I Say No, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter ii.

Biography in the Bedroom.

The candle was instantly extinguished. In discreet silence the girls stole back to their beds, and listened.

As an aid to the vigilance of the sentinel, the door had been left ajar. Through the narrow opening, a creaking of the broad wooden stairs of the old house became audible. In another moment there was silence. An interval passed, and the creaking was heard again. This time, the sound was distant and diminishing. On a sudden it stopped. The midnight silence was disturbed no more.

What did this mean?

Had one among the many persons in authority under Miss Ladd’s roof heard the girls talking, and ascended the stairs to surprise them in the act of violating one of the rules of the house? So far, such a proceeding was by no means uncommon. But was it within the limits of probability that a teacher should alter her opinion of her own duty half-way up the stairs, and deliberately go back to her own room again? The bare idea of such a thing was absurd on the face of it. What more rational explanation could ingenuity discover on the spur of the moment?

Francine was the first to offer a suggestion. She shook and shivered in her bed, and said, “For heaven’s sake, light the candle again! It’s a Ghost.”

“Clear away the supper, you fools, before the ghost can report us to Miss Ladd.”

With this excellent advice Emily checked the rising panic. The door was closed, the candle was lit; all traces of the supper disappeared. For five minutes more they listened again. No sound came from the stairs; no teacher, or ghost of a teacher, appeared at the door.

Having eaten her supper, Cecilia’s immediate anxieties were at an end; she was at leisure to exert her intelligence for the benefit of her schoolfellows. In her gentle ingratiating way, she offered a composing suggestion. “When we heard the creaking, I don’t believe there was anybody on the stairs. In these old houses there are always strange noises at night — and they say the stairs here were made more than two hundred years since.”

The girls looked at each other with a sense of relief — but they waited to hear the opinion of the queen. Emily, as usual, justified the confidence placed in her. She discovered an ingenious method of putting Cecilia’s suggestion to the test.

“Let’s go on talking,” she said. “If Cecilia is right, the teachers are all asleep, and we have nothing to fear from them. If she’s wrong, we shall sooner or later see one of them at the door. Don’t be alarmed, Miss de Sor. Catching us talking at night, in this school, only means a reprimand. Catching us with a light, ends in punishment. Blow out the candle.”

Francine’s belief in the ghost was too sincerely superstitious to be shaken: she started up in bed. “Oh, don’t leave me in the dark! I’ll take the punishment, if we are found out.”

“On your sacred word of honor?” Emily stipulated.

“Yes — yes.”

The queen’s sense of humor was tickled.

“There’s something funny,” she remarked, addressing her subjects, “in a big girl like this coming to a new school and beginning with a punishment. May I ask if you are a foreigner, Miss de Sor?”

“My papa is a Spanish gentleman,” Francine answered, with dignity.

“And your mamma?”

“My mamma is English.”

“And you have always lived in the West Indies?”

“I have always lived in the Island of St. Domingo.”

Emily checked off on her fingers the different points thus far discovered in the character of Mr. de Sor’s daughter. “She’s ignorant, and superstitious, and foreign, and rich. My dear (forgive the familiarity), you are an interesting girl — and we must really know more of you. Entertain the bedroom. What have you been about all your life? And what in the name of wonder, brings you here? Before you begin I insist on one condition, in the name of all the young ladies in the room. No useful information about the West Indies!”

Francine disappointed her audience.

She was ready enough to make herself an object of interest to her companions; but she was not possessed of the capacity to arrange events in their proper order, necessary to the recital of the simplest narrative. Emily was obliged to help her, by means of questions. In one respect, the result justified the trouble taken to obtain it. A sufficient reason was discovered for the extraordinary appearance of a new pupil, on the day before the school closed for the holidays.

Mr. de Sor’s elder brother had left him an estate in St. Domingo, and a fortune in money as well; on the one easy condition that he continued to reside in the island. The question of expense being now beneath the notice of the family, Francine had been sent to England, especially recommended to Miss Ladd as a young lady with grand prospects, sorely in need of a fashionable education. The voyage had been so timed, by the advice of the schoolmistress, as to make the holidays a means of obtaining this object privately. Francine was to be taken to Brighton, where excellent masters could be obtained to assist Miss Ladd. With six weeks before her, she might in some degree make up for lost time; and, when the school opened again, she would avoid the mortification of being put down in the lowest class, along with the children.

The examination of Miss de Sor having produced these results was pursued no further. Her character now appeared in a new, and not very attractive, light. She audaciously took to herself the whole credit of telling her story:

“I think it’s my turn now,” she said, “to be interested and amused. May I ask you to begin, Miss Emily? All I know of you at present is, t hat your family name is Brown.”

Emily held up her hand for silence.

Was the mysterious creaking on the stairs making itself heard once more? No. The sound that had caught Emily’s quick ear came from the beds, on the opposite side of the room, occupied by the three lazy girls. With no new alarm to disturb them, Effie, Annis, and Priscilla had yielded to the composing influences of a good supper and a warm night. They were fast asleep — and the stoutest of the three (softly, as became a young lady) was snoring!

The unblemished reputation of the bedroom was dear to Emily, in her capacity of queen. She felt herself humiliated in the presence of the new pupil.

“If that fat girl ever gets a lover,” she said indignantly, “I shall consider it my duty to warn the poor man before he marries her. Her ridiculous name is Euphemia. I have christened her (far more appropriately) Boiled Veal. No color in her hair, no color in her eyes, no color in her complexion. In short, no flavor in Euphemia. You naturally object to snoring. Pardon me if I turn my back on you — I am going to throw my slipper at her.”

