I Say No, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter xiv.

Mrs. Mosey.

Emily’s first act — after the discovery of Mrs. Ellmother’s incomprehensible disappearance — was to invite the new servant to follow her into the sitting-room.

“Can you explain this?” she began.

“No, miss.”

“May I ask if you have come here by Mrs. Ellmother’s invitation?”

“By Mrs. Ellmother’s request, miss.”

“Can you tell me how she came to make the request?”

“With pleasure, miss. Perhaps — as you find me here, a stranger to yourself, in place of the customary servant — I ought to begin by giving you a reference.”

“And, perhaps (if you will be so kind), by mentioning your name,” Emily added.

“Thank you for reminding me, miss. My name is Elizabeth Mosey. I am well known to the gentleman who attends Miss Letitia. Dr. Allday will speak to my character and also to my experience as a nurse. If it would be in any way satisfactory to give you a second reference —”

“Quite needless, Mrs. Mosey.”

“Permit me to thank you again, miss. I was at home this evening, when Mrs. Ellmother called at my lodgings. Says she, ‘I have come here, Elizabeth, to ask a favor of you for old friendship’s sake.’ Says I, ‘My dear, pray command me, whatever it may be.’ If this seems rather a hasty answer to make, before I knew what the favor was, might I ask you to bear in mind that Mrs. Ellmother put it to me ‘for old friendship’s sake’— alluding to my late husband, and to the business which we carried on at that time? Through no fault of ours, we got into difficulties. Persons whom we had trusted proved unworthy. Not to trouble you further, I may say at once, we should have been ruined, if our old friend Mrs. Ellmother had not come forward, and trusted us with the savings of her lifetime. The money was all paid back again, before my husband’s death. But I don’t consider — and, I think you won’t consider — that the obligation was paid back too. Prudent or not prudent, there is nothing Mrs. Ellmother can ask of me that I am not willing to do. If I have put myself in an awkward situation (and I don’t deny that it looks so) this is the only excuse, miss, that I can make for my conduct.”

Mrs. Mosey was too fluent, and too fond of hearing the sound of her own eminently persuasive voice. Making allowance for these little drawbacks, the impression that she produced was decidedly favorable; and, however rashly she might have acted, her motive was beyond reproach. Having said some kind words to this effect, Emily led her back to the main interest of her narrative.

“Did Mrs. Ellmother give no reason for leaving my aunt, at such a time as this?” she asked.

“The very words I said to her, miss.”

“And what did she say, by way of reply?”

“She burst out crying — a thing I have never known her to do before, in an experience of twenty years.”

“And she really asked you to take her place here, at a moment’s notice?”

“That was just what she did,” Mrs. Mosey answered. “I had no need to tell her I was astonished; my lips spoke for me, no doubt. She’s a hard woman in speech and manner, I admit. But there’s more feeling in her than you would suppose. ‘If you are the good friend I take you for,’ she says, ‘don’t ask me for reasons; I am doing what is forced on me, and doing it with a heavy heart.’ In my place, miss, would you have insisted on her explaining herself, after that? The one thing I naturally wanted to know was, if I could speak to some lady, in the position of mistress here, before I ventured to intrude. Mrs. Ellmother understood that it was her duty to help me in this particular. Your poor aunt being out of the question she mentioned you.”

“How did she speak of me? In an angry way?”

“No, indeed — quite the contrary. She says, ‘You will find Miss Emily at the cottage. She is Miss Letitia’s niece. Everybody likes her — and everybody is right.’”

“She really said that?”

“Those were her words. And, what is more, she gave me a message for you at parting. ‘If Miss Emily is surprised’ (that was how she put it) ‘give her my duty and good wishes; and tell her to remember what I said, when she took my place at her aunt’s bedside.’ I don’t presume to inquire what this means,” said Mrs. Mosey respectfully, ready to hear what it meant, if Emily would only be so good as to tell her. “I deliver the message, miss, as it was delivered to me. After which, Mrs. Ellmother went her way, and I went mine.”

“Do you know where she went?”

“No, miss.”

“Have you nothing more to tell me?”

“Nothing more; except that she gave me my directions, of course, about the nursing. I took them down in writing — and you will find them in their proper place, with the prescriptions and the medicines.”

Acting at once on this hint, Emily led the way to her aunt’s room.

Miss Letitia was silent, when the new nurse softly parted the curtains — looked in — and drew them together again. Consulting her watch, Mrs. Mosey compared her written directions with the medicine-bottles on the table, and set one apart to be used at the appointed time. “Nothing, so far, to alarm us,” she whispered. “You look sadly pale and tired, miss. Might I advise you to rest a little?”

