The woman in white, p.65
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Woman in White, p.65

           Wilkie Collins


  SIR,--You have not come back, as you said you would. No matter--I knowthe news, and I write to tell you so. Did you see anything particularin my face when you left me? I was wondering, in my own mind, whetherthe day of his downfall had come at last, and whether you were thechosen instrument for working it. You were, and you HAVE worked it.

  You were weak enough, as I have heard, to try and save his life. If youhad succeeded, I should have looked upon you as my enemy. Now you havefailed, I hold you as my friend. Your inquiries frightened him intothe vestry by night--your inquiries, without your privity and againstyour will, have served the hatred and wreaked the vengeance ofthree-and-twenty years. Thank you, sir, in spite of yourself.

  I owe something to the man who has done this. How can I pay my debt?If I was a young woman still I might say, "Come, put your arm round mywaist, and kiss me, if you like." I should have been fond enough of youeven to go that length, and you would have accepted my invitation--youwould, sir, twenty years ago! But I am an old woman now. Well! I cansatisfy your curiosity, and pay my debt in that way. You HAD a greatcuriosity to know certain private affairs of mine when you came to seeme--private affairs which all your sharpness could not look intowithout my help--private affairs which you have not discovered, evennow. You SHALL discover them--your curiosity shall be satisfied. Iwill take any trouble to please you, my estimable young friend!

  You were a little boy, I suppose, in the year twenty-seven? I was ahandsome young woman at that time, living at Old Welmingham. I had acontemptible fool for a husband. I had also the honour of beingacquainted (never mind how) with a certain gentleman (never mind whom).I shall not call him by his name. Why should I? It was not his own.He never had a name: you know that, by this time, as well as I do.

  It will be more to the purpose to tell you how he worked himself intomy good graces. I was born with the tastes of a lady, and he gratifiedthem--in other words, he admired me, and he made me presents. No womancan resist admiration and presents--especially presents, provided theyhappen to be just the thing she wants. He was sharp enough to knowthat--most men are. Naturally he wanted something in return--all mendo. And what do you think was the something? The merest trifle.Nothing but the key of the vestry, and the key of the press inside it,when my husband's back was turned. Of course he lied when I asked himwhy he wished me to get him the keys in that private way. He mighthave saved himself the trouble--I didn't believe him. But I liked mypresents, and I wanted more. So I got him the keys, without myhusband's knowledge, and I watched him, without his own knowledge.Once, twice, four times I watched him, and the fourth time I found himout.

  I was never over-scrupulous where other people's affairs wereconcerned, and I was not over-scrupulous about his adding one to themarriages in the register on his own account.

  Of course I knew it was wrong, but it did no harm to me, which was onegood reason for not making a fuss about it. And I had not got a goldwatch and chain, which was another, still better--and he had promisedme one from London only the day before, which was a third, best of all.If I had known what the law considered the crime to be, and how the lawpunished it, I should have taken proper care of myself, and haveexposed him then and there. But I knew nothing, and I longed for thegold watch. All the conditions I insisted on were that he should takeme into his confidence and tell me everything. I was as curious abouthis affairs then as you are about mine now. He granted myconditions--why, you will see presently.

  This, put in short, is what I heard from him. He did not willinglytell me all that I tell you here. I drew some of it from him bypersuasion and some of it by questions. I was determined to have allthe truth, and I believe I got it.

  He knew no more than any one else of what the state of things reallywas between his father and mother till after his mother's death. Thenhis father confessed it, and promised to do what he could for his son.He died having done nothing--not having even made a will. The son (whocan blame him?) wisely provided for himself. He came to England atonce, and took possession of the property. There was no one to suspecthim, and no one to say him nay. His father and mother had always livedas man and wife--none of the few people who were acquainted with themever supposed them to be anything else. The right person to claim theproperty (if the truth had been known) was a distant relation, who hadno idea of ever getting it, and who was away at sea when his fatherdied. He had no difficulty so far--he took possession, as a matter ofcourse. But he could not borrow money on the property as a matter ofcourse. There were two things wanted of him before he could do this.One was a certificate of his birth, and the other was a certificate ofhis parents' marriage. The certificate of his birth was easily got--hewas born abroad, and the certificate was there in due form. The othermatter was a difficulty, and that difficulty brought him to OldWelmingham.