The soft voice of Cecilia — suspiciously drowsy in tone — interposed in the interests of mercy.

“She can’t help it, poor thing; and she really isn’t loud enough to disturb us.”

“She won’t disturb you, at any rate! Rouse yourself, Cecilia. We are wide awake on this side of the room — and Francine says it’s our turn to amuse her.”

A low murmur, dying away gently in a sigh, was the only answer. Sweet Cecilia had yielded to the somnolent influences of the supper and the night. The soft infection of repose seemed to be in some danger of communicating itself to Francine. Her large mouth opened luxuriously in a long-continued yawn.

“Good-night!” said Emily.

Miss de Sor became wide awake in an instant.

“No,” she said positively; “you are quite mistaken if you think I am going to sleep. Please exert yourself, Miss Emily — I am waiting to be interested.”

Emily appeared to be unwilling to exert herself. She preferred talking of the weather.

“Isn’t the wind rising?” she said.

There could be no doubt of it. The leaves in the garden were beginning to rustle, and the pattering of the rain sounded on the windows.

Francine (as her straight chin proclaimed to all students of physiognomy) was an obstinate girl. Determined to carry her point she tried Emily’s own system on Emily herself — she put questions.

“Have you been long at this school?”

“More than three years.”

“Have you got any brothers and sisters?”

“I am the only child.”

“Are your father and mother alive?”

Emily suddenly raised herself in bed.

“Wait a minute,” she said; “I think I hear it again.”

“The creaking on the stairs?”

“Yes.”

Either she was mistaken, or the change for the worse in the weather made it not easy to hear slight noises in the house. The wind was still rising. The passage of it through the great trees in the garden began to sound like the fall of waves on a distant beach. It drove the rain — a heavy downpour by this time — rattling against the windows.

“Almost a storm, isn’t it?” Emily said

Francine’s last question had not been answered yet. She took the earliest opportunity of repeating it:

“Never mind the weather,” she said. “Tell me about your father and mother. Are they both alive?”

Emily’s reply only related to one of her parents.

“My mother died before I was old enough to feel my loss.”

“And your father?”

Emily referred to another relative — her father’s sister. “Since I have grown up,” she proceeded, “my good aunt has been a second mother to me. My story is, in one respect, the reverse of yours. You are unexpectedly rich; and I am unexpectedly poor. My aunt’s fortune was to have been my fortune, if I outlived her. She has been ruined by the failure of a bank. In her old age, she must live on an income of two hundred a year — and I must get my own living when I leave school.”

“Surely your father can help you?” Francine persisted.

“His property is landed property.” Her voice faltered, as she referred to him, even in that indirect manner. “It is entailed; his nearest male relative inherits it.”

The delicacy which is easily discouraged was not one of the weaknesses in the nature of Francine.

“Do I understand that your father is dead?” she asked.

Our thick-skinned fellow-creatures have the rest of us at their mercy: only give them time, and they carry their point in the end. In sad subdued tones — telling of deeply-rooted reserves of feeling, seldom revealed to strangers — Emily yielded at last.

“Yes,” she said, “my father is dead.”

“Long ago?”

“Some people might think it long ago. I was very fond of my father. It’s nearly four years since he died, and my heart still aches when I think of him. I’m not easily depressed by troubles, Miss de Sor. But his death was sudden — he was in his grave when I first heard of it — and — Oh, he was so good to me; he was so good to me!”

The gay high-spirited little creature who took the lead among them all — who was the life and soul of the school — hid her face in her hands, and burst out crying.

Startled and — to do her justice — ashamed, Francine attempted to make excuses. Emily’s generous nature passed over the cruel persistency that had tortured her. “No no; I have nothing to forgive. It isn’t your fault. Other girls have not mothers and brothers and sisters — and get reconciled to such a loss as mine. Don’t make excuses.”

“Yes, but I want you to know that I feel for you,” Francine insisted, without the slightest approach to sympathy in face, voice, or manner. “When my uncle died, and left us all the money, papa was much shocked. He trusted to time to help him.”

“Time has been long about it with me, Francine. I am afraid there is something perverse in my nature; the hope of meeting again in a better world seems so faint and so far away. No more of it now! Let us talk of that good creature who is asleep on the other side of you. Did I tell you that I must earn my own bread when I leave school? Well, Cecilia has written home and found an employment for me. Not a situation as governess — something quite out of the common way. You shall hear all about it.”

In the brief interval that had passed, the weather had begun to change again. The wind was as high as ever; but to judge by the lessening patter on the windows the rain was passing away.

Emily began.

She was too grateful to her friend and school-fellow, and too deeply interested in her story, to notice the air of indifference with which Francine settled herself on her pillow to hear the praises of Cecilia. The most beautiful girl in the school was not an object of interest to a young lady with an obstinate chin and unfortunately-placed eyes. Pouring warm from the speaker’s heart the story ran smoothly on, to the monotonous accompaniment of the moaning wind. By fine degrees Francine’s eyes closed, opened and closed again. Toward the latter part of the narrative Emily’s memory became, for the moment only, confused between two events. She stopped to consider — noticed Francine’s silence, in an interval when she might have said a word of encouragement — and looked closer at her. Miss de Sor was asleep.

“She might have told me she was tired,” Emily said to herself quietly. “Well! the best thing I can do is to put out the light and follow her example.”

As she took up the extinguisher, the bedroom door was suddenly opened from the outer side. A tall woman, robed in a black dressing-gown, stood on the threshold, looking at Emily.

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