The woman in white, p.61
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       The Woman in White, p.61

           Wilkie Collins
 

  IX

  I Left the house, feeling that Mrs. Catherick had helped me a stepforward, in spite of herself. Before I had reached the turning whichled out of the square, my attention was suddenly aroused by the soundof a closing door behind me.

  I looked round, and saw an undersized man in black on the door-step ofa house, which, as well as I could judge, stood next to Mrs.Catherick's place of abode--next to it, on the side nearest to me. Theman did not hesitate a moment about the direction he should take. Headvanced rapidly towards the turning at which I had stopped. Irecognised him as the lawyer's clerk, who had preceded me in my visitto Blackwater Park, and who had tried to pick a quarrel with me, when Iasked him if I could see the house.

  I waited where I was, to ascertain whether his object was to come toclose quarters and speak on this occasion. To my surprise he passed onrapidly, without saying a word, without even looking up in my face ashe went by. This was such a complete inversion of the course ofproceeding which I had every reason to expect on his part, that mycuriosity, or rather my suspicion, was aroused, and I determined on myside to keep him cautiously in view, and to discover what the businessmight be in which he was now employed. Without caring whether he saw meor not, I walked after him. He never looked back, and he led mestraight through the streets to the railway station.

  The train was on the point of starting, and two or three passengers whowere late were clustering round the small opening through which thetickets were issued. I joined them, and distinctly heard the lawyer'sclerk demand a ticket for the Blackwater station. I satisfied myselfthat he had actually left by the train before I came away.

  There was only one interpretation that I could place on what I had justseen and heard. I had unquestionably observed the man leaving a housewhich closely adjoined Mrs. Catherick's residence. He had been probablyplaced there, by Sir Percival's directions, as a lodger, inanticipation of my inquiries leading me, sooner or later, tocommunicate with Mrs. Catherick. He had doubtless seen me go in andcome out, and he had hurried away by the first train to make his reportat Blackwater Park, to which place Sir Percival would naturally betakehimself (knowing what he evidently knew of my movements), in order tobe ready on the spot, if I returned to Hampshire. Before many dayswere over, there seemed every likelihood now that he and I might meet.

  Whatever result events might be destined to produce, I resolved topursue my own course, straight to the end in view, without stopping orturning aside for Sir Percival or for any one. The greatresponsibility which weighed on me heavily in London--theresponsibility of so guiding my slightest actions as to prevent themfrom leading accidentally to the discovery of Laura's place ofrefuge--was removed, now that I was in Hampshire. I could go and comeas I pleased at Welmingham, and if I chanced to fail in observing anynecessary precautions, the immediate results, at least, would affect noone but myself.

  When I left the station the winter evening was beginning to close in.There was little hope of continuing my inquiries after dark to anyuseful purpose in a neighbourhood that was strange to me. Accordingly,I made my way to the nearest hotel, and ordered my dinner and my bed.This done, I wrote to Marian, to tell her that I was safe and well, andthat I had fair prospects of success. I had directed her, on leavinghome, to address the first letter she wrote to me (the letter Iexpected to receive the next morning) to "The Post-Office, Welmingham,"and I now begged her to send her second day's letter to the sameaddress.

  I could easily receive it by writing to the postmaster if I happened tobe away from the town when it arrived.

  The coffee-room of the hotel, as it grew late in the evening, became aperfect solitude. I was left to reflect on what I had accomplishedthat afternoon as uninterruptedly as if the house had been my own.Before I retired to rest I had attentively thought over myextraordinary interview with Mrs. Catherick from beginning to end, andhad verified at my leisure the conclusions which I had hastily drawn inthe earlier part of the day.

  The vestry of Old Welmingham church was the starting-point from whichmy mind slowly worked its way back through all that I had heard Mrs.Catherick say, and through all I had seen Mrs. Catherick do.

  At the time when the neighbourhood of the vestry was first referred toin my presence by Mrs. Clements, I had thought it the strangest andmost unaccountable of all places for Sir Percival to select for aclandestine meeting with the clerk's wife. Influenced by thisimpression, and by no other, I had mentioned "the vestry of the church"before Mrs. Catherick on pure speculation--it represented one of theminor peculiarities of the story which occurred to me while I wasspeaking. I was prepared for her answering me confusedly or angrily,but the blank terror that seized her when I said the words took mecompletely by surprise. I had long before associated Sir Percival'sSecret with the concealment of a serious crime which Mrs. Catherickknew of, but I had gone no further than this. Now the woman's paroxysmof terror associated the crime, either directly or indirectly, with thevestry, and convinced me that she had been more than the mere witnessof it--she was also the accomplice, beyond a doubt.

