The Law and the Lady, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter xxvii.

Mr. Dexter at Home.

I Found all the idle boys in the neighborhood collected around the pony-chaise, expressing, in the occult language of slang, their high enjoyment and appreciation at the appearance of “Ariel” in her man’s jacket and hat. The pony was fidgety —he felt the influence of the popular uproar. His driver sat, whip in hand, magnificently impenetrable to the gibes and jests that were flying around her. I said “Good-morning” on getting into the chaise. Ariel only said “Gee up!” and started the pony.

I made up my mind to perform the journey to the distant northern suburb in silence. It was evidently useless for me to attempt to speak, and experience informed me that I need not expect to hear a word fall from the lips of my companion. Experience, however, is not always infallible. After driving for half an hour in stolid silence, Ariel astounded me by suddenly bursting into speech.

“Do you know what we are coming to?” she asked, keeping her eyes straight between the pony’s ears.

“No,” I answered. “I don’t know the road. What are we coming to?”

“We are coming to a canal.”

“Well?”

“Well, I have half a mind to upset you in the canal.”

This formidable announcement appeared to require some explanation. I took the liberty of asking for it.

“Why should you upset me?” I inquired.

“Because I hate you,” was the cool and candid reply.

“What have I done to offend you?” I asked next.

“What do you want with the Master?” Ariel asked, in her turn.

“Do you mean Mr. Dexter?”

“Yes.”

“I want to have some talk with Mr. Dexter.”

“You don’t! You want to take my place. You want to brush his hair and oil his beard, instead of me. You wretch!”

I now began to understand. The idea which Miserrimus Dexter had jestingly put into her head, in exhibiting her to us on the previous night, had been ripening slowly in that dull brain, and had found its way outward into words, about fifteen hours afterward, under the irritating influence of my presence!

“I don’t want to touch his hair or his beard,” I said. “I leave that entirely to you.”

She looked around at me, her fat face flushing, her dull eyes dilating, with the unaccustomed effort to express herself in speech, and to understand what was said to her in return.

“Say that again,” she burst out. “And say it slower this time.”

I said it again, and I said it slower.

“Swear it!” she cried, getting more and more excited.

I preserved my gravity (the canal was just visible in the distance), and swore it.

“Are you satisfied now?” I asked.

There was no answer. Her last resources of speech were exhausted. The strange creature looked back again straight between the pony’s ears, emitted hoarsely a grunt of relief, and never more looked at me, never more spoke to me, for the rest of the journey. We drove past the banks of the canal, and I escaped immersion. We rattled, in our jingling little vehicle, through the streets and across the waste patches of ground, which I dimly remembered in the darkness, and which looked more squalid and more hideous than ever in the broad daylight. The chaise turned down a lane, too narrow for the passage of any larger vehicle, and stopped at a wall and a gate that were new objects to me. Opening the gate with her key, and leading the pony, Ariel introduced me to the back garden and yard of Miserrimus Dexter’s rotten and rambling old house. The pony walked off independently to his stable, with the chaise behind him. My silent companion led me through a bleak and barren kitchen, and along a stone passage. Opening a door at the end, she admitted me to the back of the hall, into which Mrs. Macallan and I had penetrated by the front entrance to the house. Here Ariel lifted a whistle which hung around her neck, and blew the shrill trilling notes with the sound of which I was already familiar as the means of communication between Miserrimus Dexter and his slave. The whistling over, the slave’s unwilling lips struggled into speech for the last time.

“Wait till you hear the Master’s whistle,” she said; “then go upstairs.”

So! I was to be whistled for like a dog! And, worse still, there was no help for it but to submit like a dog. Had Ariel any excuses to make? Nothing of the sort.

She turned her shapeless back on me and vanished into the kitchen region of the house.

