the woman in white-Page 22


  POLESDEAN LODGE, YORKSHIRE.

  23rd.--A week in these new scenes and among these kind-hearted peoplehas done her some good, though not so much as I had hoped. I haveresolved to prolong our stay for another week at least. It is uselessto go back to Limmeridge till there is an absolute necessity for ourreturn.

  24th.--Sad news by this morning's post. The expedition to CentralAmerica sailed on the twenty-first. We have parted with a true man--wehave lost a faithful friend. Water Hartright has left England.

  25th.--Sad news yesterday--ominous news to-day. Sir Percival Glyde haswritten to Mr. Fairlie, and Mr. Fairlie has written to Laura and me, torecall us to Limmeridge immediately.

  What can this mean? Has the day for the marriage been fixed in ourabsence?

  II

  LIMMERIDGE HOUSE.

  November 27th.--My forebodings are realised. The marriage is fixed forthe twenty-second of December.

  The day after we left for Polesdean Lodge Sir Percival wrote, it seems,to Mr. Fairlie, to say that the necessary repairs and alterations inhis house in Hampshire would occupy a much longer time in completionthan he had originally anticipated. The proper estimates were to besubmitted to him as soon as possible, and it would greatly facilitatehis entering into definite arrangements with the workpeople, if hecould be informed of the exact period at which the wedding ceremonymight be expected to take place. He could then make all hiscalculations in reference to time, besides writing the necessaryapologies to friends who had been engaged to visit him that winter, andwho could not, of course, be received when the house was in the handsof the workmen.

  To this letter Mr. Fairlie had replied by requesting Sir Percivalhimself to suggest a day for the marriage, subject to Miss Fairlie'sapproval, which her guardian willingly undertook to do his best toobtain. Sir Percival wrote back by the next post, and proposed (inaccordance with his own views and wishes from the first?) the latterpart of December--perhaps the twenty-second, or twenty-fourth, or anyother day that the lady and her guardian might prefer. The lady notbeing at hand to speak for herself, her guardian had decided, in herabsence, on the earliest day mentioned--the twenty-second of December,and had written to recall us to Limmeridge in consequence.

  After explaining these particulars to me at a private interviewyesterday, Mr. Fairlie suggested, in his most amiable manner, that Ishould open the necessary negotiations to-day. Feeling that resistancewas useless, unless I could first obtain Laura's authority to make it,I consented to speak to her, but declared, at the same time, that Iwould on no consideration undertake to gain her consent to SirPercival's wishes. Mr. Fairlie complimented me on my "excellentconscience," much as he would have complimented me, if he had been outwalking, on my "excellent constitution," and seemed perfectlysatisfied, so far, with having simply shifted one more familyresponsibility from his own shoulders to mine.

  This morning I spoke to Laura as I had promised. The composure--I mayalmost say, the insensibility--which she has so strangely and soresolutely maintained ever since Sir Percival left us, was not proofagainst the shock of the news I had to tell her. She turned pale andtrembled violently.

  "Not so soon!" she pleaded. "Oh, Marian, not so soon!"

  The slightest hint she could give was enough for me. I rose to leavethe room, and fight her battle for her at once with Mr. Fairlie.

  Just as my hand was on the door, she caught fast hold of my dress andstopped me.

  "Let me go!" I said. "My tongue burns to tell your uncle that he andSir Percival are not to have it all their own way."

  She sighed bitterly, and still held my dress.

  "No!" she said faintly. "Too late, Marian, too late!"

  "Not a minute too late," I retorted. "The question of time is OURquestion--and trust me, Laura, to take a woman's full advantage of it."

  I unclasped her hand from my gown while I spoke; but she slipped bothher arms round my waist at the same moment, and held me moreeffectually than ever.

  "It will only involve us in more trouble and more confusion," she said."It will set you and my uncle at variance, and bring Sir Percival hereagain with fresh causes of complaint--"

  "So much the better!" I cried out passionately. "Who cares for hiscauses of complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind atease? No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women.Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace--they drag usaway from our parents' love and our sisters' friendship--they take usbody and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs asthey chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them giveus in return? Let me go, Laura--I'm mad when I think of it!"

  The tears--miserable, weak, women's tears of vexation and rage--startedto my eyes. She smiled sadly, and put her handkerchief over myface to hide for me the betrayal of my own weakness--the weakness ofall others which she knew that I most despised.

  "Oh, Marian!" she said. "You crying! Think what you would say to me,if the places were changed, and if those tears were mine. All yourlove and courage and devotion will not alter what must happen, sooneror later. Let my uncle have his way. Let us have no more troubles andheart-burnings that any sacrifice of mine can prevent. Say you willlive with me, Marian, when I am married--and say no more."

