Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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AT a few minutes before six o'clock that evening, Lord Holchester's carriage brought Geoffrey and Anne back to the cottage.
Geoffrey prevented the servant from ringing at the gate. He had taken the key with him, when he left home earlier in the day. Having admitted Anne, and having closed the gate again, he went on before her to the kitchen window, and called to Hester Dethridge.
"Take some cold water into the drawing-room and fill the vase on the chimney-piece," he said. "The sooner you put those flowers into water," he added, turning to his wife, "the longer they will last."
He pointed, as he spoke, to a nosegay in Anne's hand, which Julius had gathered for her from the conservatory at Holchester House. Leaving her to arrange the flowers in the vase, he went up stairs. After waiting for a moment, he was joined by Hester Dethridge.
"Done?" he asked, in a whisper.
Hester made the affirmative sign. Geoffrey took off his boots and led the way into the spare room. They noiselessly moved the bed back to its place against the partition wall-and left the room again. When Anne entered it, some minutes afterward, not the slightest change of any kind was visible since she had last seen it in the middle of the day.
She removed her bonnet and mantle, and sat down to rest.
The whole course of events, since the previous night, had tended one way, and had exerted the same delusive influence over her mind. It was impossible for her any longer to resist the conviction that she had distrusted appearances without the slightest reason, and that she had permitted purely visionary suspicions to fill her with purely causeless alarm. In the firm belief that she was in danger, she had watched through the night--and nothing had happened. In the confident anticipation that Geoffrey had promised what he was resolved not to perform, she had waited to see what excuse he would find for keeping her at the cottage. And, when the time came for the visit, she found him ready to fulfill the engagement which he had made. At Holchester House, not the slightest interference had been attempted with her perfect liberty of action and speech. Resolved to inform Sir Patrick that she had changed her room, she had described the alarm of fire and the events which had succeeded it, in the fullest detail--and had not been once checked by Geoffrey from beginning to end. She had spoken in confidence to Blanche, and had never been interrupted. Walking round the conservatory, she had dropped behind the others with perfect impunity, to say a grateful word to Sir Patrick, and to ask if the interpretation that he placed on Geoffrey's conduct was really the interpretation which had been hinted at by Blanche. They had talked together for ten minutes or more. Sir Patrick had assured her that Blanche had correctly represented his opinion. He had declared his conviction that the rash way was, in her case, the right way; and that she would do well (with his assistance) to take the initiative, in the matter of the separation, on herself. "As long as he can keep you under the same roof with him"--Sir Patrick had said--"so long he will speculate on our anxiety to release you from the oppression of living with him; and so long he will hold out with his brother (in the character of a penitent husband) for higher terms. Put the signal in the window, and try the experiment to-night. Once find your way to the garden door, and I answer for keeping you safely out of his reach until he has submitted to the separation, and has signed the deed." In those words he had urged Anne to prompt action. He had received, in return, her promise to be guided by his advice. She had gone back to the drawing-room; and Geoffrey had made no remark on her absence. She had returned to Fulham, alone with him in his brother's carriage; and he had asked no questions. What was it natural, with her means of judging, to infer from all this? Could she see into Sir Patrick's mind and detect that he was deliberately concealing his own conviction, in the fear that he might paralyze her energies if he acknowledged the alarm for her that he really felt? No. She could only accept the false appearances that surrounded her in the disguise of truth. She could only adopt, in good faith, Sir Patrick's assumed point of view, and believe, on the evidence of her own observation, that Sir Patrick was right.
Toward dusk, Anne began to feel the exhaustion which was the necessary result of a night passed without sleep. She rang her bell, and asked for some tea.
Hester Dethridge answered the bell. Instead of making the usual sign, she stood considering--and then wrote on her slate. These were the words: "I have all the work to do, now the girl has gone. If you would have your tea in the drawing-room, you would save me another journey up stairs."
Anne at once engaged to comply with the request.
"Are you ill?" she asked; noticing, faint as the light now was, something strangely altered in Hester's manner.
Without looking up, Hester shook her head.
