The Law and the Lady, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter xxv.

Miserrimus Dexter — Second View

Thoroughly disheartened and disgusted, and (if I must honestly confess it) thoroughly frightened too, I whispered to Mrs. Macallan, “I was wrong, and you were right. Let us go.”

The ears of Miserrimus Dexter must have been as sensitive as the ears of a dog. He heard me say, “Let us go.”

“No!” he called out. “Bring Eustace Macallan’s second wife in here. I am a gentleman — I must apologize to her. I am a student of human character — I wish to see her.”

The whole man appeared to have undergone a complete transformation. He spoke in the gentlest of voices, and he sighed hysterically when he had done, like a woman recovering from a burst of tears. Was it reviving courage or reviving curiosity? When Mrs. Macallan said to me, “The fit is over now; do you still wish to go away?” I answered, “No; I am ready to go in.”

“Have you recovered your belief in him already?” asked my mother-in-law, in her mercilessly satirical way.

“I have recovered from my terror of him,” I replied.

“I am sorry I terrified you,” said the soft voice at the fire-place. “Some people think I am a little mad at times. You came, I suppose, at one of the times — if some people are right. I admit that I am a visionary. My imagination runs away with me, and I say and do strange things. On those occasions, anybody who reminds me of that horrible Trial throws me back again into the past, and causes me unutterable nervous suffering. I am a very tender-hearted man. As the necessary consequence (in such a world as this), I am a miserable wretch. Accept my excuses. Come in, both of you. Come in and pity me.”

A child would not have been frightened of him now. A child would have gone in and pitied him.

The room was getting darker and darker. We could just see the crouching figure of Miserrimus Dexter at the expiring fire — and that was all.

“Are we to have no light?” asked Mrs. Macallan. “And is this lady to see you, when the light comes, out of your chair?”

He lifted something bright and metallic, hanging round his neck, and blew on it a series of shrill, trilling, bird-like notes. After an interval he was answered by a similar series of notes sounding faintly in some distant region of the house.

“Ariel is coming,” he said. “Compose yourself, Mamma Macallan; Ariel with make me presentable to a lady’s eyes.”

He hopped away on his hands into the darkness at the end of the room. “Wait a little,” said Mrs. Macallan, “and you will have another surprise — you will see the ‘delicate Ariel.’”

We heard heavy footsteps in the circular room.

“Ariel!” sighed Miserrimus Dexter out of the darkness, in his softest notes.

To my astonishment the coarse, masculine voice of the cousin in the man’s hat — the Caliban’s, rather than the Ariel’s voice — answered, “Here!”

“My chair, Ariel!”

The person thus strangely misnamed drew aside the tapestry, so as to let in more light; then entered the room, pushing the wheeled chair before her. She stooped and lifted Miserrimus Dexter from the floor, like a child. Before she could put him into the chair, he sprang out of her arms with a little gleeful cry, and alighted on his seat, like a bird alighting on its perch!

“The lamp,” said Miserrimus Dexter, “and the looking-glass. — Pardon me,” he added, addressing us, “for turning my back on you. You mustn’t see me until my hair is set to rights. — Ariel! the brush, the comb, and the perfumes!”

Carrying the lamp in one hand, the looking-glass in the other, and the brush (with the comb stuck in it) between her teeth, Ariel the Second, otherwise Dexter’s cousin, presented herself plainly before me for the first time. I could now see the girl’s round, fleshy, inexpressive face, her rayless and colorless eyes, her coarse nose and heavy chin. A creature half alive; an imperfectly developed animal in shapeless form clad in a man’s pilot jacket, and treading in a man’s heavy laced boots, with nothing but an old red-flannel petticoat, and a broken comb in her frowzy flaxen hair, to tell us that she was a woman — such was the inhospitable person who had received us in the darkness when we first entered the house.

This wonderful valet, collecting her materials for dressing her still more wonderful master’s hair, gave him the looking-glass (a hand-mirror), and addressed herself to her work.