After waiting for a minute or two, and hearing no signal from the floor above, I advanced into the broader and brighter part of the hall, to look by daylight at the pictures which I had only imperfectly discovered in the darkness of the night. A painted inscription in many colors, just under the cornice of the ceiling, informed me that the works on the walls were the production of the all-accomplished Dexter himself. Not satisfied with being poet and composer, he was painter as well. On one wall the subjects were described as “Illustrations of the Passions;” on the other, as “Episodes in the Life of the Wandering Jew.” Chance speculators like myself were gravely warned, by means of the inscription, to view the pictures as efforts of pure imagination. “Persons who look for mere Nature in works of Art” (the inscription announced) “are persons to whom Mr. Dexter does not address himself with the brush. He relies entirely on his imagination. Nature puts him out.”

Taking due care to dismiss all ideas of Nature from my mind, to begin with, I looked at the pictures which represented the Passions first.

Little as I knew critically of Art, I could see that Miserrimus Dexter knew still less of the rules of drawing, color, and composition. His pictures were, in the strictest meaning of that expressive word, Daubs. The diseased and riotous delight of the painter in representing Horrors was (with certain exceptions to be hereafter mentioned) the one remarkable quality that I could discover in the series of his works.

The first of the Passion pictures illustrated Revenge. A corpse, in fancy costume, lay on the bank of a foaming river, under the shade of a giant tree. An infuriated man, also in fancy costume, stood astride over the dead body, with his sword lifted to the lowering sky, and watched, with a horrid expression of delight, the blood of the man whom he had just killed dripping slowly in a procession of big red drops down the broad blade of his weapon. The next picture illustrated Cruelty, in many compartments. In one I saw a disemboweled horse savagely spurred on by his rider at a bull-fight. In another, an aged philosopher was dissecting a living cat, and gloating over his work. In a third, two pagans politely congratulated each other on the torture of two saints: one saint was roasting on a grid-iron; the other, hung up to a tree by his heels, had been just skinned, and was not quite dead yet. Feeling no great desire, after these specimens, to look at any more of the illustrated Passions, I turned to the opposite wall to be instructed in the career of the Wandering Jew. Here a second inscription informed me that the painter considered the Flying Dutchman to be no other than the Wandering Jew, pursuing his interminable Journey by sea. The marine adventures of this mysterious personage were the adventures chosen for representation by Dexter’s brush. The first picture showed me a harbor on a rocky coast. A vessel was at anchor, with the helmsman singing on the deck. The sea in the offing was black and rolling; thunder-clouds lay low on the horizon, split by broad flashes of lightning. In the glare of the lightning, heaving and pitching, appeared the misty form of the Phantom Ship approaching the shore. In this work, badly as it was painted, there were really signs of a powerful imagination, and even of a poetical feeling for the supernatural. The next picture showed the Phantom Ship, moored (to the horror and astonishment of the helmsman) behind the earthly vessel in the harbor. The Jew had stepped on shore. His boat was on the beach. His crew — little men with stony, white faces, dressed in funeral black — sat in silent rows on the seats of the boat, with their oars in their lean, long hands. The Jew, also a black, stood with his eyes and hands raised imploringly to the thunderous heaven. The wild creatures of land and sea — the tiger, the rhinoceros, the crocodile, the sea-serpent, the shark, and the devil-fish — surrounded the accursed Wanderer in a mystic circle, daunted and fascinated at the sight of him. The lightning was gone. The sky and sea had darkened to a great black blank. A faint and lurid light lighted the scene, falling downward from a torch, brandished by an avenging Spirit that hovered over the Jew on outspread vulture wings. Wild as the picture might be in its conception, there was a suggestive power in it which I confess strongly impressed me. The mysterious silence in the house, and my strange position at the moment, no doubt had their effect on my mind. While I was still looking at the ghastly composition before me, the shrill trilling sound of the whistle upstairs burst on the stillness. For the moment my nerves were so completely upset that I started with a cry of alarm. I felt a momentary impulse to open the door and run out. The idea of trusting myself alone with the man who had painted those frightful pictures actually terrified me; I was obliged to sit down on one of the hall chairs. Some minutes passed before my mind recovered its balance, and I began to feel like my own ordinary self again. The whistle sounded impatiently for the second time. I rose and ascended the broad flight of stairs which led to the first story. To draw back at the point which I had now reached would have utterly degraded me in my own estimation. Still, my heart did certainly beat faster than usual as I approached the door of the circular anteroom; and I honestly acknowledge that I saw my own imprudence, just then, in a singularly vivid light.

