The woman in white, p.59
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       The Woman in White, p.59

           Wilkie Collins
 

  VII

  Thus far the information which I had received from Mrs. Clements--thoughit established facts of which I had not previously beenaware--was of a preliminary character only.

  It was clear that the series of deceptions which had removed AnneCatherick to London, and separated her from Mrs. Clements, had beenaccomplished solely by Count Fosco and the Countess, and the questionwhether any part of the conduct of husband or wife had been of a kindto place either of them within reach of the law might be well worthy offuture consideration. But the purpose I had now in view led me inanother direction than this. The immediate object of my visit to Mrs.Clements was to make some approach at least to the discovery of SirPercival's secret, and she had said nothing as yet which advanced me onmy way to that important end. I felt the necessity of trying to awakenher recollections of other times, persons, and events than those onwhich her memory had hitherto been employed, and when I next spoke Ispoke with that object indirectly in view.

  "I wish I could be of any help to you in this sad calamity," I said."All I can do is to feel heartily for your distress. If Anne had beenyour own child, Mrs. Clements, you could have shown her no truerkindness--you could have made no readier sacrifices for her sake."

  "There's no great merit in that, sir," said Mrs. Clements simply. "Thepoor thing was as good as my own child to me. I nursed her from ababy, sir, bringing her up by hand--and a hard job it was to rear her.It wouldn't go to my heart so to lose her if I hadn't made her firstshort clothes and taught her to walk. I always said she was sent toconsole me for never having chick or child of my own. And now she'slost the old times keep coming back to my mind, and even at my age Ican't help crying about her--I can't indeed, sir!"

  I waited a little to give Mrs. Clements time to compose herself. Wasthe light that I had been looking for so long glimmering on me--faroff, as yet--in the good woman's recollections of Anne's early life?

  "Did you know Mrs. Catherick before Anne was born?" I asked.

  "Not very long, sir--not above four months. We saw a great deal ofeach other in that time, but we were never very friendly together."

  Her voice was steadier as she made that reply. Painful as many of herrecollections might be, I observed that it was unconsciously a reliefto her mind to revert to the dimly-seen troubles of the past, afterdwelling so long on the vivid sorrows of the present.

  "Were you and Mrs. Catherick neighbours?" I inquired, leading hermemory on as encouragingly as I could.

  "Yes, sir--neighbours at Old Welmingham."

  "OLD Welmingham? There are two places of that name, then, in Hampshire?"

  "Well, sir, there used to be in those days--better than three-and-twentyyears ago. They built a new town about two miles off, convenient to theriver--and Old Welmingham, which was never much more than a village, gotin time to be deserted. The new town is the place they call Welminghamnow--but the old parish church is the parish church still. It stands byitself, with the houses pulled down or gone to ruin all round it. I'velived to see sad changes. It was a pleasant, pretty place in my time."

  "Did you live there before your marriage, Mrs. Clements?"

  "No, sir--I'm a Norfolk woman. It wasn't the place my husband belongedto either. He was from Grimsby, as I told you, and he served hisapprenticeship there. But having friends down south, and hearing of anopening, he got into business at Southampton. It was in a small way,but he made enough for a plain man to retire on, and settled at OldWelmingham. I went there with him when he married me. We were neitherof us young, but we lived very happy together--happier than ourneighbour, Mr. Catherick, lived along with his wife when they came toOld Welmingham a year or two afterwards."

  "Was your husband acquainted with them before that?"

  "With Catherick, sir--not with his wife. She was a stranger to both ofus. Some gentlemen had made interest for Catherick, and he got thesituation of clerk at Welmingham church, which was the reason of hiscoming to settle in our neighbourhood. He brought his newly-marriedwife along with him, and we heard in course of time she had beenlady's-maid in a family that lived at Varneck Hall, near Southampton.Catherick had found it a hard matter to get her to marry him, inconsequence of her holding herself uncommonly high. He had asked andasked, and given the thing up at last, seeing she was so contrary aboutit. When he HAD given it up she turned contrary just the other way,and came to him of her own accord, without rhyme or reason seemingly.My poor husband always said that was the time to have given her alesson. But Catherick was too fond of her to do anything of thesort--he never checked her either before they were married or after.He was a quick man in his feelings, letting them carry him a deal toofar, now in one way and now in another, and he would have spoilt abetter wife than Mrs. Catherick if a better had married him. I don'tlike to speak ill of any one, sir, but she was a heartless woman, witha terrible will of her own--fond of foolish admiration and fineclothes, and not caring to show so much as decent outward respect toCatherick, kindly as he always treated her. My husband said he thoughtthings would turn out badly when they first came to live near us, andhis words proved true. Before they had been quite four months in ourneighbourhood there was a dreadful scandal and a miserable break-up intheir household. Both of them were in fault--I am afraid both of themwere equally in fault."

