Man and Wife, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter the Twenty-Seventh.

Outwitted.

SIR PATRICK found his sister-in-law immersed in domestic business. Her ladyship’s correspondence and visiting list, her ladyship’s household bills and ledgers; her ladyship’s Diary and Memorandum-book (bound in scarlet morocco); her ladyship’s desk, envelope-case, match-box, and taper candlestick (all in ebony and silver); her ladyship herself, presiding over her responsibilities, and wielding her materials, equal to any calls of emergency, beautifully dressed in correct morning costume, blessed with perfect health both of the secretions and the principles; absolutely void of vice, and formidably full of virtue, presented, to every properly-constituted mind, the most imposing spectacle known to humanity — the British Matron on her throne, asking the world in general, When will you produce the like of Me?

“I am afraid I disturb you,” said Sir Patrick. “I am a perfectly idle person. Shall I look in a little later?”

Lady Lundie put her hand to her head, and smiled faintly.

“A little pressure here, Sir Patrick. Pray sit down. Duty finds me earnest; Duty finds me cheerful; Duty finds me accessible. From a poor, weak woman, Duty must expect no more. Now what is it?” (Her ladyship consulted her scarlet memorandum-book.) “I have got it here, under its proper head, distinguished by initial letters. P. — the poor. No. H.M. — heathen missions. No. V.T.A. — Visitors to arrive. No. P. I. P. — Here it is: private interview with Patrick. Will you forgive me the little harmless familiarity of omitting your title? Thank you! You are always so good. I am quite at your service when you like to begin. If it’s any thing painful, pray don’t hesitate. I am quite prepared.”

With that intimation her ladyship threw herself back in her chair, with her elbows on the arms, and her fingers joined at the tips, as if she was receiving a deputation. “Yes?” she said, interrogatively. Sir Patrick paid a private tribute of pity to his late brother’s memory, and entered on his business.

“We won’t call it a painful matter,” he began. “Let us say it’s a matter of domestic anxiety. Blanche —”

Lady Lundie emitted a faint scream, and put her hand over her eyes.

Must you?” cried her ladyship, in a tone of touching remonstrance. “Oh, Sir Patrick, must you?”

“Yes. I must.”

Lady Lundie’s magnificent eyes looked up at that hidden court of human appeal which is lodged in the ceiling. The hidden court looked down at Lady Lundie, and saw — Duty advertising itself in the largest capital letters.

“Go on, Sir Patrick. The motto of woman is Self-sacrifice. You sha’n’t see how you distress me. Go on.”

Sir Patrick went on impenetrably — without betraying the slightest expression of sympathy or surprise.

“I was about to refer to the nervous attack from which Blanche has suffered this morning,” he said. “May I ask whether you have been informed of the cause to which the attack is attributable?”

“There!” exclaimed Lady Lundie with a sudden bound in her chair, and a sudden development of vocal power to correspond. “The one thing I shrank from speaking of! the cruel, cruel, cruel behavior I was prepared to pass over! And Sir Patrick hints on it! Innocently — don’t let me do an injustice — innocently hints on it!”

“Hints on what, my dear Madam?”

“Blanche’s conduct to me this morning. Blanche’s heartless secrecy. Blanche’s undutiful silence. I repeat the words: Heartless secrecy. Undutiful silence.”

“Allow me for one moment, Lady Lundie —”

“Allow me, Sir Patrick! Heaven knows how unwilling I am to speak of it. Heaven knows that not a word of reference to it escaped my lips. But you leave me no choice now. As mistress of the household, as a Christian woman, as the widow of your dear brother, as a mother to this misguided girl, I must state the facts. I know you mean well; I know you wish to spare me. Quite useless! I must state the facts.”

Sir Patrick bowed, and submitted. (If he had only been a bricklayer! and if Lady Lundie had not been, what her ladyship unquestionably was, the strongest person of the two!)

“Permit me to draw a veil, for your sake,” said Lady Lundie, “over the horrors — I can not, with the best wish to spare you, conscientiously call them by any other name — the horrors that took place up stairs. The moment I heard that Blanche was ill I was at my post. Duty will always find me ready, Sir Patrick, to my dying day. Shocking as the whole thing was, I presided calmly over the screams and sobs of my step-daughter. I closed my ears to the profane violence of her language. I set the necessary example, as an English gentlewoman at the head of her household. It was only when I distinctly heard the name of a person, never to be mentioned again in my family circle, issue (if I may use the expression) from Blanche’s lips that I began to be really alarmed. I said to my maid: ‘Hopkins, this is not Hysteria. This is a possession of the devil. Fetch the chloroform.’”

