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The Woman in White, Page 60

Wilkie Collins


  When I reached home again after my interview with Mrs. Clements, I wasstruck by the appearance of a change in Laura.

  The unvarying gentleness and patience which long misfortune had triedso cruelly and had never conquered yet, seemed now to have suddenlyfailed her. Insensible to all Marian's attempts to soothe and amuseher, she sat, with her neglected drawing pushed away on the table, hereyes resolutely cast down, her fingers twining and untwining themselvesrestlessly in her lap. Marian rose when I came in, with a silentdistress in her face, waited for a moment to see if Laura would look upat my approach, whispered to me, "Try if you can rouse her," and leftthe room.

  I sat down in the vacant chair--gently unclasped the poor, worn,restless fingers, and took both her hands in mine.

  "What are you thinking of, Laura? Tell me, my darling--try and tell mewhat it is."

  She struggled with herself, and raised her eyes to mine. "I can't feelhappy," she said, "I can't help thinking----" She stopped, bent forwarda little, and laid her head on my shoulder, with a terrible mutehelplessness that struck me to the heart.

  "Try to tell me," I repeated gently; "try to tell me why you are nothappy."

  "I am so useless--I am such a burden on both of you," she answered,with a weary, hopeless sigh. "You work and get money, Walter, andMarian helps you. Why is there nothing I can do? You will end inliking Marian better than you like me--you will, because I am sohelpless! Oh, don't, don't, don't treat me like a child!"

  I raised her head, and smoothed away the tangled hair that fell overher face, and kissed her--my poor, faded flower! my lost, afflictedsister! "You shall help us, Laura," I said, "you shall begin, mydarling, to-day."

  She looked at me with a feverish eagerness, with a breathless interest,that made me tremble for the new life of hope which I had called intobeing by those few words.

  I rose, and set her drawing materials in order, and placed them nearher again.

  "You know that I work and get money by drawing," I said. "Now you havetaken such pains, now you are so much improved, you shall begin to workand get money too. Try to finish this little sketch as nicely andprettily as you can. When it is done I will take it away with me, andthe same person will buy it who buys all that I do. You shall keepyour own earnings in your own purse, and Marian shall come to you tohelp us, as often as she comes to me. Think how useful you are going tomake yourself to both of us, and you will soon be as happy, Laura, asthe day is long."

  Her face grew eager, and brightened into a smile. In the moment whileit lasted, in the moment when she again took up the pencils that hadbeen laid aside, she almost looked like the Laura of past days.

  I had rightly interpreted the first signs of a new growth and strengthin her mind, unconsciously expressing themselves in the notice she hadtaken of the occupations which filled her sister's life and mine.Marian (when I told her what had passed) saw, as I saw, that she waslonging to assume her own little position of importance, to raiseherself in her own estimation and in ours--and, from that day, wetenderly helped the new ambition which gave promise of the hopeful,happier future, that might now not be far off. Her drawings, as shefinished them, or tried to finish them, were placed in my hands.Marian took them from me and hid them carefully, and I set aside alittle weekly tribute from my earnings, to be offered to her as theprice paid by strangers for the poor, faint, valueless sketches, ofwhich I was the only purchaser. It was hard sometimes to maintain ourinnocent deception, when she proudly brought out her purse tocontribute her share towards the expenses, and wondered with seriousinterest, whether I or she had earned the most that week. I have allthose hidden drawings in my possession still--they are my treasuresbeyond price--the dear remembrances that I love to keep alive--thefriends in past adversity that my heart will never part from, mytenderness never forget.

  Am I trifling, here, with the necessities of my task? am I lookingforward to the happier time which my narrative has not yet reached?Yes. Back again--back to the days of doubt and dread, when the spiritwithin me struggled hard for its life, in the icy stillness ofperpetual suspense. I have paused and rested for a while on my forwardcourse. It is not, perhaps, time wasted, if the friends who read thesepages have paused and rested too.

  I took the first opportunity I could find of speaking to Marian inprivate, and of communicating to her the result of the inquiries whichI had made that morning. She seemed to share the opinion on thesubject of my proposed journey to Welmingham, which Mrs. Clements hadalready expressed to me.