  "You mean both husband and wife?"

  "Oh, no, sir! I don't mean Catherick--he was only to be pitied. Imeant his wife and the person--"

  "And the person who caused the scandal?"

  "Yes, sir. A gentleman born and brought up, who ought to have set abetter example. You know him, sir--and my poor dear Anne knew him onlytoo well."

  "Sir Percival Glyde?"

  "Yes, Sir Percival Glyde."

  My heart beat fast--I thought I had my hand on the clue. How little Iknew then of the windings of the labyrinths which were still to misleadme!

  "Did Sir Percival live in your neighbourhood at that time?" I asked.

  "No, sir. He came among us as a stranger. His father had died notlong before in foreign parts. I remember he was in mourning. He put upat the little inn on the river (they have pulled it down since thattime), where gentlemen used to go to fish. He wasn't much noticed whenhe first came--it was a common thing enough for gentlemen to travelfrom all parts of England to fish in our river."

  "Did he make his appearance in the village before Anne was born?"

  "Yes, sir. Anne was born in the June month of eighteen hundred andtwenty-seven--and I think he came at the end of April or the beginningof May."

  "Came as a stranger to all of you? A stranger to Mrs. Catherick as wellas to the rest of the neighbours?"

  "So we thought at first, sir. But when the scandal broke out, nobodybelieved they were strangers. I remember how it happened as well as ifit was yesterday. Catherick came into our garden one night, and wokeus by throwing up a handful of gravel from the walk at our window. Iheard him beg my husband, for the Lord's sake, to come down and speakto him. They were a long time together talking in the porch. When myhusband came back upstairs he was all of a tremble. He sat down on theside of the bed and he says to me, 'Lizzie! I always told you thatwoman was a bad one--I always said she would end ill, and I'm afraid inmy own mind that the end has come already. Catherick has found a lotof lace handkerchiefs, and two fine rings, and a new gold watch andchain, hid away in his wife's drawer--things that nobody but a bornlady ought ever to have--and his wife won't say how she came by them.''Does he think she stole them?' says I. 'No,' says he, 'stealing wouldbe bad enough. But it's worse than that, she's had no chance ofstealing such things as those, and she's not a woman to take them ifshe had. They're gifts, Lizzie--there's her own initials engravedinside the watch--and Catherick has seen her talking privately, andcarrying on as no married woman should, with that gentleman inmourning, Sir Percival Glyde. Don't you say anything about it--I'vequieted Catherick for to-night. I've told him to keep his tongue tohimself, and his eyes and his ears open, and to wait a day or
two, tillhe can be quite certain.' 'I believe you are both of you wrong,' saysI. 'It's not in nature, comfortable and respectable as she is here,that Mrs. Catherick should take up with a chance stranger like SirPercival Glyde.' 'Ay, but is he a stranger to her?' says my husband.'You forget how Catherick's wife came to marry him. She went to him ofher own accord, after saying No over and over again when he asked her.There have been wicked women before her time, Lizzie, who have usedhonest men who loved them as a means of saving their characters, andI'm sorely afraid this Mrs. Catherick is as wicked as the worst ofthem. We shall see,' says my husband, 'we shall soon see.' And onlytwo days afterwards we did see."

  Mrs. Clements waited for a moment before she went on. Even in thatmoment, I began to doubt whether the clue that I thought I had foundwas really leading me to the central mystery of the labyrinth afterall. Was this common, too common, story of a man's treachery and awoman's frailty the key to a secret which had been the lifelong terrorof Sir Percival Glyde?

