The Evil Genius by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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55. Leave It to the Child
The front windows of Brightwater Cottage look out on a quiet green lane in Middlesex, which joins the highroad within a few miles of the market town of Uxbridge. Through the pretty garden at the back runs a little brook, winding its merry way to a distant river. The few rooms in this pleasant place of residence are well (too well) furnished, having regard to the limits of a building which is a cottage in the strictest sense of the word. Water–color drawings by the old English masters of the art ornament the dinin g-room. The parlor has been transformed into a library. From floor to ceiling all four of its walls are covered with books. Their old and well-chosen bindings, seen in the mass, present nothing less than a feast of color to the eye. The library and the works of art are described as heirlooms, which have passed into the possession of the present proprietor--one more among the hundreds of Englishmen who are ruined every year by betting on the Turf.
So sorely in need of a little ready money was this victim of gambling--tacitly permitted or conveniently ignored by the audacious hypocrisy of a country which rejoiced in the extinction of Baden, and which still shudders at the name of Monaco--that he was ready to let his pretty cottage for no longer a term than one month certain; and he even allowed the elderly lady, who drove the hardest of hard bargains with him, to lessen by one guinea the house-rent paid for each week. He took his revenge by means of an ironical compliment, addressed to Mrs. Presty. "What a saving it would be to the country, ma'am, if you were Chancellor of the Exchequer!" With perfect gravity Mrs. Presty accepted that well-earned tribute of praise. "You are quite right, sir; I should be the first official person known to the history of England who took proper care of the public money."
Within two days of the time when they had left the hotel at Sydenham, Catherine and her little family circle had taken possession of the cottage.
The two ladies were sitting in the library each occupied with a book chosen from the well-stocked shelves. Catherine's reading appeared to be more than once interrupted by Catherine's thoughts. Noticing this circumstance, Mrs. Presty asked if some remarkable event had happened, and if it was weighing heavily on her daughter's mind.
Catherine answered that she was thinking of Kitty, and that anxiety connected with the child did weigh heavily on her mind.
Some days had passed (she reminded Mrs. Presty) since the interview at which Herbert Linley had bidden her farewell. On that occasion he had referred to her proposed marriage (never to be a marriage now!) in terms of forbearance and generosity which claimed her sincerest admiration. It might be possible for her to show a grateful appreciation of his conduct. Devotedly fond of his little daughter, he must have felt acutely his long separation from her; and it was quite likely that he might ask to see Kitty. But there was an obstacle in the way of her willing compliance with that request, which it was impossible to think of without remorse, and which it was imperatively necessary to remove. Mrs. Presty would understand that she alluded to the shameful falsehood which had led the child to suppose that her father was dead.
Strongly disapproving of the language in which her daughter had done justice to the conduct of the divorced husband, Mrs. Presty merely replied: "You are Kitty's mother; I leave it to you"--and returned to her reading.
Catherine could not feel that she had deserved such an answer as this. "Did I plan the deception?" she asked. "Did I tell the lie?"
Mrs. Presty was not in the least offended. "You are comparatively innocent, my dear," she admitted, with an air of satirical indulgence. "You only consented to the deception, and profited by the lie. Suppose we own the truth? You are afraid."
Catherine owned the truth in the plainest terms: "Yes, I am afraid."
"And you leave it to me?"
"I leave it to you."
Mrs. Presty complacently closed her book. "I was quite prepared to hear it," she said; "all the unpleasant complications since your Divorce--and Heaven only knows how many of them have presented themselves--have been left for me to unravel. It so happens--though I was too modest to mention it prematurely--that I have unraveled this complication. If one only has eyes to see it, there is a way out of every difficulty that can possibly happen." She pushed the book that she had been reading across the table to Catherine. "Turn to page two hundred and forty," she said. "There is the way out."
The title of the book was "Disasters at Sea"; and the page contained the narrative of a shipwreck. On evidence apparently irresistible, the drowning of every soul on board the lost vessel had been taken for granted--when a remnant of the passengers and crew had been discovered on a desert island, and had been safely restored to their friends. Having read this record of suffering and suspense, Catherine looked at her mother, and waited for an explanation.
"Don't you see it?" Mrs. Presty asked. "I can't say that I do."
