Man and Wife, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter the Fiftieth.

The Morning.

WHEN does the vain regret find its keenest sting? When is the doubtful future blackened by its darkest cloud? When is life least worth having, and death oftenest at the bedside? In the terrible morning hours, when the sun is rising in its glory, and the birds are singing in the stillness of the new-born day.

Anne woke in the strange bed, and looked round her, by the light of the new morning, at the strange room.

The rain had all fallen in the night. The sun was master in the clear autumn sky. She rose, and opened the window. The fresh morning air, keen and fragrant, filled the room. Far and near, the same bright stillness possessed the view. She stood at the window looking out. Her mind was clear again — she could think, she could feel; she could face the one last question which the merciless morning now forced on her — How will it end?

Was there any hope? — hope for instance, in what she might do for herself. What can a married woman do for herself? She can make her misery public — provided it be misery of a certain kind — and can reckon single-handed with Society when she has done it. Nothing more.

Was there hope in what others might do for her? Blanche might write to her — might even come and see her — if her husband allowed it; and that was all. Sir Patrick had pressed her hand at parting, and had told her to rely on him. He was the firmest, the truest of friends. But what could he do? There were outrages which her husband was privileged to commit, under the sanction of marriage, at the bare thought of which her blood ran cold. Could Sir Patrick protect her? Absurd! Law and Society armed her husband with his conjugal rights. Law and Society had but one answer to give, if she appealed to them — You are his wife.

No hope in herself; no hope in her friends; no hope any where on earth. Nothing to be done but to wait for the end — with faith in the Divine Mercy; with faith in the better world.

She took out of her trunk a little book of Prayers and Meditations — worn with much use — which had once belonged to her mother. She sat by the window reading it. Now and then she looked up from it — thinking. The parallel between her mother’s position and her own position was now complete. Both married to husbands who hated them; to husbands whose interests pointed to mercenary alliances with other women; to husbands whose one want and one purpose was to be free from their wives. Strange, what different ways had led mother and daughter both to the same fate! Would the parallel hold to the end? “Shall I die,” she wondered, thinking of her mother’s last moments, “in Blanche’s arms?”

The time had passed unheeded. The morning movement in the house had failed to catch her ear. She was first called out of herself to the sense of the present and passing events by the voice of the servant-girl outside the door.

“The master wants you, ma’am, down stairs.”

She rose instantly and put away the little book.

“Is that all the message?” she asked, opening the door.

“Yes, ma’am.”

She followed the girl down stairs; recalling to her memory the strange words addressed to her by Geoffrey, in the presence of the servants, on the evening before. Was she now to know what those words really meant? The doubt would soon be set at rest. “Be the trial what it may,” she thought to herself, “let me bear it as my mother would have borne it.”

The servant opened the door of the dining-room. Breakfast was on the table. Geoffrey was standing at the window. Hester Dethridge was waiting, posted near the door. He came forward — with the nearest approach to gentleness in his manner which she had ever yet seen in it — he came forward, with a set smile on his lips, and offered her his hand!

She had entered the room, prepared (as she believed) for any thing that could happen. She was not prepared for this. She stood speechless, looking at him.

After one glance at her, when she came in, Hester Dethridge looked at him, too — and from that moment never looked away again, as long as Anne remained in the room.

He broke the silence — in a voice that was not like his own; with a furtive restraint in his manner which she had never noticed in it before.

“Won’t you shake hands with your husband,” he asked, “when your husband asks you?”

She mechanically put her hand in his. He dropped it instantly, with a start. “God! how cold!” he exclaimed. His own hand was burning hot, and shook incessantly.

He pointed to a chair at the head of the table.

“Will you make the tea?” he asked.

She had given him her hand mechanically; she advanced a step mechanically — and then stopped.

“Would you prefer breakfasting by yourself?” he said.

“If you please,” she answered, faintly.

“Wait a minute. I have something to say before you go.”

She waited. He considered with himself; consulting his memory — visibly, unmistakably, consulting it before he spoke again.

“I have had the night to think in,” he said. “The night has made a new man of me. I beg your pardon for what I said yesterday. I was not myself yesterday. I talked nonsense yesterday. Please to forget it, and forgive it. I wish to turn over a new leaf and make amends — make amends for my past conduct. It shall be my endeavor to be a good husband. In the presence of Mrs. Dethridge, I request you to give me a chance. I won’t force your inclinations. We are married — what’s the use of regretting it? Stay here, as you said yesterday, on your own terms. I wish to make it up. In the presence of Mrs. Dethridge, I say I wish to make it up. I won’t detain you. I request you to think of it. Good-morning.”

