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The Woman in White, Page 49

Wilkie Collins



  I open a new page. I advance my narrative by one week.

  The history of the interval which I thus pass over must remainunrecorded. My heart turns faint, my mind sinks in darkness andconfusion when I think of it. This must not be, if I who write am toguide, as I ought, you who read. This must not be, if the clue thatleads through the windings of the story is to remain from end to enduntangled in my hands.

  A life suddenly changed--its whole purpose created afresh, its hopesand fears, its struggles, its interests, and its sacrifices all turnedat once and for ever into a new direction--this is the prospect whichnow opens before me, like the burst of view from a mountain's top. Ileft my narrative in the quiet shadow of Limmeridge church--I resumeit, one week later, in the stir and turmoil of a London street.

  The street is in a populous and a poor neighbourhood. The ground floorof one of the houses in it is occupied by a small newsvendor's shop,and the first floor and the second are let as furnished lodgings of thehumblest kind.

  I have taken those two floors in an assumed name. On the upper floor Ilive, with a room to work in, a room to sleep in. On the lower floor,under the same assumed name, two women live, who are described as mysisters. I get my bread by drawing and engraving on wood for the cheapperiodicals. My sisters are supposed to help me by taking in a littleneedle-work. Our poor place of abode, our humble calling, our assumedrelationship, and our assumed name, are all used alike as a means ofhiding us in the house-forest of London. We are numbered no longerwith the people whose lives are open and known. I am an obscure,unnoticed man, without patron or friend to help me. Marian Halcombe isnothing now but my eldest sister, who provides for our household wantsby the toil of her own hands. We two, in the estimation of others, areat once the dupes and the agents of a daring imposture. We aresupposed to be the accomplices of mad Anne Catherick, who claims thename, the place, and the living personality of dead Lady Glyde.

  That is our situation. That is the changed aspect in which we threemust appear, henceforth, in this narrative, for many and many a page tocome.

  In the eye of reason and of law, in the estimation of relatives andfriends, according to every received formality of civilised society,"Laura, Lady Glyde," lay buried with her mother in Limmeridgechurchyard. Torn in her own lifetime from the list of the living, thedaughter of Philip Fairlie and the wife of Percival Glyde might stillexist for her sister, might still exist for me, but to all the worldbesides she was dead. Dead to her uncle, who had renounced her; deadto the servants of the house, who had failed to recognise her; dead tothe persons in authority, who had transmitted her fortune to herhusband and her aunt; dead to my mother and my sister, who believed meto be the dupe of an adventuress and the victim of a fraud; socially,morally, legally--dead.

  And yet alive! Alive in poverty and in hiding. Alive, with the poordrawing-master to fight her battle, and to win the way back for her toher place in the world of living beings.

  Did no suspicion, excited by my own knowledge of Anne Catherick'sresemblance to her, cross my mind, when her face was first revealed tome? Not the shadow of a suspicion, from the moment when she lifted herveil by the side of the inscription which recorded her death.

  Before the sun of that day had set, before the last glimpse of the homewhich was closed against her had passed from our view, the farewellwords I spoke, when we parted at Limmeridge House, had been recalled byboth of us--repeated by me, recognised by her. "If ever the time comes,when the devotion of my whole heart and soul and strength will give youa moment's happiness, or spare you a moment's sorrow, will you try toremember the poor drawing-master who has taught you?" She, who nowremembered so little of the trouble and terror of a later time,remembered those words, and laid her poor head innocently andtrustingly on the bosom of the man who had spoken them. In thatmoment, when she called me by my name, when she said, "They have triedto make me forget everything, Walter; but I remember Marian, and Iremember YOU"--in that moment, I, who had long since given her my love,gave her my life, and thanked God that it was mine to bestow on her.Yes! the time had come. From thousands on thousands of milesaway--through forest and wilderness, where companions stronger than Ihad fallen by my side, through peril of death thrice renewed, andthrice escaped, the Hand that leads men on the dark road to the futurehad led me to meet that time. Forlorn and disowned, sorely tried andsadly changed--her beauty faded, her mind clouded--robbed of herstation in the world, of her place among living creatures--the devotionI had promised, the devotion of my whole heart and soul and strength,might be laid blamelessly now at those dear feet. In the right of hercalamity, in the right of her friendlessness, she was mine at last!Mine to support, to protect, to cherish, to restore. Mine to love andhonour as father and brother both. Mine to vindicate through all risksand all sacrifices--through the hopeless struggle against Rank andPower, through the long fight with armed deceit and fortified Success,through the waste of my reputation, through the loss of my friends,through the hazard of my life.