Chloroform, applied in the capacity of an exorcism, was entirely new to Sir Patrick. He preserved his gravity with considerable difficulty. Lady Lundie went on:

“Hopkins is an excellent person — but Hopkins has a tongue. She met our distinguished medical guest in the corridor, and told him. He was so good as to come to the door. I was shocked to trouble him to act in his professional capacity while he was a visitor, an honored visitor, in my house. Besides, I considered it more a case for a clergyman than for a medical man. However, there was no help for it after Hopkins’s tongue. I requested our eminent friend to favor us with — I think the exact scientific term is — a Prognosis. He took the purely material view which was only to be expected from a person in his profession. He prognosed —am I right? Did he prognose? or did he diagnose? A habit of speaking correctly is so important, Sir Patrick! and I should be so grieved to mislead you!”

“Never mind, Lady Lundie! I have heard the medical report. Don’t trouble yourself to repeat it.”

“Don’t trouble myself to repeat it?” echoed Lady Lundie — with her dignity up in arms at the bare prospect of finding her remarks abridged. “Ah, Sir Patrick! that little constitutional impatience of yours! — Oh, dear me! how often you must have given way to it, and how often you must have regretted it, in your time!”

“My dear lady! if you wish to repeat the report, why not say so, in plain words? Don’t let me hurry you. Let us have the prognosis, by all means.”

Lady Lundie shook her head compassionately, and smiled with angelic sadness. “Our little besetting sins!” she said. “What slaves we are to our little besetting sins! Take a turn in the room — do!”

Any ordinary man would have lost his temper. But the law (as Sir Patrick had told his niece) has a special temper of its own. Without exhibiting the smallest irritation, Sir Patrick dextrously applied his sister-in-law’s blister to his sister-in-law herself.

“What an eye you have!” he said. “I was impatient. I am impatient. I am dying to know what Blanche said to you when she got better?”

The British Matron froze up into a matron of stone on the spot.

“Nothing!” answered her ladyship, with a vicious snap of her teeth, as if she had tried to bite the word before it escaped her.

“Nothing!” exclaimed Sir Patrick.

“Nothing,” repeated Lady Lundie, with her most formidable emphasis of look and tone. “I applied all the remedies with my own hands; I cut her laces with my own scissors, I completely wetted her head through with cold water; I remained with her until she was quite exhausted — I took her in my arms, and folded her to my bosom; I sent every body out of the room; I said, ‘Dear child, confide in me.’ And how were my advances — my motherly advances — met? I have already told you. By heartless secrecy. By undutiful silence.”

Sir Patrick pressed the blister a little closer to the skin. “She was probably afraid to speak,” he said.

“Afraid? Oh!” cried Lady Lundie, distrusting the evidence of her own senses. “You can’t have said that? I have evidently misapprehended you. You didn’t really say, afraid?”

“I said she was probably afraid —”

“Stop! I can’t be told to my face that I have failed to do my duty by Blanche. No, Sir Patrick! I can bear a great deal; but I can’t bear that. After having been more than a mother to your dear brother’s child; after having been an elder sister to Blanche; after having toiled — I say toiled, Sir Patrick! — to cultivate her intelligence (with the sweet lines of the poet ever present to my memory: ‘Delightful task to rear the tender mind, and teach the young idea how to shoot!’); after having done all I have done — a place in the carriage only yesterday, and a visit to the most interesting relic of feudal times in Perthshire — after having sacrificed all I have sacrificed, to be told that I have behaved in such a manner to Blanche as to frighten her when I ask her to confide in me, is a little too cruel. I have a sensitive — an unduly sensitive nature, dear Sir Patrick. Forgive me for wincing when I am wounded. Forgive me for feeling it when the wound is dealt me by a person whom I revere.”

Her ladyship put her handkerchief to her eyes. Any other man would have taken off the blister. Sir Patrick pressed it harder than ever.

“You quite mistake me,” he replied. “I meant that Blanche was afraid to tell you the true cause of her illness. The true cause is anxiety about Miss Silvester.”

Lady Lundie emitted another scream — a loud scream this time — and closed her eyes in horror.

“I can run out of the house,” cried her ladyship, wildly. “I can fly to the uttermost corners of the earth; but I can not hear that person’s name mentioned! No, Sir Patrick! not in my presence! not in my room! not while I am mistress at Windygates House!”

“I am sorry to say any thing that is disagreeable to you, Lady Lundie. But the nature of my errand here obliges me to touch — as lightly as possible — on something which has happened in your house without your knowledge.”

Lady Lundie suddenly opened her eyes, and became the picture of attention. A casual observer might have supposed her ladyship to be not wholly inaccessible to the vulgar emotion of curiosity.

“A visitor came to Windygates yesterday, while we were all at lunch,” proceeded Sir Patrick. “She —”

Lady Lundie seized the scarlet memorandum-book, and stopped her brother-in-law, before he could get any further. Her ladyship’s next words escaped her lips spasmodically, like words let at intervals out of a trap.

