I Say No, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter lxi.

Inside the Room.

A decent elderly woman was seated at the bedside. She rose, and spoke to Emily with a mingling of sorrow and confusion strikingly expressed on her face. “It isn’t my fault,” she said, “that Mrs. Rook receives you in this manner; I am obliged to humor her.”

She drew aside, and showed Mrs. Rook with her head supported by many pillows, and her face strangely hidden from view under a veil. Emily started back in horror. “Is her face injured?” she asked.

Mrs. Rook answered the question herself. Her voice was low and weak; but she still spoke with the same nervous hurry of articulation which had been remarked by Alban Morris, on the day when she asked him to direct her to Netherwoods.

“Not exactly injured,” she explained; “but one’s appearance is a matter of some anxiety even on one’s death-bed. I am disfigured by a thoughtless use of water, to bring me to when I had my fall — and I can’t get at my toilet-things to put myself right again. I don’t wish to shock you. Please excuse the veil.”

Emily remembered the rouge on her cheeks, and the dye on her hair, when they had first seen each other at the school. Vanity — of all human frailties the longest-lived — still held its firmly-rooted place in this woman’s nature; superior to torment of conscience, unassailable by terror of death!

The good woman of the house waited a moment before she left the room. “What shall I say,” she asked, “if the clergyman comes?”

Mrs. Rook lifted her hand solemnly “Say,” she answered, “that a dying sinner is making atonement for sin. Say this young lady is present, by the decree of an all-wise Providence. No mortal creature must disturb us.” Her hand dropped back heavily on the bed. “Are we alone?” she asked.

“We are alone,” Emily answered. “What made you scream just before I came in?”

“No! I can’t allow you to remind me of that,” Mrs. Rook protested. “I must compose myself. Be quiet. Let me think.”

Recovering her composure, she also recovered that sense of enjoyment in talking of herself, which was one of the marked peculiarities in her character.

“You will excuse me if I exhibit religion,” she resumed. “My dear parents were exemplary people; I was most carefully brought up. Are you pious? Let us hope so.”

Emily was once more reminded of the past.

The bygone time returned to her memory — the time when she had accepted Sir Jervis Redwood’s offer of employment, and when Mrs. Rook had arrived at the school to be her traveling companion to the North. The wretched creature had entirely forgotten her own loose talk, after she had drunk Miss Ladd’s good wine to the last drop in the bottle. As she was boasting now of her piety, so she had boasted then of her lost faith and hope, and had mockingly declared her free-thinking opinions to be the result of her ill-assorted marriage. Forgotten — all forgotten, in this later time of pain and fear. Prostrate under the dread of death, her innermost nature — stripped of the concealments of her later life — was revealed to view. The early religious training, at which she had scoffed in the insolence of health and strength, revealed its latent influence — intermitted, but a living influence always from first to last. Mrs. Rook was tenderly mindful of her exemplary parents, and proud of exhibiting religion, on the bed from which she was never to rise again.

“Did I tell you that I am a miserable sinner?” she asked, after an interval of silence.

Emily could endure it no longer. “Say that to the clergyman,” she answered —“not to me.”

“Oh, but I must say it,” Mrs. Rook insisted. “I am a miserable sinner. Let me give you an instance of it,” she continued, with a shameless relish of the memory of her own frailties. “I have been a drinker, in my time. Anything was welcome, when the fit was on me, as long as it got into my head. Like other persons in liquor, I sometimes talked of things that had better have been kept secret. We bore that in mind — my old man and I—— when we were engaged by Sir Jervis. Miss Redwood wanted to put us in the next bedroom to hers — a risk not to be run. I might have talked of the murder at the inn; and she might have heard me. Please to remark a curious thing. Whatever else I might let out, when I was in my cups, not a word about the pocketbook ever dropped from me. You will ask how I know it. My dear, I should have heard of it from my husband, if I had let that out — and he is as much in the dark as you are. Wonderful are the workings of the human mind, as the poet says; and drink drowns care, as the proverb says. But can drink deliver a person from fear by day, and fear by night? I believe, if I had dropped a word about the pocketbook, it would have sobered me in an instant. Have you any remark to make on this curious circumstance?”

Thus far, Emily had allowed the woman to ramble on, in the hope of getting information which direct inquiry might fail to produce. It was impossible, however, to pass over the allusion to the pocketbook. After giving her time to recover from the exhaustion which her heavy breathing sufficiently revealed, Emily put the question:

“Who did the pocketbook belong to?”

“Wait a little,” said Mrs. Rook. “Everything in its right place, is my motto. I mustn’t begin with the pocketbook. Why did I begin with it? Do you think this veil on my face confuses me? Suppose I take it off. But you must promise first — solemnly promise you won’t look at my face. How can I tell you about the murder (the murder is part of my confession, you know), with this lace tickling my skin? Go away — and stand there with your back to me. Thank you. Now I’ll take it off. Ha! the air feels refreshing; I know what I am about. Good heavens, I have forgotten something! I have forgotten him. And after such a fright as he gave me! Did you see him on the landing?”