"Has any thing happened to vex you?"
The negative sign was repeated.
"Have I offended you?"
She suddenly advanced a step, suddenly looked at Anne; checked herself with a dull moan, like a moan of pain; and hurried out of the room.
Concluding that she had inadvertently said, or done, something to offend Hester Dethridge, Anne determined to return to the subject at the first favorable opportunity. In the mean time, she descended to the ground-floor. The dining-room door, standing wide open, showed her Geoffrey sitting at the table, writing a letter--with the fatal brandybottle at his side.
After what Mr. Speedwell had told her, it was her duty to interfere. She performed her duty, without an instant's hesitation.
"Pardon me for interrupting you," she said. "I think you have forgotten what Mr. Speedwell told you about that."
She pointed to the bottle. Geoffrey looked at it; looked down again at his letter; and impatiently shook his head. She made a second attempt at remonstrance--again without effect. He only said, "All right!" in lower tones than were customary with him, and continued his occupation. It was useless to court a third repulse. Anne went into the drawing-room.
The letter on which he was engaged was an answer to Mrs. Glenarm, who had written to tell him that she was leaving town. He had reached his two concluding sentences when Anne spoke to him. They ran as follows: "I may have news to bring you, before long, which you don't look for. Stay where you are through to-morrow, and wait to hear from me."
After sealing the envelope, he emptied his glass of brandy and water; and waited, looking through the open door. When Hester Dethridge crossed the passage with the tea-tray, and entered the drawing-room, he gave the sign which had been agreed on. He rang his bell. Hester came out again, closing the drawing-room door behind her.
"Is she safe at her tea?" he asked, removing his heavy boots, and putting on the slippers which were placed ready for him.
Hester bowed her head.
He pointed up the stairs. "You go first," he whispered. "No nonsense! and no noise!"
She ascended the stairs. He followed slowly. Although he had only drunk one glass of brandy and water, his step was uncertain already. With one hand on the wall, and one hand on the banister, he made his way to the top; stopped, and listened for a moment; then joined Hester in his own room, and softly locked the door.
"Well?" he said.
She was standing motionless in the middle of the room--not like a living woman--like a machine waiting to be set in movement. Finding it useless to speak to her, he touched her (with a strange sensation of shrinking in him as he did it), and pointed to the partition wall.
The touch roused her. With slow step and vacant face--moving as if she was walking in her sleep--she led the way to the papered wall; knelt down at the skirting-board; and, taking out two small sharp nails, lifted up a long strip of the paper which had been detached from the plaster beneath. Mounting on a chair, she turned back the strip and pinned it up, out of the way, using the two nails, which she had kept ready in her hand.
By the last dim rays of twilight, Geoffrey looked at the wall.
A hollow space met his view. At a distance of some three feet from the floor, the laths had been sawn away, and the plaster had been ripped out, piecemeal, so as to leave a cavity, sufficient in height and width to allow free power of working in any direction, to a man's arms. The cavity completely pierced the substance of the wall. Nothing but the paper on the other side prevented eye or hand from penetrating into the next room.
Hester Dethridge got down from the chair, and made signs for a light.
Geoffrey took a match from the box. The same strange uncertainty which had already possessed his feet, appeared now to possess his hands. He struck the match too heavily against the sandpaper, and broke it. He tried another, and struck it too lightly to kindle the flame. Hester took the box out of his hands. Having lit the candle, she hel d it low, and pointed to the skirting-board.
Two little hooks were fixed into the floor, near the part of the wall from which the paper had been removed. Two lengths of fine and strong string were twisted once or twice round the hooks. The loose ends of the string extending to some length beyond the twisted parts, were neatly coiled away against the skirting-board. The other ends, drawn tight, disappeared in two small holes drilled through the wall, at a height of a foot from the floor.