  But for one consideration he might have gone to Knowlesbury instead.

  His mother had been living there just before she met with hisfather--living under her maiden name, the truth being that she wasreally a married woman, married in Ireland, where her husband hadill-used her, and had afterwards gone off with some other person. Igive you this fact on good authority--Sir Felix mentioned it to his sonas the reason why he had not married. You may wonder why the son,knowing that his parents had met each other at Knowlesbury, did notplay his first tricks with the register of that church, where it mighthave been fairly presumed his father and mother were married. Thereason was that the clergyman who did duty at Knowlesbury church, inthe year eighteen hundred and three (when, according to his birthcertificate, his father and mother OUGHT to have been married), wasalive still when he took possession of the property in the New Year ofeighteen hundred and twenty-seven. This awkward circumstance forcedhim to extend his inquiries to our neighbourhood. There no such dangerexisted, the former clergyman at our church having been dead for someyears.

  Old Welmingham suited his purpose as well as Knowlesbury. His fatherhad removed his mother from Knowlesbury, and had lived with her at acottage on the river, a little distance from our village. People whohad known his solitary ways when he was single did not wonder at hissolitary ways when he was supposed to be married. If he had not been ahideous creature to look at, his retired life with the lady might haveraised suspicions; but, as things were, his hiding his ugliness and hisdeformity in the strictest privacy surprised nobody. He lived in ourneighbourhood till he came in possession of the Park. After three orfour and twenty years had passed, who was to say (the clergyman beingdead) that his marriage had not been as private as the rest of hislife, and that it had not taken place at Old Welmingham church?

  So, as I told you, the son found our neighbourhood the surest place hecould choose to set things right secretly in his own interests. It maysurprise you to hear that what he really did to the marriage registerwas done on the spur of the moment--done on second thoughts.

  His first notion was only to tear the leaf out (in the right year andmonth), to destroy it privately, to go back to London, and to tell thelawyers to get him the necessary certificate of his father's marriage,innocently referring them of course to the date on the leaf that wasgone. Nobody could say his father and mother had NOT been marriedafter that, and whether, under the circumstances, they would stretch apoint or not about lending him the money (he thought they would), hehad his answer ready at all events, if a question was ever raised abouthis right to the name and the estate.

  But when he came to look privately at the register for himself, hefound at the bottom of one of the pages for the year eighteen hundredand three a blank space left, seemingly through there being no room tomake a long entry there, which was made instead at the top of the nextpage. The sight of this chance altered all his plans. It was anopportunity he had never hoped for, or thought of--and he took it--youknow how. The blank space, to have exactly tallied with his birthcertificate, ought to have occurred in the July part of the register.It occurred in the Se
ptember part instead. However, in this case, ifsuspicious questions were asked, the answer was not hard to find. Hehad only to describe himself as a seven months' child.

  I was fool enough, when he told me his story, to feel some interest andsome pity for him--which was just what he calculated on, as you willsee. I thought him hardly used. It was not his fault that his fatherand mother were not married, and it was not his father's and mother'sfault either. A more scrupulous woman than I was--a woman who had notset her heart on a gold watch and chain--would have found some excusesfor him. At all events, I held my tongue, and helped to screen what hewas about.

  He was some time getting the ink the right colour (mixing it over andover again in pots and bottles of mine), and some time afterwards inpractising the handwriting. But he succeeded in the end, and made anhonest woman of his mother after she was dead in her grave! So far, Idon't deny that he behaved honourably enough to myself. He gave me mywatch and chain, and spared no expense in buying them; both were ofsuperior workmanship, and very expensive. I have got them still--thewatch goes beautifully.

