Man and Wife, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter the Fifty-Third.

What had happened in the hours of darkness?

This was Anne’s first thought, when the sunlight poured in at her window, and woke her the next morning.

She made immediate inquiry of the servant. The girl could only speak for herself. Nothing had occurred to disturb her after she had gone to bed. Her master was still, she believed, in his room. Mrs. Dethridge was at her work in the kitchen.

Anne went to the kitchen. Hester Dethridge was at her usual occupation at that time — preparing the breakfast. The slight signs of animation which Anne had noticed in her when they last met appeared no more. The dull look was back again in her stony eyes; the lifeless torpor possessed all her movements. Asked if any thing had happened in the night, she slowly shook her stolid head, slowly made the sign with her hand which signified, “Nothing.”

Leaving the kitchen, Anne saw Julius in the front garden. She went out and joined him.

“I believe I have to thank your consideration for me for some hours of rest,” he said. “It was five in the morning when I woke. I hope you had no reason to regret having left me to sleep? I went into Geoffrey’s room, and found him stirring. A second dose of the mixture composed him again. The fever has gone. He looks weaker and paler, but in other respects like himself. We will return directly to the question of his health. I have something to say to you, first, about a change which may be coming in your life here.”

“Has he consented to the separation?”

“No. He is as obstinate about it as ever. I have placed the matter before him in every possible light. He still refuses, positively refuses, a provision which would make him an independent man for life.”

“Is it the provision he might have had, Lord Holchester, if —?”

“If he had married Mrs. Glenarm? No. It is impossible, consistently with my duty to my mother, and with what I owe to the position in which my father’s death has placed me, that I can offer him such a fortune as Mrs. Glenarm’s. Still, it is a handsome income which he is mad enough to refuse. I shall persist in pressing it on him. He must and shall take it.”

Anne felt no reviving hope roused in her by his last words. She turned to another subject.

“You had something to tell me,” she said. “You spoke of a change.”

“True. The landlady here is a very strange person; and she has done a very strange thing. She has given Geoffrey notice to quit these lodgings.”

“Notice to quit?” Anne repeated, in amazement.

“Yes. In a formal letter. She handed it to me open, as soon as I was up this morning. It was impossible to get any explanation from her. The poor dumb creature simply wrote on her slate: ‘He may have his money back, if he likes: he shall go!’ Greatly to my surprise (for the woman inspires him with the strongest aversion) Geoffrey refuses to go until his term is up. I have made the peace between them for to-day. Mrs. Dethridge very reluctantly, consents to give him four-and-twenty hours. And there the matter rests at present.”

“What can her motive be?” said Anne.

“It’s useless to inquire. Her mind is evidently off its balance. One thing is clear, Geoffrey shall not keep you here much longer. The coming change will remove you from this dismal place — which is one thing gained. And it is quite possible that new scenes and new surroundings may have their influence on Geoffrey for good. His conduct — otherwise quite incomprehensible — may be the result of some latent nervous irritation which medical help might reach. I don’t attempt to disguise from myself or from you, that your position here is a most deplorable one. But before we despair of the future, let us at least inquire whether there is any explanation of my brother’s present behavior to be found in the present state of my brother’s health. I have been considering what the doctor said to me last night. The first thing to do is to get the best medical advice on Geoffrey’s case which is to be had. What do you think?”

“I daren’t tell you what I think, Lord Holchester. I will try — it is a very small return to make for your kindness — I will try to see my position with your eyes, not with mine. The best medical advice that you can obtain is the advice of Mr. Speedwell. It was he who first made the discovery that your brother was in broken health.”

“The very man for our purpose! I will send him here to-day or to-morrow. Is there any thing else I can do for you? I shall see Sir Patrick as soon as I get to town. Have you any message for him?”

Anne hesitated. Looking attentively at her, Julius noticed that she changed color when he mentioned Sir Patrick’s name.

“Will you say that I gratefully thank him for the letter which Lady Holchester was so good us to give me last night,” she replied. “And will you entreat him, from me, not to expose himself, on my account, to —” she hesitated, and finished the sentence with her eyes on the ground —“to what might happen, if he came here and insisted on seeing me.”

“Does he propose to do that?”

She hesitated again. The little nervous contraction of her lips at one side of the mouth became more marked than usual. “He writes that his anxiety is unendurable, and that he is resolved to see me,” she answered softly.

“He is likely to hold to his resolution, I think,” said Julius. “When I saw him yesterday, Sir Patrick spoke of you in terms of admiration —”

He stopped. The bright tears were glittering on Anne’s eyelashes; one of her hands was toying nervously with something hidden (possibly Sir Patrick’s letter) in the bosom of her dress. “I thank him with my whole heart,” she said, in low, faltering tones. “But it is best that he should not come here.”

“Would you like to write to him?”

“I think I should prefer your giving him my message.”

Julius understood that the subject was to proceed no further. Sir Patrick’s letter had produced some impression on her, which the sensitive nature of the woman seemed to shrink from acknowledging, even to herself. They turned back to enter the cottage. At the door they were met by a surprise. Hester Dethridge, with her bonnet on — dressed, at that hour of the morning, to go out!

