that it was the advice of one who hadstudied medicine unprofessionally, replied that he was not accustomedto consult with amateur physicians. The Count, with truly Christianmeekness of temper, smiled and left the room. Before he went out hetold me that he might be found, in case he was wanted in the course ofthe day, at the boat-house on the banks of the lake. Why he shouldhave gone there, I cannot say. But he did go, remaining away the wholeday till seven o'clock, which was dinner-time. Perhaps he wished toset the example of keeping the house as quiet as possible. It wasentirely in his character to do so. He was a most considerate nobleman.

  Miss Halcombe passed a very bad night, the fever coming and going, andgetting worse towards the morning instead of better. No nurse fit towait on her being at hand in the neighbourhood, her ladyship theCountess and myself undertook the duty, relieving each other. LadyGlyde, most unwisely, insisted on sitting up with us. She was much toonervous and too delicate in health to bear the anxiety of MissHalcombe's illness calmly. She only did herself harm, without being ofthe least real assistance. A more gentle and affectionate lady neverlived--but she cried, and she was frightened, two weaknesses which madeher entirely unfit to be present in a sick-room.

  Sir Percival and the Count came in the morning to make their inquiries.

  Sir Percival (from distress, I presume, at his lady's affliction and atMiss Halcombe's illness) appeared much confused and unsettled in hismind. His lordship testified, on the contrary, a becoming composureand interest. He had his straw hat in one hand, and his book in theother, and he mentioned to Sir Percival in my hearing that he would goout again and study at the lake. "Let us keep the house quiet," hesaid. "Let us not smoke indoors, my friend, now Miss Halcombe is ill.You go your way, and I will go mine. When I study I like to be alone.Good-morning, Mrs. Michelson."

  Sir Percival was not civil enough--perhaps I ought in justice to say,not composed enough--to take leave of me with the same politeattention. The only person in the house, indeed, who treated me, atthat time or at any other, on the footing of a lady in distressedcircumstances, was the Count. He had the manners of a truenobleman--he was considerate towards every one. Even the young person(Fanny by name) who attended on Lady Glyde was not beneath his notice.When she was sent away by Sir Percival, his lordship (showing me hissweet little birds at the time) was most kindly anxious to know whathad become of her, where she was to go the day she left BlackwaterPark, and so on. It is in such little delicate attentions that theadvantages of aristocratic birth always show themselves. I make noapology for introducing these particulars--they are brought forward injustice to his lordship, whose character, I have reason to know, isviewed rather harshly in certain quarters. A nobleman who can respecta lady in distressed circumstances, and can take a fatherly interest inthe fortunes of an humble servant girl, shows principles and feelingsof too high an order to be lightly called in question. I advance noopinions--I offer facts only. My endeavour through life is to judgenot that I be not judged. One of my beloved husband's finest sermonswas on that text. I read it constantly--in my own copy of the editionprinted by subscription, in the first days of my widowhood--and atevery fresh perusal I derive an increase of spiritual benefit andedification.

  There was no improvement in Miss Halcombe, and the second night waseven worse than the first. Mr. Dawson was constant in his attendance.The practical duties of nursing were still divided between the Countessand myself, Lady Glyde persisting in sitting up with us, though we bothentreated her to take some rest. "My place is by Marian's bedside," washer only answer. "Whether I am ill, or well, nothing will induce me tolose sight of her."

  Towards midday I went downstairs to attend to some of my regularduties. An hour afterwards, on my way back to the sick-room, I saw theCount (who had gone out again early, for the third time) entering thehall, to all appearance in the highest good spirits. Sir Percival, atthe same moment, put his head out of the library door, and addressedhis noble friend, with extreme eagerness, in these words--

  "Have you found her?"

  His lordship's large face became dimpled all over with placid smiles,but he made no reply in words. At the same time Sir Percival turnedhis head, observed that I was approaching the stairs, and looked at mein the most rudely angry manner possible.

  "Come in here and tell me about it," he said to the Count. "Wheneverthere are women in a house they're always sure to be going up or downstairs."

  "My dear Percival," observed his lordship kindly, "Mrs. Michelson hasduties. Pray recognise her admirable performance of them as sincerelyas I do! How is the sufferer, Mrs. Michelson?"