  You said the other day that Mrs. Clements had told you everything sheknew. In that case there is no need for me to write about the trumperyscandal by which I was the sufferer--the innocent sufferer, Ipositively assert. You must know as well as I do what the notion waswhich my husband took into his head when he found me and myfine-gentleman acquaintance meeting each other privately and talkingsecrets together. But what you don't know is how it ended between thatsame gentleman and myself. You shall read and see how he behaved to me.

  The first words I said to him, when I saw the turn things had taken,were, "Do me justice--clear my character of a stain on it which youknow I don't deserve. I don't want you to make a clean breast of it tomy husband--only tell him, on your word of honour as a gentleman, thathe is wrong, and that I am not to blame in the way he thinks I am. Dome that justice, at least, after all I have done for you." He flatlyrefused, in so many words. He told me plainly that it was his interestto let my husband and all my neighbours believe the falsehood--because,as long as they did so they were quite certain never to suspect thetruth. I had a spirit of my own, and I told him they should know thetruth from my lips. His reply was short, and to the point. If Ispoke, I was a lost woman, as certainly as he was a lost man.

  Yes! it had come to that. He had deceived me about the risk I ran inhelping him. He had practised on my ignorance, he had tempted me withhis gifts, he had interested me with his story--and the result of itwas that he made me his accomplice. He owned this coolly, and he endedby telling me, for the first time, what the frightful punishment reallywas for his offence, and for any one who helped him to commit it. Inthose days the law was not so tender-hearted as I hear it is now.Murderers were not the only people liable to be hanged, and womenconvicts were not treated like ladies in undeserved distress. Iconfess he frightened me--the mean impostor! the cowardly blackguard!Do you understand now how I hated him? Do you understand why I amtaking all this trouble--thankfully taking it--to gratify the curiosityof the meritorious young gentleman who hunted him down?

  Well, to go on. He was hardly fool enough to drive me to downrightdesperation. I was not the sort of woman whom it was quite safe tohunt into a corner--he knew that, and wisely quieted me with proposalsfor the future.

  I deserved some reward (he was kind enough to say) for the service Ihad done him, and some compensation (he was so obliging as to add) forwhat I had suffered. He was quite willing--generous scoundrel!--tomake me a handsome yearly allowance, payable quarterly, on twoconditions. First, I was to hold my tongue--in my own interests aswell as in his. Secondly, I was not to stir away from Welminghamwithout first letting him know, and waiting till I had obtained hispermission. In my own neighbourhood, no virtuous female friends wouldtempt me into dangerous gossiping at the tea-table. In my ownneighbourhood, he would always know where to find me. A hardcondition, that second one--but I accepted it.

  What else was I to do? I was left helpless, with the prospect of acoming incumbrance in the shape of a child. What else was I to do?Cast myself on the mercy of my runaway idiot of a husband who hadraised the scandal against me? I would have died first. Besides, theallowance WAS a handsome one. I had a better income, a better houseover my head, better carpets on my floors, than half the women whoturned up the whites of their eyes at the sight of me. The dress ofVirtue, in our parts, was cotton print. I had silk.

  So I accepted the conditions he offered me, and made the best of them,and fought my battle with my respectable neighbours on their ownground, and won it in course of time--as you saw yourself. How I kepthis Secret (and mine) through all the years that have passed from thattime to this, and whether my late daughter, Anne, ever really creptinto my confidence, and got the keeping of the Secret too--arequestions, I dare say, to which you are curious to find an answer.Well! my gratitude refuses you nothing. I will turn to a fresh pageand give you the answer immediately. But you must excuse onething--you must excuse my beginning, Mr. Hartright, with an expressionof surprise at the interest which you appear to have felt in my latedaughter. It is quite unaccountable to me. If that interest makes youanxious for any particulars of her early life, I must refer you to Mrs.Clements, who knows more of the subject than I do. Pray understandthat I do not profess to have been at all overfond of my late daughter.She was a worry to me from first to last, with the additionaldisadvantage of being always weak in the head. You like candour, and Ihope this satisfies you.