He said those extraordinary words like a slow boy saying a hard lesson — his eyes on the ground, his fingers restlessly fastening and unfastening a button on his waistcoat.

Anne left the room. In the passage she was obliged to wait, and support herself against the wall. His unnatural politeness was horrible; his carefully asserted repentance chilled her to the soul with dread. She had never felt — in the time of his fiercest anger and his foulest language — the unutterable horror of him that she felt now.

Hester Dethridge came out, closing the door behind her. She looked attentively at Anne — then wrote on her slate, and held it out, with these words on it:

“Do you believe him?”

Anne pushed the slate away, and ran up stairs. She fastened the door — and sank into a chair.

“He is plotting something against me,” she said to herself. “What?”

A sickening, physical sense of dread — entirely new in her experience of herself — made her shrink from pursuing the question. The sinking at her heart turned her faint. She went to get the air at the open window.

At the same moment there was a ring at the gate bell. Suspicious of any thing and every thing, she felt a sudden distrust of letting herself be seen. She drew back behind the curtain and looked out.

A man-servant, in livery, was let in. He had a letter in his hand. He said to the girl as he passed Anne’s window, “I come from Lady Holchester; I must see Mr. Delamayn instantly.”

They went in. There was an interval. The footman reappeared, leaving the place. There was another interval. Then there came a knock at the door. Anne hesitated. The knock was repeated, and the dumb murmuring of Hester Dethridge was heard outside. Anne opened the door.

Hester came in with the breakfast. She pointed to a letter among other things on the tray. It was addressed to Anne, in Geoffrey’s handwriting, and it contained these words:

“My father died yesterday. Write your orders for your mourning. The boy will take them. You are not to trouble yourself to go to London. Somebody is to come here to you from the shop.”

Anne dropped the paper on her lap without looking up. At the same moment Hester Dethridge’s slate was passed stealthily between her eyes and the note — with these words traced on it. “His mother is coming to-day. His brother has been telegraphed from Scotland. He was drunk last night. He’s drinking again. I know what that means. Look out, missus — look out.”

Anne signed to her to leave the room. She went out, pulling the door to, but not closing it behind her.

There was another ring at the gate bell. Once more Anne went to the window. Only the lad, this time; arriving to take his orders for the day. He had barely entered the garden when he was followed by the postman with letters. In a minute more Geoffrey’s voice was heard in the passage, and Geoffrey’s heavy step ascended the wooden stairs. Anne hurried across the room to draw the bolts. Geoffrey met her before she could close the door.

“A letter for you,” he said, keeping scrupulously out of the room. “I don’t wish to force your inclinations — I only request you to tell me who it’s from.”

His manner was as carefully subdued as ever. But the unacknowledged distrust in him (when he looked at her) betrayed itself in his eye.

She glanced at the handwriting on the address.

“From Blanche,” she answered.

He softly put his foot between the door and the post — and waited until she had opened and read Blanche’s letter.

“May I see it?” he asked — and put in his hand for it through the door.

The spirit in Anne which would once have resisted him was dead in her now. She handed him the open letter.

It was very short. Excepting some brief expressions of fondness, it was studiously confined to stating the purpose for which it had been written. Blanche proposed to visit Anne that afternoon, accompanied by her uncle, she sent word beforehand, to make sure of finding Anne at home. That was all. The letter had evidently been written under Sir Patrick’s advice.

Geoffrey handed it back, after first waiting a moment to think.

“My father died yesterday,” he said. “My wife can’t receive visitors before he is buried. I don’t wish to force your inclinations. I only say I can’t let visitors in here before the funeral — except my own family. Send a note down stairs. The lad will take it to your friend when he goes to London.” With those words he left.

An appeal to the proprieties of life, in the mouth of Geoffrey Delamayn, could only mean one of two things. Either he had spoken in brutal mockery — or he had spoken with some ulterior object in view. Had he seized on the event of his father’s death as a pretext for isolating his wife from all communication with the outer world? Were there reasons, which had not yet asserted themselves, for his dreading the result, if he allowed Anne to communicate with her friends?

The hour wore on, and Hester Dethridge appeared again. The lad was waiting for Anne’s orders for her mourning, and for her note to Mrs. Arnold Brinkworth.