  "Well, sir, Catherick took my husband's advice and waited," Mrs.Clements continued. "And as I told you, he hadn't long to wait. On thesecond day he found his wife and Sir Percival whispering together quitefamiliar, close under the vestry of the church. I suppose they thoughtthe neighbourhood of the vestry was the last place in the world whereanybody would think of looking after them, but, however that may be,there they were. Sir Percival, being seemingly surprised andconfounded, defended himself in such a guilty way that poor Catherick(whose quick temper I have told you of already) fell into a kind offrenzy at his own disgrace, and struck Sir Percival. He was no match(and I am sorry to say it) for the man who had wronged him, and he wasbeaten in the cruelest manner, before the neighbours, who had come tothe place on hearing the disturbance, could run in to part them. Allthis happened towards evening, and before nightfall, when my husbandwent to Catherick's house, he was gone, nobody knew where. No livingsoul in the village ever saw him again. He knew too well, by thattime, what his wife's vile reason had been for marrying him, and hefelt his misery and disgrace, especially after what had happened to himwith Sir Percival, too keenly. The clergyman of the parish put anadvertisement in the paper begging him to come back, and saying that heshould not lose his situation or his friends. But Catherick had toomuch pride and spirit, as some people said--too much feeling, as Ithink, sir--to face his neighbours again, and try to live down thememory of his disgrace. My husband heard from him when he had leftEngland, and heard a second time, when he was settled and doing well inAmerica. He is alive there now, as far as I know, but none of us inthe old country--his wicked wife least of all--are ever likely to seteyes on him again."

  "What became of Sir Percival?" I inquired. "Did he stay in theneighbourhood?"

  "Not he, sir. The place was too hot to hold him. He was heard at highwords with Mrs. Catherick the same night when the scandal broke out,and the next morning he took himself off."

  "And Mrs. Catherick? Surely she never remained in the village among thepeople who knew of her disgrace?"

  "She did, sir. She was hard enough and heartless enough to set theopinions of all her neighbours at flat defiance. She declared toeverybody, from the clergyman downwards, that she was the victim of adreadful mistake, and that all the scandal-mongers in the place shouldnot drive her out of it, as if she was a guilty woman. All through mytime she lived at Old Welmingham, and after my time, when the new townwas building, and the respectable neighbours began moving to it, shemoved too, as if she was determined to live among them and scandalisethem to the very last. There she is now, and there she will stop, indefiance of the best of them, to her dying day."

  "But how has she lived through all these years?" I asked. "Was herhusband able and willing to help her?"

  "Both able and willing, sir," said Mrs. Clements. "In the secondletter he wrote to my good man, he said she had borne his name, andlived in his home, and, wicked as she was, she must not starve like abeggar in the street. He could afford to make her some smallallowance, and she might draw for it quarterly at a place in London."

  "Did she accept the allowance?"

  "Not a farthing of it, sir. She said she would never be beholden toCatherick for bit or drop, if she lived to be a hundred. And she haskept her word ever since. When my poor dear husband died, and left allto me, Catherick's letter was put in my possession with the otherthings, and I told her to let me know if she was ever in want. 'I'lllet all England know I'm in want,' she said, 'before I tell Catherick,or any friend of Catherick's. Take that for your answer, and give itto HIM for an answer, if he ever writes again.'"

  "Do you suppose that she had money of her own?"

  "Very little, if any, sir. It was said, and said truly, I am afraid,that her means of living came privately from Sir Percival Glyde."

  After that last reply I waited a little, to reconsider what I hadheard. If I unreservedly accepted the story so far, it was now plainthat no approach, direct or indirect, to the Secret had yet beenrevealed to me, and that the pursuit of my object had ended again inleaving me face to face with the most palpable and the mostdisheartening failure.

  But there was one point in the narrative which made me doubt thepropriety of accepting it unreservedly, and which suggested the idea ofsomething hidden below the surface.