She combed, she brushed, she oiled, she perfumed the flowing locks and the long silky beard of Miserrimus Dexter with the strangest mixture of dullness and dexterity that I ever saw. Done in brute silence, with a lumpish look and a clumsy gait, the work was perfectly well done nevertheless. The imp in the chair superintended the whole proceeding critically by means of his hand-mirror. He was too deeply interested in this occupation to speak until some of the concluding touches to his beard brought the misnamed Ariel in front of him, and so turned her full face toward the part of the room in which Mrs. Macallan and I were standing. Then he addressed us, taking especial care, however, not to turn his head our way while his toilet was still incomplete.

“Mamma Macallan,” he said, “what is the Christian name of your son’s second wife?”

“Why do you want to know?” asked my mother-in-law.

“I want to know because I can’t address her as ‘Mrs. Eustace Macallan.’”

“Why not?”

“It recalls the other Mrs. Eustace Macallan. If I am reminded of those horrible days at Gleninch my fortitude will give way — I shall burst out screaming again.”

Hearing this, I hastened to interpose.

“My name is Valeria,” I said.

“A Roman name,” remarked Miserrimus Dexter. “I like it. My mind is cast in the Roman mold. My bodily build would have been Roman if I had been born with legs. I shall call you Mrs. Valeria, unless you disapprove of it.”

I hastened to say that I was far from disapproving of it.

“Very good,” said Miserrimus Dexter “Mrs. Valeria, do you see the face of this creature in front of me?”

He pointed with the hand-mirror to his cousin as unconcernedly as he might have pointed to a dog. His cousin, on her side, took no more notice than a dog would have taken of the contemptuous phrase by which he had designated her. She went on combing and oiling his beard as composedly as ever.

“It is the face of an idiot, isn’t it?” pursued Miserrimus Dexter! “Look at her! She is a mere vegetable. A cabbage in a garden has as much life and expression in it as that girl exhibits at the present moment. Would you believe there was latent intelligence, affection, pride, fidelity, in such a half-developed being as this?”

I was really ashamed to answer him. Quite needlessly! The impenetrable young woman went on with her master’s beard. A machine could not have taken less notice of the life and the talk around it than this incomprehensible creature.

I have got at that latent affection, pride, fidelity, and the rest of it,” resumed Miserrimus Dexter. “I hold the key to that dormant Intelligence. Grand thought! Now look at her when I speak. (I named her, poor wretch, in one of my ironical moments. She has got to like her name, just as a dog gets to like his collar.) Now, Mrs. Valeria, look and listen. — Ariel!”

The girl’s dull face began to brighten. The girl’s mechanically moving hand stopped, and held the comb in suspense.

“Ariel! you have learned to dress my hair and anoint my beard, haven’t you?”

Her face still brightened. “Yes! yes! yes!” she answered, eagerly. “And you say I have learned to do it well, don’t you?”

“I say that. Would you like to let anybody else do it for you?”

Her eyes melted softly into light and life. Her strange unwomanly voice sank to the gentlest tones that I had heard from her yet.

“Nobody else shall do it for me,” she said at once proudly and tenderly. “Nobody, as long as I live, shall touch you but me.”

“Not even the lady there?” asked Miserrimus Dexter, pointing backward with his hand-mirror to the place at which I was standing.

Her eyes suddenly flashed, her hand suddenly shook the comb at me, in a burst of jealous rage.

“Let her try!” cried the poor creature, raising her voice again to its hoarsest notes. “Let her touch you if she dares!”

Dexter laughed at the childish outbreak. “That will do, my delicate Ariel,” he said. “I dismiss your Intelligence for the present. Relapse into your former self. Finish my beard.”

She passively resumed her work. The new light in her eyes, the new expression in her face, faded little by little and died out. In another minute the face was as vacant and as lumpish as before; the hands did their work again with the lifeless dexterity which had so painfully impressed me when she first took up the brush. Miserrimus Dexter appeared to be perfectly satisfied with these results.