  "Surely, Walter," she said, "you hardly know enough yet to give you anyhope of claiming Mrs. Catherick's confidence? Is it wise to proceed tothese extremities, before you have really exhausted all safer andsimpler means of attaining your object? When you told me that SirPercival and the Count were the only two people in existence who knewthe exact date of Laura's journey, you forgot, and I forgot, that therewas a third person who must surely know it--I mean Mrs. Rubelle. Wouldit not be far easier, and far less dangerous, to insist on a confessionfrom her, than to force it from Sir Percival?"

  "It might be easier," I replied, "but we are not aware of the fullextent of Mrs. Rubelle's connivance and interest in the conspiracy, andwe are therefore not certain that the date has been impressed on hermind, as it has been assuredly impressed on the minds of Sir Percivaland the Count. It is too late, now, to waste the time on Mrs. Rubelle,which may be all-important to the discovery of the one assailable pointin Sir Percival's life. Are you thinking a little too seriously,Marian, of the risk I may run in returning to Hampshire? Are youbeginning to doubt whether Sir Percival Glyde may not in the end bemore than a match for me?"

  "He will not be more than your match," she replied decidedly, "becausehe will not be helped in resisting you by the impenetrable wickednessof the Count."

  "What has led you to that conclusion?" I replied, in some surprise.

  "My own knowledge of Sir Percival's obstinacy and impatience of theCount's control," she answered. "I believe he will insist on meetingyou single-handed--just as he insisted at first on acting for himselfat Blackwater Park. The time for suspecting the Count's interferencewill be the time when you have Sir Percival at your mercy. His owninterests will then be directly threatened, and he will act, Walter, toterrible purpose in his own defence."

  "We may deprive him of his weapons beforehand," I said. "Some of theparticulars I have heard from Mrs. Clements may yet be turned toaccount against him, and other means of strengthening the case may beat our disposal. There are passages in Mrs. Michelson's narrativewhich show that the Count found it necessary to place himself incommunication with Mr. Fairlie, and there may be circumstances whichcompromise him in that proceeding. While I am away, Marian, write toMr. Fairlie and say that you want an answer describing exactly whatpassed between the Count and himself, and informing you also of anyparticulars that may have come to his knowledge at the same time inconnection with his niece. Tell him that the statement you requestwill, sooner or later, be insisted on, if he shows any reluctance tofurnish you with it of his own accord."

  "The letter shall be written, Walter. But are you really determined togo to Welmingham?"

  "Absolutely determined. I will devote the next two days to earningwhat we want for the week to come, and on the third day I go toHampshire."

  When the third day came I was ready for my journey.

  As it was possible that I might be absent for some little time, Iarranged with Marian that we were to correspond every day--of courseaddressing each other by assumed names, for caution's sake. As long asI heard from her regularly, I should assume that nothing was wrong.But if the morning came and brought me no letter, my return to Londonwould take place, as a matter of course, by the first train. Icontrived to reconcile Laura to my departure by telling her that I wasgoing to the country to find new purchasers for her drawings and formine, and I left her occupied and happy. Marian followed me downstairsto the street door.

  "Remember what anxious hearts
you leave here," she whispered, as westood together in the passage. "Remember all the hopes that hang onyour safe return. If strange things happen to you on this journey--ifyou and Sir Percival meet----"

  "What makes you think we shall meet?" I asked.

  "I don't know--I have fears and fancies that I cannot account for.Laugh at them, Walter, if you like--but, for God's sake, keep yourtemper if you come in contact with that man!"

  "Never fear, Marian! I answer for my self-control."

  With those words we parted.

  I walked briskly to the station. There was a glow of hope in me. Therewas a growing conviction in my mind that my journey this time would notbe taken in vain. It was a fine, clear, cold morning. My nerves werefirmly strung, and I felt all the strength of my resolution stirring inme vigorously from head to foot.

