I Say No, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter iii.

The Late Mr. Brown.

The woman’s lean, long-fingered hand pointed to the candle.

“Don’t put it out.” Saying those words, she looked round the room, and satisfied herself that the other girls were asleep.

Emily laid down the extinguisher. “You mean to report us, of course,” she said. “I am the only one awake, Miss Jethro; lay the blame on me.”

“I have no intention of reporting you. But I have something to say.”

She paused, and pushed her thick black hair (already streaked with gray) back from her temples. Her eyes, large and dark and dim, rested on Emily with a sorrowful interest. “When your young friends wake to-morrow morning,” she went on, “you can tell them that the new teacher, whom nobody likes, has left the school.”

For once, even quick-witted Emily was bewildered. “Going away,” she said, “when you have only been here since Easter!”

Miss Jethro advanced, not noticing Emily’s expression of surprise. “I am not very strong at the best of times,” she continued, “may I sit down on your bed?” Remarkable on other occasions for her cold composure, her voice trembled as she made that request — a strange request surely, when there were chairs at her disposal.

Emily made room for her with the dazed look of a girl in a dream. “I beg your pardon, Miss Jethro, one of the things I can’t endure is being puzzled. If you don’t mean to report us, why did you come in and catch me with the light?”

Miss Jethro’s explanation was far from relieving the perplexity which her conduct had caused.

“I have been mean enough,” she answered, “to listen at the door, and I heard you talking of your father. I want to hear more about him. That is why I came in.”

“You knew my father!” Emily exclaimed.

“I believe I knew him. But his name is so common — there are so many thousands of ‘James Browns’ in England — that I am in fear of making a mistake. I heard you say that he died nearly four years since. Can you mention any particulars which might help to enlighten me? If you think I am taking a liberty —”

Emily stopped her. “I would help you if I could,” she said. “But I was in poor health at the time; and I was staying with friends far away in Scotland, to try change of air. The news of my father’s death brought on a relapse. Weeks passed before I was strong enough to travel — weeks and weeks before I saw his grave! I can only tell you what I know from my aunt. He died of heart-complaint.”

Miss Jethro started.

Emily looked at her for the first time, with eyes that betrayed a feeling of distrust. “What have I said to startle you?” she asked.

“Nothing! I am nervous in stormy weather — don’t notice me.” She went on abruptly with her inquiries. “Will you tell me the date of your father’s death?”

“The date was the thirtieth of September, nearly four years since.”

She waited, after that reply.

Miss Jethro was silent.

“And this,” Emily continued, “is the thirtieth of June, eighteen hundred and eighty-one. You can now judge for yourself. Did you know my father?”

Miss Jethro answered mechanically, using the same words.

“I did know your father.”

Emily’s feeling of distrust was not set at rest. “I never heard him speak of you,” she said.

In her younger days the teacher must have been a handsome woman. Her grandly-formed features still suggested the idea of imperial beauty — perhaps Jewish in its origin. When Emily said, “I never heard him speak of you,” the color flew into her pallid cheeks: her dim eyes became alive again with a momentary light. She left her seat on the bed, and, turning away, mastered the emotion that shook her.

“How hot the night is!” she said: and sighed, and resumed the subject with a steady countenance. “I am not surprised that your father never mentioned me — to you.” She spoke quietly, but her face was paler than ever. She sat down again on the bed. “Is there anything I can do for you,” she asked, “before I go away? Oh, I only mean some trifling service that would lay you under no obligation, and would not oblige you to keep up your acquaintance with me.”

Her eyes — the dim black eyes that must once have been irresistibly beautiful — looked at Emily so sadly that the generous girl reproached herself for having doubted her father’s friend. “Are you thinking of him,” she said gently, “when you ask if you can be of service to me?”

Miss Jethro made no direct reply. “You were fond of your father?” she added, in a whisper. “You told your schoolfellow that your heart still aches when you speak of him.”

“I only told her the truth,” Emily answered simply.

Miss Jethro shuddered — on that hot night! — shuddered as if a chill had struck her.

Emily held out her hand; the kind feeling that had been roused in her glittered prettily in her eyes. “I am afraid I have not done you justice,” she said. “Will you forgive me and shake hands?”

Miss Jethro rose, and drew back. “Look at the light!” she exclaimed.

The candle was all burned out. Emily still offered her hand — and still Miss Jethro refused to see it.

“There is just light enough left,” she said, “to show me my way to the door. Good-night — and good-by.”

Emily caught at her dress, and stopped her. “Why won’t you shake hands with me?” she asked.

The wick of the candle fell over in the socket, and left them in the dark. Emily resolutely held the teacher’s dress. With or without light, she was still bent on making Miss Jethro explain herself.

They had throughout spoken in guarded tones, fearing to disturb the sleeping girls. The sudden darkness had its inevitable effect. Their voices sank to whispers now. “My father’s friend,” Emily pleaded, “is surely my friend?”

“Drop the subject.”

“Why?”

“You can never be my friend.”

“Why not?”

“Let me go!”

Emily’s sense of self-respect forbade her to persist any longer. “I beg your pardon for having kept you here against your will,” she said — and dropped her hold on the dress.

Miss Jethro instantly yielded on her side. “I am sorry to have been obstinate,” she answered. “If you do despise me, it is after all no more than I have deserved.” Her hot breath beat on Emily’s face: the unhappy woman must have bent over the bed as she made her confession. “I am not a fit person for you to associate with.”

“I don’t believe it!”

Miss Jethro sighed bitterly. “Young and warm hearted — I was once like you!” She controlled that outburst of despair. Her next words were spoken in steadier tones. “You will have it — you shall have it!” she said. “Some one (in this house or out of it; I don’t know which) has betrayed me to the mistress of the school. A wretch in my situation suspects everybody, and worse still, does it without reason or excuse. I heard you girls talking when you ought to have been asleep. You all dislike me. How did I know it mightn’t be one of you? Absurd, to a person with a well-balanced mind! I went halfway up the stairs, and felt ashamed of myself, and went back to my room. If I could only have got some rest! Ah, well, it was not to be done. My own vile suspicions kept me awake; I left my bed again. You know what I heard on the other side of that door, and why I was interested in hearing it. Your father never told me he had a daughter. ‘Miss Brown,’ at this school, was any ‘Miss Brown,’ to me. I had no idea of who you really were until to-night. I’m wandering. What does all this matter to you? Miss Ladd has been merciful; she lets me go without exposing me. You can guess what has happened. No? Not even yet? Is it innocence or kindness that makes you so slow to understand? My dear, I have obtained admission to this respectable house by means of false references, and I have been discovered. Now you know why you must not be the friend of such a woman as I am! Once more, good-night — and good-by.”

Emily shrank from that miserable farewell.

“Bid me good-night,” she said, “but don’t bid me good-by. Let me see you again.”

“Never!”

The sound of the softly-closed door was just audible in the darkness. She had spoken — she had gone — never to be seen by Emily again.

Miserable, interesting, unfathomable creature — the problem that night of Emily’s waking thoughts: the phantom of her dreams. “Bad? or good?” she asked herself. “False; for she listened at the door. True; for she told me the tale of her own disgrace. A friend of my father; and she never knew that he had a daughter. Refined, accomplished, lady-like; and she stoops to use a false reference. Who is to reconcile such contradictions as these?”

Dawn looked in at the window — dawn of the memorable day which was, for Emily, the beginning of a new life. The years were before her; and the years in their course reveal baffling mysteries of life and death.

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