“Are you going to market already?” Anne asked.

Hester shook her head.

“When are you coming back?”

Hester wrote on her slate: “Not till the night-time.”

Without another word of explanation she pulled her veil down over her face, and made for the gate. The key had been left in the dining-room by Julius, after he had let the doctor out. Hester had it in her hand. She opened he gate and closed the door after her, leaving the key in the lock. At the moment when the door banged to Geoffrey appeared in the passage.

“Where’s the key?” he asked. “Who’s gone out?”

His brother answered the question. He looked backward and forward suspiciously between Julius and Anne. “What does she go out for at his time?” he said. “Has she left the house to avoid Me?”

Julius thought this the likely explanation. Geoffrey went down sulkily to the gate to lock it, and returned to them, with the key in his pocket.

“I’m obliged to be careful of the gate,” he said. “The neighborhood swarms with beggars and tramps. If you want to go out,” he added, turning pointedly to Anne, “I’m at your service, as a good husband ought to be.”

After a hurried breakfast Julius took his departure. “I don’t accept your refusal,” he said to his brother, before Anne. “You will see me here again.” Geoffrey obstinately repeated the refusal. “If you come here every day of your life,” he said, “it will be just the same.”

The gate closed on Julius. Anne returned again to the solitude of her own chamber. Geoffrey entered the drawing-room, placed the volumes of the Newgate Calendar on the table before him, and resumed the reading which he had been unable to continue on the evening before.

Hour after hour he doggedly plodded through one case of murder after another. He had read one good half of the horrid chronicle of crime before his power of fixing his attention began to fail him. Then he lit his pipe, and went out to think over it in the garden. However the atrocities of which he had been reading might differ in other respects, there was one terrible point of resemblance, which he had not anticipated, and in which every one of the cases agreed. Sooner or later, there was the dead body always certain to be found; always bearing its dumb witness, in the traces of poison or in the marks of violence, to the crime committed on it.

He walked to and fro slowly, still pondering over the problem which had first found its way into his mind when he had stopped in the front garden and had looked up at Anne’s window in the dark. “How?” That had been the one question before him, from the time when the lawyer had annihilated his hopes of a divorce. It remained the one question still. There was no answer to it in his own brain; there was no answer to it in the book which he had been consulting. Every thing was in his favor if he could only find out “how.” He had got his hated wife up stairs at his mercy — thanks to his refusal of the money which Julius had offered to him. He was living in a place absolutely secluded from public observation on all sides of it — thanks to his resolution to remain at the cottage, even after his landlady had insulted him by sending him a notice to quit. Every thing had been prepared, every thing had been sacrificed, to the fulfillment of one purpose — and how to attain that purpose was still the same impenetrable mystery to him which it had been from the first!

What was the other alternative? To accept the proposal which Julius had made. In other words, to give up his vengeance on Anne, and to turn his back on the splendid future which Mrs. Glenarm’s devotion still offered to him.

Never! He would go back to the books. He was not at the end of them. The slightest hint in the pages which were still to be read might set his sluggish brain working in the right direction. The way to be rid of her, without exciting the suspicion of any living creature, in the house or out of it, was a way that might be found yet.

Could a man, in his position of life, reason in this brutal manner? could he act in this merciless way? Surely the thought of what he was about to do must have troubled him this time!

Pause for a moment — and look back at him in the past.

Did he feel any remorse when he was plotting the betrayal of Arnold in the garden at Windygates? The sense which feels remorse had not been put into him. What he is now is the legitimate consequence of what he was then. A far more serious temptation is now urging him to commit a far more serious crime. How is he to resist? Will his skill in rowing (as Sir Patrick once put it), his swiftness in running, his admirable capacity and endurance in other physical exercises, help him to win a purely moral victory over his own selfishness and his own cruelty? No! The moral and mental neglect of himself, which the material tone of public feeling about him has tacitly encouraged, has left him at the mercy of the worst instincts in his nature — of all that is most vile and of all that is most dangerous in the composition of the natural man. With the mass of his fellows, no harm out of the common has come of this, because no temptation out of the common has passed their way. But with him, the case is reversed. A temptation out of the common has passed his way. How does it find him prepared to meet it? It finds him, literally and exactly, what his training has left him, in the presence of any temptation small or great — a defenseless man.

Geoffrey returned to the cottage. The servant stopped him in the passage, to ask at what time he wished to dine. Instead of answering, he inquired angrily for Mrs. Dethridge. Mrs. Dethridge not come back.

It was now late in the afternoon, and she had been out since the early morning. This had never happened before. Vague suspicions of her, one more monstrous than another, began to rise in Geoffrey’s mind. Between the drink and the fever, he had been (as Julius had told him) wandering in his mind during a part of the night. Had he let any thing out in that condition? Had Hester heard it? And was it, by any chance, at the bottom of her long absence and her notice to quit? He determined — without letting her see that he suspected her — to clear up that doubt as soon as his landlady returned to the house.

