Little Novels, by Wilkie Collins

Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman.

I.

MY brother, the clergyman, looked over my shoulder before I was aware of him, and discovered that the volume which completely absorbed my attention was a collection of famous Trials, published in a new edition and in a popular form.

He laid his finger on the Trial which I happened to be reading at the moment. I looked up at him; his face startled me. He had turned pale. His eyes were fixed on the open page of the book with an expression which puzzled and alarmed me.

“My dear fellow,” I said, “what in the world is the matter with you?”

He answered in an odd absent manner, still keeping his finger on the open page.

“I had almost forgotten,” he said. “And this reminds me.”

“Reminds you of what?” I asked. “You don’t mean to say you know anything about the Trial?”

“I know this,” he said. “The prisoner was guilty.”

“Guilty?” I repeated. “Why, the man was acquitted by the jury, with the full approval of the judge! What call you possibly mean?”

“There are circumstances connected with that Trial,” my brother answered, “which were never communicated to the judge or the jury — which were never so much as hinted or whispered in court. I know them — of my own knowledge, by my own personal experience. They are very sad, very strange, very terrible. I have mentioned them to no mortal creature. I have done my best to forget them. You — quite innocently — have brought them back to my mind. They oppress, they distress me. I wish I had found you reading any book in your library, except that book!”

My curiosity was now strongly excited. I spoke out plainly.

“Surely,” I suggested, “you might tell your brother what you are unwilling to mention to persons less nearly related to you. We have followed different professions, and have lived in different countries, since we were boys at school. But you know you can trust me.”

He considered a little with himself.

“Yes,” he said. “I know I can trust you.” He waited a moment, and then he surprised me by a strange question.

“Do you believe,” he asked, “that the spirits of the dead can return to earth, and show themselves to the living?”

I answered cautiously — adopting as my own the words of a great English writer, touching the subject of ghosts.

“You ask me a question,” I said, “which, after five thousand years, is yet undecided. On that account alone, it is a question not to be trifled with.”

My reply seemed to satisfy him.

“Promise me,” he resumed, “that you will keep what I tell you a secret as long as I live. After my death I care little what happens. Let the story of my strange experience be added to the published experience of those other men who have seen what I have seen, and who believe what I believe. The world will not be the worse, and may be the better, for knowing one day what I am now about to trust to your ear alone.”

My brother never again alluded to the narrative which he had confided to me, until the later time when I was sitting by his deathbed. He asked if I still remembered the story of Jeromette. “Tell it to others,” he said, “as I have told it to you.”

I repeat it after his death — as nearly as I can in his own words.

II.

ON a fine summer evening, many years since, I left my chambers in the Temple, to meet a fellow-student, who had proposed to me a night’s amusement in the public gardens at Cremorne.

You were then on your way to India; and I had taken my degree at Oxford. I had sadly disappointed my father by choosing the Law as my profession, in preference to the Church. At that time, to own the truth, I had no serious intention of following any special vocation. I simply wanted an excuse for enjoying the pleasures of a London life. The study of the Law supplied me with that excuse. And I chose the Law as my profession accordingly.

On reaching the place at which we had arranged to meet, I found that my friend had not kept his appointment. After waiting vainly for ten minutes, my patience gave way and I went into the Gardens by myself.

I took two or three turns round the platform devoted to the dancers without discovering my fellow-student, and without seeing any other person with whom I happened to be acquainted at that time.

For some reason which I cannot now remember, I was not in my usual good spirits that evening. The noisy music jarred on my nerves, the sight of the gaping crowd round the platform irritated me, the blandishments of the painted ladies of the profession of pleasure saddened and disgusted me. I opened my cigar-case, and turned aside into one of the quiet by-walks of the Gardens.

A man who is habitually careful in choosing his cigar has this advantage over a man who is habitually careless. He can always count on smoking the best cigar in his case, down to the last. I was still absorbed in choosing my cigar, when I heard these words behind me — spoken in a foreign accent and in a woman’s voice:

“Leave me directly, sir! I wish to have nothing to say to you.”

I turned round and discovered a little lady very simply and tastefully dressed, who looked both angry and alarmed as she rapidly passed me on her way to the more frequented part of the Gardens. A man (evidently the worse for the wine he had drunk in the course of the evening) was following her, and was pressing his tipsy attentions on her with the coarsest insolence of speech and manner. She was young and pretty, and she cast one entreating look at me as she went by, which it was not in manhood — perhaps I ought to say, in young-manhood — to resist.

I instantly stepped forward to protect her, careless whether I involved myself in a discreditable quarrel with a blackguard or not. As a matter of course, the fellow resented my interference, and my temper gave way. Fortunately for me, just as I lifted my hand to knock him down, at policeman appeared who had noticed that he was drunk, and who settled the dispute officially by turning him out of the Gardens.

I led her away from the crowd that had collected. She was evidently frightened — I felt her hand trembling on my arm — but she had one great merit; she made no fuss about it.