  As I crossed the railway platform, and looked right and left among thepeople congregated on it, to search for any faces among them that Iknew, the doubt occurred to me whether it might not have been to myadvantage if I had adopted a disguise before setting out for Hampshire.But there was something so repellent to me in the idea--something someanly like the common herd of spies and informers in the mere act ofadopting a disguise--that I dismissed the question from considerationalmost as soon as it had risen in my mind. Even as a mere matter ofexpediency the proceeding was doubtful in the extreme. If I tried theexperiment at home the landlord of the house would sooner or laterdiscover me, and would have his suspicions aroused immediately. If Itried it away from home the same persons might see me, by the commonestaccident, with the disguise and without it, and I should in that way beinviting the notice and distrust which it was my most pressing interestto avoid. In my own character I had acted thus far--and in my owncharacter I was resolved to continue to the end.

  The train left me at Welmingham early in the afternoon.

  Is there any wilderness of sand in the deserts of Arabia, is there anyprospect of desolation among the ruins of Palestine, which can rivalthe repelling effect on the eye, and the depressing influence on themind, of an English country town in the first stage of its existence,and in the transition state of its prosperity? I asked myself thatquestion as I passed through the clean desolation, the neat ugliness,the prim torpor of the streets of Welmingham. And the tradesmen whostared after me from their lonely shops--the trees that droopedhelpless in their arid exile of unfinished crescents and squares--thedead house-carcasses that waited in vain for the vivifying humanelement to animate them with the breath of life--every creature that Isaw, every object that I passed, seemed to answer with one accord: Thedeserts of Arabia are innocent of our civilised desolation--the ruinsof Palestine are incapable of our modern gloom!

  I inquired my way to the quarter of the town in which Mrs. Cathericklived, and on reaching it found myself in a square of small houses, onestory high. There was a bare little plot of grass in the middle,protected by a cheap wire fence. An elderly nursemaid and two childrenwere standing in a corner of the enclosure, looking at a lean goattethered to the grass. Two foot-passengers were talking together onone side of the pavement before the houses, and an idle little boy wasleading an idle little dog along by a string on the other. I heard thedull tinkling of a piano at a distance, accompanied by the intermittentknocking of a hammer nearer at hand. These were all the sights andsounds of life that encountered me when I entered the square.

  I walked at once to the door of Number Thirteen--the number of Mrs.Catherick's house--and knocked, without waiting to consider beforehandhow I might best present myself when I got in. The first necessity wasto see Mrs. Catherick. I could then judge, from my own observation, ofthe safest and easiest manner of approaching the object of my visit.

  The door was opened by a melancholy middle-aged woman servant. I gaveher my card, and asked if I could see Mrs. Catherick. The card wastaken into the front parlour, and the servant returned with a messagerequesting me to mention what my business was.

  "Say, if you please, that my business relates to Mrs. Catherick'sdaughter," I replied. This was the best pretext I could think of, onthe spur of the moment, to account for my visit.

  The servant again retired to the parlour, again returned, and this timebegged me, with a look of gloomy amazement, to walk in.

  I entered a little room, with a flaring paper of the largest pattern onthe walls. Chairs, tables, cheffonier, and sofa, all gleamed with theglutinous brightness of cheap upholstery. On the largest table, in themiddle of the room, stood a smart Bible, placed exactly in the centreon a red and yellow woollen mat and at the side of the table nearest tothe window, with a little knitting-basket on her lap, and a wheezing,blear-eyed old spaniel crouched at her feet, there sat an elderlywoman, wearing a black net cap and a black silk gown, and havingslate-coloured mittens on her hands. Her iron-grey hair hung in heavybands on either side of her face--her dark eyes looked straightforward, with a hard, defiant, implacable stare. She had full squarecheeks, a long, firm chin, and thick, sensual, colourless lips. Herfigure was stout and sturdy, and her manner aggressivelyself-possessed. This was Mrs. Catherick.

  "You have come to speak to me about my daughter," she said, before Icould utter a word on my side. "Be so good as to mention what you haveto say."

  The tone of her voice was as hard, as defiant, as implacable as theexpression of her eyes. She pointed to a chair, and looked me all overattentively, from head to foot, as I sat down in it. I saw that myonly chance with this woman was to speak to her in her own tone, and tomeet her, at the outset of our interview, on her own ground.

  "You are aware," I said, "that your daughter has been lost?"

  "I am perfectly aware of it."

  "Have you felt any apprehension that the misfortune of her loss mightbe followed by the misfortune of her death?"