  There is no need to trouble you with many personal particulars relatingto those past times. It will be enough to say that I observed theterms of the bargain on my side, and that I enjoyed my comfortableincome in return, paid quarterly.

  Now and then I got away and changed the scene for a short time, alwaysasking leave of my lord and master first, and generally getting it. Hewas not, as I have already told you, fool enough to drive me too hard,and he could reasonably rely on my holding my tongue for my own sake,if not for his. One of my longest trips away from home was the trip Itook to Limmeridge to nurse a half-sister there, who was dying. Shewas reported to have saved money, and I thought it as well (in case anyaccident happened to stop my allowance) to look after my own interestsin that direction. As things turned out, however, my pains were allthrown away, and I got nothing, because nothing was to be had.

  I had taken Anne to the north with me, having my whims and fancies,occasionally, about my child, and getting, at such times, jealous ofMrs. Clements' influence over her. I never liked Mrs. Clements. Shewas a poor, empty-headed, spiritless woman--what you call a borndrudge--and I was now and then not averse to plaguing her by takingAnne away. Not knowing what else to do with my girl while I wasnursing in Cumberland, I put her to school at Limmeridge. The lady ofthe manor, Mrs. Fairlie (a remarkably plain-looking woman, who hadentrapped one of the handsomest men in England into marrying her),amused me wonderfully by taking a violent fancy to my girl. Theconsequence was, she learnt nothing at school, and was petted andspoilt at Limmeridge House. Among other whims and fancies which theytaught her there, they put some nonsense into her head about alwayswearing white. Hating white and liking colours myself, I determined totake the nonsense out of her head as soon as we got home again.

  Strange to say, my daughter resolutely resisted me. When she HAD got anotion once fixed in her mind she was, like other half-witted people,as obstinate as a mule in keeping it. We quarrelled finely, and Mrs.Clements, not liking to see it, I suppose, offered to take Anne away tolive in London with her. I should have said Yes, if Mrs. Clements hadnot sided with my daughter about her dressing herself in white. Butbeing determined she should NOT dress herself in white, and dislikingMrs. Clements more than ever for taking part against me, I said No, andmeant No, and stuck to No. The consequence was, my daughter remainedwith me, and the consequence of that, in its turn, was the firstserious quarrel that happened about the Secret.

  The circumstance took place long after
the time I have just beenwriting of. I had been settled for years in the new town, and wassteadily living down my bad character and slowly gaining ground amongthe respectable inhabitants. It helped me forward greatly towards thisobject to have my daughter with me. Her harmlessness and her fancy fordressing in white excited a certain amount of sympathy. I left offopposing her favourite whim on that account, because some of thesympathy was sure, in course of time, to fall to my share. Some of itdid fall. I date my getting a choice of the two best sittings to letin the church from that time, and I date the clergyman's first bow frommy getting the sittings.

  Well, being settled in this way, I received a letter one morning fromthat highly born gentleman (now deceased) in answer to one of mine,warning him, according to agreement, of my wishing to leave the townfor a little change of air and scene.

  The ruffianly side of him must have been uppermost, I suppose, when hegot my letter, for he wrote back, refusing me in such abominablyinsolent language, that I lost all command over myself, and abused him,in my daughter's presence, as "a low impostor whom I could ruin forlife if I chose to open my lips and let out his Secret." I said no moreabout him than that, being brought to my senses as soon as those wordshad escaped me by the sight of my daughter's face looking eagerly andcuriously at mine. I instantly ordered her out of the room until I hadcomposed myself again.