  I could not account to myself for the circumstance of the clerk'sguilty wife voluntarily living out all her after-existence on the sceneof her disgrace. The woman's own reported statement that she had takenthis strange course as a practical assertion of her innocence did notsatisfy me. It seemed, to my mind, more natural and more probable toassume that she was not so completely a free agent in this matter asshe had herself asserted. In that case, who was the likeliest personto possess the power of compelling her to remain at Welmingham? Theperson unquestionably from whom she derived the means of living. Shehad refused assistance from her husband, she had no adequate resourcesof her own, she was a friendless, degraded woman--from what sourceshould she derive help but from the source at which report pointed--SirPercival Glyde?

  Reasoning on these assumptions, and always bearing in mind the onecertain fact to guide me, that Mrs. Catherick was in possession of theSecret, I easily understood that it was Sir Percival's interest to keepher at Welmingham, because her character in that place was certain toisolate her from all communication with female neighbours, and to allowher no opportunities of talking incautiously in moments of freeintercourse with inquisitive bosom friends. But what was the mysteryto be concealed? Not Sir Percival's infamous connection with Mrs.Catherick's disgrace, for the neighbours were the very people who knewof it--not the suspicion that he was Anne's father, for Welmingham wasthe place in which that suspicion must inevitably exist. If I acceptedthe guilty appearances described to me as unreservedly as others hadaccepted them, if I drew from them the same superficial conclusionwhich Mr. Catherick and all his neighbours had drawn, where was thesuggestion, in all that I had heard, of a dangerous secret between SirPercival and Mrs. Catherick, which had been kept hidden from that timeto this?

  And yet, in those stolen meetings, in those familiar whisperingsbetween the clerk's wife and "the gentleman in mourning," the clue todiscovery existed beyond a doubt.

  Was it possible that appearances in this case had pointed one way whilethe truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction? CouldMrs. Catherick's assertion, that she was the victim of a dreadfulmistake, by any possibility be true? Or, assuming it to be false, couldthe conclusion which associated Sir Percival with her guilt have beenfounded in some inconceivable error? Had Sir Percival, by any chance,courted the suspicion that was wrong for the sake of diverting fromhimself some other suspicion that was right? Here--if I could findit--here was the approach to the Secret, hidden deep under the surfaceof the apparently unpromising story which I had just heard.

  My next questions were now directed to the one object of ascertainingwhether Mr. Catherick had or had not arrived truly at the conviction ofhis wife's misconduct. The answ
ers I received from Mrs. Clements leftme in no doubt whatever on that point. Mrs. Catherick had, on theclearest evidence, compromised her reputation, while a single woman,with some person unknown, and had married to save her character. Ithad been positively ascertained, by calculations of time and place intowhich I need not enter particularly, that the daughter who bore herhusband's name was not her husband's child.

  The next object of inquiry, whether it was equally certain that SirPercival must have been the father of Anne, was beset by far greaterdifficulties. I was in no position to try the probabilities on oneside or on the other in this instance by any better test than the testof personal resemblance.

  "I suppose you often saw Sir Percival when he was in your village?" Isaid.

  "Yes, sir, very often," replied Mrs. Clements.

  "Did you ever observe that Anne was like him?"

  "She was not at all like him, sir."

  "Was she like her mother, then?"

  "Not like her mother either, sir. Mrs. Catherick was dark, and full inthe face."

  Not like her mother and not like her (supposed) father. I knew thatthe test by personal resemblance was not to be implicitly trusted, but,on the other hand, it was not to be altogether rejected on thataccount. Was it possible to strengthen the evidence by discovering anyconclusive facts in relation to the lives of Mrs. Catherick and SirPercival before they either of them appeared at Old Welmingham? When Iasked my next questions I put them with this view.

  "When Sir Percival first arrived in your neighbourhood," I said, "didyou hear where he had come from last?"

  "No, sir. Some said from Blackwater Park, and some said fromScotland--but nobody knew."

  "Was Mrs. Catherick living in service at Varneck Hall immediatelybefore her marriage?"

  "Yes, sir."

  "And had she been long in her place?"

  "Three or four years, sir; I am not quite certain which."

  "Did you ever hear the name of the gentleman to whom Varneck Hallbelonged at that time?"

  "Yes, sir. His name was Major Donthorne."

  "Did Mr. Catherick, or did any one else you knew, ever hear that SirPercival was a friend of Major Donthorne's, or ever see Sir Percival inthe neighbourhood of Varneck Hall?"