“If I can sit down for a few minutes,” she said in her pretty foreign accent, “I shall soon be myself again, and I shall not trespass any further on your kindness. I thank you very much, sir, for taking care of me.”

We sat down on a bench in a retired par t of the Gardens, near a little fountain. A row of lighted lamps ran round the outer rim of the basin. I could see her plainly.

I have said that she was “a little lady.” I could not have described her more correctly in three words.

Her figure was slight and small: she was a well-made miniature of a woman from head to foot. Her hair and her eyes were both dark. The hair curled naturally; the expression of the eyes was quiet, and rather sad; the complexion, as I then saw it, very pale; the little mouth perfectly charming. I was especially attracted, I remembered, by the carriage of her head; it was strikingly graceful and spirited; it distinguished her, little as she was and quiet as she was, among the thousands of other women in the Gardens, as a creature apart. Even the one marked defect in her — a slight “cast” in the left eye — seemed to add, in some strange way, to the quaint attractiveness of her face. I have already spoken of the tasteful simplicity of her dress. I ought now to add that it was not made of any costly material, and that she wore no jewels or ornaments of any sort. My little lady was not rich; even a man’s eye could see that.

She was perfectly unembarrassed and unaffected. We fell as easily into talk as if we had been friends instead of strangers.

I asked how it was that she had no companion to take care of her. “You are too young and too pretty,” I said in my blunt English way, “to trust yourself alone in such a place as this.”

She took no notice of the compliment. She calmly put it away from her as if it had not reached her ears.

“I have no friend to take care of me,” she said simply. “I was sad and sorry this evening, all by myself, and I thought I would go to the Gardens and hear the music, just to amuse me. It is not much to pay at the gate; only a shilling.”

“No friend to take care of you?” I repeated. “Surely there must be one happy man who might have been here with you to-night?”

“What man do you mean?” she asked.

“The man,” I answered thoughtlessly, “whom we call, in England, a Sweetheart.”

I would have given worlds to have recalled those foolish words the moment they passed my lips. I felt that I had taken a vulgar liberty with her. Her face saddened; her eyes dropped to the ground. I begged her pardon.

“There is no need to beg my pardon,” she said. “If you wish to know, sir — yes, I had once a sweetheart, as you call it in England. He has gone away and left me. No more of him, if you please. I am rested now. I will thank you again, and go home.”

She rose to leave me.

I was determined not to part with her in that way. I begged to be allowed to see her safely back to her own door. She hesitated. I took a man’s unfair advantage of her, by appealing to her fears. I said, “Suppose the blackguard who annoyed you should be waiting outside the gates?” That decided her. She took my arm. We went away together by the bank of the Thames, in the balmy summer night.

A walk of half an hour brought us to the house in which she lodged — a shabby little house in a by-street, inhabited evidently by very poor people.

She held out her hand at the door, and wished me good-night. I was too much interested in her to consent to leave my little foreign lady without the hope of seeing her again. I asked permission to call on her the next day. We were standing under the light of the street-lamp. She studied my face with a grave and steady attention before she made any reply.

“Yes,” she said at last. “I think I do know a gentleman when I see him. You may come, sir, if you please, and call upon me to-morrow.”

So we parted. So I entered — doubting nothing, foreboding nothing — on a scene in my life which I now look back on with unfeigned repentance and regret.

III.

I AM speaking at this later time in the position of a clergyman, and in the character of a man of mature age. Remember that; and you will understand why I pass as rapidly as possible over the events of the next year of my life — why I say as little as I can of the errors and the delusions of my youth.

I called on her the next day. I repeated my visits during the days and weeks that followed, until the shabby little house in the by-street had become a second and (I say it with shame and self-reproach) a dearer home to me.

All of herself and her story which she thought fit to confide to me under these circumstances may be repeated to you in few words.

The name by which letters were addressed to her was “Mademoiselle Jeromette.” Among the ignorant people of the house and the small tradesmen of the neighborhood — who found her name not easy of pronunciation by the average English tongue — she was known by the friendly nickname of “The French Miss.” When I knew her, she was resigned to her lonely life among strangers. Some years had elapsed since she had lost her parents, and had left France. Possessing a small, very small, income of her own, she added to it by coloring miniatures for the photographers. She had relatives still living in France; but she had long since ceased to correspond with them. “Ask me nothing more about my family,” she used to say. “I am as good as dead in my own country and among my own people.”

This was all — literally all — that she told me of herself. I have never discovered more of her sad story from that day to this.