  "No better, my lord, I regret to say."

  "Sad--most sad!" remarked the Count. "You look fatigued, Mrs.Michelson. It is certainly time you and my wife had some help innursing. I think I may be the means of offering you that help.Circumstances have happened which will oblige Madame Fosco to travel toLondon either to-morrow or the day after. She will go away in themorning and return at night, and she will bring back with her, torelieve you, a nurse of excellent conduct and capacity, who is nowdisengaged. The woman is known to my wife as a person to be trusted.Before she comes here say nothing about her, if you please, to thedoctor, because he will look with an evil eye on any nurse of myproviding. When she appears in this house she will speak for herself,a
nd Mr. Dawson will be obliged to acknowledge that there is no excusefor not employing her. Lady Glyde will say the same. Pray present mybest respects and sympathies to Lady Glyde."

  I expressed my grateful acknowledgments for his lordship's kindconsideration. Sir Percival cut them short by calling to his noblefriend (using, I regret to say, a profane expression) to come into thelibrary, and not to keep him waiting there any longer.

  I proceeded upstairs. We are poor erring creatures, and however wellestablished a woman's principles may be she cannot always keep on herguard against the temptation to exercise an idle curiosity. I amashamed to say that an idle curiosity, on this occasion, got the betterof my principles, and made me unduly inquisitive about the questionwhich Sir Percival had addressed to his noble friend at the librarydoor. Who was the Count expected to find in the course of his studiousmorning rambles at Blackwater Park? A woman, it was to be presumed,from the terms of Sir Percival's inquiry. I did not suspect the Countof any impropriety--I knew his moral character too well. The onlyquestion I asked myself was--Had he found her?

  To resume. The night passed as usual without producing any change forthe better in Miss Halcombe. The next day she seemed to improve alittle. The day after that her ladyship the Countess, withoutmentioning the object of her journey to any one in my hearing,proceeded by the morning train to London--her noble husband, with hiscustomary attention, accompanying her to the station.

  I was now left in sole charge of Miss Halcombe, with every apparentchance, in consequence of her sister's resolution not to leave thebedside, of having Lady Glyde herself to nurse next.

  The only circumstance of any importance that happened in the course ofthe day was the occurrence of another unpleasant meeting between thedoctor and the Count.

  His lordship, on returning from the station, stepped up into MissHalcombe's sitting-room to make his inquiries. I went out from thebedroom to speak to him, Mr. Dawson and Lady Glyde being both with thepatient at the time. The Count asked me many questions about thetreatment and the symptoms. I informed him that the treatment was ofthe kind described as "saline," and that the symptoms, between theattacks of fever, were certainly those of increasing weakness andexhaustion. Just as I was mentioning these last particulars, Mr.Dawson came out from the bedroom.

  "Good-morning, sir," said his lordship, stepping forward in the mosturbane manner, and stopping the doctor, with a high-bred resolutionimpossible to resist, "I greatly fear you find no improvement in thesymptoms to-day?"

  "I find decided improvement," answered Mr. Dawson.

  "You still persist in your lowering treatment of this case of fever?"continued his lordship.

  "I persist in the treatment which is justified by my own professionalexperience," said Mr. Dawson.

  "Permit me to put one question to you on the vast subject ofprofessional experience," observed the Count. "I presume to offer nomore advice--I only presume to make an inquiry. You live at somedistance, sir, from the gigantic centres of scientific activity--Londonand Paris. Have you ever heard of the wasting effects of fever beingreasonably and intelligibly repaired by fortifying the exhaustedpatient with brandy, wine, ammonia, and quinine? Has that new heresy ofthe highest medical authorities ever reached your ears--Yes or No?"

  "When a professional man puts that question to me I shall be glad toanswer him," said the doctor, opening the door to go out. "You are nota professional man, and I beg to decline answering you."

  Buffeted in this inexcusably uncivil way on one cheek, the Count, likea practical Christian, immediately turned the other, and said, in thesweetest manner, "Good-morning, Mr. Dawson."

  If my late beloved husband had been so fortunate as to know hislordship, how highly he and the Count would have esteemed each other!

  Her ladyship the Countess returned by the last train that night, andbrought with her the nurse from London. I was instructed that thisperson's name was Mrs. Rubelle. Her personal appearance, and herimperfect English when she spoke, informed me that she was a foreigner.