  What had been the nature of the crime? Surely there was a contemptibleside to it, as well as a dangerous side, or Mrs. Catherick would nothave repeated my own words, referring to Sir Percival's rank and power,with such marked disdain as she had certainly displayed. It was acontemptible crime then and a dangerous crime, and she had shared init, and it was associated with the vestry of the church.

  The next consideration to be disposed of led me a step farther fromthis point.

  Mrs. Catherick's undisguised contempt for Sir Percival plainly extendedto his mother as well. She had referred with the bitterest sarcasm tothe great family he had descended from--"especially by the mother'sside." What did this mean?

  There appeared to be only two explanations of it. Either his mother'sbirth had been low, or his mother's reputation was damaged by somehidden flaw with which Mrs. Catherick and Sir Percival were bothprivately acquainted? I could only put the first explanation to thetest by looking at the register of her marriage, and so ascertainingher maiden name and her parentage as a preliminary to further inquiries.

  On the other hand, if the second case supposed were the true one, whathad been the flaw in her reputation? Remembering the account whichMarian had given me of Sir Percival's father and mother, and of thesuspiciously unsocial secluded life they had both led, I now askedmyself whether it might not be possible that his mother had never beenmarried at all. Here again the register might, by offering writtenevidence of the marriage, prove to me, at any rate, that this doubt hadno foundation in truth. But where was the register to be found? Atthis point I took up the conclusions which I had previously formed, andthe same mental process which had discovered the locality of theconcealed crime, now lodged the register also in the vestry of OldWelmingham church.

  These were the results of my interview with Mrs. Catherick--these werethe various considerations, all steadily converging to one point, whichdecided the course of my proceedings on the next day.

  The morning was cloudy and lowering, but no rain fell. I left my bagat the hotel to wait there till I called for it, and, after inquiringthe way, set forth on foot for Old Welmingham church.

  It was a walk of rather more than two miles, the ground rising slowlyall the way.

  On the highest point stood the church--an ancient, weather-beatenbuilding, with heavy buttresses at its sides, and a clumsy square towerin front. The vestry at the back was built out from the church, andseemed to be of the same age. Round the building at intervals appearedthe remains of the village which Mrs. Clements had described to me asher husband's place of abode in former years, and which the principalinhabitants had long since deserted for the new town. Some of theempty houses had been dismantled to their outer walls, some had beenleft to decay with time, and some were still inhabited by personsevidently of the poorest class. It was a dreary scene, and yet, in theworst aspect of its ruin, not so dreary as the modern town that I hadjust left. Here there was the brow
n, breezy sweep of surroundingfields for the eye to repose on--here the trees, leafless as they were,still varied the monotony of the prospect, and helped the mind to lookforward to summer-time and shade.

  As I moved away from the back of the church, and passed some of thedismantled cottages in search of a person who might direct me to theclerk, I saw two men saunter out after me from behind a wall. Thetallest of the two--a stout muscular man in the dress of agamekeeper--was a stranger to me. The other was one of the men who hadfollowed me in London on the day when I left Mr. Kyrle's office. I hadtaken particular notice of him at the time; and I felt sure that I wasnot mistaken in identifying the fellow on this occasion.

  Neither he nor his companion attempted to speak to me, and both keptthemselves at a respectful distance, but the motive of their presencein the neighbourhood of the church was plainly apparent. It was exactlyas I had supposed--Sir Percival was already prepared for me. My visitto Mrs. Catherick had been reported to him the evening before, andthose two men had been placed on the look-out near the church inanticipation of my appearance at Old Welmingham. If I had wanted anyfurther proof that my investigations had taken the right direction atlast, the plan now adopted for watching me would have supplied it.

  I walked on away from the church till I reached one of the inhabitedhouses, with a patch of kitchen garden attached to it on which alabourer was at work. He directed me to the clerk's abode, a cottageat some little distance off, standing by itself on the outskirts of theforsaken village. The clerk was indoors, and was just putting on hisgreatcoat. He was a cheerful, familiar, loudly-talkative old man, witha very poor opinion (as I soon discovered) of the place in which helived, and a happy sense of superiority to his neighbours in virtue ofthe great personal distinction of having once been in London.

  "It's well you came so early, sir," said the old man, when I hadmentioned the object of my visit. "I should have been away in tenminutes more. Parish business, sir, and a goodish long trot beforeit's all done for a man at my age. But, bless you, I'm strong on mylegs still! As long as a man don't give at his legs, there's a deal ofwork left in him. Don't you think so yourself, sir?"