She never mentioned her family name — never even told me what part of France she came from or how long she had lived in England. That she was by birth and breeding a lady, I could entertain no doubt; her manners, her accomplishments, her ways of thinking and speaking, all proved it. Looking below the surface, her character showed itself in aspects not common among young women in these days. In her quiet way she was an incurable fatalist, and a firm believer in the ghostly reality of apparitions from the dead. Then again in the matter of money, she had strange views of her own. Whenever my purse was in my hand, she held me resolutely at a distance from first to last. She refused to move into better apartments; the shabby little house was clean inside, and the poor people who lived in it were kind to her — and that was enough. The most expensive present that she ever permitted me to offer her was a little enameled ring, the plainest and cheapest thing of the kind in the jeweler’s shop. In all relations with me she was sincerity itself. On all occasions, and under all circumstances, she spoke her mind (as the phrase is) with the same uncompromising plainness.

“I like you,” she said to me; “I respect you; I shall always be faithful to you while you are faithful to me. But my love has gone from me. There is another man who has taken it away with him, I know not where.”

Who was the other man?

She refused to tell me. She kept his rank and his name strict secrets from me. I never discovered how he had met with her, or why he had left her, or whether the guilt was his of making of her an exile from her country and her friends. She despised herself for still loving him; but the passion was too strong for her — she owned it and lamented it with the frankness which was so preeminently a part of her character. More than this, she plainly told me, in the early days of our acquaintance, that she believed he would return to her. It might be to-morrow, or it might be years hence. Even if he failed to repent of his own cruel conduct, the man would still miss her, as something lost out of his life; and, sooner or later, he would come back.

“And will you receive him if he does come back?” I asked.

“I shall receive him,” she replied, “against my own better judgment — in spite of my own firm persuasion that the day of his return to me will bring with it the darkest days of my life.”

I tried to remonstrate with her.

“You have a will of your own,” I said. “Exert it if he attempts to return to you.”

“I have no will of my own,” she answered quietly, “where he is concerned. It is my misfortune to love him.” Her eyes rested for a moment on mine, with the utter self-abandonment of despair. “We have said enough about this,” she added abruptly. “Let us say no more.”

From that time we never spoke again of the unknown man. During the year that followed o ur first meeting, she heard nothing of him directly or indirectly. He might be living, or he might be dead. There came no word of him, or from him. I was fond enough of her to be satisfied with this — he never disturbed us.

IV.

THE year passed — and the end came. Not the end as you may have anticipated it, or as I might have foreboded it.

You remember the time when your letters from home informed you of the fatal termination of our mother’s illness? It is the time of which I am now speaking. A few hours only before she breathed her last, she called me to her bedside, and desired that we might be left together alone. Reminding me that her death was near, she spoke of my prospects in life; she noticed my want of interest in the studies which were then supposed to be engaging my attention, and she ended by entreating me to reconsider my refusal to enter the Church.

“Your father’s heart is set upon it,” she said. “Do what I ask of you, my dear, and you will help to comfort him when I am gone.”

Her strength failed her: she could say no more. Could I refuse the last request she would ever make to me? I knelt at the bedside, and took her wasted hand in mine, and solemnly promised her the respect which a son owes to his mother’s last wishes.

Having bound myself by this sacred engagement, I had no choice but to accept the sacrifice which it imperatively exacted from me. The time had come when I must tear myself free from all unworthy associations. No matter what the effort cost me, I must separate myself at once and forever from the unhappy woman who was not, who never could be, my wife.

At the close of a dull foggy day I set forth with a heavy heart to say the words which were to part us forever.

Her lodging was not far from the banks of the Thames. As I drew near the place the darkness was gathering, and the broad surface of the river was hidden from me in a chill white mist. I stood for a while, with my eyes fixed on the vaporous shroud that brooded over the flowing water — I stood and asked myself in despair the one dreary question: “What am I to say to her?”

The mist chilled me to the bones. I turned from the river-bank, and made my way to her lodgings hard by. “It must be done!” I said to myself, as I took out my key and opened the house door.

She was not at her work, as usual, when I entered her little sitting-room. She was standing by the fire, with her head down and with an open letter in her hand.

The instant she turned to meet me, I saw in her face that something was wrong. Her ordinary manner was the manner of an unusually placid and self-restrained person. Her temperament had little of the liveliness which we associate in England with the French nature. She was not ready with her laugh; and in all my previous experience, I had never yet known her to cry. Now, for the first time, I saw the quiet face disturbed; I saw tears in the pretty brown eyes. She ran to meet me, and laid her head on my breast, and burst into a passionate fit of weeping that shook her from head to foot.

Could she by any human possibility have heard of the coming change in my life? Was she aware, before I had opened my lips, of the hard necessity which had brought me to the house?

It was simply impossible; the thing could not be.

I waited until her first burst of emotion had worn itself out. Then I asked — with an uneasy conscience, with a sinking heart — what had happened to distress her.

She drew herself away from me, sighing heavily, and gave me the open letter which I had seen in her hand.

“Read that,” she said. “And remember I told you what might happen when we first met.”

I read the letter.

It was signed in initials only; but the writer plainly revealed himself as the man who had deserted her. He had repented; he had returned to her. In proof of his penitence he was willing to do her the justice which he had hitherto refused — he was willing to marry her, on the condition that she would engage to keep the marriage a secret, so long as his parents lived. Submitting this proposal, he waited to know whether she would consent, on her side, to forgive and forget.

