The Law and the Lady, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter xlix.

Past and Future.

I write from memory, unassisted by notes or diaries; and I have no distinct recollection of the length of our residence abroad. It certainly extended over a period of some months. Long after Eustace was strong enough to take the journey to London the doctors persisted in keeping him in Paris. He had shown symptoms of weakness in one of his lungs, and his medical advisers, seeing that he prospered in the dry atmosphere of France, warned him to be careful of breathing too soon the moist air of his own country.

Thus it happened that we were still in Paris when I received my next news from Gleninch.

This time no letters passed on either side. To my surprise and delight, Benjamin quietly made his appearance one morning in our pretty French drawing-room. He was so preternaturally smart in his dress, and so incomprehensibly anxious (while my husband was in the way) to make us understand that his reasons for visiting Paris were holiday reasons only, that I at once suspected him of having crossed the Channel in a double character — say, as tourist in search of pleasure, when third persons were present; as ambassador from Mr. Playmore, when he and I had the room to ourselves.

Later in the day I contrived that we should be left together, and I soon found that my anticipations had not misled me. Benjamin had set out for Paris, at Mr. Playmore’s express request, to consult with me as to the future, and to enlighten me as to the past. He presented me with his credentials in the shape of a little note from the lawyer.

“There are some few points” (Mr. Playmore wrote) “which the recovery of the letter does not seem to clear up. I have done my best, with Mr. Benjamin’s assistance, to find the right explanation of these debatable matters; and I have treated the subject, for the sake of brevity, in the form of Questions and Answers. Will you accept me as interpreter, after the mistakes I made when you consulted me in Edinburgh? Events, I admit, have proved that I was entirely wrong in trying to prevent you from returning to Dexter — and partially wrong in suspecting Dexter of being directly, instead of indirectly, answerable for the first Mrs. Eustace’s death. I frankly make my confession, and leave you to tell Mr. Benjamin whether you think my new Catechism worthy of examination or not.”

I thought his “new Catechism” (as he called it) decidedly worthy of examination. If you don’t ag ree with this view, and if you are dying to be done with me and my narrative, pass on to the next chapter by all means!

Benjamin produced the Questions and Answers; and read them to me, at my request, in these terms:

“Questions suggested by the letter discovered at Gleninch. First Group: Questions relating to the Diary. First Question: obtaining access to Mr. Macallan’s private journal, was Miserrimus Dexter guided by any previous knowledge of its contents?

“Answer: It is doubtful if he had any such knowledge. The probabilities are that he noticed how carefully Mr. Macallan secured his Diary from observation; that he inferred therefrom the existence of dangerous domestic secrets in the locked-up pages; and that he speculated on using those secrets for his own purpose when he caused the false keys to be made.

“Second Question: To what motive are we to attribute Miserrimus Dexter’s interference with the sheriff’s officers, on the day when they seized Mr. Macallan’s Diary along with his other papers?

“Answer: In replying to this question, we must first do justice to Dexter himself. Infamously as we now know him to have acted, the man was not a downright fiend. That he secretly hated Mr. Macallan, as his successful rival in the affections of the woman he loved — and that he did all he could to induce the unhappy lady to desert her husband — are, in this case, facts not to be denied. On the other hand, it is fairly to be doubted whether he were additionally capable of permitting the friend who trusted him to be tried for murder, through his fault, without making an effort to save the innocent man. It had naturally never occurred to Mr. Macallan (being guiltless of his wife’s death) to destroy his Diary and his letters, in the fear that they might be used against him. Until the prompt and secret action of the Fiscal took him by surprise, the idea of his being charged with the murder of his wife was an idea which we know, from his own statement, had never even entered his mind. But Dexter must have looked at the matter from another point of view. In his last wandering words (spoken when his mind broke down) he refers to the Diary in these terms, ‘The Diary will hang him; I won’t have him hanged.’ If he could have found his opportunity of getting at it in time — or if the sheriff’s officers had not been too quick for him — there can be no reasonable doubt that Dexter would have himself destroyed the Diary, foreseeing the consequences of its production in court. So strongly does he appear to have felt these considerations, that he even resisted the officers in the execution of their duty. His agitation when he sent for Mr. Playmore to interfere was witnessed by that gentleman, and (it may not be amiss to add) was genuine agitation beyond dispute.

“Questions of the Second Group: relating to the Wife’s Confession. First Question: What prevented Dexter from destroying the letter, when he first discovered it under the dead woman’s pillow?

“Answer: The same motives which led him to resist the seizure of the Diary, and to give his evidence in the prisoner’s favor at the Trial, induced him to preserve the letter until the verdict was known. Looking back once more at his last words (as taken down by Mr. Benjamin), we may infer that if the verdict had been Guilty, he would not have hesitated to save the innocent husband by producing the wife’s confession. There are degrees in all wickedness. Dexter was wicked enough to suppress the letter, which wounded his vanity by revealing him as an object for loathing and contempt — but he was not wicked enough deliberately to let an innocent man perish on the scaffold. He was capable of exposing the rival whom he hated to the infamy and torture of a public accusation of murder; but, in the event of an adverse verdict, he shrank before the direr cruelty of letting him be hanged. Reflect, in this connection, on what he must have suffered, villain as he was, when he first read the wife’s confession. He had calculated on undermining her affection for her husband — and whither had his calculations led him? He had driven the woman whom he loved to the last dreadful refuge of death by suicide! Give these considerations their due weight; and you will understand that some little redeeming virtue might show itself, as the result even of this man’s remorse.

