The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins - HTML preview
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14. The Woman's Answer
THUS far I have written of myself with perfect frankness, and, I think I may fairly add, with some courage as well. My frankness fails me and my courage fails me when I look back to my husband's farewell letter, and try to recall the storm of contending passions that it roused in my mind. No! I cannot tell the truth about myself--I dare not tell the truth about myself--at that terrible time. Men! consult your observation of women, and imagine what I felt; women! look into your own hearts, and see what I felt, for yourselves.
What I did, when my mind was quiet again, is an easier matter to deal with. I answered my husband's letter. My reply to him shall appear in these pages. It will show, in some degree, what effect (of the lasting sort) his desertion of me produced on my mind. It will also reveal the motives that sustained me, the hopes that animated me, in the new and strange life which my next chapters must describe.
I was removed from the hotel in the care of my fatherly old friend, Benjamin. A bedroom was prepared for me in his little villa. There I passed the first night of my separation from my husband. Toward the morning my weary brain got some rest--I slept.
At breakfast-time Major Fitz-David called to inquire about me. He had kindly volunteered to go and speak for me to my husband's lawyers on the preceding day. They had admitted that they knew where Eustace had gone, but they declared at the same time that they were positively forbidden to communicate his address to any one. In other respects their "instructions" in relation to the wife of their client were (as they were pleased to express it) "generous to a fault." I had only to write to them, and they would furnish me with a copy by return of post.
This was the Major's news. He refrained, with the tact that distinguished him, from putting any questions to me beyond questions relating to the state of my health. These answered, he took his leave of me for that day. He and Benjamin had a long talk together afterward in the garden of the villa.
I retired to my room and wrote to my uncle Starkweather, telling him exactly what had happened, and inclosing him a copy of my husband's letter. This done, I went out for a little while to breathe the fresh air and to think. I was soon weary, and went back again to my room to rest. My kind old Benjamin left me at perfect liberty to be alone as long as I pleased. Toward the afternoon I began to feel a little more like my old self again. I mean by this that I could think of Eustace without bursting out crying, and could speak to Benjamin without distressing and frightening the dear old man.
That night I had a little more sleep. The next morning I was strong enough to confront the first and foremost duty that I now owed to myself--the duty of answering my husband's letter.
I wrote to him in these words:
"I am still too weak and weary, Eustace, to write to you at any length. But my mind is clear. I have formed my own opinion of you and your letter; and I know what I mean to do now you have left me. Some women, in my situation, might think that you had forfeited all right to their confidence. I don't think that. So I write and tell you what is in my mind in the plainest and fewest words that I can use.
"You say you love me--and you leave me. I don't understand loving a woman and leaving her. For my part, in spite of the hard things you have said and written to me, and in spite of the cruel manner in which you have left me, I love you--and I won't give you up. No! As long as I live I mean to live your wife.
"Does this surprise you? It surprises me. If another woman wrote in this manner to a man who had behaved to her as you have behaved, I should be quite at a loss to account for her conduct. I am quite at a loss to account for my own conduct. I ought to hate you, and yet I can't help loving you. I am ashamed of myself; but so it is.
"You need feel no fear of my attempting to find out where you are, and of my trying to persuade you to return to me. I am not quite foolish enough to do that. You are not in a fit state of mind to return to me. You are all wrong, all over, from head to foot. When you get right again, I am vain enough to think that you will return to me of your own accord. And shall I be weak enough to forgive you? Yes! I shall certainly be weak enough to forgive you.
"But how are you to get right again?
"I have puzzled my brains over this question by night and by day, and my opinion is that you will never get right again unless I help you.
"How am I to help you?
"That question is easily answered. What the Law has failed to do for you, your Wife must do for you. Do you remember what I said when we were together in the back room at Major Fitz-David's house? I told you that the first thought that came to me, when I heard what the Scotch jury had done, was the thought of setting their vile Verdict right. Well! Your letter has fixed this idea more firmly in my mind than ever. The only chance that I can see of winning you back to me, in the character of a penitent and loving husband, is to change that underhand Scotch Verdict of Not Proven into an honest English Verdict of Not Guilty.