Anne wrote the orders and the note. Once more the horrible slate appeared when she had done, between the writing paper and her eyes, with the hard lines of warning pitilessly traced on it. “He has locked the gate. When there’s a ring we are to come to him for the key. He has written to a woman. Name outside the letter, Mrs. Glenarm. He has had more brandy. Like my husband. Mind yourself.”

The one way out of the high walls all round the cottage locked. Friends forbidden to see her. Solitary imprisonment, with her husband for a jailer. Before she had been four-and-twenty hours in the cottage it had come to that. And what was to follow?

She went back mechanically to the window. The sight of the outer world, the occasional view of a passing vehicle, helped to sustain her.

The lad appeared in the front garden departing to perform his errand to London. Geoffrey went with him to open the gate, and called after him, as he passed through it, “Don’t forget the books!”

The “books?” What “books?” Who wanted them? The slightest thing now roused Anne’s suspicion. For hours afterward the books haunted her mind.

He secured the gate and came back again. He stopped under Anne’s window and called to her. She showed herself. “When you want air and exercise,” he said, “the back garden is at your own disposal.” He put the key of the gate in his pocket and returned to the house.

After some hesitation Anne decided on taking him at his word. In her state of suspense, to remain within the four walls of the bedroom was unendurable. If some lurking snare lay hid under the fair-sounding proposal which Geoffrey had made, it was less repellent to her boldly to prove what it might be than to wait pondering over it with her mind in the dark. She put on her hat and went down into the garden. Nothing happened out of the common. Wherever he was he never showed himself. She wandered up and down, keeping on the side of the garden which was farthest from the dining-room window. To a woman, escape from the place was simply impossible. Setting out of the question the height of the walls, they were armed at the top with a thick setting of jagged broken glass. A small back-door in the end wall (intended probably for the gardener’s use) was bolted and locked — the key having been taken out. There was not a house near. The lands of the local growers of vegetables surrounded the garden on all sides. In the nineteenth century, and in the immediate neighborhood of a great metropolis, Anne was as absolutely isolated from all contact with the humanity around her as if she lay in her grave.

After the lapse of half an hour the silence was broken by a noise of carriage wheels on the public road in front, and a ring at the bell. Anne kept close to the cottage, at the back; determined, if a chance offered, on speaking to the visitor, whoever the visitor might be.

She heard voices in the dining-room through the open window — Geoffrey’s voice and the voice of a woman. Who was the woman? Not Mrs. Glenarm, surely? After a while the visitor’s voice was suddenly raised. “Where is she?” it said. “I wish to see her.” Anne instantly advanced to the back-door of the house — and found herself face to face with a lady who was a total stranger to her.

“Are you my son’s wife?” asked the lady.

“I am your son’s prisoner,” Anne answered.

Lady Holchester’s pale face turned paler still. It was plain that Anne’s reply had confirmed some doubt in the mother s mind which had been already suggested to it by the son.

“What do you mean?” she asked, in a whisper.

Geoffrey’s heavy footsteps crossed the dining-room. There was no time to explain. Anne whispered back,

“Tell my friends what I have told you.”

Geoffrey appeared at the dining-room door.

“Name one of your friends,” said Lady Holchester.

“Sir Patrick Lundie.”

Geoffrey heard the answer. “What about Sir Patrick Lundie?” he asked.

“I wish to see Sir Patrick Lundie,” said his mother. “And your wife can tell me where to find him.”

Anne instantly understood that Lady Holchester would communicate with Sir Patrick. She mentioned his London address. Lady Holchester turned to leave the cottage. Her son stopped her.

“Let’s set things straight,” he said, “before you go. My mother,” he went on, addressing himself to Anne, “don’t think there’s much chance for us two of living comfortably together. Bear witness to the truth — will you? What did I tell you at breakfast-time? Didn’t I say it should be my endeavor to make you a good husband? Didn’t I say — in Mrs. Dethridge’s presence — I wanted to make it up?” He waited until Anne had answered in the affirmative, and then appealed to his mother. “Well? what do you think now?”

Lady Holchester declined to reveal what she thought. “You shall see me, or hear from me, this evening,” she said to Anne. Geoffrey attempted to repeat his unanswered question. His mother looked at him. His eyes instantly dropped before hers. She gravely bent her head to Anne, and drew her veil. Her son followed her out in silence to the gate.

Anne returned to her room, sustained by the first sense of relief which she had felt since the morning. “His mother is alarmed,” she said to herself. “A change will come.”

A change was to come — with the coming night.

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