I Say No, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter xxxvii.

“The Lady Wants You, Sir.”

The pupils of the drawing-class put away their pencils and color-boxes in high good humor: the teacher’s vigilant eye for faults had failed him for the first time in their experience. Not one of them had been reproved; they had chattered and giggled and drawn caricatures on the margin of the paper, as freely as if the master had left the room. Alban’s wandering attention was indeed beyond the reach of control. His interview with Francine had doubled his sense of responsibility toward Emily — while he was further than ever from seeing how he could interfere, to any useful purpose, in his present position, and with his reasons for writing under reserve.

One of the servants addressed him as he was leaving the schoolroom. The landlady’s boy was waiting in the hall, with a message from his lodgings.

“Now then! what is it?” he asked, irritably.

“The lady wants you, sir.” With this mysterious answer, the boy presented a visiting card. The name inscribed on it was —“Miss Jethro.”

She had arrived by the train, and she was then waiting at Alban’s lodgings. “Say I will be with her directly.” Having given the message, he stood for a while, with his hat in his hand — literally lost in astonishment. It was simply impossible to guess at Miss Jethro’s object: and yet, with the usual perversity of human nature, he was still wondering what she could possibly want with him, up to the final moment when he opened the door of his sitting-room.

She rose and bowed with the same grace of movement, and the same well-bred composure of manner, which Doctor Allday had noticed when she entered his consulting-room. Her dark melancholy eyes rested on Alban with a look of gentle interest. A faint flush of color animated for a moment the faded beauty of her face — passed away again — and left it paler than before.

“I cannot conceal from myself,” she began, “that I am intruding on you under embarrassing circumstances.”

“May I ask, Miss Jethro, to what circumstances you allude?”

“You forget, Mr. Morris, that I left Miss Ladd’s school, in a manner which justified doubt of me in the minds of strangers.”

“Speaking as one of those strangers,” Alban replied, “I cannot feel that I had any right to form an opinion, on a matter which only concerned Miss Ladd and yourself.”

Miss Jethro bowed gravely. “You encourage me to hope,” she said. “I think you will place a favorable construction on my visit when I mention my motive. I ask you to receive me, in the interests of Miss Emily Brown.”

Stating her purpose in calling on him in those plain terms, she added to the amazement which Alban already felt, by handing to him — as if she was presenting an introduction — a letter marked, “Private,” addressed to her by Doctor Allday.

“I may tell you,” she premised, “that I had no idea of troubling you, until Doctor Allday suggested it. I wrote to him in the first instance; and there is his reply. Pray read it.”

The letter was dated, “Penzance”; and the doctor wrote, as he spoke, without ceremony.

“MADAM— Your letter has been forwarded to me. I am spending my autumn holiday in the far West of Cornwall. However, if I had been at home, it would have made no difference. I should have begged leave to decline holding any further conversation with you, on the subject of Miss Emily Brown, for the following reasons:

“In the first place, though I cannot doubt your sincere interest in the young lady’s welfare, I don’t like your mysterious way of showing it. In the second place, when I called at your address in London, after you had left my house, I found that you had taken to flight. I place my own interpretation on this circumstance; but as it is not founded on any knowledge of facts, I merely allude to it, and say no more.”

Arrived at that point, Alban offered to return the letter. “Do you really mean me to go on reading it?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said quietly.

Alban returned to the letter.

“In the third place, I have good reason to believe that you entered Miss Ladd’s school as a teacher, under false pretenses. After that discovery, I tell you plainly I hesitate to attach credit to any statement that you may wish to make. At the same time, I must not permit my prejudices (as you will probably call them) to stand in the way of Miss Emily’s interests — supposing them to be really depending on any interference of yours. Miss Ladd’s drawing-master, Mr. Alban Morris, is even more devoted to Miss Emily’s service than I am. Whatever you might have said to me, you can say to him — with this possible advantage, that he may believe you.”

There the letter ended. Alban handed it back in silence.