  "Yes. Have you come here to tell me she is dead?"

  "I have."


  She put that extraordinary question without the slightest change in hervoice, her face, or her manner. She could not have appeared moreperfectly unconcerned if I had told her of the death of the goat in theenclosure outside.

  "Why?" I repeated. "Do you ask why I come here to tell you of yourdaughter's death?"

  "Yes. What interest have you in me, or in her? How do you come to knowanything about my daughter?"

  "In this way. I met her on the night when she escaped from the Asylum,and I assisted her in reaching a place of safety."

  "You did very wrong."

  "I am sorry to hear her mother say so."

  "Her mother does say so. How do you know she is dead?"

  "I am not at liberty to say how I know it--but I DO know it."

  "Are you at liberty to say how you found out my address?"

  "Certainly. I got your address from Mrs. Clements."

  "Mrs. Clements is a foolish woman. Did she tell you to come here?"

  "She did not."

  "Then, I ask you again, why did you come?"

  As she was determined to have her answer, I gave it to her in theplainest possible form.

  "I came," I said, "because I thought Anne Catherick's mother might havesome natural interest in knowing whether she was alive or dead."

  "Just so," said Mrs. Catherick, with additional self-possession. "Hadyou no other motive?"

  I hesitated. The right answer to that question was not easy to find ata moment's notice.

  "If you have no other motive," she went on, deliberately taking off herslate-coloured mittens, and rolling them up, "I have only to thank youfor your visit, and to say that I will not detain you here any longer.Your information would be more satisfactory if you were willing toexplain how you became possessed of it. However, it justifies me, Isuppose, in going into mourning. There is not much alteration necessaryin my dress, as you see. When I have changed my mittens, I shall be allin black."

  She searched in the pocket of her gown, drew out a pair of black lacemittens, put them on with the stoniest and steadiest composure, an
dthen quietly crossed her hands in her lap.

  "I wish you good morning," she said.

  The cool contempt of her manner irritated me into directly avowing thatthe purpose of my visit had not been answered yet.

  "I HAVE another motive in coming here," I said.

  "Ah! I thought so," remarked Mrs. Catherick.

  "Your daughter's death----"

  "What did she die of?"

  "Of disease of the heart."

  "Yes. Go on."

  "Your daughter's death has been made the pretext for inflicting seriousinjury on a person who is very dear to me. Two men have beenconcerned, to my certain knowledge, in doing that wrong. One of themis Sir Percival Glyde."


  I looked attentively to see if she flinched at the sudden mention ofthat name. Not a muscle of her stirred--the hard, defiant, implacablestare in her eyes never wavered for an instant.

  "You may wonder," I went on, "how the event of your daughter's deathcan have been made the means of inflicting injury on another person."

  "No," said Mrs. Catherick; "I don't wonder at all. This appears to beyour affair. You are interested in my affairs. I am not interested inyours."

  "You may ask, then," I persisted, "why I mention the matter in yourpresence."

  "Yes, I DO ask that."

  "I mention it because I am determined to bring Sir Percival Glyde toaccount for the wickedness he has committed."

  "What have I to do with your determination?"

  "You shall hear. There are certain events in Sir Percival's past lifewhich it is necessary for my purpose to be fully acquainted with. YOUknow them--and for that reason I come to YOU."

  "What events do you mean?"

  "Events that occurred at Old Welmingham when your husband wasparish-clerk at that place, and before the time when your daughter wasborn."

  I had reached the woman at last through the barrier of impenetrablereserve that she had tried to set up between us. I saw her tempersmouldering in her eyes--as plainly as I saw her hands grow restless,then unclasp themselves, and begin mechanically smoothing her dressover her knees.

  "What do you know of those events?" she asked.

  "All that Mrs. Clements could tell me," I answered.

  There was a momentary flush on her firm square face, a momentarystillness in her restless hands, which seemed to betoken a comingoutburst of anger that might throw her off her guard. But no--shemastered the rising irritation, leaned back in her chair, crossed herarms on her broad bosom, and with a smile of grim sarcasm on her thicklips, looked at me as steadily as ever.

