The Evil Genius : a domestic story, by Wilkie Collins

After the Story

1. — The Lawyer’s Apology.

That a woman of my wife’s mature years should be jealous of one of the most exemplary husbands that the records of matrimony can produce is, to say the least of it, a discouraging circumstance. A man forgets that virtue is its own reward, and asks, What is the use of conjugal fidelity?

However, the motto of married life is (or ought to be): Peace at any price. I have been this day relieved from the condition of secrecy that has been imposed on me. You insisted on an explanation some time since. Here it is at last.

For the ten-thousandth time, my dear, in our joint lives, you are again right. That letter, marked private, which I received at the domestic tea-table, was what you positively declared it to be, a letter from a lady — a charming lady, plunged in the deepest perplexity. We had been well known to each other for many years, as lawyer and client. She wanted advice on this occasion also — and wanted it in the strictest confidence. Was it consistent with my professional duty to show her letter to my wife? Mrs. Sarrazin says Yes; Mrs. Sarrazin’s husband says No.

Let me add that the lady was a person of unblemished reputation, and that she was placed in a false position through no fault of her own. In plain English, she was divorced. Ah, my dear (to speak in the vivid language of the people), do you smell a rat?

Yes: my client was Mrs. Norman; and to her pretty cottage in the country I betook myself the next day. There I found my excellent friend Randal Linley, present by special invitation.

Stop a minute. Why do I write all this, instead of explaining myself by word of mouth? My love, you are a member of an old and illustrious family; you honored me when you married me; and you have (as your father told me on our wedding day) the high and haughty temper of your race. I foresee an explosion of this temper, and I would rather have my writing-paper blown up than be blown up myself.

Is this a cowardly confession on my part? All courage, Mrs. Sarrazin, is relative; the bravest man living has a cowardly side to his character, though it may not always be found out. Some years ago, at a public dinner, I sat next to an officer in the British army. At one time in his life he had led a forlorn hope. At another time, he had picked up a wounded soldier, and had carried him to the care of the surgeons through a hail-storm of the enemy’s bullets. Hot courage and cool courage, this true hero possessed both. I saw the cowardly side of his character. He lost his color; perspiration broke out on his forehead; he trembled; he talked nonsense; he was frightened out of his wits. And all for what? Because he had to get on his legs and make a speech!

Well: Mrs. Norman, and Randal Linley, and I, sat down to our consultation at the cottage.

What did my fair client want?

She contemplated marrying for the second time, and she wanted my advice as a lawyer, and my encouragement as an old friend. I was quite ready; I only waited for particulars. Mrs. Norman became dreadfully embarrassed, and said: “I refer you to my brother-in-law.”

I looked at Randal. “Once her brother-in-law, no doubt,” I said; “but after the Divorce —” My friend stopped me there. “After the Divorce,” he remarked, “I may be her brother-in-law again.”

If this meant anything, it meant that she was actually going to marry Herbert Linley again. This was too ridiculous. “If it’s a joke,” I said, “I have heard better fun in my time. If it’s only an assertion, I don’t believe it.”

“Why not?” Randal asked.

“Saying I do want you, in one breath — and I don’t want you, in another — seems to be a little hard on Divorce,” I ventured to suggest.

“Don’t expect me to sympathize with Divorce,” Randal said.

I answered that smartly. “No; I’ll wait till you are married.”

He took it seriously. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he replied. “Where there is absolute cruelty, or where there is deliberate desertion, on the husband’s part, I see the use and the reason for Divorce. If the unhappy wife can find an honorable man who will protect her, or an honorable man who will offer her a home, Society and Law, which are responsible for the institution of marriage, are bound to allow a woman outraged under the shelter of their institution to marry again. But, where the husband’s fault is sexual frailty, I say the English law which refuses Divorce on that ground alone is right, and the Scotch law which grants it is wrong. Religion, which rightly condemns the sin, pardons it on the condition of true penitence. Why is a wife not to pardon it for the same reason? Why are the lives of a father, a mother, and a child to be wrecked, when those lives may be saved by the exercise of the first of Christian virtues — forgiveness of injuries? In such a case as this I regret that Divorce exists; and I rejoice when husband and wife and child are one flesh again, re-united by the law of Nature, which is the law of God.”

I might have disputed with him; but I thought he was right. I also wanted to make sure of the facts. “Am I really to understand,” I asked, “that Mr. Herbert Linley is to be this lady’s husband for the second time?”

“If there is no lawful objection to it,” Randal said —“decidedly Yes.”

My good wife, in all your experience you never saw your husband stare as he stared at that moment. Here was a lady divorced by her own lawful desire and at her own personal expense, thinking better of it after no very long interval, and proposing to marry the man again. Was there ever anything so grossly improbable? Where is the novelist who would be bold enough to invent such an incident as this?

Never mind the novelist. How did it end?

Of course it could only end in one way, so far as I was concerned. The case being without precedent in my experience, I dropped my professional character at the outset. Speaking next as a friend, I had only to say to Mrs. Norman: “The Law has declared you and Mr. Herbert Linley to be single people. Do what other single people do. Buy a license, and give notice at a church — and by all means send wedding cards to the judge who divorced you.”