“Who are you talking of?” Emily asked.

Mrs. Rook’s failing voice sank lower still.

“Come closer,” she said, “this must be whispered. Who am I talking of?” she repeated. “I am talking of the man who slept in the other bed at the inn; the man who did the deed with his own razor. He was gone when I looked into the outhouse in the gray of the morning. Oh, I have done my duty! I have told Mr. Rook to keep an eye on him downstairs. You haven’t an idea how obstinate and stupid my husband is. He says I couldn’t know the man, because I didn’t see him. Ha! there’s such a thing as hearing, when you don’t see. I heard — and I knew it again.”

Emily turned cold from head to foot.

“What did you know again?” she said.

“His voice,” Mrs. Rook answered. “I’ll swear to his voice before all the judges in England.”

Emily rushed to the bed. She looked at the woman who had said those dreadful words, speechless with horror.

“You’re breaking your promise!” cried Mrs. Rook. “You false girl, you’re breaking your promise!”

She snatched at the veil, and put it on again. The sight of her face, momentary as it had been, reassured Emily. Her wild eyes, made wilder still by the blurred stains of rouge below them, half washed away — her disheveled hair, with streaks of gray showing through the dye — presented a spectacle which would have been grotesque under other circumstances, but which now reminded Emily of Mr. Rook’s last words; warning her not to believe what his wife said, and even declaring his conviction that her intellect was deranged. Emily drew back from the bed, conscious of an overpowering sense of self-reproach. Although it was only for a moment, she had allowed her faith in Mirabel to be shaken by a woman who was out of her mind.

“Try to forgive me,” she said. “I didn’t willfully break my promise; you frightened me.”

Mrs. Rook began to cry. “I was a handsome woman in my time,” she murmured. “You would say I was handsome still, if the clumsy fools about me had not spoiled my appearance. Oh, I do feel so weak! Where’s my medicine?”

The bottle was on the table. Emily gave her the prescribed dose, and revived her failing strength.

“I am an extraordinary person,” she resumed. “My resolution has always been the admiration of every one who knew me. But my mind feels — how shall I express it? — a little vacant. Have mercy on my poor wicked soul! Help me.”

“How can I help you?”

“I want to recollect. Something happened in the summer time, when we were talking at Netherwoods. I mean when that impudent master at the school showed his suspicions of me. (Lord! how he frightened me, when he turned up afterward at Sir Jervis’s house.) You must have seen yourself he suspected me. How did he show it?”

“He showed you my locket,” Emily answered.

“Oh, the horrid reminder of the murder!” Mrs. Rook exclaimed. “I didn’t mention it: don’t blame Me. You poor innocent, I have something dreadful to tell you.”

Emily’s horror of the woman forced her to speak. “Don’t tell me!” she cried. “I know more than you suppose; I know what I was ignorant of when you saw the locket.”

Mrs. Rook took offense at the interruption.

“Clever as you are, there’s one thing you don’t know,” she said. “You asked me, just now, who the pocketbook belonged to. It belonged to your father. What’s the matter? Are you crying?”

Emily was thinking of her father. The pocketbook was the last present she had given to him — a present on his birthday. “Is it lost?” she asked sadly.

“No; it’s not lost. You will hear more of it directly. Dry your eyes, and expect something interesting — I’m going to talk about love. Love, my dear, means myself. Why shouldn’t it? I’m not the only nice-looking woman, married to an old man, who has had a lover.”

“Wretch! what has that got to do with it?”

“Everything, you rude girl! My lover was like the rest of them; he would bet on race-horses, and he lost. He owned it to me, on the day when your father came to our inn. He said, ‘I must find the money — or be off to America, and say good-by forever.’ I was fool enough to be fond of him. It broke my heart to hear him talk in that way. I said, ‘If I find the money, and more than the money, will you take me with you wherever you go?’ Of course, he said Yes. I suppose you have heard of the inquest held at our old place by the coroner and jury? Oh, what idiots! They believed I was asleep on the night of the murder. I never closed my eyes — I was so miserable, I was so tempted.”

“Tempted? What tempted you?”

“Do you think I had any money to spare? Your father’s pocketbook tempted me. I had seen him open it, to pay his bill over-night. It was full of bank-notes. Oh, what an overpowering thing love is! Perhaps you have known it yourself.”

Emily’s indignation once more got the better of her prudence. “Have you no feeling of decency on your death-bed!” she said.