  He took his keys down while he was talking from a hook behind thefireplace, and locked his cottage door behind us.

  "Nobody at home to keep house for me," said the clerk, with a cheerfulsense of perfect freedom from all family encumbrances. "My wife's inthe churchyard there, and my children are all married. A wretchedplace this, isn't it, sir? But the parish is a large one--every mancouldn't get through the business as I do. It's learning does it, andI've had my share, and a little more. I can talk the Queen's English(God bless the Queen!), and that's more than most of the people abouthere can do. You're from London, I suppose, sir? I've been in London amatter of five-and-twenty year ago. What's the news there now, if youplease?"

  Chattering on in this way, he led me back to the vestry. I lookedabout to see if the two spies were still in sight. They were notvisible anywhere. After having discovered my application to the clerk,they had probably concealed themselves where they could watch my nextproceedings in perfect freedom.

  The vestry door was of stout old oak, studded with strong nails, andthe clerk put his large heavy key into the lock with the air of a manwho knew that he had a difficulty to encounter, and who was not quitecertain of creditably conquering it.

  "I'm obliged to bring you this way, sir," he said, "because the doorfrom the vestry to the church is bolted on the vestry side. We mighthave got in through the church otherwise. This is a perverse lock, ifever there was one yet. It's big enough for a prison-door--it's beenhampered over and over again, and it ought to be changed for a new one.I've mentioned that to the churchwarden fifty times over at least--he'salways saying, 'I'll see about it'--and he never does see. Ah, It's asort of lost corner, this place. Not like London--is it, sir? Blessyou, we are all asleep here! We don't march with the times."

  After some twisting and turning of the key, the heavy lock yielded, andhe opened the door.

  The vestry was larger than I should have supposed it to be, judgingfrom the outside only. It was a dim, mouldy, melancholy old room, witha low, raftered ceiling. Round two sides of it, the sides nearest tothe interior of the church, ran heavy wooden presses, worm-eaten andgaping with age. Hooked to the inner corner of one of these presseshung several surplices, all bulging out at their lower ends in anirreverent-looking bundle of limp drapery. Below the surplices, on thefloor, stood three packing-cases, with the lids half off, half on, andthe straw profusely bursting out of their cracks and crevices in everydirection. Behind them, in a corner, was a litter of dusty papers, somelarge and rolled up like architects' plans, some loosely strungtogether on files like bills or letters. The room had once beenlighted by a small side window, but this had been bricked up, and alantern skylight was now substituted for it. The atmosphere of theplace was heavy and mouldy, being rendered additionally oppressive bythe closing of the door which led into the church. This door also wascomposed of solid oak, and was bolted at the top and bottom on thevestry side.

  "We might be tidier, mightn't we, sir?" said the cheerful clerk; "butwhen you're in a lost corner of a place like this, what are you to do?Why, look here now, just look at these packing-cases. There they'vebeen, for a year or more, ready to go down to London--there they are,littering the place, and there they'll stop as long as the nails holdthem together. I'll tell you what, sir, as I said before, this is notLondon. We are all asleep here. Bless you, WE don't march with thetimes!"

  "What is there in the packing-cases?" I asked.

  "Bits of old wood carvings from the pulpit, and panels from thechancel, and images from the organ-loft," said the clerk. "Portraits ofthe twelve apostles in wood, and not a whole nose among 'em. Allbroken, and worm-eaten, and crumbling to dust at the edges. As brittleas crockery, sir, and as old as the church, if not older."

  "And why were they going to London? To be repaired?"

  "That's it, sir, to be repaired, and where they were past repair, to becopied in sound wood. But, bless you, the money fell short, and therethey are, waiting for new subscriptions, and nobody to subscribe. Itwas all done a year ago, sir. Six gentlemen dined together about it,at the hotel in the new town. They made speeches, and passedresolutions, and put their names down, and printed off thousands ofprospectuses. Beautiful prospectuses, sir, all flourished over withGothic devices in red ink, saying it was a disgrace not to restore thechurch and repair the famous carvings, and so on. There are theprospectuses that couldn't be distributed, and the architect's plansand estimates, and the whole correspondence which set everybody atloggerheads and ended in a dispute, all down together in that corner,behind the packing-cases. The money dribbled in a little at first--butwhat CAN you expect out of London? There was just enough, you know, topack the broken carvings, and get the estimates, and pay the printer'sbill, and after that there wasn't a halfpenny left. There the thingsare, as I said before. We have nowhere else to put them--nobody in thenew town cares about accommodating us--we're in a lost corner--andthis is an untidy vestry--and who's to help it?--that's what I want toknow."

