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The Woman in White, Page 68

Wilkie Collins


  Four months elapsed. April came--the month of spring--the month ofchange.

  The course of time had flowed through the interval since the winterpeacefully and happily in our new home. I had turned my long leisureto good account, had largely increased my sources of employment, andhad placed our means of subsistence on surer grounds. Freed from thesuspense and the anxiety which had tried her so sorely and hung overher so long, Marian's spirits rallied, and her natural energy ofcharacter began to assert itself again, with something, if not all, ofthe freedom and the vigour of former times.

  More pliable under change than her sister, Laura showed more plainlythe progress made by the healing influences of her new life. The wornand wasted look which had prematurely aged her face was fast leavingit, and the expression which had been the first of its charms in pastdays was the first of its beauties that now returned. My closestobservations of her detected but one serious result of the conspiracywhich had once threatened her reason and her life. Her memory ofevents, from the period of her leaving Blackwater Park to the period ofour meeting in the burial-ground of Limmeridge Church, was lost beyondall hope of recovery. At the slightest reference to that time shechanged and trembled still, her words became confused, her memorywandered and lost itself as helplessly as ever. Here, and here only,the traces of the past lay deep--too deep to be effaced.

  In all else she was now so far on the way to recovery that, on her bestand brightest days, she sometimes looked and spoke like the Laura ofold times. The happy change wrought its natural result in us both.From their long slumber, on her side and on mine, those imperishablememories of our past life in Cumberland now awoke, which were one andall alike, the memories of our love.

  Gradually and insensibly our daily relations towards each other becameconstrained. The fond words which I had spoken to her so naturally, inthe days of her sorrow and her suffering, faltered strangely on mylips. In the time when my dread of losing her was most present to mymind, I had always kissed her when she left me at night and when shemet me in the morning. The kiss seemed now to have dropped betweenus--to be lost out of our lives. Our hands began to tremble again whenthey met. We hardly ever looked long at one another out of Marian'spresence. The talk often flagged between us when we were alone. WhenI touched her by accident I felt my heart beating fast, as it used tobeat at Limmeridge House--I saw the lovely answering flush glowingagain in her cheeks, as if we were back among the Cumberland Hills inour past characters of master and pupil once more. She had longintervals of silence and thoughtfulness, and denied she had beenthinking when Marian asked her the question. I surprised myself oneday neglecting my work to dream over the little water-colour portraitof her which I had taken in the summer-house where we first met--justas I used to neglect Mr. Fairlie's drawings to dream over the samelikeness when it was newly finished in the bygone time. Changed as allthe circumstances now were, our position towards each other in thegolden days of our first companionship seemed to be revived with therevival of our love. It was as if Time had drifted us back on the wreckof our early hopes to the old familiar shore!

  To any other woman I could have spoken the decisive words which I stillhesitated to speak to HER. The utter helplessness of her position--herfriendless dependence on all the forbearing gentleness that I couldshow her--my fear of touching too soon some secret sensitiveness in herwhich my instinct as a man might not have been fine enough todiscover--these considerations, and others like them, kept meself-distrustfully silent. And yet I knew that the restraint on bothsides must be ended, that the relations in which we stood towards oneanother must be altered in some settled manner for the future, and thatit rested with me, in the first instance, to recognise the necessityfor a change.

  The more I thought of our position, the harder the attempt to alter itappeared, while the domestic conditions on which we three had beenliving together since the winter remained undisturbed. I cannotaccount for the capricious state of mind in which this feelingoriginated, but the idea nevertheless possessed me that some previouschange of place and circumstances, some sudden break in the quietmonotony of our lives, so managed as to vary the home aspect underwhich we had been accustomed to see each other, might prepare the wayfor me to speak, and might make it easier and less embarrassing forLaura and Marian to hear.

  With this purpose in view, I said, one morning, that I thought we hadall earned a little holiday and a change of scene. After someconsideration, it was decided that we should go for a fortnight to thesea-side.