Mrs. Rook forgot her piety; she was ready with an impudent rejoinder. “You hot-headed little woman, your time will come,” she answered. “But you’re right — I am wandering from the point; I am not sufficiently sensible of this solemn occasion. By-the-by, do you notice my language? I inherit correct English from my mother — a cultivated person, who married beneath her. My paternal grandfather was a gentleman. Did I tell you that there came a time, on that dreadful night, when I could stay in bed no longer? The pocketbook — I did nothing but think of that devilish pocketbook, full of bank-notes. My husband was fast asleep all the time. I got a chair and stood on it. I looked into the place where the two men were sleeping, through the glass in the top of the door. Your father was awake; he was walking up and down the room. What do you say? Was he agitated? I didn’t notice. I don’t know whether the other man was asleep or awake. I saw nothing but the pocketbook stuck under the pillow, half in and half out. Your father kept on walking up and down. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll wait till he gets tired, and then I’ll have another look at the pocketbook.’ Where’s the wine? The doctor said I might have a glass of wine when I wanted it.”

Emily found the wine and gave it to her. She shuddered as she accidentally touched Mrs. Rook’s hand.

The wine helped the sinking woman.

“I must have got up more than once,” she resumed. “And more than once my heart must have failed me. I don’t clearly remember what I did, till the gray of the morning came. I think that must have been the last time I looked through the glass in the door.”

She began to tremble. She tore the veil off her face. She cried out piteously, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner! Come here,” she said to Emily. “Where are you? No! I daren’t tell you what I saw; I daren’t tell you what I did. When you’re pos sessed by the devil, there’s nothing, nothing, nothing you can’t do! Where did I find the courage to unlock the door? Where did I find the courage to go in? Any other woman would have lost her senses, when she found blood on her fingers after taking the pocketbook —”

Emily’s head swam; her heart beat furiously — she staggered to the door, and opened it to escape from the room.

“I’m guilty of robbing him; but I’m innocent of his blood!” Mrs. Rook called after her wildly. “The deed was done — the yard door was wide open, and the man was gone — when I looked in for the last time. Come back, come back!”

Emily looked round.

“I can’t go near you,” she said, faintly.

“Come near enough to see this.”

She opened her bed-gown at the throat, and drew up a loop of ribbon over her head. ‘The pocketbook was attached to the ribbon. She held it out.

“Your father’s book,” she said. “Won’t you take your father’s book?”

For a moment, and only for a moment, Emily was repelled by the profanation associated with her birthday gift. Then, the loving remembrance of the dear hands that had so often touched that relic, drew the faithful daughter back to the woman whom she abhorred. Her eyes rested tenderly on the book. Before it had lain in that guilty bosom, it had been his book. The beloved memory was all that was left to her now; the beloved memory consecrated it to her hand. She took the book.

“Open it,” said Mrs. Rook.

There were two five-pound bank-notes in it.

“His?” Emily asked.

“No; mine — the little I have been able to save toward restoring what I stole.”

“Oh!” Emily cried, “is there some good in this woman, after all?”

“There’s no good in the woman!” Mrs. Rook answered desperately. “There’s nothing but fear — fear of hell now; fear of the pocketbook in the past time. Twice I tried to destroy it — and twice it came back, to remind me of the duty that I owed to my miserable soul. I tried to throw it into the fire. It struck the bar, and fell back into the fender at my feet. I went out, and cast it into the well. It came back again in the first bucket of water that was drawn up. From that moment, I began to save what I could. Restitution! Atonement! I tell you the book found a tongue — and those were the grand words it dinned in my ears, morning and night.” She stooped to fetch her breath — stopped, and struck her bosom. “I hid it here, so that no person should see it, and no person take it from me. Superstition? Oh, yes, superstition! Shall tell you something? You may find yourself superstitious, if you are ever cut to the heart as I was. He left me! The man I had disgraced myself for, deserted me on the day when I gave him the stolen money. He suspected it was stolen; he took care of his own cowardly self — and left me to the hard mercy of the law, if the theft was found out. What do you call that, in the way of punishment? Haven’t I suffered? Haven’t I made atonement? Be a Christian — say you forgive me.”

“I do forgive you.”

“Say you will pray for me.”

“I will.”

“Ah! that comforts me! Now you can go.”

Emily looked at her imploringly. “Don’t send me away, knowing no more of the murder than I knew when I came here! Is there nothing, really nothing, you can tell me?”

Mrs. Rook pointed to the door.

“Haven’t I told you already? Go downstairs, and see the wretch who escaped in the dawn of the morning!”

“Gently, ma’am, gently! You’re talking too loud,” cried a mocking voice from outside.

“It’s only the doctor,” said Mrs. Rook. She crossed her hands over her bosom with a deep-drawn sigh. “I want no doctor, now. My peace is made with my Maker. I’m ready for death; I’m fit for Heaven. Go away! go away!”

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