  My sensations were not pleasant, I can tell you, when I came to reflecton my own folly. Anne had been more than usually crazy and queer thatyear, and when I thought of the chance there might be of her repeatingmy words in the town, and mentioning HIS name in connection with them,if inquisitive people got hold of her, I was finely terrified at thepossible consequences. My worst fears for myself, my worst dread ofwhat he might do, led me no farther than this. I was quite unpreparedfor what really did happen only the next day.

  On that next day, without any warning to me to expect him, he came tothe house.

  His first words, and the tone in which he spoke them, surly as it was,showed me plainly enough that he had repented already of his insolentanswer to my application, and that he had come in a mighty bad temperto try and set matters right again before it was too late. Seeing mydaughter in the room with me (I had been afraid to let her out of mysight after what had happened the day before) he ordered her away.They neither of them liked each other, and he vented the ill-temper onHER which he was afraid to show to ME.

  "Leave us," he said, looking at her over his shoulder. She looked backover HER shoulder and waited as if she didn't care to go. "Do youhear?" he roared out, "leave the room." "Speak to me civilly," saysshe, getting red in the face. "Turn the idiot out," says he, lookingmy way. She had always had crazy notions of her own about her dignity,and that word "idiot" upset her in a moment. Before I could interfereshe stepped up to him in a fine passion. "Beg my pardon, directly,"says she, "or I'll make it the worse for you. I'll let out yourSecret. I can ruin you for life if I choose to open my lips." My ownwords!--repeated exactly from what I had said the day before--repeated,in his presence, as if they had come from herself. He sat speechless,as white as the paper I am writing on, while I pushed her out of theroom. When he recovered himself----

  No! I am too respectable a woman to mention what he said when herecovered himself. My pen is the pen of a member of the rector'scongregation, and a subscriber to the "Wednesday Lectures onJustification by Faith"--how can you expect me to employ it in writingbad language? Suppose, for yourself, the raging, swearing frenzy of thelowest ruffian in England, and let us get on together, as fast as maybe, to the way in which it all ended.

  It ended, as you probably guess by this time, in his insisting onsecuring his own safety by shutting her up.

  I tried to set things right. I told him that she had merely repeated,like a parrot, the words she had heard me say and that she knew noparticulars whatever, because I had mentioned none. I explained thatshe had affected, out of crazy spite against him, to know what shereally did NOT know--that she only wanted to threaten him and aggravatehim for speaking to her as he had just spoken--and that my unluckywords gave her just the chance of doing mischief of which she was insearch. I referred him to other queer ways of hers, and to his ownexperience of the vagaries of half-witted people--it was all to nopurpose--he would not believe me on my oath--he was absolutely certainI had betrayed the whole Secret. In short, he would hear of nothingbut shutting her up.

  Under these circumstances, I did my duty as a mother. "No pauperAsylum," I said, "I won't have her put in a pauper Asylum. A PrivateEstablishment, if you please. I have my feelings as a mother, and mycharacter to preserve in the town, and I will submit to nothing but aPrivate Establishment, of the sort which my genteel neighbours wouldchoose for afflicted relatives of their own." Those were my words. Itis gratifying to me to reflect that I did my duty. Though neveroverfond of my late daughter, I had a proper pride about her. Nopauper stain--thanks to my firmness and resolution--ever rested on MYchild.

  Having carried my point (which I did the more easily, in consequence ofthe facilities offered by private Asylums), I could not refuse to admitthat there were certain advantages gained by shutting her up. In thefirst place, she was taken excellent care of--being treated (as I tookcare to mention in the town) on the footing of a lady. In the secondplace, she was kept away from Welmingham, where she might have setpeople suspecting and inquiring, by repeating my own incautious words.