The old lady's excellent temper was not in the least ruffled, even by this.
"Quite inexcusable on my part," she acknowledged; "I ought to have remembered that you don't inherit your mother's vivid imagination. Age has left me in full possession of those powers of invention which used to amaze your poor father. He wondered how it was that I never wrote a novel. Mr. Presty's appreciation of my intellect was equally sincere; but he took a different view. 'Beware, my dear,' he said, 'of trifling with the distinction which you now enjoy: you are one of the most remarkable women in England–-you have never written a novel.' Pardon me; I am wandering into the region of literary anecdote, when I ought to explain myself. Now pray attend to this:--I propose to tell Kitty that I have found a book which is sure to interest her; and I shall direct her attention to the lamentable story which you have just read. She is quite sharp enough (there are sparks of my intellectual fire in Kitty) to ask if the friends of the poor shipwrecked people were not very much surprised to see them again. To this I shall answer: 'Very much, indeed, for their friends thought they were dead.' Ah, you dear dull child, you see it now!"
Catherine saw it so plainly that she was eager to put the first part of the experiment to an immediate trial.
Kitty was sent for, and made her appearance with a fishing-rod over her shoulder. "I'm going to the brook," she announced; "expect some fish for dinner to-day."
A wary old hand stopped Catherine, in the act of presenting "Disasters at Sea," to Kitty's notice; and a voice, distinguished by insinuating kindness, said to the child: "When you have done fishing, my dear, come to me; I have got a nice book for you to read.--How very absurd of you, Catherine," Mrs. Presty continued, when they were alone again, "to expect the child to read, and draw her own conclusions, while her head is full of fishing! If there are any fish in the brook, she won't catch them. When she comes back disappointed and says: 'What am I to do now?' the 'Disasters at Sea' will have a chance. I make it a rule never to boast; but if there is a thing that I understand, it's the management of children. Why didn't I have a large family?"
Attended by the faithful Susan, Kitty baited her hook, and began to fish where the waters of the brook were overshadowed by trees.
A little arbor covered by a thatched roof, and having walls of wooden lattice-work, hidden by creepers climbing over them inside and out, offered an attractive place of rest on this sheltered side of the garden. Having brought her work with her, the nursemaid retired to the summer-house and diligently plied her needle, looking at Kitty from time to time through the open door. The air was delightfully cool, the pleasant rippling of the brook fell soothingly on the ear, the seat in the summer-house received a sitter with the softly-yielding submission of elastic wires. Susan had just finished her early dinner: in mind and body alike, this good girl was entirely and deservedly at her ease. By finely succeeding degrees, her eyelids began to show a tendency downward; her truant needle- work escaped from her fingers, and lay lazily on her lap. She snatched it up with a start, and sewed with severe resolution until her thread was exhausted. The reel was ready at her side; she took it up for a fresh supply, and innocently rested her head against the leafy and flowery wall of the arbor. Was it thought that gradually closed her eyes again? or was it sleep? In either case, Susan was lost to all se nse of passing events; and Susan's breathing became musically regular, emulous of the musical regularity of the brook.
As a lesson in patience, the art of angling pursued in a shallow brook has its moral uses. Kitty fished, and waited, and renewed the bait and tried again, with a command of temper which would have been a novelty in Susan's experience, if Susan had been awake. But the end which comes to all things came also to Kitty's patience. Leaving her rod on the bank, she let the line and hook take care of themselves, and wandered away in search of some new amusement.
Lingering here and there to gather flowers from the beds as she passed them, Kitty was stopped by a shrubbery, with a rustic seat placed near it, which marked the limits of the garden on that side. The path that she had been following led her further and further away from the brook, but still left it well in view. She could see, on her right hand, the clumsy old wooden bridge which crossed the stream, and served as a means of communication for the servants and the tradespeople, between the cottage and the village on the lower ground a mile away.
The child felt hot and tired. She rested herself on the bench, and, spreading the flowers by her side, began to arrange them in the form of a nosegay. Still true to her love for Sydney, she had planned to present the nosegay to her mother, offering the gift as an excuse for returning to the forbidden subject of her governess, and for asking when they might hope to see each other again.
