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The Woman in White, Page 6

Wilkie Collins


  When I rose the next morning and drew up my blind, the sea openedbefore me joyously under the broad August sunlight, and the distantcoast of Scotland fringed the horizon with its lines of melting blue.

  The view was such a surprise, and such a change to me, after my wearyLondon experience of brick and mortar landscape, that I seemed to burstinto a new life and a new set of thoughts the moment I looked at it. Aconfused sensation of having suddenly lost my familiarity with thepast, without acquiring any additional clearness of idea in referenceto the present or the future, took possession of my mind.Circumstances that were but a few days old faded back in my memory, asif they had happened months and months since. Pesca's quaintannouncement of the means by which he had procured me my presentemployment; the farewell evening I had passed with my mother andsister; even my mysterious adventure on the way home fromHampstead--had all become like events which might have occurred at someformer epoch of my existence. Although the woman in white was still inmy mind, the image of her seemed to have grown dull and faint already.

  A little before nine o'clock, I descended to the ground-floor of thehouse. The solemn man-servant of the night before met me wanderingamong the passages, and compassionately showed me the way to thebreakfast-room.

  My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed awell-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long room,with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the windowfarthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turnedtowards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by therare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude.Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yetnot fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness;her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its naturalplace, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly anddelightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance intothe room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a fewmoments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the leastembarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards meimmediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and bodyas soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me ina flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left thewindow--and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward afew steps--and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approachednearer--and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words failme to express), The lady is ugly!

  Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, moreflatly contradicted--never was the fair promise of a lovely figure morestrangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it.The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on herupper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculinemouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick,coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Herexpression--bright, frank, and intelligent--appeared, while she wassilent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions ofgentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomestwoman alive is beauty incomplete. To see such a face as this set onshoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model--to be charmed bythe modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbsbetrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelledby the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which theperfectly shaped figure ended--was to feel a sensation oddly akin tothe helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recogniseyet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream.

  "Mr. Hartright?" said the lady interrogatively, her dark face lightingup with a smile, and softening and growing womanly the moment she beganto speak. "We resigned all hope of you last night, and went to bed asusual. Accept my apologies for our apparent want of attention; andallow me to introduce myself as one of your pupils. Shall we shakehands? I suppose we must come to it sooner or later--and why notsooner?"

  These odd words of welcome were spoken in a clear, ringing, pleasantvoice. The offered hand--rather large, but beautifully formed--wasgiven to me with the easy, unaffected self-reliance of a highly-bredwoman. We sat down together at the breakfast-table in as cordial andcustomary a manner as if we had known each other for years, and had metat Limmeridge House to talk over old times by previous appointment.

  "I hope you come here good-humouredly determined to make the best ofyour position," continued the lady. "You will have to begin thismorning by putting up with no other company at breakfast than mine. Mysister is in her own room, nursing that essentially feminine malady, aslight headache; and her old governess, Mrs. Vesey, is charitablyattending on her with restorative tea. My uncle, Mr. Fairlie, neverjoins us at any of our meals: he is an invalid, and keeps bachelorstate in his own apartments. There is nobody else in the house but me.Two young ladies have been staying here, but they went away yesterday,in despair; and no wonder. All through their visit (in consequence ofMr. Fairlie's invalid condition) we produced no such convenience in thehouse as a flirtable, danceable, small-talkable creature of the malesex; and the consequence was, we did nothing but quarrel, especially atdinner-time. How can you expect four women to dine together aloneevery day, and not quarrel? We are such fools, we can't entertain eachother at table. You see I don't think much of my own sex, Mr.Hartright--which will you have, tea or coffee?--no woman does thinkmuch of her own sex, although few of them confess it as freely as I do.Dear me, you look puzzled. Why? Are you wondering what you will havefor breakfast? or are you surprised at my careless way of talking? Inthe first case, I advise you, as a friend, to have nothing to do withthat cold ham at your elbow, and to wait till the omelette comes in.In the second case, I will give you some tea to compose your spirits,and do all a woman can (which is very little, by-the-bye) to hold mytongue."

