The woman in white, p.9
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Woman in White, p.9

           Wilkie Collins
Download  in MP3 audio

  IX

  So ended my eventful first day at Limmeridge House.

  Miss Halcombe and I kept our secret. After the discovery of thelikeness no fresh light seemed destined to break over the mystery ofthe woman in white. At the first safe opportunity Miss Halcombecautiously led her half-sister to speak of their mother, of old times,and of Anne Catherick. Miss Fairlie's recollections of the littlescholar at Limmeridge were, however, only of the most vague and generalkind. She remembered the likeness between herself and her mother'sfavourite pupil, as something which had been supposed to exist in pasttimes; but she did not refer to the gift of the white dresses, or tothe singular form of words in which the child had artlessly expressedher gratitude for them. She remembered that Anne had remained atLimmeridge for a few months only, and had then left it to go back toher home in Hampshire; but she could not say whether the mother anddaughter had ever returned, or had ever been heard of afterwards. Nofurther search, on Miss Halcombe's part, through the few letters ofMrs. Fairlie's writing which she had left unread, assisted in clearingup the uncertainties still left to perplex us. We had identified theunhappy woman whom I had met in the night-time with Anne Catherick--wehad made some advance, at least, towards connecting the probablydefective condition of the poor creature's intellect with thepeculiarity of her being dressed all in white, and with thecontinuance, in her maturer years, of her childish gratitude towardsMrs. Fairlie--and there, so far as we knew at that time, ourdiscoveries had ended.

  The days passed on, the weeks passed on, and the track of the goldenautumn wound its bright way visibly through the green summer of thetrees. Peaceful, fast-flowing, happy time! my story glides by you nowas swiftly as you once glided by me. Of all the treasures of enjoymentthat you poured so freely into my heart, how much is left me that haspurpose and value enough to be written on this page? Nothing but thesaddest of all confessions that a man can make--the confession of hisown folly.

  The secret which that confession discloses should be told with littleeffort, for it has indirectly escaped me already. The poor weak words,which have failed to describe Miss Fairlie, have succeeded in betrayingthe sensations she awakened in me. It is so with us all. Our wordsare giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us aservice.

  I loved her.

  Ah! how well I know all the sadness and all the mockery that iscontained in those three words. I can sigh over my mournful confessionwith the tenderest woman who reads it and pities me. I can laugh at itas bitterly as the hardest man who tosses it from him in contempt. Iloved her! Feel for me, or despise me, I confess it with the sameimmovable resolution to own the truth.

  Was there no excuse for me? There was some excuse to be found, surely,in the conditions under which my term of hired service was passed atLimmeridge House.

  My morning hours succeeded each other calmly in the quiet and seclusionof my own room. I had just work enough to do, in mounting myemployer's drawings, to keep my hands and eyes pleasurably employed,while my mind was left free to enjoy the dangerous luxury of its ownunbridled thoughts. A perilous solitude, for it lasted long enough toenervate, not long enough to fortify me. A perilous solitude, for itwas followed by afternoons and evenings spent, day after day and weekafter week alone in the society of two women, one of whom possessed allthe accomplishments of grace, wit, and high-breeding, the other all thecharms of beauty, gentleness, and simple truth, that can purify andsubdue the heart of man. Not a day passed, in that dangerous intimacyof teacher and pupil, in which my hand was not close to Miss Fairlie's;my cheek, as we bent together over her sketch-book, almost touchinghers. The more attentively she watched every movement of my brush, themore closely I was breathing the perfume of her hair, and the warmfragrance of her breath. It was part of my service to live in the verylight of her eyes--at one time to be bending over her, so close to herbosom as to tremble at the thought of touching it; at another, to feelher bending over me, bending so close to see what I was about, that hervoice sank low when she spoke to me, and her ribbons brushed my cheekin the wind before she could draw them back.

  The evenings which followed the sketching excursions of the afternoonvaried, rather than checked, these innocent, these inevitablefamiliarities. My natural fondness for the music which she played withsuch tender feeling, such delicate womanly taste, and her naturalenjoyment of giving me back, by the practice of her art, the pleasurewhich I had offered to her by the practice of mine, only wove anothertie which drew us closer and closer to one another. The accidents ofconversation; the simple habits which regulated even such a littlething as the position of our places at table; the play of MissHalcombe's ever-ready raillery, always directed against my anxiety asteacher, while it sparkled over her enthusiasm as pupil; the harmlessexpression of poor Mrs. Vesey's drowsy approval, which connected MissFairlie and me as two model young people who never disturbed her--everyone of these trifles, and many more, combined to fold us together inthe same domestic atmosphere, and to lead us both insensibly to thesame hopeless end.