"Are you surprised at the knowledge of the law which this way of writing betrays in an ignorant woman? I have been learning, my dear: the Law and the Lady have begun by understanding one another. In plain English, I have looked into Ogilvie's 'Imperial Dictionary,' and Ogilvie tells me, 'A verdict of Not Proven only indicates that, in the opinion of the jury, there is a deficiency in the evidence to convict the prisoner. A verdict of Not Guilty imports the jury's opinion that the prisoner is innocent.' Eustace, that shall be the opinion of the world in general, and of the Scotch jury in particular, in your case. To that one object I dedicate my life to come, if God spare me!
"Who will help me, when I need help, is more than I yet know. There was a time when I had hoped that we should go hand in hand together in doing this good work. That hope is at an end. I no longer expect you, or ask you, to help me. A man who thinks as you think can give no help to anybody--it is his miserable condition to have no hope. So be it! I will hope for two, and will work for two; and I shall find some one to help me--never fear--if I deserve it.
"I will say nothing about my plans--I have not read the Trial yet. It is quite enough for me that I know you are i nnocent. When a man is innocent, there must be a way of proving it: the one thing needful is to find the way. Sooner or later, with or without assistance, I shall find it. Yes! before I know any single particular of the Case, I tell you positively--I shall find it!
"You may laugh over this blind confidence on my part, or you may cry over it. I don't pretend to know whether I am an object for ridicule or an object for pity. Of one thing only I am certain: I mean to win you back, a man vindicated before the world, without a stain on his character or his name--thanks to his wife.
"Write to me, sometimes, Eustace; and believe me, through all the bitterness of this bitter business, your faithful and loving "VALERIA."
There was my reply! Poor enough as a composition (I could write a much better letter now), it had, if I may presume to say so, one merit. It was the honest expression of what I really meant and felt.
I read it to Benjamin. He held up his hands with his customary gesture when he was thoroughly bewildered and dismayed. "It seems the rashest letter that ever was written," said the dear old man. "I never heard, Valeria, of a woman doing what you propose to do. Lord help us! the new generation is beyond my fathoming. I wish your uncle Starkweather was here: I wonder what he would say? Oh, dear me, what a letter from a wife to a husband! Do you really mean to send it to him?"
I added immeasurably to my old friend's surprise by not even employing the post-office. I wished to see the "instructions" which my husband had left behind him. So I took the letter to his lawyers myself.
The firm consisted of two partners. They both received me together. One was a soft, lean man, with a sour smile. The other was a hard, fat man, with ill-tempered eyebrows. I took a great dislike to both of them. On their side, they appeared to feel a strong distrust of me. We began by disagreeing. They showed me my husband's "instructions," providing, among other things, for the payment of one clear half of his income as long as he lived to his wife. I positively refused to touch a farthing of his money.
The lawyers were unaffectedly shocked and astonished at this decision. Nothing of the sort had ever happened before in the whole course of their experience. They argued and remonstrated with me. The partner with the ill-tempered eyebrows wanted to know what my reasons were. The partner with the sour smile reminded his colleague satirically that I was a lady, and had therefore no reasons to give. I only answered, "Be so good as to forward my letter, gentlemen," and left them.
I have no wish to claim any credit to myself in these pages which I do not honestly deserve. The truth is that my pride forbade me to accept help from Eustace, now that he had left me. My own little fortune (eight hundred a year) had been settled on myself when I married. It had been more than I wanted as a single woman, and I was resolved that it should be enough for me now. Benjamin had insisted on my considering his cottage as my home. Under these circumstances, the expenses in which my determination to clear my husband's character might involve me were the only expenses for which I had to provide. I could afford to be independent, and independent I resolved that I would be.
While I am occupied in confessing my weakness and my errors, it is only right to add that, dearly as I still loved my unhappy, misguided husband, there was one little fault of his which I found it not easy to forgive.