“Second Question: What motive influenced Miserrimus Dexter’s conduct, when Mrs. (Valeria) Macallan informed him that she proposed reopening the inquiry into the poisoning at Gleninch?

“Answer: In all probability, Dexter’s guilty fears suggested to him that he might have been watched on the morning when he secretly entered the chamber in which the first Mrs. Eustace lay dead. Feeling no scruples himself to restrain him from listening at doors and looking through keyholes, he would be all the more ready to suspect other people of the same practices. With this dread in him, it would naturally occur to his mind that Mrs. Valeria might meet with the person who had watched him, and might hear all that the person had discovered — unless he led her astray at the outset of her investigations. Her own jealous suspicions of Mrs. Beauly offered him the chance of easily doing this. And he was all the readier to profit by the chance, being himself animated by the most hostile feeling toward that lady. He knew her as the enemy who destroyed the domestic peace of the mistress of the house; he loved the mistress of the house — and he hated her enemy accordingly. The preservation of his guilty secret, and the persecution of Mrs. Beauly: there you have the greater and the lesser motive of his conduct in his relations with Mrs. Eustace the second!”*

Look back for a further illustration of this point of view to the scene at Benjamin’s house (Chapter XXXV.), where Dexter, in a moment of ungovernable agitation, betrays his own secret to Valeria.

Benjamin laid down his notes, and took off his spectacles.

“We have not thought it necessary to go further than this,” he said. “Is there any point you can think of that is still left unexplained?”

I reflected. There was no point of any importance left unexplained that I could remember. But there was one little matter (suggested by the recent allusions to Mrs. Beauly) which I wished (if possible) to have thoroughly cleared up.

“Have you and Mr. Playmore ever spoken together on the subject of my husband’s former attachment to Mrs. Beauly?” I asked. “Has Mr. Playmore ever told you why Eustace did not marry her, after the Trial?”

“I put that question to Mr. Playmore myself,” said Benjamin. “He answered it easily enough. Being your husband’s confidential friend and adviser, he was consulted when Mr. Eustace wrote to Mrs. Beauly, after the Trial; and he repeated the substance of the letter, at my request. Would you like to hear what I remember of it, in my turn?”

I owned that I should like to hear it. What Benjamin thereupon told me, exactly coincided with what Miserrimus Dexter had told me — as related in the thirtieth chapter of my narrative. Mrs. Beauly had been a witness of the public degradation of my husband. That was enough in itself to prevent him from marrying her: He broke off with her for the same reason which had led him to separate himself from me. Existence with a woman who knew that he had been tried for his life as a murderer was an existence which he had not resolution enough to face. The two accounts agreed in every particular. At last my jealous curiosity was pacified; and Benjamin was free to dismiss the past from further consideration, and to approach the more critical and more interesting topic of the future.

His first inquiries related to Eustace. He asked if my husband had any suspicion of the proceedings which had taken place at Gleninch.

I told him what had happened, and how I had contrived to put off the inevitable disclosure for a time.

My old friend’s face cleared up as he listened to me.

“This will be good news for Mr. Playmore,” he said. “Our excellent friend, the lawyer, is sorely afraid that our discoveries may compromise your position with your husband. On the one hand, he is naturally anxious to spare Mr. Eustace the distress which he must certainly feel, if he read his first wife’s confession. On the other hand, it is impossible, in justice (as Mr. Playmore puts it) to the unborn children of your marriage, to suppress a document which vindicates the memory of their father from the aspersion that the Scotch Verdict might otherwise cast on it.”

I listened attentively. Benjamin had touched on a trouble which was still secretly preying on my mind.

“How does Mr. Playmore propose to meet the difficulty?” I asked.

“He can only meet it in one way,” Benjamin replied. “He proposes to seal up the original manuscript of the letter, and to add to it a plain statement of the circumstances under which it was discovered, supported by your signed attestation and mine, as witnesses to the fact. This done, he must leave it to you to take your husband into your confidence, at your own time. It will then be for Mr. Eustace to decide whether he will open the inclosure — or whether he will leave it, with the seal unbroken, as an heirloom to his children, to be made public or not, at their discretion, when they are of an age to think for themselves. Do you consent to this, my dear? Or would you prefer that Mr. Playmore should see your husband, and act for you in the matter?”

I decided, without hesitation, to take the responsibility on myself. Where the question of guiding Eustace’s decision was concerned, I considered my influence to be decidedly superior to the influence of Mr. Playmore. My choice met with Benjamin’s full approval. He arranged to write to Edinburgh, and relieve the lawyer’s anxieties by that day’s post.

The one last thing now left to be settled related to our plans for returning to England. The doctors were the authorities on this subject. I promised to consult them about it at their next visit to Eustace.

“Have you anything more to say to me?” Benjamin inquired, as he opened his writing-case.

I thought of Miserrimus Dexter and Ariel; and I inquired if he had heard any news of them lately. My old friend sighed, and warned me that I had touched on a painful subject.

“The best thing that can happen to that unhappy man is likely to happen,” he said. “The one change in him is a change that threatens paralysis. You may hear of his death before you get back to England.”

“And Ariel?” I asked.

“Quite unaltered,” Benjamin answered. “Perfectly happy so long as she is with ‘the Master.’ From all I can hear of her, poor soul, she doesn’t reckon Dexter among moral beings. She laughs at the idea of his dying; and she waits patiently, in the firm persuasion that he will recognize her again.”

Benjamin’s news saddened and silenced me. I left him to his letter.

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