Man and Wife, by Wilkie Collins

Seventh Scene. — Ham Farm.

Chapter the Thirty-Fourth.

The Night Before.

THE time was the night before the marriage. The place was Sir Patrick’s house in Kent.

The lawyers had kept their word. The settlements had been forwarded, and had been signed two days since.

With the exception of the surgeon and one of the three young gentlemen from the University, who had engagements elsewhere, the visitors at Windygates had emigrated southward to be present at the marriage. Besides these gentlemen, there were some ladies among the guests invited by Sir Patrick — all of them family connections, and three of them appointed to the position of Blanche’s bridesmaids. Add one or two neighbors to be invited to the breakfast — and the wedding-party would be complete.

There was nothing architecturally remarkable about Sir Patrick’s house. Ham Farm possessed neither the splendor of Windygates nor the picturesque antiquarian attraction of Swanhaven. It was a perfectly commonplace English country seat, surrounded by perfectly commonplace English scenery. Snug monotony welcomed you when you went in, and snug monotony met you again when you turned to the window and looked out.

The animation and variety wanting at Ham Farm were far from being supplied by the company in the house. It was remembered, at an after-period, that a duller wedding-party had never been assembled together.

Sir Patrick, having no early associations with the place, openly admitted that his residence in Kent preyed on his spirits, and that he would have infinitely preferred a room at the inn in the village. The effort to sustain his customary vivacity was not encouraged by persons and circumstances about him. Lady Lundie’s fidelity to the memory of the late Sir Thomas, on the scene of his last illness and death, persisted in asserting itself, under an ostentation of concealment which tried even the trained temper of Sir Patrick himself. Blanche, still depressed by her private anxieties about Anne, was in no condition of mind to look gayly at the last memorable days of her maiden life. Arnold, sacrificed — by express stipulation on the part of Lady Lundie — to the prurient delicacy which forbids the bridegroom, before marriage, to sleep in the same house with the bride, found himself ruthlessly shut out from Sir Patrick’s hospitality, and exiled every night to a bedroom at the inn. He accepted his solitary doom with a resignation which extended its sobering influence to his customary flow of spirits. As for the ladies, the elder among them existed in a state of chronic protest against Lady Lundie, and the younger were absorbed in the essentially serious occupation of considering and comparing their wedding-dresses. The two young gentlemen from the University performed prodigies of yawning, in the intervals of prodigies of billiard playing. Smith said, in despair, “There’s no making things pleasant in this house, Jones.” And Jones sighed, and mildly agreed with him.

On the Sunday evening — which was the evening before the marriage — the dullness, as a matter of course, reached its climax.

But two of the occupations in which people may indulge on week days are regarded as harmless on Sunday by the obstinately anti-Christian tone of feeling which prevails in this matter among the Anglo–Saxon race. It is not sinful to wrangle in religious controversy; and it is not sinful to slumber over a religious book. The ladies at Ham Farm practiced the pious observance of the evening on this plan. The seniors of the sex wrangled in Sunday controversy; and the juniors of the sex slumbered over Sunday books. As for the men, it is unnecessary to say that the young ones smoked when they were not yawning, and yawned when they were not smoking. Sir Patrick staid in the library, sorting old letters and examining old accounts. Every person in the house felt the oppression of the senseless social prohibitions which they had imposed on themselves. And yet every person in the house would have been scandalized if the plain question had been put: You know this is a tyranny of your own making, you know you don’t really believe in it, you know you don’t really like it — why do you submit? The freest people on the civilized earth are the only people on the civilized earth who dare not face that question.

The evening dragged its slow length on; the welcome time drew nearer and nearer for oblivion in bed. Arnold was silently contemplating, for the last time, his customary prospects of banishment to the inn, when he became aware that Sir Patrick was making signs to him. He rose and followed his host into the empty dining-room. Sir Patrick carefully closed the door. What did it mean?

It meant — so far as Arnold was concerned — that a private conversation was about to diversify the monotony of the long Sunday evening at Ham Farm.

“I have a word to say to you, Arnold,” the old gentleman began, “before you become a married man. Do you remember the conversation at dinner yesterday, about the dancing-party at Swanhaven Lodge?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember what Lady Lundie said while the topic was on the table?”