  My anxiety to examine the register did not dispose me to offer muchencouragement to the old man's talkativeness. I agreed with him thatnobody could help the untidiness of the vestry, and then suggested thatwe should proceed to our business without more delay.

  "Ay, ay, the marriage-register, to be sure," said the clerk, taking alittle bunch of keys from his pocket. "How far do you want to lookback, sir?"

  Marian had informed me of Sir Percival's age at the time when we hadspoken together of his marriage engagement with Laura. She had thendescribed him as being forty-five years old. Calculating back fromthis, and making due allowance for the year that had passed since I hadgained my information, I found that he must have been born in eighteenhundred and four, and that I might safely start on my search throughthe register from that date.

  "I want to begin with the year eight
een hundred and four," I said.

  "Which way after that, sir?" asked the clerk. "Forwards to our time orbackwards away from us?"

  "Backwards from eighteen hundred and four."

  He opened the door of one of the presses--the press from the side ofwhich the surplices were hanging--and produced a large volume bound ingreasy brown leather. I was struck by the insecurity of the place inwhich the register was kept. The door of the press was warped andcracked with age, and the lock was of the smallest and commonest kind.I could have forced it easily with the walking-stick I carried in myhand.

  "Is that considered a sufficiently secure place for the register?" Iinquired. "Surely a book of such importance as this ought to beprotected by a better lock, and kept carefully in an iron safe?"

  "Well, now, that's curious!" said the clerk, shutting up the bookagain, just after he had opened it, and smacking his hand cheerfully onthe cover. "Those were the very words my old master was always sayingyears and years ago, when I was a lad. 'Why isn't the register'(meaning this register here, under my hand)--'why isn't it kept in aniron safe?' If I've heard him say that once, I've heard him say it ahundred times. He was the solicitor in those days, sir, who had theappointment of vestry-clerk to this church. A fine hearty oldgentleman, and the most particular man breathing. As long as he livedhe kept a copy of this book in his office at Knowlesbury, and had itposted up regular, from time to time, to correspond with the freshentries here. You would hardly think it, but he had his own appointeddays, once or twice in every quarter, for riding over to this church onhis old white pony, to check the copy, by the register, with his owneyes and hands. 'How do I know?' (he used to say) 'how do I know thatthe register in this vestry may not be stolen or destroyed? Why isn'tit kept in an iron safe? Why can't I make other people as careful as Iam myself? Some of these days there will be an accident happen, andwhen the register's lost, then the parish will find out the value of mycopy.' He used to take his pinch of snuff after that, and look abouthim as bold as a lord. Ah! the like of him for doing business isn'teasy to find now. You may go to London and not match him, even THERE.Which year did you say, sir? Eighteen hundred and what?"

  "Eighteen hundred and four," I replied, mentally resolving to give theold man no more opportunities of talking, until my examination of theregister was over.

  The clerk put on his spectacles, and turned over the leaves of theregister, carefully wetting his finger and thumb at every third page."There it is, sir," said he, with another cheerful smack on the openvolume. "There's the year you want."

  As I was ignorant of the month in which Sir Percival was born, I beganmy backward search with the early part of the year. The register-bookwas of the old-fashioned kind, the entries being all made on blankpages in manuscript, and the divisions which separated them beingindicated by ink lines drawn across the page at the close of each entry.

  I reached the beginning of the year eighteen hundred and four withoutencountering the marriage, and then travelled back through Decembereighteen hundred and three--through November and October--through----

  No! not through September also. Under the heading of that month in theyear I found the marriage.

  I looked carefully at the entry. It was at the bottom of a page, andwas for want of room compressed into a smaller space than that occupiedby the marriages above. The marriage immediately before it wasimpressed on my attention by the circumstance of the bridegroom'sChristian name being the same as my own. The entry immediatelyfollowing it (on the top of the next page) was noticeable in anotherway from the large space it occupied, the record in this caseregistering the marriages of two brothers at the same time. Theregister of the marriage of Sir Felix Glyde was in no respectremarkable except for the narrowness of the space into which it wascompressed at the bottom of the page. The information about his wifewas the usual information given in such cases. She was described as"Cecilia Jane Elster, of Park-View Cottages, Knowlesbury, only daughterof the late Patrick Elster, Esq., formerly of Bath."

  I noted down these particulars in my pocket-book, feeling as I did soboth doubtful and disheartened about my next proceedings. The Secretwhich I had believed until this moment to be within my grasp seemed nowfarther from my reach than ever.