  But I did say more. I forced back the contemptible tears that were norelief to ME, and that only distressed HER, and reasoned and pleaded ascalmly as I could. It was of no avail. She made me twice repeat thepromise to live with her when she was married, and then suddenly askeda question which turned my sorrow and my sympathy for her into a newdirection.

  "While we were at Polesdean," she said, "you had a letter, Marian----"

  Her altered tone--the abrupt manner in which she looked away from meand hid her face on my shoulder--the hesitation which silenced herbefore she had completed her question, all told me, but too plainly, towhom the half-expressed inquiry pointed.

  "I thought, Laura, that you and I were never to refer to him again," Isaid gently.

  "You had a letter from him?" she persisted.

  "Yes," I replied, "if you must know it."

  "Do you mean to write to him again?"

  I hesitated. I had been afraid to tell her of his absence fromEngland, or of the manner in which my exertions to serve his new hopesand projects had connected me with his departure. What answer could Imake? He was gone where no letters could reach him for months, perhapsfor years, to come.

  "Suppose I do mean to write to him again," I said at last. "What then,Laura?"

  Her cheek grew burning hot against my neck, and her arms trembled andtightened round me.

  "Don't tell him about THE TWENTY-SECOND," she whispered. "Promise,Marian--pray promise you will not even mention my name to him when youwrite next."

  I gave the promise. No words can say how sorrowfully I gave it. Sheinstantly took her arm from my waist, walked away to the window, andstood looking out with her back to me. After a moment she spoke oncemore, but without turning round, without allowing me to catch thesmallest glimpse of her face.

  "Are you going to my uncle's room?" she asked. "Will you say that Iconsent to whatever arrangement he may think best? Never mind leavingme, Marian. I shall be better alone for a little while."

  I went out. If, as soon as I got into the passage, I could havetransported Mr. Fairlie and Sir Percival Glyde to the uttermost ends ofthe earth by lifting one of my fingers, that finger would have beenraised without an instant's hesitation. For once my unhappy temper nowstood my friend. I should have broken down altogether and burst into aviolent fit of crying, if my tears had not been all burnt up in theheat of my anger. As it was, I dashed into Mr. Fairlie's room--calledto him as harshly as possible, "Laura consents to thetwenty-second"--and dashed out again without waiting for a word ofanswer. I banged the door after me, and I hope I shattered Mr.Fairlie's nervous system for the rest of the day.

  28th.--This morning I read poor Hartright's farewell letter over again,a doubt having crossed m
y mind since yesterday, whether I am actingwisely in concealing the fact of his departure from Laura.

  On reflection, I still think I am right. The allusions in his letterto the preparations made for the expedition to Central America, allshow that the leaders of it know it to be dangerous. If the discoveryof this makes me uneasy, what would it make HER? It is bad enough tofeel that his departure has deprived us of the friend of all others towhose devotion we could trust in the hour of need, if ever that hourcomes and finds us helpless; but it is far worse to know that he hasgone from us to face the perils of a bad climate, a wild country, and adisturbed population. Surely it would be a cruel candour to tell Laurathis, without a pressing and a positive necessity for it?

  I almost doubt whether I ought not to go a step farther, and burn theletter at once, for fear of its one day falling into wrong hands. Itnot only refers to Laura in terms which ought to remain a secret forever between the writer and me, but it reiterates his suspicion--soobstinate, so unaccountable, and so alarming--that he has been secretlywatched since he left Limmeridge. He declares that he saw the faces ofthe two strange men who followed him about the streets of London,watching him among the crowd which gathered at Liverpool to see theexpedition embark, and he positively asserts that he heard the name ofAnne Catherick pronounced behind him as he got into the boat. His ownwords are, "These events have a meaning, these events must lead to aresult. The mystery of Anne Catherick is NOT cleared up yet. She maynever cross my path again, but if ever she crosses yours, make betteruse of the opportunity, Miss Halcombe, than I made of it. I speak onstrong conviction--I entreat you to remember what I say." These are hisown expressions. There is no danger of my forgetting them--my memoryis only too ready to dwell on any words of Hartright's that refer toAnne Catherick. But there is danger in my keeping the letter. Themerest accident might place it at the mercy of strangers. I may fallill--I may die. Better to burn it at once, and have one anxiety theless.

  It is burnt. The ashes of his farewell letter--the last he may everwrite to me--lie in a few black fragments on the hearth. Is this thesad end to all that sad story? Oh, not the end--surely, surely not theend already!