After first untwisting the strings from the hooks, Hester rose, and held the candle so as to light the cavity in the wall. Two more pieces of the fine string were seen here, resting loose upon the uneven surface which marked the lower boundary of the hollowed space. Lifting these higher strings, Hester lifted the loosened paper in the next room--the lower strings, which had previously held the strip firm and flat against the sound portion of the wall, working in their holes, and allowing the paper to move up freely. As it rose higher and higher, Geoffrey saw thin strips of cotton wool lightly attached, at intervals, to the back of the paper, so as effectually to prevent it from making a grating sound against the wall. Up and up it came slowly, till it could be pulled through the hollow space, and pinned up out of the way, as the strip previously lifted had been pinned before it. Hester drew back, and made way for Geoffrey to look through. There was Anne's room, visible through the wall! He softly parted the light curtains that hang over the bed. There was the pillow, on which her head would rest at night, within reach of his hands!
The deadly dexterity of it struck him cold. His nerves gave way. He drew back with a start of guilty fear, and looked round the room. A pocket flask of brandy lay on the table at his bedside. He snatched it up, and emptied it at a draught--and felt like himself again.
He beckoned to Hester to approach him.
"Before we go any further," he said, "there's one thing I want to know. How is it all to be put right again? Suppose this room is examined? Those strings will show."
Hester opened a cupboard and produced a jar. She took out the cork. There was a mixture inside which looked like glue. Partly by signs, and partly by help of the slate, she showed how the mixture could be applied to the back of the loosened strip of paper in the next room--how the paper could be glued to the sound lower part of the wall by tightening the strings--how the strings, having served that purpose, could be safely removed--how the same process could be followed in Geoffrey's room, after the hollowed place had been filled up again with the materials waiting in the scullery, or even without filling up the hollowed place if the time failed for doing it. In either case, the refastened paper would hide every thing, and the wall would tell no tales.
Geoffrey was satisfied. He pointed next to the towels in his room.
"Take one of them," he said, "and show me how you did it, with your own hands."
As he said the words, Anne's voice reached his ear from below, calling for "Mrs. Dethridge."
It was impossible to say what might happen next. In another minute, she might go up to her room, and discover every thing. Geoffrey pointed to the wall.
"Put it right again," he said. "Instantly!" It was soon done. All that was necessary was to let the two strips of paper drop back into their places--to fasten the strip to the wall in Anne's room, by tightening the two lower strings--and then to replace the nails which held the loose strip on Geoffrey's side. In a minute, the wall had reassumed its customary aspect.
They stole out, and looked over the stairs into the passage below. After calling uselessly for the second time, Anne appeared, crossed over to the kitchen; and, returning again with the kettle in her hand, closed the drawing-room door.
Hester Dethridge waited impenetrably to receive her next directions. There were no further directions to give. The hideous dramatic representation of the woman's crime for which Geoffrey had asked was in no respect necessary: the means were all prepared, and the manner of using them was self-evident. Nothing but the opportunity, and the resolution to profit by it, were wanting to lead the way to the end. Geoffrey signed to Hester to go down stairs.
"Get back into the kitchen," he said, "before she comes out again. I shall keep in the garden. When she goes up into her room for the night, show yourself at the back-door-and I shall know."
Hester set her foot on the first stair--stopped--turned round--and looked slowly along the two walls of the passage, from end to end--shuddered--shook her head--and went slowly on down the stairs.
"What were you looking for?" he whispered after her.
She neither answered, nor looked back--she went her way into the kitchen.
He waited a minute, and then followed her.
On his way out to the garden, he went into the dining-room. The moon had risen; and the window-shutters were not closed. It was easy to find the brandy and the jug of water on the table. He mixed the two, and emptied the tumbler at a draught. "My head's queer," he whispered to himself. He passed his handkerchief over his face. "How infernally hot it is to-night!" He made for the door. It was open, and plainly visible--and yet, he failed to find his way to it. Twice, he found himself trying to walk through the wall, on either side. The third time, he got out, and reached the garden. A strange sensation possessed him, as he walked round and round. He had not drunk enough, or nearly enough, to intoxicate him. His mind, in a dull way, felt the same as usual; but his body was like the body of a drunken man.
The night advanced; the clock of Putney Church struck ten.