  I have always cultivated a feeling of humane indulgence for foreigners.They do not possess our blessings and advantages, and they are, for themost part, brought up in the blind errors of Popery. It has alsoalways been my precept and practice, as it was my dear husband'sprecept and practice before me (see Sermon XXIX. in the Collection bythe late Rev. Samuel Michelson, M.A.), to do as I would be done by. Onboth these accounts I will not say that Mrs. Rubelle struck me as beinga small, wiry, sly person, of fifty or thereabouts, with a dark brownor Creole complexion and watchful light grey eyes. Nor will I mention,for the reasons just alleged, that I thought her dress, though it wasof the plainest black silk, inappropriately costly in texture andunnecessarily refined in trimming and finish, for a person in herposition in life. I should not like these things to be said of me, andtherefore it is my duty not to say them of Mrs. Rubelle. I will merelymention that her manners were, not perhaps unpleasantly reserved, butonly remarkably quiet and retiring--that she looked about her a greatdeal, and said very little, which might have arisen quite as much fromher own modesty as from distrust of her position at Blackwater Park;and that she declined to partake of supper (which was curious perhaps,but surely not suspicious?), although I myself politely invited her tothat meal in my own room.

  At the Count's particular suggestion (so like his lordship's forgivingkindness!), it was arranged that Mrs. Rubelle should not enter on herduties until she had been seen and approved by the doctor the nextmorning. I sat up that night. Lady Glyde appeared to be veryunwilling that the new nurse should be employed to attend on MissHalcombe. Such want of liberality towards a foreigner on the part of alady of her education and refinement surprised me. I ventured to say,"My lady, we must all remember not to be hasty in our judgments on ourinferiors--especially when they come from foreign parts." Lady Glydedid not appear to attend to me. She only sighed, and kissed MissHalcombe's hand as it lay on the counterpane. Scarcely a judiciousproceeding in a sick-room, with a patient whom it was highly desirablenot to excite. But poor Lady Glyde knew nothing of nursing--nothingwhatever, I am sorry to say.

  The next morning Mrs. Rubelle was sent to the sitting-room, to beapproved by the doctor on his way through to the bedroom.

  I left Lady Glyde with Miss Halcombe, who was slumbering at the time,and joined Mrs. Rubelle, with the object of kindly preventing her fromfeeling strange and nervous in consequence of the uncertainty of hersituation. She did not appear to see it in that light. She seemed tobe quite satisfied, beforehand, that Mr. Dawson would approve of her,and she sat calmly looking out of window, with every appearance ofenjoying the country air. Some people might have thought such conductsuggestive of brazen assurance. I beg to say that I more liberally setit down to extraordinary strength of mind.

  Instead of the doctor coming up to us, I was sent for to see thedoctor. I thought this change of affairs rather odd, but Mrs. Rubelledid not appear to be affected by it in any way. I left her stillcalmly looking out of the window, and still silently enjoying thecountry air.

  Mr. Dawson was waiting for me by himself in the breakfast-room.

  "About this new nurse, Mrs. Michelson," said the doctor.

  "Yes, sir?"

  "I find that she has been brought here from London by the wife of thatfat old foreigner, who is always trying to interfere with me. Mrs.Michelson, the fat old foreigner is a quack."

  This was very rude. I was naturally shocked at it.

  "Are you aware, sir," I said, "that you are talking of a nobleman?"

  "Pooh! He isn't the first quack with a handle to his name. They're allCounts--hang 'em!"

  "He would not be a friend of Sir Percival Glyde's, sir, if he was not amember of the highest aristocracy--excepting the English aristocracy,of course."

  "Very well, Mrs. Michelson, call him what you like, and let us get backto the nurse. I have been objecting to her already."

  "Without having seen her, sir?"