“If there is any change, Mrs. Mosey — either for the better or the worse — of course you will let me know?”

“Certainly, miss.”

Emily returned to the sitting-room: not to rest (after all that she had heard), but to think.

Amid much that was unintelligible, certain plain conclusions presented themselves to her mind.

After what the doctor had already said to Emily, on the subject of delirium generally, Mrs. Ellmother’s proceedings became intelligible: they proved that she knew by experience the perilous course taken by her mistress’s wandering thoughts, when they expressed themselves in words. This explained the concealment of Miss Letitia’s illness from her niece, as well as the reiterated efforts of the old servant to prevent Emily from entering the bedroom.

But the event which had just happened — that is to say, Mrs. Ellmother’s sudden departure from the cottage — was not only of serious importance in itself, but pointed to a startling conclusion.

The faithful maid had left the mistress, whom she had loved and served, sinking under a fatal illness — and had put another woman in her place, careless of what that woman might discover by listening at the bedside — rather than confront Emily after she had been within hearing of her aunt while the brain of the suffering woman was deranged by fever. There was the state of the case, in plain words.

In what frame of mind had Mrs. Ellmother adopted this desperate course of action?

To use her own expression, she had deserted Miss Letitia “with a heavy heart.” To judge by her own language addressed to Mrs. Mosey, she had left Emily to the mercy of a stranger — animated, nevertheless, by sincere feelings of attachment and respect. That her fears had taken for granted suspicion which Emily had not felt, and discoveries which Emily had (as yet) not made, in no way modified the serious nature of the inference which her conduct justified. The disclosure which this woman dreaded — who could doubt it now? — directly threatened Emily’s peace of mind. There was no disguising it: the innocent niece was associated with an act of deception, which had been, until that day, the undetected secret of the aunt and the aunt’s maid.

In this conclusion, and in this only, was to be found the rational explanation of Mrs. Ellmother’s choice — placed between the alternatives of submitting to discovery by Emily, or of leaving the house.

Poor Miss Letitia’s writing-table stood near the window of the sitting-room. Shrinking from the further pursuit of thoughts which might end in disposing her mind to distrust of her dying aunt, Emily looked round in search of some employment sufficiently interesting to absorb her attention. The writing-table reminded her that she owed a letter to Cecilia. That helpful friend had surely the first claim to know why she had failed to keep her engagement with Sir Jervis Redwood.

After mentioning the telegram which had followed Mrs. Rook’s arrival at the school, Emily’s letter proceeded in these terms:

“As soon as I had in some degree recovered myself, I informed Mrs. Rook of my aunt’s serious illness.

“Although she carefully confined herself to commonplace expressions of sympathy, I could see that it was equally a relief to both of us to feel that we were prevented from being traveling companions. Don’t suppose that I have taken a capricious dislike to Mrs. Rook — or that you are in any way to blame for the unfavorable impression which she has produced on me. I will make this plain when we meet. In the meanwhile, I need only tell you that I gave her a letter of explanation to present to Sir Jervis Redwood. I also informed him of my address in London: adding a request that he would forward your letter, in case you have written to me before you receive these lines.

“Kind Mr. Alban Morris accompanied me to the railway-station, and arranged with the guard to take special care of me on the journey to London. We used to think him rather a heartless man. We were quite wrong. I don’t know what his plans are for spending the summer holidays. Go where he may, I remember his kindness; my best wishes go with him.

“My dear, I must not sadden your enjoyment of your pleasant visit to the Engadine, by writing at any length of the sorrow that I am suffering. You know how I love my aunt, and how gratefully I have always felt her motherly goodness to me. The doctor does not conceal the truth. At her age, there is no hope: my father’s last-left relation, my one dearest friend, is dying.

“No! I must not forget that I have another friend — I must find some comfort in thinking of you.

“I do so long in my solitude for a letter from my dear Cecilia. Nobody comes to see me, when I most want sympathy; I am a stranger in this vast city. The members of my mother’s family are settled in Australia: they have not even written to me, in all the long years that have passed since her death. You remember how cheerfully I used to look forward to my new life, on leaving school? Good-by, my darling. While I can see your sweet face, in my thoughts, I don’t despair — dark as it looks now — of the future that is before me.”

Emily had closed and addressed her letter, and was just rising from her chair, when she heard the voice of the new nurse at the door.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/i-say-no/chapter14.html

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