The evening came. It was past nine o’clock before there was a ring at the bell. The servant came to ask for the key. Geoffrey rose to go to the gate himself — and changed his mind before he left the room. Her suspicions might be roused (supposing it to be Hester who was waiting for admission) if he opened the gate to her when the servant was there to do it. He gave the girl the key, and kept out of sight.

“Dead tired!”— the servant said to herself, seeing her mistress by the light of the lamp over the gate.

“Dead tired!”— Geoffrey said to himself, observing Hester suspiciously as she passed him in the passage on her way up stairs to take off her bonnet in her own room.

“Dead tired!”— Anne said to herself, meeting Hester on the upper floor, and receiving from her a letter in Blanche’s handwriting, delivered to the mistress of the cottage by the postman, who had met her at her own gate.

Having given the letter to Anne, Hester Dethridge withdrew to her bedroom.

Geoffrey closed the door of the drawing-room, in which the candles were burning, and went into the dining-room, in which there was no light. Leaving the door ajar, he waited to intercept his landlady on her way back to her supper in the kitchen.

Hester wearily secured her door, wearily lit the candles, wearily put the pen and ink on the table. For some minutes after this she was compelled to sit down, and rally her strength and fetch her breath. After a little she was able to remove her upper clothing. This done she took the manuscript inscribed, “My Confession,” out of the secret pocket of her stays — turned to the last leaf as before — and wrote another entry, under the entry made on the previous night.

“This morning I gave him notice to quit, and offered him his money back if he wanted it. He refuses to go. He shall go to-morrow, or I will burn the place over his head. All through to-day I have avoided him by keeping out of the house. No rest to ease my mind, and no sleep to close my eyes. I humbly bear my cross as long as my strength will let me.”

At those words the pen dropped from her fingers. Her head nodded on her breast. She roused herself with a start. Sleep was the enemy she dreaded: sleep brought dreams.

She unfastened the window-shutters and looked out at the night. The peaceful moonlight was shining over the garden. The clear depths of the night sky were soothing and beautiful to look at. What! Fading already? clouds? darkness? No! Nearly asleep once more. She roused herself again, with a start. There was the moonlight, and there was the garden as bright under it as ever.

Dreams or no dreams, it was useless to fight longer against the weariness that overpowered her. She closed the shutters, and went back to the bed; and put her Confession in its customary place at night, under her pillow.

She looked round the room — and shuddered. Every corner of it was filled with the terrible memories of the past night. She might wake from the torture of the dreams to find the terror of the Apparition watching at her bedside. Was there no remedy? no blessed safeguard under which she might tranquilly resign herself to sleep? A thought crossed her mind. The good book — the Bible. If she slept with the Bible under her pillow, there was hope in the good book — the hope of sleeping in peace.

It was not worth while to put on the gown and the stays which she had taken off. Her shawl would cover her. It was equally needless to take the candle. The lower shutters would not be closed at that hour; and if they were, she could lay her hand on the Bible, in its place on the parlor book-shelf, in the dark.

She removed the Confession from under the pillow. Not even for a minute could she prevail on herself to leave it in one room while she was away from it in another. With the manuscript folded up, and hidden in her hand, she slowly descended the stairs again. Her knees trembled under her. She was obliged to hold by the banister, with the hand that was free.

Geoffrey observed her from the dining-room, on her way down the stairs. He waited to see what she did, before he showed himself, and spoke to her. Instead of going on into the kitchen, she stopped short, and entered the parlor. Another suspicious circumstance! What did she want in the parlor, without a candle, at that time of night?

She went to the book-case — her dark figure plainly visible in the moonlight that flooded the little room. She staggered and put her hand to her head; giddy, to all appearance, from extreme fatigue. She recovered herself, and took a book from the shelf. She leaned against the wall after she had possessed herself of the book. Too weary, as it seemed, to get up stairs again without a little rest. Her arm-chair was near her. Better rest, for a moment or two, to be had in that than could be got by leaning against the wall. She sat down heavily in the chair, with the book on her lap. One of her arms hung over the arm of the chair, with the hand closed, apparently holding something.

Her head nodded on her breast — recovered itself — and sank gently on the cushion at the back of the chair. Asleep? Fast asleep.

In less than a minute the muscles of the closed hand that hung over the arm of the chair slowly relaxed. Something white slipped out of her hand, and lay in the moonlight on the floor.

Geoffrey took off his heavy shoes, and entered the room noiselessly in his stockings. He picked up the white thing on the floor. It proved to be a collection of several sheets of thin paper, neatly folded together, and closely covered with writing.

Writing? As long as she was awake she had kept it hidden in her hand. Why hide it?

Had he let out any thing to compromise himself when he was light-headed with the fever the night before? and had she taken it down in writing to produce against him? Possessed by guilty distrust, even that monstrous doubt assumed a look of probability to Geoffrey’s mind. He left the parlor as noiselessly as he had entered it, and made for the candle-light in the drawing-room, determined to examine the manuscript in his hand.

After carefully smoothing out the folded leaves on the table, he turned to the first page, and read these lines.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/man-and-wife/chapter53.html

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