Choosing flowers and then rejecting them, trying other colors and wondering whether she had accomplished a change for the better, Kitty was startled by the sound of a voice calling to her from the direction of the brook.
She looked round, and saw a gentleman crossing the bridge. He asked the way to Brightwater Cottage.
There was something in his voice that attracted her--how or why, at her age, she never thought of inquiring. Eager and excited, she ran across the lawn which lay between her and the brook, before she answered the gentleman's question.
As they approached each other, his eyes sparkled, his face flushed; he cried out joyfully, "Here she is!"--and then changed again in an instant. A horrid pallor overspread his face as the child stood looking at him with innocent curiosity. He startled Kitty, not because he seemed to be shocked and distressed, she hardly noticed that; but because he was so like--although he was thinner and paler and older--oh, so like her lost father!
"This is the cottage, sir," she said faintly.
His sorrowful eyes rested kindly on her. And yet, it seemed as if she had in some way disappointed him. The child ventured to say: "Do you know me, sir?"
He answered in the saddest voice that Kitty had ever heard: "My little girl, what makes you think I know you?"
She was at a loss how to reply, fearing to distress him. She could only say: "You are so like my poor papa."
He shook and shuddered, as if she had said something to frighten him. He took her hand. On that hot day, his fingers felt as cold as if it had been winter time. He led her back to the seat that she had left. "I'm tired, my dear," he said. "Shall we sit down?" It was surely true that he was tired. He seemed hardly able to lift one foot after the other; Kitty pitied him. "I think you must be ill;" she said, as they took their places, side by side, on the bench.
"No; not ill. Only weary, and perhaps a little afraid of frightening you." He kept her hand in his hand, and patted it from time to time. "My dear, why did you say 'poor papa,' when you spoke of your father just now?"
"My father is dead, sir."
He turned his face away from her, and pressed both hands on his breast, as if he had felt some dreadful pain there, and was trying to hide it. But he mastered the pain; and he said a strange thing to her--very gently, but still it was strange. He wished to know who had told her that her father was dead.
"Grandmamma told me."
"Do you remember what grandmamma said?"
"Yes--she told me papa was drowned at sea."
He said something to himself, and said it twice over. "Not her mother! Thank God, not her mother!" What did he mean?
Kitty looked and looked at him, and wondered and wondered. He put his arm round her. "Come near to me," he said. "Don't be afraid of me, my dear." She moved nearer and showed him that she was not afraid. The poor man seemed hardly to understand her. His eyes grew dim; he sighed like a person in distress; he said: "Your father would have kissed you, little one, if he had been alive. You say I am like your father. May I kiss you?"
She put her hands on his shoulder and lifted her face to him. In the instant when he kissed her, the child knew him. Her heart beat suddenly with an overpowering delight; she started back from his embrace. "That's how papa used to kiss me!" she cried. "Oh! you are papa! Not drowned! not drowned!" She flung her arms round his neck, and held him as if she would never let him go again. "Dear papa! Poor lost papa!" His tears fell on her face; he sobbed over her. "My sweet darling! my own little Kitty!"
The hysterical passion that had overcome her father filled her with piteous surprise. How strange, how dreadful that he should cry--that he should be so sorry when she was so glad! She took her little handkerchief out of the pocket of her pinafore, and dried his eyes. "Are you thinking of the cruel sea, papa? No! the good sea, the kind, bright, beautiful sea that has given you back to me, and to mamma--!"
They had forgotten her mother!--and Kitty only discovered it now. She caught at one of her father's hands hanging helpless at his side, and pulled at it as if her little strength could force him to his feet. "Come," she cried, "and make mamma as happy as I am!"
He hesitated. She sprang on his knee; she pressed her cheek against his cheek with the caressing tenderness, familiar to him in the first happy days when she was an infant. "Oh, papa, are you going to be unkind to me for the first time in your life?"
His momentary resistance was at an end. He was as weak in her hands now as if he had been the child and she had been the man.
Laughing and singing and dancing round him, Kitty led the way to the window of the room that opened on the garden. Some one had closed it on the inner side. She tapped impatiently at the glass. Her mother heard the tapping; her mother came to the window; her mother ran out to meet them. Since the miserable time when they left Mount Morven, since the long unnatural separation of the parents and the child, those three were together once more!