“I thought my little experiment might interest you,” he said. “You see how it is? The dormant intelligence of my curious cousin is like the dormant sound in a musical instrument. I play upon it — and it answers to my touch. She likes being played upon. But her great delight is to hear me tell a story. I puzzle her to the verge of distraction; and the more I confuse her the better she likes the story. It is the greatest fun; you really must see it some day.” He indulged himself in a last look at the mirror. “Ha!” he said, complacently; “now I shall do. Vanish, Ariel!”

She tramped out of the room in her heavy boots, with the mute obedience of a trained animal. I said “Good-night” as she passed me. She neither returned the salutation nor looked at me: the words simply produced no effect on her dull senses. The one voice that could reach her was silent. She had relapsed once more into the vacant inanimate creature who had opened the gate to us, until it pleased Miserrimus Dexter to speak to her again.

“Valeria!” said my mother-in-law. “Our modest host is waiting to see what you think of him.”

While my attention was fixed on his cousin he had wheeled his chair around so as to face me with the light of the lamp falling full on him. In mentioning his appearance as a witness at the Trial, I find I have borrowed (without meaning to do so) from my experience of him at this later time. I saw plainly now the bright intelligent face and the large clear blue eyes, the lustrous waving hair of a light chestnut color, the long delicate white hands, and the magnificent throat and chest which I have elsewhere described. The deformity which degraded and destroyed the manly beauty of his head and breast was hidden from view by an Oriental robe of many colors, thrown over the chair like a coverlet. He was clothed in a jacket of black velvet, fastened loosely across his chest with large malachite buttons; and he wore lace ruffles at the ends of his sleeves, in the fashion of the last century. It may well have been due to want of perception on my part — but I could see nothing mad in him, nothing in any way repelling, as he now looked at me. The one defect that I could discover in his face was at the outer corners of his eyes, just under the temple. Here when he laughed, and in a lesser degree when he smiled, the skin contracted into quaint little wrinkles and folds, which looked strangely out of harmony with the almost youthful appearance of the rest of his face. As to his other features, the mouth, so far as his beard and mustache permitted me to see it, was small and delicately formed; the nose — perfectly shaped on the straight Grecian model — was perhaps a little too thin, judged by comparison with the full cheeks and the high massive forehead. Looking at him as a whole (and speaking of him, of course, from a woman’s, not a physiognomist’s point of view), I can only describe him as being an unusually handsome man. A painter would have reveled in him as a model for St. John. And a young girl, ignorant of what the Oriental robe hid from view, would have said to herself, the instant she looked at him, “Here is the hero of my dreams!”

His blue eyes — large as the eyes of a woman, clear as the eyes of a child — rested on me the moment I turned toward him, with a strangely varying play of expression, which at once interested and perplexed me.

Now there was doubt — uneasy, painful doubt — in the look; and now again it changed brightly to approval, so open and unrestrained that a vain woman might have fancied she had made a conquest of him at first sight. Suddenly a new emotion seemed to take possession of him. His eyes sank, his head drooped; he lifted his hands with a gesture of regret. He muttered and murmured to himself; pursuing some secret and melancholy train of thought, which seemed to lead him further and further away from present objects of interest, and to plunge him deeper and deeper in troubled recollections of the past. Here and there I caught some of the words. Little by little I found myself trying to fathom what was darkly passing in this strange man’s mind.

“A far more charming face,” I heard him say. “But no — not a more beautiful figure. What figure was ever more beautiful than hers? Something — but not all — of her enchanting grace. Where is the resemblance which has brought her back to me? In the pose of the figure, perhaps. In the movement of the figure, perhaps. Poor martyred angel! What a life! And what a death! what a death!”