“I undertake — as a woman accustomed to self-restraint, Sir Patrick — I undertake to control myself, on one condition. I won’t have the name mentioned. I won’t have the sex mentioned. Say, ‘The Person,’ if you please. ‘The Person,’” continued Lady Lundie, opening her memorandum-book and taking up her pen, “committed an audacious invasion of my premises yesterday?”

Sir Patrick bowed. Her ladyship made a note — a fiercely-penned note that scratched the paper viciously — and then proceeded to examine her brother-in-law, in the capacity of witness.

“What part of my house did ‘The Person’ invade? Be very careful, Sir Patrick! I propose to place myself under the protection of a justice of the peace; and this is a memorandum of my statement. The library — did I understand you to say? Just so — the library.”

“Add,” said Sir Patrick, with another pressure on the blister, “that The Person had an interview with Blanche in the library.”

Lady Lundie’s pen suddenly stuck in the paper, and scattered a little shower of ink-drops all round it. “The library,” repeated her ladyship, in a voice suggestive of approaching suffocation. “I undertake to control myself, Sir Patrick! Any thing missing from the library?”

“Nothing missing, Lady Lundie, but The Person herself. She —”

“No, Sir Patrick! I won’t have it! In the name of my own sex, I won’t have it!”

“Pray pardon me — I forgot that ‘she’ was a prohibited pronoun on the present occasion. The Person has written a farewell letter to Blanche, and has gone nobody knows where. The distress produced by these events is alone answerable for what has happened to Blanche this morning. If you bear that in mind — and if you remember what your own opinion is of Miss Silvester — you will understand why Blanche hesitated to admit you into her confidence.”

There he waited for a reply. Lady Lundie was too deeply absorbed in completing her memorandum to be conscious of his presence in the room.

“‘Carriage to be at the door at two-thirty,’” said Lady Lundie, repeating the final words of the memorandum while she wrote them. “‘Inquire for the nearest justice of the peace, and place the privacy of Windygates under the protection of the law.’— I beg your pardon!” exclaimed her ladyship, becoming conscious again of Sir Patrick’s presence. “Have I missed any thing particularly painful? Pray mention it if I have!”

“You have missed nothing of the slightest importance,” returned Sir Patrick. “I have placed you in possession of facts which you had a right to know; and we have now only to return to our medical friend’s report on Blanche’s health. You were about to favor me, I think, with the Prognosis?”

“Diagnosis!” said her ladyship, spitefully. “I had forgotten at the time — I remember now. Prognosis is entirely wrong.”

“I sit corrected, Lady Lundie. Diagnosis.”

“You have informed me, Sir Patrick, that you were already acquainted with the Diagnosis. It is quite needless for me to repeat it now.”

“I was anxious to correct my own impression, my dear lady, by comparing it with yours.”

“You are very good. You are a learned man. I am only a poor ignorant woman. Your impression can not possibly require correcting by mine.”

“My impression, Lady Lundie, was that our so friend recommended moral, rather than medical, treatment for Blanche. If we can turn her thoughts from the painful subject on which they are now dwelling, we shall do all that is needful. Those were his own words, as I remember them. Do you confirm me?”

“Can I presume to dispute with you, Sir Patrick? You are a master of refined irony, I know. I am afraid it’s all thrown away on poor me.”

(The law kept its wonderful temper! The law met the most exasperating of living women with a counter-power of defensive aggravation all its own!)

“I take that as confirming me, Lady Lundie. Thank you. Now, as to the method of carrying out our friend’s advice. The method seems plain. All we can do to divert Blanche’s mind is to turn Blanche’s attention to some other subject of reflection less painful than the subject which occupies her now. Do you agree, so far?”

“Why place the whole responsibility on my shoulders?” inquired Lady Lundie.

“Out of profound deference for your opinion,” answered Sir Patrick. “Strictly speaking, no doubt, any serious responsibility rests with me. I am Blanche’s guardian —”

“Thank God!” cried Lady Lundie, with a perfect explosion of pious fervor.

“I hear an outburst of devout thankfulness,” remarked Sir Patrick. “Am I to take it as expressing — let me say — some little doubt, on your part, as to the prospect of managing Blanche successfully, under present circumstances?”

Lady Lundie’s temper began to give way again — exactly as her brother-in-law had anticipated.

“You are to take it,” she said, “as expressing my conviction that I saddled myself with the charge of an incorrigibly heartless, obstinate and perverse girl, when I undertook the care of Blanche.”

“Did you say ‘incorrigibly?’”

“I said ‘incorrigibly.’”