Miss Jethro pointed to the words, “Mr. Alban Morris is even more devoted to Miss Emily’s service than I am.”

“Is that true?” she asked.

“Quite true.”

“I don’t complain, Mr. Morris, of the hard things said of me in that letter; you are at liberty to suppose, if you like, that I deserve them. Attribute it to pride, or attribute it to reluctance to make needless demands on your time — I shall not attempt to defend myself. I leave you to decide whether the woman who has shown you that letter — having something important to say to you — is a person who is mean enough to say it under false pretenses.”

“Tell me what I can do for you, Miss Jethro: and be assured, beforehand, that I don’t doubt your sincerity.”

“My purpose in coming here,” she answered, “is to induce you to use your influence over Miss Emily Brown —”

“With what object?” Alban asked, interrupting her.

“My object is her own good. Some years since, I happened to become acquainted with a person who has attained some celebrity as a preacher. You have perhaps heard of Mr. Miles Mirabel?”

“I have heard of him.”

“I have been in correspondence with him,” Miss Jethro proceeded. “He tells me he has been introduced to a young lady, who was formerly one of Miss Ladd’s pupils, and who is the daughter of Mr. Wyvil, of Monksmoor Park. He has called on Mr. Wyvil; and he has since received an invitation to stay at Mr. Wyvil’s house. The day fixed for the visit is Monday, the fifth of next month.”

Alban listened — at a loss to know what interest he was supposed to have in being made acquainted with Mr. Mirabel’s engagements. Miss Jethro’s next words enlightened him.

“You are perhaps aware,” she resumed, “that Miss Emily Brown is Miss Wyvil’s intimate friend. She will be one of the guests at Monksmoor Park. If there are any obstacles which you can place in her way — if there is any influence which you can exert, without exciting suspicion of your motive — prevent her, I entreat you, from accepting Miss Wyvil’s invitation, until Mr. Mirabel’s visit has come to an end.”

“Is there anything against Mr. Mirabel?” he asked.

“I say nothing against him.”

“Is Miss Emily acquainted with him?”

“No.”

“Is he a person with whom it would be disagreeable to her to associate?”

“Quite the contrary.”

“And yet you expect me to prevent them from meeting! Be reasonable, Miss Jethro.”

“I can only be in earnest, Mr. Morris — more truly, more deeply in earnest than you can suppose. I declare to you that I am speaking in Miss Emily’s interests. Do you still refuse to exert yourself for her sake?”

“I am spared the pain of refusal,” Alban answered. “The time for interference has gone by. She is, at this moment, on her way to Monksmoor Park.”

Miss Jethro attempted to rise — and dropped back into her chair. “Water!” she said faintly. After drinking from the glass to the last drop, she began to revive. Her little traveling-bag was on the floor at her side. She took out a railway guide, and tried to consult it. Her fingers trembled incessantly; she was unable to find the page to which she wished to refer. “Help me,” she said, “I must leave this place — by the first train that passes.”

“To see Emily?” Alban asked.

“Quite useless! You have said it yourself — the time for interference has gone by. Look at the guide.”

“What place shall I look for?”

“Look for Vale Regis.”

Alban found the place. The train was due in ten minutes. “Surely you are not fit to travel so soon?” he suggested.

“Fit or not, I must see Mr. Mirabel — I must make the effort to keep them apart by appealing to him.”

“With any hope of success?”

“With no hope — and with no interest in the man himself. Still I must try.”

“Out of anxiety for Emily’s welfare?”

“Out of anxiety for more than that.”

“For what?”

“If you can’t guess, I daren’t tell you.”

That strange reply startled Alban. Before he could ask what it meant, Miss Jethro had left him.

In the emergencies of life, a person readier of resource than Alban Morris it would not have been easy to discover. The extraordinary interview that had now come to an end had found its limits. Bewildered and helpless, he stood at the window of his room, and asked himself (as if he had been the weakest man living), “What shall I do?”

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