  "Catherick never did, sir, that I can remember--nor any one elseeither, that I know of."

  I noted down Major Donthorne's name and address, on the chance that hemight still be alive, and that it might be useful at some future timeto apply to him. Meanwhile, the impression on my mind was nowdecidedly adverse to the opinion that Sir Percival was Anne's father,and decidedly favourable to the conclusion that the secret of hisstolen interviews with Mrs. Catherick was entirely unconnected with thedisgrace which the woman had inflicted on her husband's good name. Icould think of no further inquiries which I might make to strengthenthis impression--I could only encourage Mrs. Clements to speak next ofAnne's early days, and watch for any chance-suggestion which might inthis way offer itself to me.

  "I have not heard yet," I said, "how the poor child, born in all thissin and misery, came to be trusted, Mrs. Clements, to your care."

  "There was nobody else, sir, to take the little helpless creature inhand," replied Mrs. Clements. "The wicked mother seemed to hate it--asif the poor baby was in fault!--from the day it was born. My heart washeavy for the child, and I made the offer to bring it up as tenderly asif it was my own."

  "Did Anne remain entirely under your care from that time?"

  "Not quite entirely, sir. Mrs. Catherick had her whims and fanciesabout it at times, and used now and then to lay claim to the child, asif she wanted to spite me for bringing it up. But these fits of hersnever lasted for long. Poor little Anne was always returned to me, andwas always glad to get back--though she led but a gloomy life in myhouse, having no playmates, like other children, to brighten her up.Our longest separation was when her mother took her to Limmeridge.Just at that time I lost my husband, and I felt it was as well, in thatmiserable affliction, that Anne should not be in the house. She wasbetween ten and eleven years old then, slow at her lessons, poor soul,and not so cheerful as other children--but as pretty a little girl tolook at as you would wish to see. I waited at home till her motherbrought her back, and then I made the offer to take her with me toLondon--the truth being, sir, that I could not find it in my heart tostop at Old Welmingham after my husband's death, the place was sochanged and so dismal to me."

  "And did Mrs. Catherick consent to your proposal?"

  "No, sir. She came back from the north harder and bitterer than ever.Folks did say that she had been obliged to ask Sir Percival's leave togo, to begin with; and that she only went to nurse her dying sister atLimmeridge because the poor woman was reported to have saved money--thetruth being that she hardly left enough to bury her. These things mayhave soured Mrs. Catherick likely enough, but however that may be, shewouldn't hear of my taking the child away. She seemed to likedistressing us both by parting us. All I could do was to give Anne mydirection, and to tell her privately, if she was ever in trouble, tocome to me. But years passed before she was free to come. I never sawher again, poor soul, till the night she escaped from the mad-house."

  "You know, Mrs. Clements, why Sir Percival Glyde shut her up?"

  "I only know what Anne herself told me, sir. The poor thing used toramble and wander about it sadly. She said her mother had got somesecret of Sir Percival's to keep, and had let it out to her long afterI left Hampshire--and when Sir Percival found she knew it, he shut herup. But she never could say what it was when I asked her. All shecould tell me was, that her mother might be the ruin and destruction ofSir Percival if she chose. Mrs. Catherick may have let out just asmuch as that, and no more. I'm next to certain I should have heard thewhole truth from Anne, if she had really known it as she pretended todo, and as she very likely fancied she did, poor soul."

  This idea had more than once occurred to my own mind. I had alreadytold Marian that I doubted whether Laura was really on the point ofmaking any important discovery when she and Anne Catherick weredisturbed by Count Fosco at the boat-house. It was perfectly incharacter with Anne's mental affliction that she should assume anabsolute knowledge of the secret on no better grounds than vaguesuspicion, derived from hints which her mother had incautiously letdrop in her presence. Sir Percival's guilty distrust would, in thatcase, infallibly inspire him with the false idea that Anne knew allfrom her mother, just as it had afterwards fixed in his mind theequally false suspicion that his wife knew all from Anne.