  "Yes, without having
seen her. She may be the best nurse in existence,but she is not a nurse of my providing. I have put that objection toSir Percival, as the master of the house. He doesn't support me. Hesays a nurse of my providing would have been a stranger from Londonalso, and he thinks the woman ought to have a trial, after his wife'saunt has taken the trouble to fetch her from London. There is somejustice in that, and I can't decently say No. But I have made it acondition that she is to go at once, if I find reason to complain ofher. This proposal being one which I have some right to make, asmedical attendant, Sir Percival has consented to it. Now, Mrs.Michelson, I know I can depend on you, and I want you to keep a sharpeye on the nurse for the first day or two, and to see that she givesMiss Halcombe no medicines but mine. This foreign nobleman of yours isdying to try his quack remedies (mesmerism included) on my patient, anda nurse who is brought here by his wife may be a little too willing tohelp him. You understand? Very well, then, we may go upstairs. Is thenurse there? I'll say a word to her before she goes into the sick-room."

  We found Mrs. Rubelle still enjoying herself at the window. When Iintroduced her to Mr. Dawson, neither the doctor's doubtful looks northe doctor's searching questions appeared to confuse her in the least.She answered him quietly in her broken English, and though he triedhard to puzzle her, she never betrayed the least ignorance, so far,about any part of her duties. This was doubtless the result ofstrength of mind, as I said before, and not of brazen assurance, by anymeans.

  We all went into the bedroom.

  Mrs. Rubelle looked very attentively at the patient, curtseyed to LadyGlyde, set one or two little things right in the room, and sat downquietly in a corner to wait until she was wanted. Her ladyship seemedstartled and annoyed by the appearance of the strange nurse. No onesaid anything, for fear of rousing Miss Halcombe, who was stillslumbering, except the doctor, who whispered a question about thenight. I softly answered, "Much as usual," and then Mr. Dawson wentout. Lady Glyde followed him, I suppose to speak about Mrs. Rubelle.For my own part, I had made up my mind already that this quiet foreignperson would keep her situation. She had all her wits about her, andshe certainly understood her business. So far, I could hardly havedone much better by the bedside myself.

  Remembering Mr. Dawson's caution to me, I subjected Mrs. Rubelle to asevere scrutiny at certain intervals for the next three or four days.I over and over again entered the room softly and suddenly, but I neverfound her out in any suspicious action. Lady Glyde, who watched her asattentively as I did, discovered nothing either. I never detected asign of the medicine bottles being tampered with, I never saw Mrs.Rubelle say a word to the Count, or the Count to her. She managed MissHalcombe with unquestionable care and discretion. The poor ladywavered backwards and forwards between a sort of sleepy exhaustion,which was half faintness and half slumbering, and attacks of feverwhich brought with them more or less of wandering in her mind. Mrs.Rubelle never disturbed her in the first case, and never startled herin the second, by appearing too suddenly at the bedside in thecharacter of a stranger. Honour to whom honour is due (whether foreignor English)--and I give her privilege impartially to Mrs. Rubelle. Shewas remarkably uncommunicative about herself, and she was too quietlyindependent of all advice from experienced persons who understood theduties of a sick-room--but with these drawbacks, she was a good nurse,and she never gave either Lady Glyde or Mr. Dawson the shadow of areason for complaining of her.

  The next circumstance of importance that occurred in the house was thetemporary absence of the Count, occasioned by business which took himto London. He went away (I think) on the morning of the fourth dayafter the arrival of Mrs. Rubelle, and at parting he spoke to LadyGlyde very seriously, in my presence, on the subject of Miss Halcombe.

  "Trust Mr. Dawson," he said, "for a few days more, if you please. Butif there is not some change for the better in that time, send foradvice from London, which this mule of a doctor must accept in spite ofhimself. Offend Mr. Dawson, and save Miss Halcombe. I say thisseriously, on my word of honour and from the bottom of my heart."

  His lordship spoke with extreme feeling and kindness. But poor LadyGlyde's nerves were so completely broken down that she seemed quitefrightened at him. She trembled from head to foot, and allowed him totake his leave without uttering a word on her side. She turned to mewhen he had gone, and said, "Oh, Mrs. Michelson, I am heartbroken aboutmy sister, and I have no friend to advise me! Do you think Mr. Dawsonis wrong? He told me himself this morning that there was no fear, andno need to send for another doctor."

  "With all respect to Mr. Dawson," I answered, "in your ladyship's placeI should remember the Count's advice."

  Lady Glyde turned away from me suddenly, with an appearance of despair,for which I was quite unable to account.

  "HIS advice!" she said to herself. "God help us--HIS advice!"