I gave her back the letter in silence. This unknown rival had done me the service of paving the way for our separation. In offering her the atonement of marriage, he had made it, on my part, a matter of duty to her, as well as to myself, to say the parting words. I felt this instantly. And yet, I hated him for helping me.

She took my hand, and led me to the sofa. We sat down, side by side. Her face was composed to a sad tranquillity. She was quiet; she was herself again.

“I have refused to see him,” she said, “until I had first spoken to you. You have read his letter. What do you say?”

I could make but one answer. It was my duty to tell her what my own position was in the plainest terms. I did my duty — leaving her free to decide on the future for herself. Those sad words said, it was useless to prolong the wretchedness of our separation. I rose, and took her hand for the last time.

I see her again now, at that final moment, as plainly as if it had happened yesterday. She had been suffering from an affection of the throat; and she had a white silk handkerchief tied loosely round her neck. She wore a simple dress of purple merino, with a black-silk apron over it. Her face was deadly pale; her fingers felt icily cold as they closed round my hand.

“Promise me one thing,” I said, “before I go. While I live, I am your friend — if I am nothing more. If you are ever in trouble, promise that you will let me know it.”

She started, and drew back from me as if I had struck her with a sudden terror.

“Strange!” she said, speaking to herself. “He feels as I feel. He is afraid of what may happen to me, in my life to come.”

I attempted to reassure her. I tried to tell her what was indeed the truth — that I had only been thinking of the ordinary chances and changes of life, when I spoke.

She paid no heed to me; she came back and put her hands on my shoulders and thoughtfully and sadly looked up in my face.

“My mind is not your mind in this matter,” she said. “I once owned to you that I had my forebodings, when we first spoke of this man’s return. I may tell you now, more than I told you then. I believe I shall die young, and die miserably. If I am right, have you interest enough still left in me to wish to hear of it?”

She paused, shuddering — and added these startling words:

“You shall hear of it.”

The tone of steady conviction in which she spoke alarmed and distressed me. My face showed her how deeply and how painfully I was affected.

“There, there!” she said, returning to her natural manner; “don’t take what I say too seriously. A poor girl who has led a lonely life like mine thinks strangely and talks strangely — sometimes. Yes; I give you my promise. If I am ever in trouble, I will let you know it. God bless you — you have been very kind to me — good-by!”

A tear dropped on my face as she kissed me. The door closed between us. The dark street received me.

It was raining heavily. I looked up at her window, through the drifting shower. The curtains were parted: she was standing in the gap, dimly lit by the lamp on the table behind her, waiting for our last look at each other. Slowly lifting her hand, she waved her farewell at the window, with the unsought native grace which had charmed me on the night when we first met. The curtain fell again — she disappeared — nothing was before me, nothing was round me, but the darkness and the night.

V.

IN two years from that time, I had redeemed the promise given to my mother on her deathbed. I had entered the Church.

My father’s interest made my first step in my new profession an easy one. After serving my preliminary apprenticeship as a curate, I was appointed, before I was thirty years of age, to a living in the West of England.

My new benefice offered me every advantage that I could possibly desire — with the one exception of a sufficient income. Although my wants were few, and although I was still an unmarried man, I found it desirable, on many accounts, to add to my resources. Following the example of other young clergymen in my position, I det ermined to receive pupils who might stand in need of preparation for a career at the Universities. My relatives exerted themselves; and my good fortune still befriended me. I obtained two pupils to start with. A third would complete the number which I was at present prepared to receive. In course of time, this third pupil made his appearance, under circumstances sufficiently remarkable to merit being mentioned in detail.

It was the summer vacation; and my two pupils had gone home. Thanks to a neighboring clergyman, who kindly undertook to perform my duties for me, I too obtained a fortnight’s holiday, which I spent at my father’s house in London.

During my sojourn in the metropolis, I was offered an opportunity of preaching in a church, made famous by the eloquence of one of the popular pulpit-orators of our time. In accepting the proposal, I felt naturally anxious to do my best, before the unusually large and unusually intelligent congregation which would be assembled to hear me.

At the period of which I am now speaking, all England had been startled by the discovery of a terrible crime, perpetrated under circumstances of extreme provocation. I chose this crime as the main subject of my sermon. Admitting that the best among us were frail mortal creatures, subject to evil promptings and provocations like the worst among us, my object was to show how a Christian man may find his certain refuge from temptation in the safeguards of his religion. I dwelt minutely on the hardship of the Christian’s first struggle to resist the evil influence — on the help which his Christianity inexhaustibly held out to him in the worst relapses of the weaker and viler part of his nature — on the steady and certain gain which was the ultimate reward of his faith and his firmness — and on the blessed sense of peace and happiness which accompanied the final triumph. Preaching to this effect, with the fervent conviction which I really felt, I may say for myself, at least, that I did no discredit to the choice which had placed me in the pulpit. I held the attention of my congregation, from the first word to the last.