Was he comparing me with the victim of the poison — with my husband’s first wife? His words seemed to justify the conclusion. If I were right, the dead woman had evidently been a favorite with him. There was no misinterpreting the broken tones of his voice when he spoke of her: he had admired her, living; he mourned her, dead. Supposing that I could prevail upon myself to admit this extraordinary person into my confidence, what would be the result? Should I be the gainer or the loser by the resemblance which he fancied he had discovered? Would the sight of me console him or pain him? I waited eagerly to hear more on the subject of the first wife. Not a word more escaped his lips. A new change came over him. He lifted his head with a start, and looked about him as a weary man might look if he was suddenly disturbed in a deep sleep.

“What have I done?” he said. “Have I been letting my mind drift again?” He shuddered and sighed. “Oh, that house of Gleninch!” he murmured, sadly, to himself. “Shall I never get away from it in my thoughts? Oh, that house of Gleninch!”

To my infinite disappointment, Mrs. Macallan checked the further revelation of what was passing in his mind.

Something in the tone and manner of his allusion to her son’s country-house seemed to have offended her. She interposed sharply and decisively.

“Gently, my friend, gently!” she said. “I don’t think you quite know what you are talking about.”

His great blue eyes flashed at her fiercely. With one turn of his hand he brought his chair close at her side. The next instant he caught her by the arm, and forced her to bend to him, until he could whisper in her ear. He was violently agitated. His whisper was loud enough to make itself heard where I was sitting at the time.

“I don’t know what I am talking about?” he repeated, with his eyes fixed attentively, not on my mother-in-law, but on me. “You shortsighted old woman! where are your spectacles? Look at her! Do you see no resemblance — the figure, not the face! — do you see no resemblance there to Eustace’s first wife?”

“Pure fancy!” rejoined Mrs. Macallan. “I see nothing of the sort.”

He shook her impatiently.

“Not so loud!” he whispered. “She will hear you.”

“I have heard you both,” I said. “You need have no fear, Mr. Dexter, of speaking before me. I know that my husband had a first wife, and I know how miserably she died. I have read the Trial.”

“You have read the life and death of a martyr!” cried Miserrimus Dexter. He suddenly wheeled his chair my way; he bent over me; his eyes filled with tears. “Nobody appreciated her at her true value,” he said, “but me. Nobody but me! nobody but me!”

Mrs. Macallan walked away impatiently to the end of the room.

“When you are ready, Valeria, I am,” she said. “We cannot keep the servants and the horses waiting much longer in this bleak place.”

I was too deeply interested in leading Miserrimus Dexter to pursue the subject on which he had touched to be willing to leave him at that moment. I pretended not to have heard Mrs. Macallan. I laid my hand, as if by accident, on the wheel-chair to keep him near me.

“You showed me how highly you esteemed that poor lady in your evidence at the Trial,” I said. “I believe, Mr. Dexter, you have ideas of your own about the mystery of her death?”

He had been looking at my hand, resting on the arm of his chair, until I ventured on my question. At that he suddenly raised his eyes, and fixed them with a frowning and furtive suspicion on my face.

“How do you know I have ideas of my own?” he asked, sternly.

“I know it from reading the Trial,” I answered. “The lawyer who cross-examined you spoke almost in the very words which I have just used. I had no intention of offending you, Mr. Dexter.”

His face cleared as rapidly as it had clouded. He smiled, and laid his hand on mine. His touch struck me cold. I felt every nerve in me shivering under it; I drew my hand away quickly.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, “if I have misunderstood you. I have ideas of my own about that unhappy lady.” He paused and looked at me in silence very earnestly. “Have you any ideas?” he asked. “Ideas about her life? or about her death?”

I was deeply interested; I was burning to hear more. It might encourage him to speak if I were candid with him. I answered, “Yes.”

“Ideas which you have mentioned to any one?” he went on.

“To no living creature,” I replied —“as yet.”

“This very strange!” he said, still earnestly reading my face. “What interest can you have in a dead woman whom you never knew? Why did you ask me that question just now? Have you any motive in coming here to see me?”

I boldly acknowledged the truth. I said, “I have a motive.”

“Is it connected with Eustace Macallan’s first wife?”

