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The Woman in White, Page 64

Wilkie Collins

  The inquest was adjourned over one day--no explanation that the eye ofthe law could recognise having been discovered thus far to account forthe mysterious circumstances of the case.

  It was arranged that more witnesses should be summoned, and that theLondon solicitor of the deceased should be invited to attend. A medicalman was also charged with the duty of reporting on the mental conditionof the servant, which appeared at present to debar him from giving anyevidence of the least importance. He could only declare, in a dazedway, that he had been ordered, on the night of the fire, to wait in thelane, and that he knew nothing else, except that the deceased wascertainly his master.

  My own impression was, that he had been first used (without any guiltyknowledge on his own part) to ascertain the fact of the clerk's absencefrom home on the previous day, and that he had been afterwards orderedto wait near the church (but out of sight of the vestry) to assist hismaster, in the event of my escaping the attack on the road, and of acollision occurring between Sir Percival and myself. It is necessaryto add, that the man's own testimony was never obtained to confirm thisview. The medical report of him declared that what little mentalfaculty he possessed was seriously shaken; nothing satisfactory wasextracted from him at the adjourned inquest, and for aught I know tothe contrary, he may never have recovered to this day.

  I returned to the hotel at Welmingham so jaded in body and mind, soweakened and depressed by all that I had gone through, as to be quiteunfit to endure the local gossip about the inquest, and to answer thetrivial questions that the talkers addressed to me in the coffee-room.I withdrew from my scanty dinner to my cheap garret-chamber to securemyself a little quiet, and to think undisturbed of Laura and Marian.

  If I had been a richer man I would have gone back to London, and wouldhave comforted myself with a sight of the two dear faces again thatnight. But I was bound to appear, if called on, at the adjournedinquest, and doubly bound to answer my bail before the magistrate atKnowlesbury. Our slender resources had suffered already, and thedoubtful future--more doubtful than ever now--made me dread decreasingour means unnecessarily by allowing myself an indulgence even at thesmall cost of a double railway journey in the carriages of the secondclass.

  The next day--the day immediately following the inquest--was left at myown disposal. I began the morning by again applying at the post-officefor my regular report from Marian. It was waiting for me as before,and it was written throughout in good spirits. I read the letterthankfully, and then set forth with my mind at ease for the day to goto Old Welmingham, and to view the scene of the fire by the morninglight.

  What changes met me when I got there!

  Through all the ways of our unintelligible world the trivial and theterrible walk hand in hand together. The irony of circumstances holdsno mortal catastrophe in respect. When I reached the church, thetrampled condition of the burial-ground was the only serious trace leftto tell of the fire and the death. A rough hoarding of boards had beenknocked up before the vestry doorway. Rude caricatures were scrawledon it already, and the village children were fighting and shouting forthe possession of the best peep-hole to see through. On the spot whereI had heard the cry for help from the burning room, on the spot wherethe panic-stricken servant had dropped on his knees, a fussy flock ofpoultry was now scrambling for the first choice of worms after therain; and on the ground at my feet, where the door and its dreadfulburden had been laid, a workman's dinner was waiting for him, tied upin a yellow basin, and his faithful cur in charge was yelping at me forcoming near the food. The old clerk, looking idly at the slowcommencement of the repairs, had only one interest that he could talkabout now--the interest of escaping all blame for his own part onaccount of the accident that had happened. One of the village women,whose white wild face I remembered the picture of terror when we pulleddown the beam, was giggling with another woman, the picture of inanity,over an old washing-tub. There is nothing serious in mortality!Solomon in all his glory was Solomon with the elements of thecontemptible lurking in every fold of his robes and in every corner ofhis palace.

  As I left the place, my thoughts turned, not for the first time, to thecomplete overthrow that all present hope of establishing Laura'sidentity had now suffered through Sir Percival's death. He wasgone--and with him the chance was gone which had been the one object ofall my labours and all my hopes.

  Could I look at my failure from no truer point of view than this?

  Suppose he had lived, would that change of circumstance have alteredthe result? Could I have made my discovery a marketable commodity, evenfor Laura's sake, after I had found out that robbery of the rights ofothers was the essence of Sir Percival's crime? Could I have offeredthe price of MY silence for HIS confession of the conspiracy, when theeffect of that silence must have been to keep the right heir from theestates, and the right owner from the name? Impossible! If Sir Percivalhad lived, the discovery, from which (In my ignorance of the truenature of the Secret) I had hoped so much, could not have been mine tosuppress or to make public, as I thought best, for the vindication ofLaura's rights. In common honesty and common honour I must have goneat once to the stranger whose birthright had been usurped--I must haverenounced the victory at the moment when it was mine by placing mydiscovery unreservedly in that stranger's hands--and I must have facedafresh all the difficulties which stood between me and the one objectof my life, exactly as I was resolved in my heart of hearts to facethem now!

  I returned to Welmingham with my mind composed, feeling more sure ofmyself and my resolution than I had felt yet.

  On my way to the hotel I passed the end of the square in which Mrs.Catherick lived. Should I go back to the house, and make anotherattempt to see her. No. That news of Sir Percival's death, which wasthe last news she ever expected to hear, must have reached her hourssince. All the proceedings at the inquest had been reported in thelocal paper that morning--there was nothing I could tell her which shedid not know already. My interest in making her speak had slackened.I remembered the furtive hatred in her face when she said, "There is nonews of Sir Percival that I don't expect--except the news of hisdeath." I remembered the stealthy interest in her eyes when theysettled on me at parting, after she had spoken those words. Someinstinct, deep in my heart, which I felt to be a true one, made theprospect of again entering her presence repulsive to me--I turned awayfrom the square, and went straight back to the hotel.

  Some hours later, while I was resting in the coffee-room, a letter wasplaced in my hands by the waiter. It was addressed to me by name, andI found on inquiry that it had been left at the bar by a woman just asit was near dusk, and just before the gas was lighted. She had saidnothing, and she had gone away again before there was time to speak toher, or even to notice who she was.

  I opened the letter. It was neither dated nor signed, and thehandwriting was palpably disguised. Before I had read the firstsentence, however, I knew who my correspondent was--Mrs. Catherick.

  The letter ran as follows--I copy it exactly, word for word:--