Said; and, in another fortnight, done. Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Linley were married again this morning; and Randal and I were the only witnesses present at the ceremony, which was strictly private.

2. — The Lawyer’s Defense.

I wonder whether the foregoing pages of my writing-paper have been torn to pieces and thrown into the waste-paper basket? You wouldn’t litter the carpet. No. I may be torn in pieces, but I do you justice for all that.

What are the objections to the divorced husband and wife becoming husband and wife again? Mrs. Presty has stated them in the following order. Am I wrong in assuming that, on this occasion at least, you will agree with Mrs. Presty?

First Objection: Nobody has ever done such a thing before.

Second Objection: Penitent or not penitent, Mr. Herbert Linley doesn’t deserve it.

Third Objection: No respectable person will visit them.

First Reply: The question is not whether the thing has been done before, but whether the doing of the thing is right in itself There is no clause in the marriage service forbidding a wife to forgive her husband; but there is a direct prohibition to any separation between them. It is, therefore, not wrong to forgive Mr. Herbert Linley, and it is absolutely right to marry him again.

Second Reply: When their child brings him home, and takes it for granted that her father and mother should live together, because they are her father and mother, innocent Kitty has appealed from the Law of Divorce to the Law of Nature. Whether Herbert Linley has deserved it or whether he has not, there he is in the only fit place for him — and there is an end of the second objection.

Third Reply: A flat contradiction to the assertion that no respectable person will visit her. Mrs. Sarrazin will visit her. Yes, you will, my dear! Not because I insist upon it — Do I ever insist on anything? No; you will act on your own responsibility, out of compassion for a misguided old woman. Judge for yourself when you read what follows, if Mrs. Presty is not sadly in need of the good example of an ornament to her sex.

The Evil Genius of the family joined us in the cottage parlor when our consultations had come to an end. I had the honor of communicating the decision at which we had arrived. Mrs. Presty marched to the door; and, from that commanding position, addressed a few farewell remarks to her daughter.

“I have done with you, Catherine. You have reached the limits of my maternal endurance at last. I shall set up my own establishment, and live again — in memory — with Mr. Norman and Mr. Presty. May you be happy. I don’t anticipate it.”

She left the room — and came back again for a last word, addressed this time to Randal Linley.

“When you next see your friend, Captain Bennydeck, give him my compliments, Mr. Randal, and say I congratulate him on having been jilted by my daughter. It would have been a sad thing, indeed, if such a sensible man had married an idiot. Good-morning.”

She left the room again, and came back again for another last word, addressed on this occasion to me. Her better nature made an effort to express itself, not altogether without success.

“I think it is quite likely, Mr. Sarrazin, that some dreadful misfortune will fall on my daughter, as the punishment of her undutiful disregard of her mother’s objections. In that case, I shall feel it my duty to return and administer maternal consolation. When you write, address me at my banker’s. I make allowances for a lawyer, sir; I don’t blame You.”

She opened the door for the third time — stepped out, and stepped back again into the room — suddenly gave her daughter a fierce kiss — returned to the door — shook her fist at Mrs. Linley with a theatrically-threatening gesture — said, “Unnatural child!”— and, after this exhibition of her better nature, and her worse, left us at last. When you visit the remarried pair on their return from their second honeymoon, take Mrs. Presty with you.

3. — The Lawyer’s Last Word.

“When you force this ridiculous and regrettable affair on my attention” (I think I hear Mrs. Sarrazin say), “the least you can do is to make your narrative complete. But perhaps you propose to tell me personally what has become of Kitty, and what well-deserved retribution has overtaken Miss Westerfield.”

No: I propose in this case also to communicate my information in writing — at the safe distance from home of Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Kitty accompanies her father and mother to the Continent, of course. But she insisted on first saying good-by to the dear friend, once the dear governess, whom she loves. Randal and I volunteered to take her (with her mother’s ready permission) to see Miss Westerfield. Try not to be angry. Try not to tear me up.

We found Captain Bennydeck and his pretty secretary enjoying a little rest and refreshment, after a long morning’s work for the good of the Home. The Captain was carving the chicken; and Sydney, by his side, was making the salad. The house-cat occupied a third chair, with her eyes immovably fixed on the movements of the knife and fork. Perhaps I was thinking of sad past days. Anyway, it seemed to me to be as pretty a domestic scene as a man could wish to look at. The arrival of Kitty made the picture complete.

Our visit was necessarily limited by a due remembrance of the hour of departure, by an early tidal train. Kitty’s last words to Sydney bade her bear their next meeting in mind, and not be melancholy at only saying good-by for a time. Like all children, she asks strange questions. When we were out in the street again, she said to her uncle: “Do you think my nice Captain will marry Syd?”

Randal had noticed, in Captain Bennydeck’s face, signs which betrayed that the bitterest disappointment of his life was far from being a forgotten disappointment yet. If it had been put by any other person, poor Kitty’s absurd question might have met with a bitter reply. As it was, her uncle only said: “My dear child, that is no business of yours or mine.”

Not in the least discouraged, Kitty turned to me. “What do you think, Samuel?”

I followed Randal’s lead, and answered, “How should I know?”

The child looked from one to the other of us. “Shall I tell you what I think?” she said, “I think you are both of you humbugs.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30