While I was resting in the vestry on the conclusion of the service, a note was brought to me written in pencil. A member of my congregation — a gentleman — wished to see me, on a matter of considerable importance to himself. He would call on me at any place, and at any hour, which I might choose to appoint. If I wished to be satisfied of his respectability, he would beg leave to refer me to his father, with whose name I might possibly be acquainted.

The name given in the reference was undoubtedly familiar to me, as the name of a man of some celebrity and influence in the world of London. I sent back my card, appointing an hour for the visit of my correspondent on the afternoon of the next day.

VI.

THE stranger made his appearance punctually. I guessed him to be some two or three years younger than myself. He was undeniably handsome; his manners were the manners of a gentleman — and yet, without knowing why, I felt a strong dislike to him the moment he entered the room.

After the first preliminary words of politeness had been exchanged between us, my visitor informed me as follows of the object which he had in view.

“I believe you live in the country, sir?” he began.

“I live in the West of England,” I answered.

“Do you make a long stay in London?”

“No. I go back to my rectory to-morrow.”

“May I ask if you take pupils?”

“Yes.”

“Have you any vacancy?”

“I have one vacancy.”

“Would you object to let me go back with you to-morrow, as your pupil?”

The abruptness of the proposal took me by surprise. I hesitated.

In the first place (as I have already said), I disliked him. In the second place, he was too old to be a fit companion for my other two pupils — both lads in their teens. In the third place, he had asked me to receive him at least three weeks before the vacation came to an end. I had my own pursuits and amusements in prospect during that interval, and saw no reason why I should inconvenience myself by setting them aside.

He noticed my hesitation, and did not conceal from me that I had disappointed him.

“I have it very much at heart,” he said, “to repair without delay the time that I have lost. My age is against me, I know. The truth is — I have wasted my opportunities since I left school, and I am anxious, honestly anxious, to mend my ways, before it is too late. I wish to prepare myself for one of the Universities — I wish to show, if I can, that I am not quite unworthy to inherit my father’s famous name. You are the man to help me, if I can only persuade you to do it. I was struck by your sermon yesterday; and, if I may venture to make the confession in your presence, I took a strong liking to you. Will you see my father, before you decide to say No? He will be able to explain whatever may seem strange in my present application; and he will be happy to see you this afternoon, if you can spare the time. As to the question of terms, I am quite sure it can be settled to your entire satisfaction.”

He was evidently in earnest — gravely, vehemently in earnest. I unwillingly consented to see his father.

Our interview was a long one. All my questions were answered fully and frankly.

The young man had led an idle and desultory life. He was weary of it, and ashamed of it. His disposition was a peculiar one. He stood sorely in need of a guide, a teacher, and a friend, in whom he was disposed to confide. If I disappointed the hopes which he had centered in me, he would be discouraged, and he would relapse into the aimless and indolent existence of which he was now ashamed. Any terms for which I might stipulate were at my disposal if I would consent to receive him, for three months to begin with, on trial.

Still hesitating, I consulted my father and my friends.

They were all of opinion (and justly of opinion so far) that the new connection would be an excellent one for me. They all reproached me for taking a purely capricious dislike to a well-born and well-bred young man, and for permitting it to influence me, at the outset of my career, against my own interests. Pressed by these considerations, I allowed myself to be persuaded to give the new pupil a fair trial. He accompanied me, the next day, on my way back to the rectory.

VII.

LET me be careful to do justice to a man whom I personally disliked. My senior pupil began well: he produced a decidedly favorable impression on the persons attached to my little household.

The women, especially, admired his beautiful light hair, his crisply-curling beard, his delicate complexion, his clear blue eyes, and his finely shaped hands and feet. Even the inveterate reserve in his manner, and the downcast, almost sullen, look which had prejudiced me against him, aroused a common feeling of romantic enthusiasm in my servants’ hall. It was decided, on the high authority of the housekeeper herself, that “the new gentleman” was in love — and, more interesting still, that he was the victim of an unhappy attachment which had driven him away from his friends and his home.

For myself, I tried hard, and tried vainly, to get over my first dislike to the senior pupil.

I could find no fault with him. All his habits were quiet and regular; and he devoted himself conscientiously to his reading. But, little by little, I became satisfied that his heart was not in his studies. More than this, I had my reasons for suspecting that he was concealing something from me, and that he felt painfully the reserve on his own part which he could not, or dared not, break through. There were moments when I almost doubted whether he had not chosen my remote country rectory as a safe place of refuge from some person or persons of whom he stood in dread.

For example, his ordinary course of proceeding, in the matter of his correspondence, was, to say the least of it, strange.