  She handed me my cup of tea, laughing gaily. Her light flow of talk,and her lively familiarity of manner with a total stranger, wereaccompanied by an unaffected naturalness and an easy inborn confidencein herself and her position, which would have secured her the respectof the most audacious man breathing. While it was impossible to beformal and reserved in her company, it was more than impossible to takethe faintest vestige of a liberty with her, even in thought. I feltthis instinctively, even while I caught the infection of her own brightgaiety of spirits--even while I did my best to answer her in her ownfrank, lively way.

  "Yes, yes," she said, when I had suggested the only explanation I couldoffer, to account for my perplexed looks, "I understand. You are such aperfect stranger in the house, that you are puzzled by my familiarreferences to the worthy inhabitants. Natural enough: I ought to havethought of it before. At any rate, I can set it right now. Suppose Ibegin with myself, so as to get done with that part of the subject assoon as possible? My name is Marian Halcombe; and I am as inaccurate aswomen usually are, in calling Mr. Fairlie my uncle, and Miss Fairlie mysister. My mother was twice married: the first time to Mr. Halcombe,my father; the second time to Mr. Fairlie, my half-sister's father.Except that we are both orphans, we are in every respect as unlike eachother as possible. My father was a poor man, and Miss Fairlie's fatherwas a rich man. I have got nothing, and she has a fortune. I am darkand ugly, and she is fair and pretty. Everybody thinks me crabbed andodd (with perfect justice); and everybody thinks her sweet-tempered andcharming (with more justice still). In short, she is an angel; and Iam---- Try some of that marmalade, Mr. Hartright, and finish thesentence, in the name of female propriety, for yourself. What am I totell you about Mr. Fairlie? Upon my honour, I hardly know. He is sureto send for you after breakfast, and you can study him for yourself. Inthe meantime, I may inform you, first, that he is the late Mr.Fairlie's younger brother; secondly, that he is a single man; andthirdly, that he is Miss Fairlie's guardian. I won't live without her,and she can't live without me; and that is how I come to be atLimmeridge House. My sister and I are honestly fond of each other;whi
ch, you will say, is perfectly unaccountable, under thecircumstances, and I quite agree with you--but so it is. You mustplease both of us, Mr. Hartright, or please neither of us: and, what isstill more trying, you will be thrown entirely upon our society. Mrs.Vesey is an excellent person, who possesses all the cardinal virtues,and counts for nothing; and Mr. Fairlie is too great an invalid to be acompanion for anybody. I don't know what is the matter with him, andthe doctors don't know what is the matter with him, and he doesn't knowhimself what is the matter with him. We all say it's on the nerves,and we none of us know what we mean when we say it. However, I adviseyou to humour his little peculiarities, when you see him to-day.Admire his collection of coins, prints, and water-colour drawings, andyou will win his heart. Upon my word, if you can be contented with aquiet country life, I don't see why you should not get on very wellhere. From breakfast to lunch, Mr. Fairlie's drawings will occupy you.After lunch, Miss Fairlie and I shoulder our sketch-books, and go outto misrepresent Nature, under your directions. Drawing is her favouritewhim, mind, not mine. Women can't draw--their minds are too flighty,and their eyes are too inattentive. No matter--my sister likes it; so Iwaste paint and spoil paper, for her sake, as composedly as any womanin England. As for the evenings, I think we can help you through them.Miss Fairlie plays delightfully. For my own poor part, I don't knowone note of music from the other; but I can match you at chess,backgammon, ecarte, and (with the inevitable female drawbacks) even atbilliards as well. What do you think of the programme? Can youreconcile yourself to our quiet, regular life? or do you mean to berestless, and secretly thirst for change and adventure, in the humdrumatmosphere of Limmeridge House?"

  She had run on thus far, in her gracefully bantering way, with no otherinterruptions on my part than the unimportant replies which politenessrequired of me. The turn of the expression, however, in her lastquestion, or rather the one chance word, "adventure," lightly as itfell from her lips, recalled my thoughts to my meeting with the womanin white, and urged me to discover the connection which the stranger'sown reference to Mrs. Fairlie informed me must once have existedbetween the nameless fugitive from the Asylum, and the former mistressof Limmeridge House.