  The only drawback of putting her under restraint was a very slight one.We merely turned her empty boast about knowing the Secret into a fixeddelusion. Having first spoken in sheer crazy spitefulness against theman who had offended her, she was cunning enough to see that she hadseriously frightened him, and sharp enough afterwards to discover thatHE was concerned in shutting her up. The consequence was she flamedout into a perfect frenzy of passion against him, going to the Asylum,and the first words she said to the nurses, after they had quieted her,were, that she was put in confinement for knowing his Secret, and thatshe meant to open her lips and ruin him, when the right time came.

  She may have said the same thing to you, when you thoughtlesslyassisted her escape. She certainly said it (as I heard last summer) tothe unfortunate woman who married our sweet-tempered, namelessgentleman lately deceased. If either you, or that unlucky lady, hadquestioned my daughter closely, and had insisted on her explaining whatshe really meant, you would have found her lose all her self-importancesuddenly, and get vacant, and restless, and confused--you would havediscovered that I am writing nothing here but the plain truth. Sheknew that there was a Secret--she knew who was connected with it--sheknew who would suffer by its being known--and beyond that, whateverairs of importance she may have given herself, whatever crazy boastingshe may have indulged in with strangers, she never to her dying dayknew more.

  Have I satisfied your curiosity? I have taken pains enough to satisfyit at any rate. There is really nothing else I have to tell you aboutmyself or my daughter. My worst responsibilities, so far as she wasconcerned, were all over when she was secured in the Asylum. I had aform of letter relating to the circumstances under which she was shutup, given me to write, in answer to one Miss Halcombe, who was curiousin the matter, and who must have heard plenty of lies about me from acertain tongue well accustomed to the telling of the same. And I didwhat I could afterwards to trace my runaway daughter, and prevent herfrom doing mischief by making inquiries myself in the neighbourhoodwhere she was falsely reported to have been seen. But these, and othertrifles like them, are of little or no interest to you after what youhave heard already.

  So far, I have written in the friendliest possible spirit. But Icannot close this letter without adding a word here of seriousremonstrance and reproof, addressed to yourself.

  In the course of your personal interview with me, you audaciouslyreferred to my late daughter's parentage on the father's side, as ifthat parentage was a matter of doubt. This was highly improper andvery ungentlemanlike on your part! If we see each other
again,remember, if you please, that I will allow no liberties to be takenwith my reputation, and that the moral atmosphere of Welmingham (to usea favourite expression of my friend the rector's) must not be taintedby loose conversation of any kind. If you allow yourself to doubt thatmy husband was Anne's father, you personally insult me in the grossestmanner. If you have felt, and if you still continue to feel, anunhallowed curiosity on this subject, I recommend you, in your owninterests, to check it at once, and for ever. On this side of thegrave, Mr. Hartright, whatever may happen on the other, THAT curiositywill never be gratified.

  Perhaps, after what I have just said, you will see the necessity ofwriting me an apology. Do so, and I will willingly receive it. I will,afterwards, if your wishes point to a second interview with me, go astep farther, and receive you. My circumstances only enable me toinvite you to tea--not that they are at all altered for the worse bywhat has happened. I have always lived, as I think I told you, wellwithin my income, and I have saved enough, in the last twenty years, tomake me quite comfortable for the rest of my life. It is not myintention to leave Welmingham. There are one or two little advantageswhich I have still to gain in the town. The clergyman bows to me--asyou saw. He is married, and his wife is not quite so civil. I proposeto join the Dorcas Society, and I mean to make the clergyman's wife bowto me next.

  If you favour me with your company, pray understand that theconversation must be entirely on general subjects. Any attemptedreference to this letter will be quite useless--I am determined not toacknowledge having written it. The evidence has been destroyed in thefire, I know, but I think it desirable to err on the side of caution,nevertheless.

  On this account no names are mentioned here, nor is any signatureattached to these lines: the handwriting is disguised throughout, and Imean to deliver the letter myself, under circumstances which willprevent all fear of its being traced to my house. You can have nopossible cause to complain of these precautions, seeing that they donot affect the information I here communicate, in consideration of thespecial indulgence which you have deserved at my hands. My hour fortea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.