  On the next day we left Fulham for a quiet town on the south coast. Atthat early season of the year we were the only visitors in the place.The cliffs, the beach, and the walks inland were all in the solitarycondition which was most welcome to us. The air was mild--theprospects over hill and wood and down were beautifully varied by theshifting April light and shade, and the restless sea leapt under ourwindows, as if it felt, like the land, the glow and freshness of spring.

  I owed it to Marian to consult her before I spoke to Laura, and to beguided afterwards by her advice.

  On the third day from our arrival I found a fit opportunity of speakingto her alone. The moment we looked at one another, her quick instinctdetected the thought in my mind before I could give it expression.With her customary energy and directness she spoke at once, and spokefirst.

  "You are thinking of that subject which was mentioned between us on theevening of your return from Hampshire," she said. "I have beenexpecting you to allude to it for some time past. There must be achange in our little household, Walter, we cannot go on much longer aswe are now. I see it as plainly as you do--as plainly as Laura seesit, though she says nothing. How strangely the old times in Cumberlandseem to have come back! You and I are together again, and the onesubject of interest between us is Laura once more. I could almostfancy that this room is the summer-house at Limmeridge, and that thosewaves beyond us are beating on our sea-shore."

  "I was guided by your advice in those past days," I said, "and now,Marian, with reliance tenfold greater I will be guided by it again."

  She answered by pressing my hand. I saw that she was deeply touched bymy reference to the past. We sat together near the window, and while Ispoke and she listened, we looked at the glory of the sunlight shiningon the majesty of the sea.

  "Whatever comes of this confidence between us," I said, "whether itends happily or sorrowfully for ME, Laura's interests will still be theinterests of my life. When we leave this place, on whatever terms weleave it, my determination to wrest from Count Fosco the confessionwhich I failed to obtain from his accomplice, goes back with me toLondon, as certainly as I go back myself. Neither you nor I can tellhow that man may turn on me, if I bring him to bay; we only know, byhis own words and actions, that he is capable of striking at me throughLaura, without a moment's hesitation, or a moment's remorse. In ourpresent position I have no claim on her which society sanctions, whichthe law allows, to strengthen me in resisting him, and in protectingHER. This places me at a serious disadvantage. If I am to fight ourcause with the Count, strong in the consciousness of Laura's safety, Imust fight it for my Wife. Do you agree to that, Marian, so far?"

  "To every word of it," she answered.

  "I will not plead out of my own heart," I went on; "I will not appealto the love which has survived all changes and all shocks--I will restmy only vindication of myself for thinking of her, and speaking of heras my wife, on what I have just said. If the chance of forcing aconfession from the Count is, as I believe it to be, the last chanceleft of publicly establishing the fact of Laura's existence, the leastselfish reason that I can advance for our marriage is recognised by usboth. But I may be wrong in my conviction--other means of achievingour purpose may be in our power, which are less uncertain and lessdangerous. I have searched anxiously, in my own mind, for those means,and I have not found them. Have you?"

  "No. I have thought about it too, and thought in vain."

  "In all likelihood,"
I continued, "the same questions have occurred toyou, in considering this difficult subject, which have occurred to me.Ought we to return with her to Limmeridge, now that she is like herselfagain, and trust to the recognition of her by the people of thevillage, or by the children at the school? Ought we to appeal to thepractical test of her handwriting? Suppose we did so. Suppose therecognition of her obtained, and the identity of the handwritingestablished. Would success in both those cases do more than supply anexcellent foundation for a trial in a court of law? Would therecognition and the handwriting prove her identity to Mr. Fairlie andtake her back to Limmeridge House, against the evidence of her aunt,against the evidence of the medical certificate, against the fact ofthe funeral and the fact of the inscription on the tomb? No! We couldonly hope to succeed in throwing a serious doubt on the assertion ofher death, a doubt which nothing short of a legal inquiry can settle.I will assume that we possess (what we have certainly not got) moneyenough to carry this inquiry on through all its stages. I will assumethat Mr. Fairlie's prejudices might be reasoned away--that the falsetestimony of the Count and his wife, and all the rest of the falsetestimony, might be confuted--that the recognition could not possiblybe ascribed to a mistake between Laura and Anne Catherick, or thehandwriting be declared by our enemies to be a clever fraud--all theseare assumptions which, more or less, set plain probabilities atdefiance; but let them pass--and let us ask ourselves what would be thefirst consequence or the first questions put to Laura herself on thesubject of the conspiracy. We know only too well what the consequencewould be, for we know that she has never recovered her memory of whathappened to her in London. Examine her privately, or examine herpublicly, she is utterly incapable of assisting the assertion of herown case. If you don't see this, Marian, as plainly as I see it, wewill go to Limmeridge and try the experiment to-morrow."