  "Even if I were the most restless of mankind," I said, "I should be inno danger of thirsting after adventures for some time to come. Thevery night before I arrived at this house, I met with an adventure; andthe wonder and excitement of it, I can assure you, Miss Halcombe, willlast me for the whole term of my stay in Cumberland, if not for a muchlonger period."

  "You don't say so, Mr. Hartright! May I hear it?"

  "You have a claim to hear it. The chief person in the adventure was atotal stranger to me, and may perhaps be a total stranger to you; butshe certainly mentioned the name of the late Mrs. Fairlie in terms ofthe sincerest gratitude and regard."

  "Mentioned my mother's name! You interest me indescribably. Pray goon."

  I at once related the circumstances under which I had met the woman inwhite, exactly as they had occurred; and I repeated what she had saidto me about Mrs. Fairlie and Limmeridge House, word for word.

  Miss Halcombe's bright resolute eyes looked eagerly into mine, from thebeginning of the narrative to the end. Her face expressed vividinterest and astonishment, but nothing more. She was evidently as farfrom knowing of any clue to the mystery as I was myself.

  "Are you quite sure of those words referring to my mother?" she asked.

  "Quite sure," I replied. "Whoever she may be, the woman was once atschool in the village of Limmeridge, was treated with especial kindnessby Mrs. Fairlie, and, in grateful remembrance of that kindness, feelsan affectionate interest in all surviving members of the family. Sheknew that Mrs. Fairlie and her husband were both dead; and she spoke ofMiss Fairlie as if they had known each other when they were children."

  "You said, I think, that she denied belonging to this place?"

  "Yes, she told me she came from Hampshire."

  "And you entirely failed to find out her name?"


  "Very strange. I think you were quite justified, Mr. Hartright, ingiving the poor creature her liberty, for she seems to have donenothing in your presence to show herself unfit to enjoy it. But I wishyou had been a little more resolute about finding out her name. Wemust really clear up this mystery, in some way. You had better notspeak of it yet to Mr. Fairlie, or to my sister. They are both of them,I am certain, quite as ignorant of who the woman is, and of what herpast history in connection with us can be, as I am myself. But theyare also, in widely different ways, rather nervous and sensitive; andyou would only fidget one and alarm the other to no purpose. As formyself, I am all aflame with curiosity, and I devote my whole energiesto the business of discovery from this moment. When my mother camehere, after her second marriage, she certainly established the villageschool just as it exists at the present time. But the old teachers areall dead, or gone elsewhere; and no enlightenment is to be hoped forfrom that quarter. The only other alternative I can think of----"

  At this point we were interrupted by the entrance of the servant, witha message from Mr. Fairlie, intimating that he would be glad to see me,as soon as I had done breakfast.

  "Wait in the hall," said Miss Halcombe, answering the servant for me,in her quick, ready way. "Mr. Hartright will come out directly. I wasabout to say," she went on, addressing me again, "that my sister and Ihave a large collection of my mother's letters, addressed to my fatherand to hers. In the absence of any other means of getting information,I will pass the morning in looking over my mother's correspondence withMr. Fairlie. He was fond of London, and was constantly away from hiscountry home; and she was accustomed, at such times, to write andreport to him how things went on at Limmeridge. Her letters are fullof references to the school in which she took so strong an interest;and I think it more than likely that I may have discovered somethingwhen we meet again. The luncheon hour is two, Mr. Hartright. I shallhave the pleasure of introducing you to my sister by that time, and wewill occupy the afternoon in driving round the neighbourhood andshowing you all our pet points of view. Till two o'clock, then,farewell."

  She nodded to me with the lively grace, the delightful refinement offamiliarity, which characterised all that she did and all that shesaid; and disappeared by a door at the lower end of the room. As soonas she had left me, I turned my steps towards the hall, and followedthe servant, on my way, for the first time, to the presence of Mr.Fairlie.