He received no letters at my house. They waited for him at the village post office. He invariably called for them himself, and invariably forbore to trust any of my servants with his own letters for the post. Again, when we were out walking together, I more than once caught him looking furtively over his shoulder, as if he suspected some person of following him, for some evil purpose. Being constitutionally a hater of mysteries, I determined, at an early stage of our intercourse, on making an effort to clear matters up. There might be just a chance of my winning the senior pupil’s confidence, if I spoke to him while the last days of the summer vacation still left us alone together in the house.

“Excuse me for noticing it,” I said to him one morning, while we were engaged over our books — “I cannot help observing that you appear to have some trouble on your mind. Is it indiscreet, on my part, to ask if I can be of any use to you?”

He changed color — looked up at me quickly — looked down again at his book — struggled hard with some secret fear or secret reluctance that was in him — and suddenly burst out with this extraordinary question: “I suppose you were in earnest when you preached that sermon in London?”

“I am astonished that you should doubt it,” I replied.

He paused again; struggled with himself again; and startled me by a second outbreak, even stranger than the first.

“I am one of the people you preached at in your sermon,” he said. “That’s the true reason why I asked you to take me for your pupil. Don’t turn me out! When you talked to your congregation of tortured and tempted people, you talked of Me.”

I was so astonished by the confession, that I lost my presence of mind. For the moment, I was unable to answer him.

“Don’t turn me out!” he repeated. “Help me against myself. I am telling you the truth. As God is my witness, I am telling you the truth!”

“Tell me the whole truth,” I said; “and rely on my consoling and helping you — rely on my being your friend.”

In the fervor of the moment, I took his hand. It lay cold and still in mine; it mutely warned me that I had a sullen and a secret nature to deal with.

“There must be no concealment between us,” I resumed. “You have entered my house, by your own confession, under false pretenses. It is your duty to me, and your duty to yourself, to speak out.”

The man’s inveterate reserve — cast off for the moment only — renewed its hold on him. He considered, carefully considered, his next words before he permitted them to pass his lips.

“A person is in the way of my prospects in life,” he began slowly, with his eyes cast down on his book. “A person provokes me horribly. I feel dreadful temptations (like the man you spoke of in your sermon) when I am in the person’s company. Teach me to resist temptation. I am afraid of myself, if I see the person again. You are the only man who can help me. Do it while you can.”

He stopped, and passed his handkerchief over his forehead.

“Will that do?” he asked — still with his eyes on his book.

“It will not do,” I answered. “You are so far from really opening your heart to me, that you won’t even let me know whether it is a man or a woman who stands in the way of your prospects in life. You used the word ‘person,’ over and over again — rather than say ‘he’ or ‘she’ when you speak of the provocation which is trying you. How can I help a man who has so little confidence in me as that?”

My reply evidently found him at the end of his resources. He tried, tried desperately, to say more than he had said yet. No! The words seemed to stick in his throat. Not one of them would pass his lips.

“Give me time,” he pleaded piteously. “I can’t bring myself to it, all at once. I mean well. Upon my soul, I mean well. But I am slow at this sort of thing. Wait till to-morrow.”

To-morrow came — and again he put it off.

“One more day!” he said. “You don’t know how hard it is to speak plainly. I am half afraid; I am half ashamed. Give me one more day.”

I had hitherto only disliked him. Try as I might (and did) to make merciful allowance for his reserve, I began to despise him now.

VIII.

THE day of the deferred confession came, and brought an event with it, for which both he and I were alike unprepared. Would he really have confided in me but for that event? He must either have done it, or have abandoned the purpose which had led him into my house.

We met as usual at the breakfast-table. My housekeeper brought in my letters of the morning. To my surprise, instead of leaving the room again as usual, she walked round to the other side of the table, and laid a letter before my senior pupil — the first letter, since his residence with me, which had been delivered to him under my roof.

He started, and took up the letter. He looked at the address. A spasm of suppressed fury passed across his face; his breath came quickly; his hand trembled as it held the letter. So far, I said nothing. I waited to see whether he would open the envelope in my presence or not.

He was afraid to open it in my presence. He got on his feet; he said, in tones so low that I could barely hear him: “Please excuse me for a minute” — and left the room.

I waited for half an hour — for a quarter of an hour after that — and then I sent to ask if he had forgotten his breakfast.

In a minute more, I heard his footstep in the hall. He opened the breakfast-room door, and stood on the threshold, with a small traveling-bag in his hand.

“I beg your pardon,” he said, still standing at the door. “I must ask for leave of absence for a day or two. Business in London.”

“Can I be of any use?” I asked. “I am afraid your letter has brought you bad news?”

“Yes,” he said shortly. “Bad news. I have no time for breakfast.”

“Wait a few minutes,” I urged. “Wait long enough to treat me like your friend — to tell me what your trouble is before you go.”

He made no reply. He stepped into the hall and closed the door — then opened it again a little way, without showing himself.

“Business in London,” he repeated — as if he thought it highly important to inform me of the nature of his errand. The door closed for the second time. He was gone.

I went into my study, and carefully considered what had happened.