Anne appeared again from the drawing room, with her bedroom candle in her hand.
"Put out the lights," she said to Hester, at the kitchen door; "I am going up stairs."
She entered her room. The insupportable sense of weariness, after the sleepless night that she had passed, weighed more heavily on her than ever. She locked her door, but forbore, on this occasion, to fasten the bolts. The dread of danger was no longer present to her mind; and there was this positive objection to losing the bolts, that the unfastening of them would increase the difficulty of leaving the room noiselessly later in the night. She loosened her dress, and lifted her hair from her temples--and paced to and fro in the room wearily, thinking. Geoffrey's habits were irregular; Hester seldom went to bed early.
Two hours at least--more probably three--must pass, before it would be safe to communicate with Sir Patrick by means of the signal in the window. Her strength was fast failing her. If she persisted, for the next three hours, in denying herself the repose which she sorely needed, the chances were that her nerves might fail her, through sheer exhaustion, when the time came for facing the risk and making the effort to escape. Sleep was falling on her even now--and sleep she must have. She had no fear of failing to wake at the needful time. Falling asleep, with a special necessity for rising at a given hour present to her mind, Anne (like most other sensitively organized people) could trust herself to wake at that given hour, instinctively. She put her lighted candle in a safe position, and laid down on the bed. In less than five minutes, she was in a deep sleep.
* * * * * *
The church clock struck the quarter to eleven. Hester Dethridge showed herself at the back garden door. Geoffrey crossed the lawn, and joined her. The light of the lamp in the passage fell on his face. She started back from the sight of it.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
She shook her head; and pointed through the dining-room door to the brandy-bottle on the table.
"I'm as sober as you are, you fool!" he said. "Whatever else it is, it's not that."
Hester looked at him again. He was right. However unsteady his gait might be, his speech was not the speech, his eyes were not the eyes, of a drunken man.
"Is she in her room for the night?"
Hester made the affirmative sign.
Geoffrey ascended the st airs, swaying from side to side. He stopped at the top, and beckoned to Hester to join him. He went on into his room; and, signing to her to follow him, closed the door.
He looked at the partition wall--without approaching it. Hester waited, behind him
"Is she asleep?" he asked.
Hester went to the wall; listened at it; and made the affirmative reply.
He sat down. "My head's queer," he said. "Give me a drink of water." He drank part of the water, and poured the rest over his head. Hester turned toward the door to leave him. He instantly stopped her. "I can't unwind the strings. I can't lift up the paper. Do it."
She sternly made the sign of refusal: she resolutely opened the door to leave him. "Do you want your Confession back?" he asked. She closed the door, stolidly submissive in an instant; and crossed to the partition wall.
She lifted the loose strips of paper on either side of the wall--pointed through the hollowed place--and drew back again to the other end of the room.
He rose and walked unsteadily from the chair to the foot of his bed. Holding by the wood-work of the bed; he waited a little. While he waited, he became conscious of a change in the strange sensations that possessed him. A feeling as of a breath of cold air passed over the right side of his head. He became steady again: he could calculate his distances: he could put his hands through the hollowed place, and draw aside the light curtains, hanging from the hook in the ceiling over the head of her bed. He could look at his sleeping wife.
She was dimly visible, by the light of the candle placed at the other end of her room. The worn and weary look had disappeared from her face. All that had been purest and sweetest in it, in the by-gone time, seemed to be renewed by the deep sleep that held her gently. She was young again in the dim light: she was beautiful in her calm repose. Her head lay back on the pillow. Her upturned face was in a position which placed her completely at the mercy of the man under whose eyes she was sleeping--the man who was looking at her, with the merciless resolution in him to take her life.
After waiting a while, he drew back. "She's more like a child than a woman to-night," he muttered to himself under his breath. He glanced across the room at Hester Dethridge. The lighted candle which she had brought up stairs with her was burning near the place where she stood. "Blow it out," he whispered. She never moved. He repeated the direction. There she stood, deaf to him.
What was she doing? She was looking fixedly into one of the corners of the room.