  "Ah! I begin to understand it all now," she said, her tamed anddisciplined anger only expressing itself in the elaborate mockery ofher tone and manner. "You have got a grudge of your own against SirPercival Glyde, and I must help you to wreak it. I must tell you this,that, and the other about Sir Percival and myself, must I? Yes, indeed?You have been prying into my private affairs. You think you have founda lost woman to deal with, who lives here on sufferance, and who willdo anything you ask for fear you may injure her in the opinions of thetown's-people. I see through you and your precious speculation--I do!and it amuses me. Ha! ha!"

  She stopped for a moment, her arms tightened over her bosom, and shelaughed to herself--a hard, harsh, angry laugh.

  "You don't know how I have lived in this place, and what I have done inthis place, Mr. What's-your-name," she went on. "I'll tell you, beforeI ring the bell and have you shown out. I came here a wronged woman--Icame here robbed of my character and determined to claim it back. I'vebeen years and years about it--and I HAVE claimed it back. I havematched the respectable people fairly and openly on their own ground.If they say anything against me now they must say it in secret--theycan't say it, they daren't say it, openly. I stand high enough in thistown to be out of your reach. THE CLERGYMAN BOWS TO ME. Aha! youdidn't bargain for that when you came here. Go to the church andinquire about me--you will find Mrs. Catherick has her sitting like therest of them, and pays the rent on the day it's due. Go to thetown-hall. There's a petition lying there--a petition of therespectable inhabitants against allowing a circus to come and performhere and corrupt our morals--yes! OUR morals. I signed that petitionthis morning. Go to the bookseller's shop. The clergyman's Wednesdayevening Lectures on Justification by Faith are publishing there bysubscription--I'm down on the list. The doctor's wife only put ashilling in the plate at our last charity sermon--I put half-a-crown.Mr. Churchwarden Soward held the plate, and bowed to me. Ten years agohe told Pigrum the chemist I ought to be whipped out of the town at thecart's tail. Is your mother alive? Has she got a better Bible on hertable than I have got on mine? Does she stand better with hertrades-people than I do with mine? Has she always lived within herincome? I have always lived within mine. Ah! there IS the clergymancoming along the square. Look, Mr. What's-your-name--look, if youplease!"

  She started up with the activity of a young woman, went to the window,waited till the clergyman passed, and bowed to him solemnly. Theclergyman ceremoniously raised his hat, and walked on. Mrs. Catherickreturned to her chair, and looked at me with a grimmer sarcasm thanever.

  "There!" she said. "What do you think of that for a woman with a lostcharacter? How does your speculation look now?"

  The singular manner in which she had chosen to assert herself, theextraordinary practical vindication of her position in the town whichshe had just offered, had so perplexed me that I listened to her insilent surprise. I was not the less resolved, however, to make anothereffort to throw her off her guard. If the woman's fierce temper oncegot beyond her control, and once flamed out on me, she might yet saythe words which would put the clue in my hands.

  "How does your speculation look now?" she repeated.

  "Exactly as it looked when I first came in," I answered. "I don'tdoubt the position you have gained in the town, and I don't wish toassail it even if I could. I came here because Sir Percival Glyde is,to my certain knowledge, your enemy, as well as mine. If I have agrudge against him, you have a grudge against him too. You may deny itif you like, you may distrust me as much as you please, you may be asangry as you will--but, of all the women in England, you, if you haveany sense of injury, are the woman who ought to help me to crush thatman."

  "Crush him for yourself," she said; "then come back here, and see whatI say to you."

  She spoke those words as she had not spoken yet, quickly, fiercely,vindictively. I had stirred in its lair the serpent-hatred of years,but only for a moment. Like a lurking reptile it leaped up at me asshe eagerly bent forward towards the place in which I was sitting.Like a lurking reptile it dropped out of sight again as she instantlyresumed her former position in the chair.

  "You won't trust me?" I said.


  "You are afraid?"

  "Do I look as if I was?"

  "You are afraid of Sir Percival Glyde?"

  "Am I?"

  Her colour was rising, and her hands were at work again smoothing hergown. I pressed the point farther and farther home, I went on withoutallowing her a moment of delay.