Pardoning other things, I could not quite pardon his concealing from me that he had been married to a first wife. Why I should have felt this so bitterly as I did, at certain times and seasons, I am not able to explain. Jealousy was at the bottom of it, I suppose. And yet I was not conscious of being jealous--especially when I thought of the poor creature's miserable death. Still, Eustace ought not to have kept that secret from me, I used to think to myself, at odd times when I was discouraged and out of temper. What would he have said if I had been a widow, and had never told him of it?
It was getting on toward evening when I returned to the cottage. Benjamin appeared to have been on the lookout for me. Before I could ring at the bell he opened the garden gate.
"Prepare yourself for a surprise, my dear," he said. "Your uncle, the Reverend Doctor Starkweather, has arrived from the North, and is waiting to see you. He received your letter this morning, and he took the first train to London as soon as he had read it."
In another minute my uncle's strong arms were round me. In my forlorn position, I felt the good vicar's kindness, in traveling all the way to London to see me, very gratefully. It brought the tears into my eyes--tears, without bitterness, that did me good.
"I have come, my dear child, to take you back to your old home," he said. "No words can tell how fervently I wish you had never left your aunt and me. Well! well! we won't talk about it. The mischief is done, and the next thing is to mend it as well as we can. If I could only get within arm's-length of that husband of yours, Valeria--There! there! God forgive me, I am forgetting that I am a clergyman. What shall I forget next, I wonder?
By-the-by, your aunt sends you her dearest love. She is more superstitious than ever. This miserable business doesn't surprise her a bit. She says it all began with your making that mistake about your name in signing the church register. You remember? Was there ever such stuff? Ah, she's a foolish woman, that wife of mine! But she means well--a good soul at bottom. She would have traveled all the way here along with me if I would have let her. I said, 'No; you stop at home, and look after the house and the parish, and I'll bring the child back.' You shall have your old bedroom, Valeria, with the white curtains, you know, looped up with blue! We will return to the Vicarage (if you can get up in time) by the nine-forty train to-morrow morning."
Return to the Vicarage! How could I do that? How could I hope to gain what was now the one object of my existence if I buried myself in a remote north-country village? It was simply impossible for me to accompany Doctor Starkweather on his return to his own house.
"I thank you, uncle, with all my heart," I said. "But I am afraid I can't leave London for the present."
"You can't leave London for the present?" he repeated. "What does the girl mean, Mr. Benjamin?" Benjamin evaded a direct reply.
"She is kindly welcome here, Doctor Starkweather," he said, "as long as she chooses to stay with me."
"That's no answer," retorted my uncle, in his rough-and-ready way. He turned to me. "What is there to keep you in London?" he asked. "You used to hate London. I suppose there is some reason?"
It was only due to my good guardian and friend that I should take him into my confidence sooner or later. There was no help for it but to rouse my courage, and tell him frankly what I had it in my mind to do. The vicar listened in breathless dismay. He turned to Benjamin, with distress as well as surprise in his face, when I had done.
"God help her!" cried the worthy man. "The poor thing's troubles have turned her brain!"
"I thought you would disapprove of it, sir," said Benjamin, in his mild and moderate way. "I confess I disapprove of it myself."
"'Disapprove of it' isn't the word," retorted the vicar. "Don't put it in that feeble way, if you please. An act of madness--that's what it is, if she really mean what she says." He turned my way, and looked as he used to look at the afternoon service when he was catechising an obstinate child. "You don't mean it," he said, "do you?"
"I am sorry to forfeit your good opinion, uncle," I replied. "But I must own that I do certainly mean it."
"In plain English," retorted the vicar, "you are conceited enough to think that you can succeed where the greatest lawyers in Scotland have failed. They couldn't prove this man's innocence, all working together. And you are going to prove it single-handed? Upon my word, you are a wonderful woman," cried my uncle, suddenly descending from indignation to irony. "May a plain country parson, who isn't used to lawyers in petticoats, be permitted to ask how you mean to do it?"
"I mean to begin by reading the Trial, uncle."
"Nice reading for a young woman! You will be wanting a batch of nasty French novels next. Well, and when you have read the Trial--what then? Have you thought of that?"
