The Legacy of Cain, by Wilkie Collins

Postscript.

Later in the day, Mrs. Tenbruggen arrived to offer her congratulations. She asked for a few minutes with Philip alone. As a cat elaborates her preparations for killing a mouse, so the human cat elaborated her preparations for killing Philip’s happiness, he remained uninjured by her teeth and her claws. “Somebody,” she said, “has told you of it already?” And Philip answered: “Yes; my wife.”

For some months longer, Mr. Gracedieu lingered. One morning, he said to Eunice: “I want to teach you to knit. Sit by me, and see me do it.” His hands fell softly on his lap; his head sank little by little on her shoulder. She could just hear him whisper: “How pleasant it is to sleep!” Never was Death’s dreadful work more gently done.

Our married pair live now on the paternal estate in Ireland; and Miss Jillgall reigns queen of domestic affairs. I am still strong enough to pass my autumn holidays in that pleasant house.

At times, my memory reverts to Helena Gracedieu, and to what I discovered when I had seen her diary.

How little I knew of that terrible creature when I first met with her, and fancied that she had inherited her mother’s character! It was weak indeed to compare the mean vices of Mrs. Gracedieu with the diabolical depravity of her daughter. Here the doctrine of hereditary transmission of moral qualities must own that it has overlooked the fertility (for growth of good and for growth of evil equally) which is inherent in human nature. There are virtues that exalt us, and vices that degrade us, whose mysterious origin is, not in our parents, but in ourselves. When I think of Helena, I ask myself, where is the trace which reveals that the first murder in the world was the product of inherited crime?

The criminal left the prison, on the expiration of her sentence, so secretly that it was impossible to trace her. Some months later, Miss Jillgall received an illustrated newspaper published in the United States. She showed me one of the portraits in it.

“Do you recognize the illustrious original?” she asked, with indignant emphasis on the last two words. I recognized Helena. “Now read her new title,” Miss Jillgall continued.

I read: “The Reverend Miss Gracedieu.”

The biographical notice followed. Here is an extract: “This eminent lady, the victim of a shocking miscarriage of justice in England, is now the distinguished leader of a new community in the United States. We hail in her the great intellect which asserts the superiority of woman over man. In the first French Revolution, the attempt made by men to found a rational religion met with only temporary success. It was reserved for the mightier spirit of woman to lay the foundations more firmly, and to dedicate one of the noblest edifices in this city to the Worship of Pure Reason. Readers who wish for further information will do well to provide themselves with the Reverend Miss Gracedieu’s Orations — the tenth edition of which is advertised in our columns.”

“I once asked you,” Miss Jillgall reminded me, “what Helena would do when she came out of prison, and you said she would do very well. Oh, Mr. Governor, Solomon was nothing to You!”

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