The result of my reflections is easily described. I determined on discontinuing my relations with my senior pupil. In writing to his father (which I did, with all due courtesy and respect, by that day’s post), I mentioned as my reason for arriving at this decision:— First, that I had found it impossible to win the confidence of his son. Secondly, that his son had that morning suddenly and mysteriously left my house for London, and that I must decline accepting any further responsibility toward him, as the necessary consequence.

I had put my letter in the post-bag, and was beginning to feel a little easier after having written it, when my housekeeper appeared in the study, with a very grave face, and with something hidden apparently in her closed hand.

“Would you please look, sir, at what we have found in the gentleman’s bedroom, since he went away this morning?”

I knew the housekeeper to possess a woman’s full share of that amicable weakness of the sex which goes by the name of “Curiosity.” I had also, in various indirect ways, become aware that my senior pupil’s strange departure had largely increased the disposition among the women of my household to regard him as the victim of an unhappy attachment. The time was ripe, as it seemed to me, for checking any further gossip about him, and any renewed attempts at prying into his affairs in his absence.

“Your only business in my pupil’s bedroom,” I said to the housekeeper, “is to see that it is kept clean, and that it is properly aired. There must be no interference, if you please, with his letters, or his papers, or with anything else that he has left behind him. Put back directly whatever you may have found in his room.”

The housekeeper had her full share of a woman’s temper as well as of a woman’s curiosity. She listened to me with a rising color, and a just perceptible toss of the head.

“Must I put it back, sir, on the floor, between the bed and the wall?” she inquired, with an ironical assumption of the humblest deference to my wishes. “That’s where the girl found it when she was sweeping the room. Anybody can see for themselves,” pursued the housekeeper indignantly, “that the poor gentleman has gone away broken-hearted. And there, in my opinion, is the hussy who is the cause of it!”

With those words, she made me a low curtsey, and laid a small photographic portrait on the desk at which I was sitting.

I looked at the photograph.

In an instant, my heart was beating wildly — my head turned giddy — the housekeeper, the furniture, the walls of the room, all swayed and whirled round me.

The portrait that had been found in my senior pupil’s bedroom was the portrait of Jeromette!

IX.

I HAD sent the housekeeper out of my study. I was alone, with the photograph of the Frenchwoman on my desk.

There could surely be little doubt about the discovery that had burst upon me. The man who had stolen his way into my house, driven by the terror of a temptation that he dared not reveal, and the man who had been my unknown rival in the by-gone time, were one and the same!

Recovering self-possession enough to realize this plain truth, the inferences that followed forced their way into my mind as a matter of course. The unnamed person who was the obstacle to my pupil’s prospects in life, the unnamed person in whose company he was assailed by temptations which made him tremble for himself, stood revealed to me now as being, in all human probability, no other than Jeromette. Had she bound him in the fetters of the marriage which he had himself proposed? Had she discovered his place of refuge in my house? And was the letter that had been delivered to him of her writing? Assuming these questions to be answered in the affirmative, what, in that case, was his “business in London”? I remembered how he had spoken to me of his temptations, I recalled the expression that had crossed his face when he recognized the handwriting on the letter — and the conclusion that followed literally shook me to the soul. Ordering my horse to be saddled, I rode instantly to the railway-station.

The train by which he had traveled to London had reached the terminus nearly an hour since. The one useful course that I could take, by way of quieting the dreadful misgivings crowding one after another on my mind, was to telegraph to Jeromette at the address at which I had last seen her. I sent the subjoined message — prepaying the reply:

“If you are in any trouble, telegraph to me. I will be with you by the first train. Answer, in any case.”

There was nothing in the way of the immediate dispatch of my message. And yet the hours passed, and no answer was received. By the advice of the clerk, I sent a second telegram to the London office, requesting an explanation. The reply came back in these terms:

“Improvements in street. Houses pulled down. No trace of person named in telegram.”

I mounted my horse, and rode back slowly to the rectory.

“The day of his return to me will bring with it the darkest days of my life.”. . . . . “I shall die young, and die miserably. Have you interest enough still left in me to wish to hear of it?” . . . . “You shall hear of it.” Those words were in my memory while I rode home in the cloudless moonlight night. They were so vividly present to me that I could hear again her pretty foreign accent, her quiet clear tones, as she spoke them. For the rest, the emotions of that memorable day had worn me out. The answer from the telegraph office had struck me with a strange and stony despair. My mind was a blank. I had no thoughts. I had no tears.

I was about half-way on my road home, and I had just heard the clock of a village church strike ten, when I became conscious, little by little, of a chilly sensation slowly creeping through and through me to the bones. The warm, balmy air of a summer night was abroad. It was the month of July. In the month of July, was it possible that any living creature (in good health) could feel cold? It was not possible — and yet, the chilly sensation still crept through and through me to the bones.

I looked up. I looked all round me.

My horse was walking along an open highroad. Neither trees nor waters were near me. On either side, the flat fields stretched away bright and broad in the moonlight.

I stopped my horse, and looked round me again.

