I Say No, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter li.

The Doctor Sees.

Alban returned to Netherwoods — to continue his services, until another master could be found to take his place.

By a later train Miss Ladd followed him. Emily was too well aware of the importance of the mistress’s presence to the well-being of the school, to permit her to remain at the cottage. It was understood that they were to correspond, and that Emily’s room was waiting for her at Netherwoods, whenever she felt inclined to occupy it.

Mrs. Ellmother made the tea, that evening, earlier than usual. Being alone again with Emily, it struck her that she might take advantage of her position to say a word in Alban’s favor. She had chosen her time unfortunately. The moment she pronounced the name, Emily checked her by a look, and spoke of another person — that person being Miss Jethro.

Mrs. Ellmother at once entered her protest, in her own downright way. “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t go back to that! What does Miss Jethro matter to you?”

“I am more interested in her than you suppose — I happen to know why she left the school.”

“Begging your pardon, miss, that’s quite impossible!”

“She left the school,” Emily persisted, “for a serious reason. Miss Ladd discovered that she had used false references.”

“Good Lord! who told you that?”

“You see I know it. I asked Miss Ladd how she got her information. She was bound by a promise never to mention the person’s name. I didn’t say it to her — but I may say it to you. I am afraid I have an idea of who the person was.”

“No,” Mrs. Ellmother obstinately asserted, “you can’t possibly know who it was! How should you know?”

“Do you wish me to repeat what I heard in that room opposite, when my aunt was dying?”

“Drop it, Miss Emily! For God’s sake, drop it!”

“I can’t drop it. It’s dreadful to me to have suspicions of my aunt — and no better reason for them than what she said in a state of delirium. Tell me, if you love me, was it her wandering fancy? or was it the truth?”

“As I hope to be saved, Miss Emily, I can only guess as you do — I don’t rightly know. My mistress trusted me half way, as it were. I’m afraid I have a rough tongue of my own sometimes. I offended her — and from that time she kept her own counsel. What she did, she did in the dark, so far as I was concerned.”

“How did you offend her?”

“I shall be obliged to speak of your father if I tell you how?”

“Speak of him.”

He was not to blame — mind that!” Mrs. Ellmother said earnestly. “If I wasn’t certain of what I say now you wouldn’t get a word out of me. Good harmless man — there’s no denying it — he was in love with Miss Jethro! What’s the matter?”

Emily was thinking of her memorable conversation with the disgraced teacher on her last night at school. “Nothing” she answered. “Go on.”

“If he had not tried to keep it secret from us,” Mrs. Ellmother resumed, “your aunt might never have taken it into her head that he was entangled in a love affair of the shameful sort. I don’t deny that I helped her in her inquiries; but it was only because I felt sure from the first that the more she discovered the more certainly my master’s innocence would show itself. He used to go away and visit Miss Jethro privately. In the time when your aunt trusted me, we never could find out where. She made that discovery afterward for herself (I can’t tell you how long afterward); and she spent money in employing mean wretches to pry into Miss Jethro’s past life. She had (if you will excuse me for saying it) an old maid’s hatred of the handsome young woman, who lured your father away from home, and set up a secret (in a manner of speaking) between her brother and herself. I won’t tell you how we looked at letters and other things which he forgot to leave under lock and key. I will only say there was one bit, in a journal he kept, which made me ashamed of myself. I read it out to Miss Letitia; and I told her in so many words, not to count any more on me. No; I haven’t got a copy of the words — I can remember them without a copy. ‘Even if my religion did not forbid me to peril my soul by leading a life of sin with this woman whom I love’— that was how it began —‘the thought of my daughter would keep me pure. No conduct of mine shall ever make me unworthy of my child’s affection and respect.’ There! I’m making you cry; I won’t stay here any longer. All that I had to say has been said. Nobody but Miss Ladd knows for certain whether your aunt was innocent or guilty in the matter of Miss Jethro’s disgrace. Please to excuse me; my work’s waiting downstairs.”

From time to time, as she pursued her domestic labors, Mrs. Ellmother thought of Mirabel. Hours on hours had passed — and the doctor had not appeared. Was he too busy to spare even a few minutes of his time? Or had the handsome little gentleman, after promising so fairly, failed to perform his errand? This last doubt wronged Mirabel. He had engaged to return to the doctor’s house; and he kept his word.

Doctor Allday was at home again, and was seeing patients. Introduced in his turn, Mirabel had no reason to complain of his reception. At the same time, after he had stated the object of his visit, something odd began to show itself in the doctor’s manner.

He looked at Mirabel with an appearance of uneasy curiosity; and he contrived an excuse for altering the visitor’s position in the room, so that the light fell full on Mirabel’s face.

“I fancy I must have seen you,” the doctor said, “at some former time.”

“I am ashamed to say I don’t remember it,” Mirabel answered.

“Ah, very likely I’m wrong! I’ll call on Miss Emily, sir, you may depend on it.”

Left in his consulting-room, Doctor Allday failed to ring the bell which summoned the next patient who was waiting for him. He took his diary from the table drawer, and turned to the daily entries for the past month of July.

Arriving at the fifteenth day of the month, he glanced at the first lines of writing: “A visit from a mysterious lady, calling herself Miss Jethro. Our conference led to some very unexpected results.”

No: that was not what he was in search of. He looked a little lower down: and read on regularly, from that point, as follows:

“Called on Miss Emily, in great anxiety about the discoveries which she might make among her aunt’s papers. Papers all destroyed, thank God — except the Handbill, offering a reward for discovery of the murderer, which she found in the scrap-book. Gave her back the Handbill. Emily much surprised that the wretch should have escaped, with such a careful description of him circulated everywhere. She read the description aloud to me, in her nice clear voice: ‘Supposed age between twenty-five and thirty years. A well-made man of small stature. Fai r complexion, delicate features, clear blue eyes. Hair light, and cut rather short. Clean shaven, with the exception of narrow half-whiskers’— and so on. Emily at a loss to understand how the fugitive could disguise himself. Reminded her that he could effectually disguise his head and face (with time to help him) by letting his hair grow long, and cultivating his beard. Emily not convinced, even by this self-evident view of the case. Changed the subject.”

The doctor put away his diary, and rang the bell.

“Curious,” he thought. “That dandified little clergyman has certainly reminded me of my discussion with Emily, more than two months since. Was it his flowing hair, I wonder? or his splendid beard? Good God! suppose it should turn out —?”

He was interrupted by the appearance of his patient. Other ailing people followed. Doctor Allday’s mind was professionally occupied for the rest of the evening.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/i-say-no/chapter51.html

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