"Yes, uncle; I have thought of that. I shall first try to form some conclusion (after reading the Trial) as to the guilty person who really committed the crime. Then I shall make out a list of the witnesses who spoke in my husband's defense. I shall go to those witnesses, and tell them who I am and what I want. I shall ask all sorts of questions which grave lawyers might think it beneath their dignity to put. I shall be guided, in what I do next, by the answers I receive. And I shall not be discouraged, no matter what difficulties are thrown in my way. Those are my plans, uncle, so far as I know them now."
The vicar and Benjamin looked at each other as if they doubted the evidence of their own senses. The vicar spoke.
"Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that you are going roaming about the country to throw yourself on the mercy of strangers, and to risk whatever rough reception you may get in the course of your travels? You! A young woman! Deserted by your husband! With nobody to protect you! Mr. Benjamin, do you hear her? And can you believe your ears? I declare to Heaven I don't know whether I am awake or dreaming. Look at her--just look at her! There she sits as cool and easy as if she had said nothing at all extraordinary, and was going to do nothing out of the common way! What am I to do with her?--that's the serious question--what on earth am I to do with her?"
"Let me try my experiment, uncle, rash as it may look to you," I said. "Nothing else will comfort and support me; and God knows I want comfort and support. Don't think me obstinate. I am ready to admit that there are serious difficulties in my way."
The vicar resumed his ironical tone.
"Oh!" he said. "You admit that, do you? Well, there is something gained, at any rate."
"Many another woman before me," I went on, "has faced serious difficulties, and has conquered them--for the sake of the man she loved."
Doctor Starkweather rose slowly to his feet, with the air of a person whose capacity of toleration had reached its last limits.
"Am I to understand that you are still in love with Mr. Eustace Macallan?" he asked. "Yes," I answered.
"The hero of the great Poison Trial?" pursued my uncle. "The man who has deceived and deserted you? You love him?"
"I love him more dearly than ever."
"Mr. Benjamin," said the vicar, "if she recover her senses between this and nine o'clock to-morrow morning, send her with her luggage to Loxley's Hotel, where I am now staying. Good-night, Valeria. I shall consult with your aunt as to what is to be done next. I have no more to say."
"Give me a kiss, uncle, at parting."
"Oh yes, I'll give you a kiss. Anything you like, Valeria. I shall be sixty-five next birthday; and I thought I knew something of women, at my time of life. It seems I know nothing. Loxley's Hotel is the address, Mr. Benjamin. Good-night."
Benjamin looked very grave when he returned to me after accompanying Doctor Starkweather to the garden gate.
"Pray be advised, my dear," he said. "I don't ask you to consider my view of this matter, as good for much. But your uncle's opinion is surely worth considering?"
I did not reply. It was useless to say any more. I made up my mind to be misunderstood and discouraged, and to bear it. "Good-night, my dear old friend," was all I said to Benjamin. Then I turned away--I confess with the tears in my eyes--and took refuge in my bedroom.
The window-blind was up, and the autumn moonlight shone brilliantly into the little room.
As I stood by the window, looking out, the memory came to me of another moonlight night, when Eustace and I were walking together in the Vicarage garden before our marriage. It was the night of which I have written, many pages back, when there were obstacles to our union, and when Eustace had offered to release me from my engagement to him. I saw the dear face again looking at me in the moonlight; I heard once more his words and mine. "Forgive me," he had said, "for having loved you--passionately, devotedly loved you. Forgive me, and let me go."
And I had answered, "Oh, Eustace, I am only a woman--don't madden me! I can't live without you. I must and will be your wife!" And now, after marriage had united us, we were parted! Parted, still loving each as passionately as ever. And why? Because he had been accused of a crime that he had never committed, and because a Scotch jury had failed to see that he was an innocent man.
I looked at the lovely moonlight, pursuing these remembrances and these thoughts. A new ardor burned in me. "No!" I said to myself. "Neither relations nor friends shall prevail on me to falter and fail in my husband's cause.
The assertion of his innocence is the work of my life; I will begin it to-night."
I drew down the blind and lighted the candles. In the quiet night, alone and unaided, I took my first step on the toilsome and terrible journey that lay before me. From the title- page to the end, without stopping to rest and without missing a word, I read the Trial of my husband for the murder of his wife.