  What suggestions of any mystery unexplained had arisen out of my visitto the vestry? I saw no suggestions anywhere. What progress had I madetowards discovering the suspected stain on the reputation of SirPercival's mother? The one fact I had ascertained vindicated herreputation. Fresh doubts, fresh difficulties, fresh delays began toopen before me in interminable prospect. What was I to do next? Theone immediate resource left to me appeared to be this. I mightinstitute inquiries about "Miss Elster of Knowlesbury," on the chanceof advancing towards the main object of my investigation, by firstdiscovering the secret of Mrs. Catherick's contempt for Sir Percival'smother.

  "Have you found what you wanted, sir?" said the clerk, as I closed theregister-book.

  "Yes," I replied, "but I have some inquiries still to make. I supposethe clergyman who officiated here in the year eighteen hundred andthree is no longer alive?"

  "No, no, sir, he was dead three or four years before I came here, andthat was as long ago as the year twenty-seven. I got this place, sir,"persisted my talkative old friend, "through the clerk before me leavingit. They say he was driven out of house and home by his wife--andshe's living still down in the new town there. I don't know the rightsof the story myself--all I know is I got the place. Mr. Wansboroughgot it for me--the son of my old master that I was tell you of. He's afree, pleasant gentleman as ever lived--rides to the hounds, keeps hispointers and all that. He's vestry-clerk here now as his father wasbefore him."

  "Did you not tell me your former master lived at Knowlesbury?" I asked,calling to mind the long story about the precise gentleman of the oldschool with which my talkative friend had wearied me before he openedthe register-book.

  "Yes, to be sure, sir," replied the clerk. "Old Mr. Wansborough livedat Knowlesbury, and young Mr. Wansborough lives there too."

  "You said just now he was vestry-clerk, like his father before him. Iam not quite sure that I know what a vestry-clerk is."

  "Don't you indeed, sir?--and you come from London too! Every parishchurch, you know, has a vestry-clerk and a parish-clerk. Theparish-clerk is a man like me (except that I've got a deal morelearning than most of them--though I don't boast of it). Thevestry-clerk is a sort of an appointment that the lawyers get, and ifthere's any business to be done for the vestry, why there they are todo it. It's just the same in London. Every parish church there hasgot its vestry-clerk--and you may take my word for it he's sure to be alawyer."

  "Then young Mr. Wansborough is a lawyer, I suppose?"

  "Of course he is, sir! A lawyer in High Street, Knowlesbury--the oldoffices that his father had before him. The number of times I've sweptthose offices out, and seen the old gentleman come trotting in tobusiness on his white pony, looking right and left all down the streetand nodding to everybody! Bless you, he was a popular character!--he'dhave done in London!"

  "How far is it to Knowlesbury from this place?"

  "A long stretch, sir," said the clerk, with that exaggerated idea ofdistances, and that vivid perception of difficulties in getting fromplace to place, which is peculiar to all country people. "Nigh on fivemile, I can tell you!"

  It was still early in the forenoon. There was plenty of time for awalk to Knowlesbury and back again to Welmingham; and there was noperson probably in the town who was fitter to assist my inquiries aboutthe character and position of Sir Percival's mother before her marriagethan the local solicitor. Resolving to go at once to Knowlesbury onfoot, I led the way out of the vestry.

  "Thank you kindly, sir," said the clerk, as I slipped my little presentinto his hand. "Are you really going to walk all the way toKnowlesbury and back? Well! you're strong on your legs, too--and whata blessing that is, isn't it? There's the road, you can't miss it. Iwish I was going your way-
-it's pleasant to meet with gentlemen fromLondon in a lost corner like this. One hears the news. Wish yougood-morning, sir, and thank you kindly once more."

  We parted. As I left the church behind me I looked back, and therewere the two men again on the road below, with a third in theircompany, that third person being the short man in black whom I hadtraced to the railway the evening before.

  The three stood talking together for a little while, then separated.The man in black went away by himself towards Welmingham--the other tworemained together, evidently waiting to follow me as soon as I walkedon.

  I proceeded on my way without letting the fellows see that I took anyspecial notice of them. They caused me no conscious irritation offeeling at that moment--on the contrary, they rather revived my sinkinghopes. In the surprise of discovering the evidence of the marriage, Ihad forgotten the inference I had drawn on first perceiving the men inthe neighbourhood of the vestry. Their reappearance reminded me thatSir Percival had anticipated my visit to Old Welmingham church as thenext result of my interview with Mrs. Catherick--otherwise he wouldnever have placed his spies there to wait for me. Smoothly and fairlyas appearances looked in the vestry, there was something wrong beneaththem--there was something in the register-book, for aught I knew, thatI had not discovered yet.