  The time was passing, the morning was wearing away. It was doubtful,if I stayed longer, whether I should hear anything more from Mrs.Clements that would be at all useful to my purpose. I had alreadydiscovered those local and family particulars, in relation to Mrs.Catherick, of which I had been in search, and I had arrived at certainconclusions, entirely new to me, which might immensely assist indirecting the course of my future proceedings. I rose to take myleave, and to thank Mrs. Clements for the friendly readiness she hadshown in affording me information.

  "I am afraid you must have thought me very inquisitive," I said. "Ihave troubled you with more questions than many people would have caredto answer."

  "You are heartily welcome, sir, to anything I can tell you," answeredMrs. Clements. She stopped and looked at me wistfully. "But I dowish," said the poor woman, "you could have told me a little more aboutAnne, sir. I thought I saw something in your face when you came inwhich looked as if you could. You can't think how hard it is not evento know whether she is living or dead. I could bear it better if I wasonly certain. You said you never expected we should see her aliveagain. Do you know, sir--do you know for truth--that it has pleasedGod to take her?"

  I was not proof against this appeal, it would have been unspeakablymean and cruel of me if I had resisted it.

  "I am afraid there is no doubt of the truth," I answered gently; "Ihave the certainty in my own mind that her troubles in this world areover."

  The poo
r woman dropped into her chair and hid her face from me. "Oh,sir," she said, "how do you know it? Who can have told you?"

  "No one has told me, Mrs. Clements. But I have reasons for feelingsure of it--reasons which I promise you shall know as soon as I cansafely explain them. I am certain she was not neglected in her lastmoments--I am certain the heart complaint from which she suffered sosadly was the true cause of her death. You shall feel as sure of thisas I do, soon--you shall know, before long, that she is buried in aquiet country churchyard--in a pretty, peaceful place, which you mighthave chosen for her yourself."

  "Dead!" said Mrs. Clements, "dead so young, and I am left to hear it! Imade her first short frocks. I taught her to walk. The first time sheever said Mother she said it to me--and now I am left and Anne istaken! Did you say, sir," said the poor woman, removing thehandkerchief from her face, and looking up at me for the first time,"did you say that she had been nicely buried? Was it the sort offuneral she might have had if she had really been my own child?"

  I assured her that it was. She seemed to take an inexplicable pride inmy answer--to find a comfort in it which no other and higherconsiderations could afford. "It would have broken my heart," she saidsimply, "if Anne had not been nicely buried--but how do you know it,sir? who told you?" I once more entreated her to wait until I couldspeak to her unreservedly. "You are sure to see me again," I said,"for I have a favour to ask when you are a little morecomposed--perhaps in a day or two."

  "Don't keep it waiting, sir, on my account," said Mrs. Clements. "Nevermind my crying if I can be of use. If you have anything on your mindto say to me, sir, please to say it now."

  "I only wish to ask you one last question," I said. "I only want toknow Mrs. Catherick's address at Welmingham."

  My request so startled Mrs. Clements, that, for the moment, even thetidings of Anne's death seemed to be driven from her mind. Her tearssuddenly ceased to flow, and she sat looking at me in blank amazement.

  "For the Lord's sake, sir!" she said, "what do you want with Mrs.Catherick!"

  "I want this, Mrs. Clements," I replied, "I want to know the secret ofthose private meetings of hers with Sir Percival Glyde. There issomething more in what you have told me of that woman's past conduct,and of that man's past relations with her, than you or any of yourneighbours ever suspected. There is a secret we none of us knowbetween those two, and I am going to Mrs. Catherick with the resolutionto find it out."

  "Think twice about it, sir!" said Mrs. Clements, rising in herearnestness and laying her hand on my arm. "She's an awful woman--youdon't know her as I do. Think twice about it."

  "I am sure your warning is kindly meant, Mrs. Clements. But I amdetermined to see the woman, whatever comes of it."

  Mrs. Clements looked me anxiously in the face.

  "I see your mind is made up, sir," she said. "I will give you theaddress."

  I wrote it down in my pocket-book and then took her hand to sayfarewell.

  "You shall hear from me soon," I said; "you shall know all that I havepromised to tell you."

  Mrs. Clements sighed and shook her head doubtfully.

  "An old woman's advice is sometimes worth taking, sir," she said."Think twice before you go to Welmingham."