He turned his head again toward the hollowed place in the wall. He looked at the peaceful face on the pillow once more. He deliberately revived his own vindictive sense of the debt that he owed her. "But for you," he whispered to himself, "I should have won the race: but for you, I should have been friends with my father: but for you, I might marry Mrs. Glenarm." He turned back again into the room while the sense of it was at its fiercest in him. He looked round and round him. He took up a towel; considered for a moment; and threw it down again.
A new idea struck him. In two steps he was at the side of his bed. He seized on one of the pillows, and looked suddenly at Hester. "It's not a drunken brute, this time," he said to her. "It's a woman who will fight for her life. The pillow's the safest of the two." She never answered him, and never looked toward him. He made once more for the place in the wall; and stopped midway between it and his bed--stopped, and cast a backward glance over his shoulder.
Hester Dethridge was stirring at last.
With no third person in the room, she was looking, and moving, nevertheless, as if she was following a third person along the wall, from the corner. Her lips were parted in horror; her eyes, opening wider and wider, stared rigid and glittering at the empty wall. Step by step she stole nearer and nearer to Geoffrey, still following some visionary Thing, which was stealing nearer and nearer, too. He asked himself what it meant. Was the terror of the deed that he was about to do more than the woman's brain could bear? Would she burst out screaming, and wake his wife?
He hurried to the place in the wall--to seize the chance, while the chance was his.
He steadied his strong hold on the pillow.
He stooped to pass it through the opening.
He poised it over Anne's sleeping face.
At the same moment he felt Hester Dethridge's hand laid on him from behind. The touch ran through him, from head to foot, like a touch of ice. He drew back with a start, and faced her. Her eyes were staring straight over his shoulder at something behind him-looking as they had looked in the garden at Windygates.
Before he could speak he felt the flash of her eyes in his eyes. For the third time, she had seen the Apparition behind him. The homicidal frenzy possessed her. She flew at his throat like a wild beast. The feeble old woman attacked the athlete!
He dropped the pillow, and lifted his terrible right arm to brush her from him, as he might have brushed an insect from him.
Even as he raised the arm a frightful distortion seized on his face. As if with an invisible hand, it dragged down the brow and the eyelid on the right; it dragged down the mouth on the same side. His arm fell helpless; his whole body, on the side under the arm, gave way. He dropped on the floor, like a man shot dead.
Hester Dethridge pounced on his prostrate body--knelt on his broad breast--and fastened her ten fingers on his throat.
* * * * * *
The shock of the fall woke Anne on the instant. She started up--looked round--and saw a gap in the wall at the head of her bed, and the candle-light glimmering in the next room. Panic-stricken; doubting, for the moment, if she were in her right mind, she drew back, waiting--listening--looking. She saw nothing but the glimmering light in the room; she heard nothing but a hoarse gasping, as of some person laboring for breath. The sound ceased. There was an interval of silence. Then the head of Hester Dethridge rose slowly into sight through the gap in the wall--rose with the glittering light of madness in the eyes, and looked at her.
She flew to the open window, and screamed for help.
Sir Patrick's voice answered her, from the road in front of the cottage.
"Wait for me, for God's sake!" she cried.
She fled from the room, and rushed down the stairs. In another moment, she had opened the door, and was out in the front garden.
As she ran to the gate, she heard the voice of a strange man on the other side of it. Sir Patrick called to her encouragingly. "The police man is with us," he said. "He patrols the garden at night--he has a key." As he spoke the gate was opened from the outside. She saw Sir Patrick, Arnold, and the policeman. She staggered toward them as they came in-she was just able to say, "Up stairs!" before her senses failed her. Sir Patrick saved her from falling. He placed her on the bench in the garden, and waited by her, while Arnold and the policeman hurried into the cottage.
"Where first?" asked Arnold.
"The room the lady called from," said the policeman
They mounted the stairs, and entered Anne's room. The gap in the wall was instantly observed by both of them. They looked through it.
Geoffrey Delamayn's dead body lay on the floor. Hester Dethridge was kneeling at his head, praying.