The Queen of Hearts, by Wilkie Collins

The Ninth Day.

A LITTLE change in the weather. The rain still continues, but the wind is not quite so high. Have I any reason to believe, because it is calmer on land, that it is also calmer at sea? Perhaps not. But my mind is scarcely so uneasy to-day, nevertheless.

I had looked over the newspaper with the usual result, and had laid it down with the customary sense of disappointment, when Jessie handed me a letter which she had received that morning. It was written by her aunt, and it upbraided her in the highly exaggerated terms which ladies love to employ, where any tender interests of their own are concerned, for her long silence and her long absence from home. Home! I thought of my poor boy and of the one hope on which all his happiness rested, and I felt jealous of the word when I saw it used persuasively in a letter to our guest. What right had any one to mention “home” to her until George had spoken first?

“I must answer it by return of post,” said Jessie, with a tone of sorrow in her voice for which my heart warmed to her. “You have been very kind to me; you have taken more pains to interest and amuse me than I am worth. I can laugh about most things, but I can’t laugh about going away. I am honestly and sincerely too grateful for that.”

She paused, came round to where I was sitting, perched herself on the end of the table, and, resting her hands on my shoulders, added gently:

“It must be the day after to-morrow, must it not?”

I could not trust myself to answer. If I had spoken, I should have betrayed George’s secret in spite of myself.

“To-morrow is the tenth day,” she went on, softly. “It looks so selfish and so ungrateful to go the moment I have heard the last of the stories, that I am quite distressed at being obliged to enter on the subject at all. And yet, what choice is left me? what can I do when my aunt writes to me in that way?”

She took up the letter again, and looked at it so ruefully that I drew her head a little nearer to me, and gratefully kissed the smooth white forehead.

“If your aunt is only half as anxious to see you again, my love, as I am to see my son, I must forgive her for taking you away from us.” The words came from me without premeditation. It was not calculation this time, but sheer instinct that impelled me to test her in this way, once more, by a direct reference to George. She was so close to me that I felt her breath quiver on my cheek. Her eyes had been fixed on my face a moment before, but they now wandered away from it constrainedly. One of her hands trembled a little on my shoulder, and she took it off.

“Thank you for trying to make our parting easier to me,” she said, quickly, and in a lower tone than she had spoken in yet. I made no answer, but still looked her anxiously in the face. For a few seconds her nimble delicate fingers nervously folded and refolded the letter from her aunt, then she abruptly changed her position.

“The sooner I write, the sooner it will be over,” she said, and hurriedly turned away to the paper-case on the side-table.

How was the change in her manner to be rightly interpreted? Was she hurt by what I had said, or was she secretly so much affected by it, in the impressionable state of her mind at that moment, as to be incapable of exerting a young girl’s customary self-control? Her looks, actions, and language might bear either interpretation. One striking omission had marked her conduct when I had referred to George’s return. She had not inquired when I expected him back. Was this indifference? Surely not. Surely indifference would have led her to ask the conventionally civil question which ninety-nine persons out of a hundred would have addressed to me as a matter of course. Was she, on her side, afraid to trust herself to speak of George at a time when an unusual tenderness was aroused in her by the near prospect of saying farewell? It might be — it might not be — it might be. My feeble reason took the side of my inclination; and, after vibrating between Yes and No, I stopped where I had begun — at Yes.

She finished the letter in a few minutes, and dropped it into the post-bag the moment it was done.

“Not a word more,” she said, returning to me with a sigh of relief —“not a word about my aunt or my going away till the time comes. We have two more days; let us make the most of them.”

Two more days! Eight-and-forty hours still to pass; sixty minutes in each of those hours; and every minute long enough to bring with it an event fatal to George’s future! The bare thought kept my mind in a fever. For the remainder of the day I was as desultory and as restless as our Queen of Hearts herself. Owen affectionately did his best to quiet me, but in vain. Even Morgan, who whiled away the time by smoking incessantly, was struck by the wretched spectacle of nervous anxiety that I presented to him, and pitied me openly for being unable to compose myself with a pipe. Wearily and uselessly the hours wore on till the sun set. The clouds in the western heaven wore wild and tortured shapes when I looked out at them; and, as the gathering darkness fell on us, the fatal fearful wind rose once more.

When we assembled at eight, the drawing of the lots had no longer any interest or suspense, so far as I was concerned. I had read my last story, and it now only remained for chance to decide the question of precedency between Owen and Morgan. Of the two numbers left in the bowl, the one drawn was Nine. This made it Morgan’s turn to read, and left it appropriately to Owen, as our eldest brother, to close the proceedings on the next night.

Morgan looked round the table when he had spread out his manuscript, and seemed half inclined to open fire, as usual, with a little preliminary sarcasm; but his eyes met mine; he saw the anxiety I was suffering; and his natural kindness, perversely as he might strive to hide it, got the better of him. He looked down on his paper; growled out briefly, “No need for a preface; my little bit of writing explains itself; let’s go on and have don e with it,” and so began to read without another word from himself or from any of us.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/queen-of-hearts/chapter17.html

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