The Evil Genius by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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1. Mrs. Presty Presents Herself
NOT far from the source of the famous river, which rises in the mountains between Loch Katrine and Loch Lornond, and divides the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland, travelers arrive at the venerable gray walls of Mount Morven; and, after consulting their guide books, ask permission to see the house.
What would be called, in a modern place of residence, the first floor, is reserved for the occupation of the family. The great hall of entrance, and its quaint old fireplace; the ancient rooms on the same level opening out of it, are freely shown to strangers. Cultivated travelers express various opinions relating to the family portraits, and the elaborately carved ceilings. The uninstructed public declines to trouble itself with criticism. It looks up at the towers and the loopholes, the battlements and the rusty old guns, which still bear witness to the perils of past times when the place was a fortress--it enters the gloomy hall, walks through the stone-paved rooms, stares at the faded pictures, and wonders at the lofty chimney-pieces hopelessly out of reach. Sometimes it sits on chairs which are as cold and as hard as iron, or timidly feels the legs of immovable tables which might be legs of elephants so far as size is concerned. When these marvels have been duly admired, and the guide books are shut up, the emancipated tourists, emerging into the light and air, all find the same social problem presented by a visit to Mount Morven: "How can the family live in such a place as that?"
If these strangers on their travels had been permitted to ascend to the first floor, and had been invited (for example) to say good-night to Mrs. Linley's pretty little daughter, they would have seen the stone walls of Kitty's bed-chamber snugly covered with velvet hangings which kept out the cold; they would have trod on a doubly-laid carpet, which set the chilly influences of the pavement beneath it at defiance; they would have looked at a bright little bed, of the last new pattern, worthy of a child's delicious sleep; and they would only have discovered that the room was three hundred years old when they had drawn aside the window curtains, and had revealed the adamantine solidity of the outer walls. Or, if they had been allowed to pursue their investigations a little further, and had found their way next into Mrs. Linley's sitting room, here again a transformation scene would have revealed more modern luxury, presented in the perfection which implies restraint within the limits of good taste. But on this occasion, instead of seeing the head of a lively little child on the pillow, side by side with the head of her doll, they would have encountered an elderly lady of considerable size, fast asleep and snoring in a vast armchair, with a book on her lap. The married men among the tourists would have recognized a mother-in-law, and would have set an excellent example to the rest; that is to say, the example of leaving the room.
The lady composed under the soporific influence of literature was a person of importance in the house--holding rank as Mrs. Linley's mother; and being otherwise noticeable for having married two husbands, and survived them both.
The first of these gentlemen--the Right Honorable Joseph Norman--had been a member of Parliament, and had taken office under Government. Mrs. Linley was his one surviving child. He died at an advanced age; leaving his handsome widow (young enough, as she was always ready to mention, to be his daughter) well provided for, and an object of matrimonial aspiration to single gentlemen who admired size in a woman, set off by money. After hesitating for some little time, Mrs. Norman accepted the proposal of the ugliest and dullest man among the ranks of her admirers. Why she became the wife of Mr. Presty (known in commercial circles as a merchant enriched by the sale of vinegar) she was never able to explain. Why she lamented him, with tears of sincere sorrow, when he died after two years of married life, was a mystery which puzzled her nearest and dearest friends. And why when she indulged (a little too frequently) in recollections of her married life, she persisted in putting obscure Mr. Presty on a level with distinguished Mr. Norman, was a secret which this remarkable woman had never been known to reveal. Presented by their widow with the strictest impartiality to the general view, the characters of these two husbands combined, by force of contrast, the ideal of manly perfection. That is to say, the vices of Mr. Norman were the virtues of Mr. Presty; and the vices of Mr. Presty were the virtues of Mr. Norman.
Returning to the sitting-room after bidding Kitty goodnight, Mrs. Linley discovered the old lady asleep, and saw that the book on her mother's lap was sliding off. Before she could check the downward movement, the book fell on the floor, and Mrs. Presty woke.