  "Sir Percival has a high position in the world," I said; "it would beno wonder if you were afraid of him. Sir Percival is a powerful man, abaronet, the possessor of a fine estate, the descendant of a greatfamily----"

  She amazed me beyond expression by suddenly bursting out laughing.

  "Yes," she repeated, in tones of the bitterest, steadiest contempt. "Abaronet, the possessor of a fine estate, the descendant of a greatfamily. Yes, indeed! A great family--especially by the mother's side."

  There was no time to reflect on the words that had just escaped her,there was only time to feel that they were well worth thinking over themoment I left the house.

  "I am not here to dispute with you about family questions," I said. "Iknow nothing of Sir Percival's mother----"

  "And you know as little of Sir Percival himself," she interposedsharply.

  "I advise you not to
be too sure of that," I rejoined. "I know somethings about him, and I suspect many more."

  "What do you suspect?"

  "I'll tell you what I DON'T suspect. I DON'T suspect him of beingAnne's father."

  She started to her feet, and came close up to me with a look of fury.

  "How dare you talk to me about Anne's father! How dare you say who washer father, or who wasn't!" she broke out, her face quivering, hervoice trembling with passion.

  "The secret between you and Sir Percival is not THAT secret," Ipersisted. "The mystery which darkens Sir Percival's life was not bornwith your daughter's birth, and has not died with your daughter'sdeath."

  She drew back a step. "Go!" she said, and pointed sternly to the door.

  "There was no thought of the child in your heart or in his," I went on,determined to press her back to her last defences. "There was no bondof guilty love between you and him when you held those stolen meetings,when your husband found you whispering together under the vestry of thechurch."

  Her pointing hand instantly dropped to her side, and the deep flush ofanger faded from her face while I spoke. I saw the change pass overher--I saw that hard, firm, fearless, self-possessed woman quail undera terror which her utmost resolution was not strong enough to resistwhen I said those five last words, "the vestry of the church."

  For a minute or more we stood looking at each other in silence. Ispoke first.

  "Do you still refuse to trust me?" I asked.

  She could not call the colour that had left it back to her face, butshe had steadied her voice, she had recovered the defiantself-possession of her manner when she answered me.

  "I do refuse," she said.

  "Do you still tell me to go?"

  "Yes. Go--and never come back."

  I walked to the door, waited a moment before I opened it, and turnedround to look at her again.

  "I may have news to bring you of Sir Percival which you don't expect,"I said, "and in that case I shall come back."

  "There is no news of Sir Percival that I don't expect, except----"

  She stopped, her pale face darkened, and she stole back with a quiet,stealthy, cat-like step to her chair.

  "Except the news of his death," she said, sitting down again, with themockery of a smile just hovering on her cruel lips, and the furtivelight of hatred lurking deep in her steady eyes.

  As I opened the door of the room to go out, she looked round at mequickly. The cruel smile slowly widened her lips--she eyed me, with astrange stealthy interest, from head to foot--an unutterableexpectation showed itself wickedly all over her face. Was shespeculating, in the secrecy of her own heart, on my youth and strength,on the force of my sense of injury and the limits of my self-control,and was she considering the lengths to which they might carry me, ifSir Percival and I ever chanced to meet? The bare doubt that it mightbe so drove me from her presence, and silenced even the common forms offarewell on my lips. Without a word more, on my side or on hers, Ileft the room.

  As I opened the outer door, I saw the same clergyman who had alreadypassed the house once, about to pass it again, on his way back throughthe square. I waited on the door-step to let him go by, and lookedround, as I did so, at the parlour window.

  Mrs. Catherick had heard his footsteps approaching, in the silence ofthat lonely place, and she was on her feet at the window again, waitingfor him. Not all the strength of all the terrible passions I hadroused in that woman's heart, could loosen her desperate hold on theone fragment of social consideration which years of resolute effort hadjust dragged within her grasp. There she was again, not a minute afterI had left her, placed purposely in a position which made it a matterof common courtesy on the part of the clergyman to bow to her for asecond time. He raised his hat once more. I saw the hard ghastly facebehind the window soften, and light up with gratified pride--I saw thehead with the grim black cap bend ceremoniously in return. Theclergyman had bowed to her, and in my presence, twice in one day!