“It is.”

“With anything that happened in her lifetime?”

“No.”

“With her death?”

“Yes.”

He suddenly clasped his hands with a wild gesture of despair, and then pressed them both on his head, as if he were struck by some sudden pain.

“I can’t hear it to-night!” he said. “I would give worlds to hear it, but I daren’t. I should lose all hold over myself in the state I am in now. I am not equal to raking up the horror and the mystery of the past; I have not courage enough to open the grave of the martyred dead. Did you hear me when you came here? I have an immense imagination. It runs riot at times. It makes an actor of me. I play the parts of all the heroes that ever lived. I feel their characters. I merge myself in their individualities. For the time I am the man I fancy myself to be. I can’t help it. I am obliged to do it. If I restrained my imagination when the fit is on me, I should go mad. I let myself loose. It lasts for hours. It leaves me with my energies worn out, with my sensibilities frightfully acute. Rouse any melancholy or terrible associations in me at such times, and I am capable of hysterics, I am capable of screaming. You heard me scream. You shall not see me in hysterics. No, Mrs. Valeria — no, you innocent reflection of the dead and gone — I would not frighten you for the world. Will you come here to-morrow in the daytime? I have got a chaise and a pony. Ariel, my delicate Ariel, can drive. She shall call at Mamma Macallan’s and fetch you. We will talk to-morrow, when I am fit for it. I am dying to hear you. I will be fit for you in the morning. I will be civil, intelligent, communicative, in the morning. No more of it now. Away with the subject — the too exciting, the too interesting subject! I must compose myself or my brains will explode in my head. Music is the true narcotic for excitable brains. My harp! my harp!”

He rushed away in his chair to the far end of the room, passing Mrs. Macallan as she returned to me, bent on hastening our departure.

“Come!” said the old lady, irritably. “You have seen him, and he has made a good show of himself. More of him might be tiresome. Come away.”

The chair returned to us more slowly. Miserrimus Dexter was working it with one hand only. In the other he held a harp of a pattern which I had hitherto only seen in pictures. The strings were few in number, and the instrument was so small that I could have held it easily on my lap. It was the ancient harp of the pictured Muses and the legendary Welsh bards.

“Good-night, Dexter,” said Mrs. Macallan.

He held up one hand imperatively.

“Wait!” he said. “Let her hear me sing.” He turned to me. “I decline to be indebted to other people for my poetry and my music,” he went on. “I compose my own poetry and my own music. I improvise. Give me a moment to think. I will improvise for You.”

He closed his eyes and rested his head on the frame of the harp. His fingers gently touched the strings while he was thinking. In a few minutes he lifted his head, looked at me, and struck the first notes — the prelude to the song. It was wild, barbaric, monotonous music, utterly unlike any modern composition. Sometimes it suggested a slow and undulating Oriental dance. Sometimes it modulated into tones which reminded me of the severer harmonies of the old Gregorian chants. The words, when they followed the prelude, were as wild, as recklessly free from all restraint of critical rules, as the music. They were assuredly inspired by the occasion; I was the theme of the strange song. And thus — in one of the finest tenor voices I ever heard — my poet sang of me:

“Why does she come? She reminds me of the lost; She reminds me of the dead: In her form like the other, In her walk like the other: Why does she come?

“Does Destiny bring her? Shall we range together The mazes of the past? Shall we search together The secrets of the past? Shall we interchange thoughts, surmises, suspicions? Does Destiny bring her?

“The Future will show. Let the night pass; Let the day come. I shall see into Her mind: She will look into Mine. The Future will show.”

His voice sank, his fingers touched the strings more and more feebly as he approached the last lines. The overwrought brain needed and took its reanimating repose. At the final words his eyes slowly closed. His head lay back on the chair. He slept with his arms around his harp, as a child sleeps hugging its last new toy.

We stole out of the room on tiptoe, and left Miserrimus Dexter — poet, composer, and madman — in his peaceful sleep.

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