There was a glass over the mantel-piece in the anteroom. I lingered for a moment (nervous as I was) to see how I looked in the glass.

The hanging tapestry over the inner door had been left partially drawn aside. Softly as I moved, the dog’s ears of Miserrimus Dexter caught the sound of my dress on the floor. The fine tenor voice, which I had last heard singing, called to me softly.

“Is that Mrs. Valeria? Please don’t wait there. Come in!”

I entered the inner room.

The wheeled chair advanced to meet me, so slowly and so softly that I hardly knew it again. Miserrimus Dexter languidly held out his hand. His head inclined pensively to one side; his large blue eyes looked at me piteously. Not a vestige seemed to be left of the raging, shouting creature of my first visit, who was Napoleon at one moment, and Shakespeare at another. Mr. Dexter of the morning was a mild, thoughtful, melancholy man, who only recalled Mr. Dexter of the night by the inveterate oddity of his dress. His jacket, on this occasion, was of pink quilted silk. The coverlet which hid his deformity matched the jacket in pale sea-green satin; and, to complete these strange vagaries of costume, his wrists were actually adorned with massive bracelets of gold, formed on the severely simple models which have descended to us from ancient times.

“How good of you to cheer and charm me by coming here!” he said, in his most mournful and most musical tones. “I have dressed, expressly to receive you, in the prettiest clothes I have. Don’t be surprised. Except in this ignoble and material nineteenth century, men have always worn precious stuffs and beautiful colors as well as women. A hundred years ago a gentleman in pink silk was a gentleman properly dressed. Fifteen hundred years ago the patricians of the classic times wore bracelets exactly like mine. I despise the brutish contempt for beauty and the mean dread of expense which degrade a gentleman’s costume to black cloth, and limit a gentleman’s ornaments to a finger-ring, in the age I live in. I like to be bright and I beautiful, especially when brightness and beauty come to see me. You don’t know how precious your society is to me. This is one of my melancholy days. Tears rise unbidden to my eyes. I sigh and sorrow over myself; I languish for pity. Just think of what I am! A poor solitary creature, cursed with a frightful deformity. How pitiable! how dreadful! My affectionate heart — wasted. My extraordinary talents — useless or misapplied. Sad! sad! sad! Please pity me.”

His eyes were positively filled with tears — tears of compassion for himself! He looked at me and spoke to me with the wailing, querulous entreaty of a sick child wanting to be nursed. I was utterly at a loss what to do. It was perfectly ridiculous — but I was never more embarrassed in my life.

“Please pity me!” he repeated. “Don’t be cruel. I only ask a little thing. Pretty Mrs. Valeria, say you pity me!”

I said I pitied him — and I felt that I blushed as I did it.

“Thank you,” said Miserrimus Dexter, humbly. “It does me good. Go a little further. Pat my hand.”

I tried to restrain myself; but the sense of the absurdity of this last petition (quite gravely addressed to me, remember!) was too strong to be controlled. I burst out laughing.

Miserrimus Dexter looked at me with a blank astonishment which only increased my merriment. Had I offended him? Apparently not. Recovering from his astonishment, he laid his head luxuriously on the back of his chair, with the expression of a man who was listening critically to a performance of some sort. When I had quite exhausted myself, he raised his head and clapped his shapely white hands, and honored me with an “encore.”

“Do it again,” he said, still in the same childish way. “Merry Mrs. Valeria, you have a musical laugh —I have a musical ear. Do it again.”

I was serious enough by this time. “I am ashamed of myself, Mr. Dexter,” I said. “Pray forgive me.”

He made no answer to this; I doubt if he heard me. His variable temper appeared to be in course of undergoing some new change. He sat looking at my dress (as I supposed) with a steady and anxious attention, gravely forming his own conclusions, steadfastly pursuing his own train of thought.

“Mrs. Valeria,” he burst out suddenly, “you are not comfortable in that chair.”

“Pardon me,” I replied; “I am quite comfortable.”

“Pardon me,” he rejoined. “There is a chair of Indian basket-work at that end of the room which is much better suited to you. Will you accept my apologies if I am rude enough to allow you to fetch it for yourself? I have a reason.”