"Oh, mamma, I am so sorry! I was just too late to catch it.
"It doesn't matter, my dear. I daresay I should go to sleep again, if I went on with my novel."
"Is it really as dull as that?"
"Dull?" Mrs. Presty repeated. "You are evidently not aware of what the new school of novel writing is doing. The new school provides the public with soothing fiction."
"Are you speaking seriously, mamma?"
"Seriously, Catherine--and gratefully. These new writers are so good to old women. No story to excite our poor nerves; no improper characters to cheat us out of our sympathies, no dramatic situations to frighten us; exquisite management of details (as the reviews say), and a masterly anatomy of human motives which--I know what I mean, my dear, but I can't explain it."
"I think I understand, mamma. A masterly anatomy of human motives which is in itself a motive of human sleep. No; I won't borrow your novel just now. I don't want to go to sleep; I am thinking of Herbert in London."
Mrs. Presty consulted her watch.
"Your husb and is no longer in London," she announced; "he has begun his journey home. Give me the railway guide, and I'll tell you when he will be here tomorrow. You may trust me, Catherine, to make no mistakes. Mr. Presty's wonderful knowledge of figures has been of the greatest use to me in later life. Thanks to his instructions, I am the only person in the house who can grapple with the intricacies of our railway system. Your poor father, Mr. Norman, could never understand time-tables and never attempted to conceal his deficiencies. He had none of the vanity (harmless vanity, perhaps) which led poor Mr. Presty to express positive opinions on matters of which he knew nothing, such as pictures and music. What do you want, Malcolm?"
The servant to whom this question was addressed answered: "A telegram, ma'am, for the mistress."
Mrs. Linley recoiled from the message when the man offered it to her. Not usually a very demonstrative person, the feeling of alarm which had seized on her only expressed itself in a sudden change of color. "An accident!" she said faintly. "An accident on the railway!"
Mrs. Presty opened the telegram.
"If you had been the wife of a Cabinet Minister," she said to her daughter, "you would have been too well used to telegrams to let them frighten you. Mr. Presty (who received his telegrams at his office) was not quite just to the memory of my first husband. He used to blame Mr. Norman for letting me see his telegrams. But Mr. Presty's nature had all the poetry in which Mr. Norman's nature was deficient. He saw the angelic side of women-- and thought telegrams and business, and all that sort of thing, unworthy of our mission. I don't exactly understand what our mission is--"
"Mamma! mamma! is Herbert hurt?"
"Stuff and nonsense! Nobody is hurt; there has been no accident."
"They why does he telegraph to me?"
Hitherto, Mrs. Presty had only looked at the message. She now read it through attentively to the end. Her face assumed an expression of stern distrust. She shook her head.
"Read it yourself," she answered; "and remember what I told you, when you trusted your husband to find a governess for my grandchild. I said: 'You do not know men as I do.' I hope you may not live to repent it."
Mrs. Linley was too fond of her husband to let this pass. "Why shouldn't I trust him?" she asked. "He was going to London on business--and it was an excellent opportunity."
Mrs. Presty disposed of this weak defense of her daughter's conduct by waving her hand. "Read your telegram," she repeated with dignity, "and judge for yourself."
Mrs. Linley read:
"I have engaged a governess. She will travel in the same train with me. I think I ought to prepare you to receive a person whom you may be surprised to see. She is very young, and very inexperienced; quite unlike the ordinary run of governesses. When you hear how cruelly the poor girl has been used, I am sure you will sympathize with her as I do."
Mrs. Linley laid down the message, with a smile.
"Poor dear Herbert!" she said tenderly. "After we have been eight years married, is he really afraid that I shall be jealous? Mamma! Why are you looking so serious?"
Mrs. Presty took the telegram from her daughter and read extracts from it with indignant emphasis of voice and manner.
"Travels in the same train with him. Very young, and very inexperienced. And he sympathizes with her. Ha! I know the men, Catherine--I know the men!"