  I should have remembered my position, and have put myself secretly onmy guard. I did so, but not till it was too late. All the discretion,all the experience, which had availed me with other women, and securedme against other temptations, failed me with her. It had been myprofession, for years past, to be in this close contact with younggirls of all ages, and of all orders of beauty. I had accepted theposition as part of my calling in life; I had trained myself to leaveall the sympathies natural to my age in my employer's outer hall, ascoolly as I left my umbrella there before I went upstairs. I had longsince learnt to understand, composedly and as a matter of course, thatmy situation in life was considered a guarantee against any of myfemale pupils feeling more than the most ordinary interest in me, andthat I was admitted among beautiful and captivating women much as aharmless domestic animal is admitted among them. This guardianexperience I had gained early; this guardian experience had sternly andstrictly guided me straight along my own poor narrow path, without onceletting me stray aside, to the right hand or to the left. And now Iand my trusty talisman were parted for the first time. Yes, myhardly-earned self-control was as completely lost to me as if I hadnever possessed it; lost to me, as it is lost every day to other men,in other critical situations, where women are concerned. I know, now,that I should have questioned myself from the first. I should haveasked why any room in the house was better than home to me when sheentered it, and barren as a desert when she went out again--why Ialways noticed and remembered the little changes in her dress that Ihad noticed and remembered in no other woman's before--why I saw her,heard her, and touched her (when we shook hands at night and morning)as I had never seen, heard, and touched any other woman in my life? Ishould have looked into my own heart, and found this new growthspringing up there, and plucked it out while it was young. Why wasthis easiest, simplest work of self-culture always too much for me? Theexplanation has been written already in the three words that were manyenough, and plain enough, for my confession. I loved her.

  The days passed, the weeks passed; it was approaching the third monthof my stay in Cumberland. The delicious monotony of life in our calmseclusion flowed on with me, like a smooth stream with a swimmer whoglides down the current. All memory of the past, all thought of thefuture, all sense of the falseness and hopelessness of my own position,lay hushed within me into deceitful rest. Lulled by the Syren-song thatmy own heart sung to me, with eyes shut to all sight, and ears closedto all sound of danger, I drifted nearer and nearer to the fatal rocks.The warning that aroused me at last, and startled me into sudden,self-accusing consciousness of my own weakness, was the plainest, thetruest, the kindest of all warnings, for it came silently from HER.

  We had parted one night as usual. No word had fallen from my lips, atthat time or at any time before it, that could betray me, or startleher into sudden knowledge of the truth. But when we met again in themorning, a change had come over her--a change that told me all.

  I shrank
then--I shrink still--from invading the innermost sanctuary ofher heart, and laying it open to others, as I have laid open my own.Let it be enough to say that the time when she first surprised mysecret was, I firmly believe, the time when she first surprised herown, and the time, also, when she changed towards me in the interval ofone night. Her nature, too truthful to deceive others, was too nobleto deceive itself. When the doubt that I had hushed asleep first laidits weary weight on her heart, the true face owned all, and said, inits own frank, simple language--I am sorry for him; I am sorry formyself.

  It said this, and more, which I could not then interpret. I understoodbut too well the change in her manner, to greater kindness and quickerreadiness in interpreting all my wishes, before others--to constraintand sadness, and nervous anxiety to absorb herself in the firstoccupation she could seize on, whenever we happened to be left togetheralone. I understood why the sweet sensitive lips smiled so rarely andso restrainedly now, and why the clear blue eyes looked at me,sometimes with the pity of an angel, sometimes with the innocentperplexity of a child. But the change meant more than this. There wasa coldness in her hand, there was an unnatural immobility in her face,there was in all her movements the mute expression of constant fear andclinging self-reproach. The sensations that I could trace to herselfand to me, the unacknowledged sensations that we were feeling incommon, were not these. There were certain elements of the change inher that were still secretly drawing us together, and others that were,as secretly, beginning to drive us apart.

  In my doubt and perplexity, in my vague suspicion of something hiddenwhich I was left to find by my own unaided efforts, I examined MissHalcombe's looks and manner for enlightenment. Living in such intimacyas ours, no serious alteration could take place in any one of us whichdid not sympathetically affect the others. The change in Miss Fairliewas reflected in her half-sister. Although not a word escaped MissHalcombe which hinted at an altered state of feeling towards myself,her penetrating eyes had contracted a new habit of always watching me.Sometimes the look was like suppressed anger, sometimes like suppresseddread, sometimes like neither--like nothing, in short, which I couldunderstand. A week elapsed, leaving us all three still in thisposition of secret constraint towards one another. My situation,aggravated by the sense of my own miserable weakness and forgetfulnessof myself, now too late awakened in me, was becoming intolerable. Ifelt that I must cast off the oppression under which I was living, atonce and for ever--yet how to act for the best, or what to say first,was more than I could tell.

  From this position of helplessness and humiliation I was rescued byMiss Halcombe. Her lips told me the bitter, the necessary, theunexpected truth; her hearty kindness sustained me under the shock ofhearing it; her sense and courage turned to its right use an eventwhich threatened the worst that could happen, to me and to others, inLimmeridge House.