“If the case is as hopeless as that, my dear Madam — as Blanche’s guardian, I ought to find means to relieve you of the charge of Blanche.”

“Nobody shall relieve me of a duty that I have once undertaken!” retorted Lady Lundie. “Not if I die at my post!”

“Suppose it was consistent with your duty,” pleaded Sir Patrick, “to be relieved at your post? Suppose it was in harmony with that ‘self-sacrifice’ which is ‘the motto of women?’”

“I don’t understand you, Sir Patrick. Be so good as to explain yourself.”

Sir Patrick assumed a new character — the character of a hesitating man. He cast a look of respectful inquiry at his sister-in-law, sighed, and shook his head.

“No!” he said. “It would be asking too much. Even with your high standard of duty, it would be asking too much.”

“Nothing which you can ask me in the name of duty is too much.”

“No! no! Let me remind you. Human nature has its limits.”

“A Christian gentlewoman’s sense of duty knows no limits.”

“Oh, surely yes!”

“Sir Patrick! after what I have just said your perseverance in doubting me amounts to something like an insult!”

“Don’t say that! Let me put a case. Let’s suppose the future interests of another person depend on your saying, Yes — when all your own most cherished ideas and opinions urge you to say, No. Do you really mean to tell me that you could trample your own convictions under foot, if it could be shown that the purely abstract consideration of duty was involved in the sacrifice?”

“Yes!” cried Lady Lundie, mounting the pedestal of her virtue on the spot. “Yes — without a moment’s hesitation!”

“I sit corrected, Lady Lundie. You embolden me to proceed. Allow me to ask (after what I just heard)— whether it is not your duty to act on advice given for Blanche’s benefit, by one the highest medical authorities in England?” Her ladyship admitted that it was her duty; pending a more favorable opportunity for contradicting her brother-in-law.

“Very good,” pursued Sir Patrick. “Assuming that Blanche is like most other human beings, and has some prospect of happiness to contemplate, if she could only be made to see it — are we not bound to make her see it, by our moral obligation to act on the medical advice?” He cast a courteously-persuasive look at her ladyship, and paused in the most innocent manner for a reply.

If Lady Lundie had not been bent — thanks to the irritation fomented by her brother-in-law — on disputing the ground with him, inch by inch, she must have seen signs, by this time, of the snare that was being set for her. As it was, she saw nothing but the opportunity of disparaging Blanche and contradicting Sir Patrick.

“If my step-daughter had any such prospect as you describe,” she answered, “I should of course say, Yes. But Blanche’s is an ill-regulated mind. An ill-regulated mind has no prospect of happiness.”

“Pardon me,” said Sir Patrick. “Blanche has a prospect of happiness. In other words, Blanche has a prospect of being married. And what is more, Arnold Brinkworth is ready to marry her as soon as the settlements can be prepared.”

Lady Lundie started in her chair — turned crimson with rage — and opened her lips to speak. Sir Patrick rose to his feet, and went on before she could utter a word.

“I beg to relieve you, Lady Lundie — by means which you have just acknowledged it to be your duty to accept — of all further charge of an incorrigible girl. As Blanche’s guardian, I have the honor of proposing that her marriage be advanced to a day to be hereafter named in the first fortnight of the ensuing month.”

In those words he closed the trap which he had set for his sister-in-law, and waited to see what came of it.

A thoroughly spiteful woman, thoroughly roused, is capable of subordinating every other consideration to the one imperative necessity of gratifying her spite. There was but one way now of turning the tables on Sir Patrick — and Lady Lundie took it. She hated him, at that moment, so intensely, that not even the assertion of her own obstinate will promised her more than a tame satisfaction, by comparison with the priceless enjoyment of beating her brother-in-law with his own weapons.

“My dear Sir Patrick!” she said, with a little silvery laugh, “you have wasted much precious time and many eloquent words in trying to entrap me into giving my consent, when you might have had it for the asking. I think the idea of hastening Blanche’s marriage an excellent one. I am charmed to transfer the charge of such a person as my step-daughter to the unfortunate young man who is willing to take her off my hands. The less he sees of Blanche’s character the more satisfied I shall feel of his performing his engagement to marry her. Pray hurry the lawyers, Sir Patrick, and let it be a week sooner rather than a week later, if you wish to please Me.”

Her ladyship rose in her grandest proportions, and made a courtesy which was nothing less than a triumph of polite satire in dumb show. Sir Patrick answered by a profound bow and a smile which said, eloquently, “I believe every word of that charming answer. Admirable woman — adieu!”

So the one person in the family circle, whose opposition might have forced Sir Patrick to submit to a timely delay, was silenced by adroit management of the vices of her own character. So, in despite of herself, Lady Lundie was won over to the project for hurrying the marriage of Arnold and Blanche.

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