  "I DO see it, Walter. Even if we had the means of paying all the lawexpenses, even if we succeeded in the end, the delays would beunendurable, the perpetual suspense, after what we have sufferedalready, would be heartbreaking. You are right about the hopelessnessof going to Limmeridge. I wish I could feel sure that you are rightalso in determining to try that last chance with the Count. IS it achance at all?"

  "Beyond a doubt, Yes. It is the chance of recovering the lost date ofLaura's journey to London. Without returning to the reasons I gave yousome time since, I am still as firmly persuaded as ever that there is adiscrepancy between the date of that journey and the date on thecertificate of death. There lies the weak point of the wholeconspiracy--it crumbles to pieces if we attack it in that way, and themeans of attacking it are in possession of the Count. If I succeed inwresting them from him, the object of your life and mine is fulfilled.If I fail, the wrong that Laura has suffered will, in this world, neverbe redressed."

  "Do you fear failure yourself, Walter?"

  "I dare not anticipate success, and for that very reason, Marian, Ispeak openly and plainly as I have spoken now. In my heart and myconscience I can say it, Laura's hopes for the future are at theirlowest ebb. I know that her fortune is gone--I know that the lastchance of restoring her to her place in the world lies at the mercy ofher worst enemy, of a man who is now absolutely unassailable, and whomay remain unassailable to the end. With every worldly advantage gonefrom her, with all prospect of recovering her rank and station morethan doubtful, with no clearer future before her than the future whichher husband can provide, the poor drawing-master may harmlessly openhis heart at last. In the days of her prosperity, Marian, I was onlythe teacher who guided her hand--I ask for it, in her adversity, as thehand of my wife!"

  Marian's eyes met mine affectionately--I could say no more. My heartwas full, my lips were trembling. In spite of myself I was in dangerof appealing to her pity. I got up to leave the room. She rose at thesame moment, laid her hand gently on my shoulder, and stopped me.

  "Walter!" she said, "I once parted you both, for your good and forhers. Wait here, my brother!--wait, my dearest, best friend, tillLaura comes, and tells you what I have done now!"

  For the first time since the farewell morning at Limmeridge she touchedmy forehead with her lips. A tear dropped on my face as she kissed me.She turned quickly, pointed to the chair from which I had risen, andleft the room.

  I sat down alone at the window to wait through the crisis of my life.My mind in that breathless interval felt like a total blank. I wasconscious of nothing but a painful intensity of all familiarperceptions. The sun grew blinding bright, the white sea birds chasingeach other far beyond me seemed to be flitting before my face, themellow murmur of the waves on the beach was like thunder in my ears.

  The door opened, and Laura came in alone. So she had entered thebreakfast-room at Limmeridge House on the morning when we parted.Slowly and falteringly, in sorrow and in hesitation, she had onceapproached me. Now she came with the haste of happiness in her feet,with the light of happiness radiant in her face. Of their own accordthose dear arms clasped themselves round me, of their own accord thesweet lips came to meet mine. "My darling!" she whispered, "we may ownwe love each other now?" Her head nestled with a tender contentednesson my bosom. "Oh," she said innocently, "I am so happy at last!"

  Ten days later we were happier still. We were married.