He had a reason! What new piece of eccentricity was he about to exhibit? I rose and fetched the chair. It was light enough to be quite easily carried. As I returned to him, I noticed that his eyes were strangely employed in what seemed to be the closest scrutiny of my dress. And, stranger still, the result of this appeared to be partly to interest and partly to distress him.

I placed the chair near him, and was about to take my seat in it, when he sent me back again, on another errand, to the end of the room.

“Oblige me indescribably,” he said. “There is a hand-screen hanging on the wall, which matches the chair. We are rather near the fire here. You may find the screen useful. Once more forgive me for letting you fetch it for yourself. Once more let me assure you that I have a reason.”

Here was his “reason,” reiterated, emphatically reiterated, for the second time! Curiosity made me as completely the obedient servant of his caprices as Ariel herself. I fetched the hand-screen. Returning with it, I met his eyes still fixed with the same incomprehensible attention on my perfectly plain and unpretending dress, and still expressing the same curious mixture of interest and regret.

“Thank you a thousand times,” he said. “You have (quite innocently) wrung my heart. But you have not the less done me an inestimable kindness. Will you promise not to be offended with me if I confess the truth?”

He was approaching his explanation I never gave a promise more readily in my life.

“I have rudely allowed you to fetch your chair and your screen for yourself,” he went on. “My motive will seem a very strange one, I am afraid. Did you observe that I noticed you very attentively — too attentively, perhaps?”

“Yes,” I said. “I thought you were noticing my dress.”

He shook his head, and sighed bitterly.

“Not your dress,” he said; “and not your face. Your dress is dark. Your face is still strange to me. Dear Mrs. Valeria, I wanted to see you walk.”

To see me walk! What did he mean? Where was that erratic mind of his wandering to now?

“You have a rare accomplishment for an Englishwoman,” he resumed —“you walk well. She walked well. I couldn’t resist the temptation of seeing her again, in seeing you. It was her movement, her sweet, simple, unsought grace (not yours), when you walked to the end of the room and returned to me. You raised her from the dead when you fetched the chair and the screen. Pardon me for making use of you: the idea was innocent, the motive was sacred. You have distressed — and delighted me. My heart bleeds — and thanks you.”

He paused for a moment; he let his head droop on his breast, then suddenly raised it again.

“Surely we were talking about her last night?” he said. “What did I say? what did you say? My memory is confused; I half remember, half forget. Please remind me. You’re not offended with me — are you?”

I might have been offended with another man. Not with him. I was far too anxious to find my way into his confidence — now that he had touched of his own accord on the subject of Eustace’s first wife — to be offended with Miserrimus Dexter.

“We were speaking,” I answered, “of Mrs. Eustace Macallan’s death, and we were saying to one another —”

He interrupted me, leaning forward eagerly in his chair.

“Yes! yes!” he exclaimed. “And I was wondering what interest you could have in penetrating the mystery of her death. Tell me! Confide in me! I am dying to know!”

“Not even you have a stronger interest in that subject than the interest that I feel,” I said. “The happiness of my whole life to come depends on my clearing up the mystery.”

“Good God — why?” he cried. “Stop! I am exciting myself. I mustn’t do that. I must have all my wits about me; I mustn’t wander. The thing is too serious. Wait a minute!”

An elegant little basket was hooked on to one of the arms of his chair. He opened it, and drew out a strip of embroidery partially finished, with the necessary materials for working, a complete. We looked at each other across the embroidery. He noticed my surprise.

“Women,” he said, “wisely compose their minds, and help themselves to think quietly, by doing needle-work. Why are men such fools as to deny themselves the same admirable resource — the simple and soothing occupation which keeps the nerves steady and leaves the mind calm and free? As a man, I follow the woman’s wise example. Mrs. Valeria, permit me to compose myself.”

Gravely arranging his embroidery, this extraordinary being began to work with the patient and nimble dexterity of an accomplished needle-woman.

“Now,” said Miserrimus Dexter, “if you are ready, I am. You talk — I work. Please begin.”

I obeyed him, and began.

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