“She told me, what I can’t believe, that Geoffrey Delamayn was going to be married to Mrs. Glenarm.”

“Exactly! I observed that you appeared to be startled by what my sister-in-law had said; and when you declared that appearances must certainly have misled her, you looked and spoke (to my mind) like a man animated by a strong feeling of indignation. Was I wrong in drawing that conclusion?”

“No, Sir Patrick. You were right.”

“Have you any objection to tell me why you felt indignant?”

Arnold hesitated.

“You are probably at a loss to know what interest I can feel in the matter?”

Arnold admitted it with his customary frankness.

“In that case,” rejoined Sir Patrick, “I had better go on at once with the matter in hand — leaving you to see for yourself the connection between what I am about to say, and the question that I have just put. When I have done, you shall then reply to me or not, exactly as you think right. My dear boy, the subject on which I want to speak to you is — Miss Silvester.”

Arnold started. Sir Patrick looked at him with a moment’s attention, and went on:

“My niece has her faults of temper and her failings of judgment,” he said. “But she has one atoning quality (among many others) which ought to make — and which I believe will make — the happiness of your married life. In the popular phrase, Blanche is as true as steel. Once her friend, always her friend. Do you see what I am coming to? She has said nothing about it, Arnold; but she has not yielded one inch in her resolution to reunite herself to Miss Silvester. One of the first questions you will have to determine, after to-morrow, will be the question of whether you do, or not, sanction your wife in attempting to communicate with her lost friend.”

Arnold answered without the slightest reserve

“I am heartily sorry for Blanche’s lost friend, Sir Patrick. My wife will have my full approval if she tries to bring Miss Silvester back — and my best help too, if I can give it.”

Those words were earnestly spoken. It was plain that they came from his heart.

“I think you are wrong,” said Sir Patrick. “I, too, am sorry for Miss Silvester. But I am convinced that she has not left Blanche without a serious reason for it. And I believe you will be encouraging your wife in a hopeless effort, if you encourage her to persist in the search for her lost friend. However, it is your affair, and not mine. Do you wish me to offer you any facilities for tracing Miss Silvester which I may happen to possess?”

“If you can help us over any obstacles at starting, Sir Patrick, it will be a kindness to Blanche, and a kindness to me.”

“Very good. I suppose you remember what I said to you, one morning, when we were talking of Miss Silvester at Windygates?”

“You said you had determined to let her go her own way.”

“Quite right! On the evening of the day when I said that I received information that Miss Silvester had been traced to Glasgow. You won’t require me to explain why I never mentioned this to you or to Blanche. In mentioning it now, I communicate to you the only positive information, on the subject of the missing woman, which I possess. There are two other chances of finding her (of a more speculative kind) which can only be tested by inducing two men (both equally difficult to deal with) to confess what they know. One of those two men is — a person named Bishopriggs, formerly waiter at the Craig Fernie inn.”

Arnold started, and changed color. Sir Patrick (silently noticing him) stated the circumstances relating to Anne’s lost letter, and to the conclusion in his own mind which pointed to Bishopriggs as the person in possession of it.

“I have to add,” he proceeded, “that Blanche, unfortunately, found an opportunity of speaking to Bishopriggs at Swanhaven. When she and Lady Lundie joined us at Edinburgh she showed me privately a card which had been given to her by Bishopriggs. He had described it as the address at which he might be heard of — and Blanche entreated me, before we started for London, to put the reference to the test. I told her that she had committed a serious mistake in attempting to deal with Bishopriggs on her own responsibility; and I warned her of the result in which I was firmly persuaded the inquiry would end. She declined to believe that Bishopriggs had deceived her. I saw that she would take the matter into her own hands again unless I interfered; and I went to the place. Exactly as I had anticipated, the person to whom the card referred me had not heard of Bishopriggs for years, and knew nothing whatever about his present movements. Blanche had simply put him on his guard, and shown him the propriety of keeping out of the way. If you should ever meet with him in the future — say nothing to your wife, and communicate with me. I decline to assist you in searching for Miss Silvester; but I have no objection to assist in recovering a stolen letter from a thief. So much for Bishopriggs. — Now as to the other man.”