  29th.--The preparations for the marriage have begun. The dressmakerhas come to receive her orders. Laura is perfectly impassive,perfectly careless about the question of all others in which a woman'spersonal interests are most closely bound up. She has left it all tothe dressmaker and to me. If poor Hartright had been the baronet, andthe husband of her father's choice, how differently she would havebehaved! How anxious and capricious she would have been, and what ahard task the best of dressmakers would have found it to please her!

  30th.--We hear every day from Sir Percival. The last news is that thealterations in his house will occupy from four to six months beforethey can be properly completed. If painters, paperhangers, andupholsterers could make happiness as well as splendour, I should beinterested about their proceedings in Laura's future home. As it is,the only part of Sir Percival's last letter which does not leave me asit found me, perfectly indifferent to all his plans and projects, isthe part which refers to the wedding tour. He proposes, as Laura isdelicate, and as the winter threatens to be unusually severe, to takeher to Rome, and to remain in Italy until the early part of nextsummer. If this plan should not be approved, he is equally ready,although he has no establishment of his own in town, to spend theseason in London, in the most suitable furnished house that can beobtained for the purpose.

  Putting myself and my own feelings entirely out of the question (whichit is my duty to do, and which I have done), I, for one, have no doubtof the propriety of adopting the first of these proposals. In eithercase a separation between Laura and me is inevitable. It will be alonger separation, in the event of their going abroad, than it would bein the event of their remaining in London--but we must set against thisdisadvantage the benefit to Laura, on the other side, of passing thewinter in a mild climate, and more than that, the immense assistance inraising her spirits, and reconciling her to her new existence, whichthe mere wonder and excitement of travelling for the first time in herlife in the most interesting country in the world, must surely afford.She is not of a disposition to find resources in the conventionalgaieties and excitements of London. They would only make the firstoppression of this lamentable marriage fall the heavier on her. Idread the beginning of her new life more than words can tell, but I seesome hope for her if she travels--none if she remains at home.

  It is strange to look back at this latest entry in my journal, and tofind that I am writing of the marriage and the parting with Laura, aspeople write of a settled thing. It seems so cold and so unfeeling tobe looking at the future already in this cruelly composed way. Butwhat other way is possible, now that the time is drawing so near?Before another month is over our heads she will be HIS Laura instead ofmine! HIS Laura! I am as little able to realise the idea which thosetwo words convey--my mind feels almost as dulled and stunned by it--asif writing of her marriage were like writing of her death.

  December 1st.--A sad, sad day--a day that I have no heart to describeat any length. After weakly putting it off last night, I was obligedto speak to her this morning of Sir Percival's proposal about thewedding tour.

  In the full conviction that I should be with her wherever she went, thepoor child--for a child she is still in many things--was almost happyat the prospect of seeing the wonders of Florence and Rome and Naples.It nearly broke my heart to dispel her delusion, and to bring her faceto face with the hard truth. I was obliged to tell her that no mantolerates a rival--not even a woman rival--in his wife's affections,when he first marries, whatever he may do afterwards. I was obliged towarn her that my chance of living with her permanently under her ownroof, depended entirely on my not arousing Sir Percival's jealousy anddistrust by standing between them at the beginning of their marriage,in the position of the chosen depositary of his wife's closest secrets.Drop by drop I poured the profaning bitterness of this world's wisdominto that pure heart and that innocent mind, while every higher andbetter feeling within me recoiled from my miserable task. It is overnow. She has learnt her hard, her inevitable lesson. The simpleillusions of her girlhood are gone, and my hand has stripped them off.Better mine than his--that is all my consolation--better mine than his.

  So the first proposal is the proposal accepted. They are to go toItaly, and I am to arrange, with Sir Percival's permission, for meetingthem and staying with them when they return to England. In other words,I am to ask a personal favour, for the first time in my life, and toask it of the man of all others to whom I least desire to owe a seriousobligation of any kind. Well! I think I could do even more than that,for Laura's sake.

  2nd.--On looking back, I find myself always referring to Sir Percivalin disparaging terms. In the turn affairs have now taken. I must andwill root out my prejudice against him, I cannot think how it first gotinto my mind. It certainly never existed in former times.

  Is it Laura's reluctance to become his wife that has set me againsthim? Have Hartright's perfectly intelligible prejudices infected mewithout my suspecting their influence? Does that letter of AnneCatherick's still leave a lurking distrust in my mind, in spite of SirPercival's explanation, and of the proof in my possession of the truthof it? I cannot account for the state of my own feelings; the one thingI am certain of is, that it is my duty--doubly my duty now--not towrong Sir Percival by unjustly distrusting him. If it has got to be ahabit with me always to write of him in the same unfavourable manner, Imust and will break myself of this unworthy tendency, even though theeffort should force me to close the pages of my journal till themarriage is over! I am seriously dissatisfied with myself--I will writeno more to-day.