Yes: I saw it. With my own eyes I saw it. A pillar of white mist — between five and six feet high, as well as I could judge — was moving beside me at the edge of the road, on my left hand. When I stopped, the white mist stopped. When I went on, the white mist went on. I pushed my horse to a trot — the pillar of mist was with me. I urged him to a gallop —— the pillar of mist was with me. I stopped him again — the pillar of mist stood still.

The white color of it was the white color of the fog which I had seen over the river — on the night when I had gone to bid her farewell. And the chill which had then crept through me to the bones was the chill that was creeping through me now.

I went on again slowly. The white mist went on again slowly — with the clear bright night all round it.

I was awed rather than frightened. There was one moment, and one only, when the fear came to me that my reason might be shaken. I caught myself keeping time to the slow tramp of the horse’s feet with the slow utterances of these words, repeated over and over again: “Jeromette is dead. Jeromette is dead.” But my will was still my own: I was able to control myself, to impose silence on my own muttering lips. And I rode on quietly. And the pillar of mist went quietly with me.

My groom was waiting for my return at the rectory gate. I pointed to the mist, passing through the gate with me.

“Do you see anything there?” I said.

The man looked at me in astonishment.

I entered the rectory. The housekeeper met me in the hall. I pointed to the mist, entering with me.

“Do you see anything at my side?” I asked.

The housekeeper looked at me as the groom had looked at me.

“I am afraid you are not well, sir,” she said. “Your color is all gone — you are shivering. Let me get you a glass of wine.”

I went into my study, on the ground-floor, and took the chair at my desk. The photograph still lay where I had left it. The pillar of mist floated round the table, and stopped opposite to me, behind the photograph.

The housekeeper brought in the wine. I put the glass to my lips, and set it down again. The chill of the mist was in the wine. There was no taste, no reviving spirit in it. The presence of the housekeeper oppressed me. My dog had followed her into the room. The presence of the animal oppressed me. I said to the woman: “Leave me by myself, and take the dog with you.”

They went out, and left me alone in the room.

I sat looking at the pillar of mist, hovering opposite to me.

It lengthened slowly, until it reached to the ceiling. As it lengthened, it grew bright and luminous. A time passed, and a shadowy appearance showed itself in the center of the light. Little by little, the shadowy appearance took the outline of a human form. Soft brown eyes, tender and melancholy, looked at me through the unearthly light in the mist. The head and the rest of the face broke next slowly on my view. Then the figure gradually revealed itself, moment by moment, downward and downward to the feet. She stood before me as I had last seen her, in her purple-merino dress, with the black-silk apron, with the white handkerchief tied loosely round her neck. She stood before me, in the gentle beauty that I remembered so well; and looked at me as she had looked when she gave me her last kiss — when her tears had dropped on my cheek.

I fell on my knees at the table. I stretched out my hands to her imploringly. I said: “Speak to me — O, once again speak to me, Jeromette.”

Her eyes rested on me with a divine compassion in them. She lifted her hand, and pointed to the photograph on my desk, with a gesture which bade me turn the card. I turned it. The name of the man who had left my house that morning was inscribed on it, in her own handwriting.

I looked up at her again, when I had read it. She lifted her hand once more, and pointed to the handkerchief round her neck. As I looked at it, the fair white silk changed horribly in color — the fair white silk became darkened and drenched in blood.

A moment more — and the vision of her began to grow dim. By slow degrees, the figure, then the face, faded back into the shadowy appearance that I had first seen. The luminous inner light died out in the white mist. The mist itself dropped slowly downward — floated a moment in airy circles on the floor — vanished. Nothing was before me but the familiar wall of the room, and the photograph lying face downward on my desk.

X.

THE next day, the newspapers reported the discovery of a murder in London. A Frenchwoman was the victim. She had been killed by a wound in the throat. The crime had been discovered between ten and eleven o’clock on the previous night.

I leave you to draw your conclusion from what I have related. My own faith in the reality of the apparition is immovable. I say, and believe, that Jeromette kept her word with me. She died young, and died miserably. And I heard of it from herself.

Take up the Trial again, and look at the circumstances that were revealed during the investigation in court. His motive for murdering her is there.

You will see that she did indeed marry him privately; that they lived together contentedly, until the fatal day when she discovered that his fancy had been caught by another woman; that violent quarrels took place between them, from that time to the time when my sermon showed him his own deadly hatred toward her, reflected in the case of another man; that she discovered his place of retreat in my house, and threatened him by letter with the public assertion of her conjugal rights; lastly, that a man, variously described by different witnesses, was seen leaving the door of her lodgings on the night of the murder. The Law — advancing no further than this — may have discovered circumstances of suspicion, but no certainty. The Law, in default of direct evidence to convict the prisoner, may have rightly decided in letting him go free.

But I persisted in believing that the man was guilty. I declare that he, and he alone, was the murderer of Jeromette. And now, you know why.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/little_novels/chapter6.html

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