“Who is he?”

“Your friend, Mr. Geoffrey Delamayn.”

Arnold sprang to his feet in ungovernable surprise.

“I appear to astonish you,” remarked Sir Patrick.

Arnold sat down again, and waited, in speechless suspense, to hear what was coming next.

“I have reason to know,” said Sir Patrick, “that Mr. Delamayn is thoroughly well acquainted with the nature of Miss Silvester’s present troubles. What his actual connection is with them, and how he came into possession of his information, I have not found out. My discovery begins and ends with the simple fact that he has the information.”

“May I ask one question, Sir Patrick?”

“What is it?”

“How did you find out about Geoffrey Delamayn?”

“It would occupy a long time,” answered Sir Patrick, “to tell you how — and it is not at all necessary to our purpose that you should know. My present obligation merely binds me to tell you — in strict confidence, mind! — that Miss Silvester’s secrets are no secrets to Mr. Delamayn. I leave to your discretion the use you may make of that information. You are now entirely on a par with me in relation to your knowledge of the case of Miss Silvester. Let us return to the question which I asked you when we first came into the room. Do you see the connection, now, between that question, and what I have said since?”

Arnold was slow to see the connection. His mind was running on Sir Patrick’s discovery. Little dreaming that he was indebted to Mrs. Inchb are’s incomplete description of him for his own escape from detection, he was wondering how it had happened that he had remained unsuspected, while Geoffrey’s position had been (in part at least) revealed to view.

“I asked you,” resumed Sir Patrick, attempting to help him, “why the mere report that your friend was likely to marry Mrs. Glenarm roused your indignation, and you hesitated at giving an answer. Do you hesitate still?”

“It’s not easy to give an answer, Sir Patrick.”

“Let us put it in another way. I assume that your view of the report takes its rise in some knowledge, on your part, of Mr. Delamayn’s private affairs, which the rest of us don’t possess. — Is that conclusion correct?”

“Quite correct.”

“Is what you know about Mr. Delamayn connected with any thing that you know about Miss Silvester?”

If Arnold had felt himself at liberty to answer that question, Sir Patrick’s suspicions would have been aroused, and Sir Patrick’s resolution would have forced a full disclosure from him before he left the house.

It was getting on to midnight. The first hour of the wedding-day was at hand, as the Truth made its final effort to struggle into light. The dark Phantoms of Trouble and Terror to come were waiting near them both at that moment. Arnold hesitated again — hesitated painfully. Sir Patrick paused for his answer. The clock in the hall struck the quarter to twelve.

“I can’t tell you!” said Arnold.

“Is it a secret?”

“Yes.”

“Committed to your honor?”

“Doubly committed to my honor.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that Geoffrey and I have quarreled since he took me into his confidence. I am doubly bound to respect his confidence after that.”

“Is the cause of your quarrel a secret also?”

“Yes.”

Sir Patrick looked Arnold steadily in the face.

“I have felt an inveterate distrust of Mr. Delamayn from the first,” he said. “Answer me this. Have you any reason to think — since we first talked about your friend in the summer-house at Windygates — that my opinion of him might have been the right one after all?”

“He has bitterly disappointed me,” answered Arnold. “I can say no more.”

“You have had very little experience of the world,” proceeded Sir Patrick. “And you have just acknowledged that you have had reason to distrust your experience of your friend. Are you quite sure that you are acting wisely in keeping his secret from me? Are you quite sure that you will not repent the course you are taking to-night?” He laid a marked emphasis on those last words. “Think, Arnold,” he added, kindly. “Think before you answer.”

“I feel bound in honor to keep his secret,” said Arnold. “No thinking can alter that.”

Sir Patrick rose, and brought the interview to an end.

“There is nothing more to be said.” With those words he gave Arnold his hand, and, pressing it cordially, wished him good-night.

Going out into the hall, Arnold found Blanche alone, looking at the barometer.

“The glass is at Set Fair, my darling,” he whispered. “Good-night for the last time!”

He took her in his arms, and kissed her. At the moment when he released her Blanche slipped a little note into his hand.

“Read it,” she whispered, “when you are alone at the inn.”

So they parted on the eve of their wedding day.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/man-and-wife/chapter34.html

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