The Woman in White
Part 1 out of 14
The Woman in White
THE STORY BEGUN BY WALTER HARTRIGHT
(of Clement's Inn, Teacher of Drawing)
This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what
a Man's resolution can achieve.
If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every
case of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry, with
moderate assistance only from the lubricating influences of oil of
gold, the events which fill these pages might have claimed their
share of the public attention in a Court of Justice.
But the Law is still, in certain inevitable cases, the pre-engaged
servant of the long purse; and the story is left to be told, for
the first time, in this place. As the Judge might once have heard
it, so the Reader shall hear it now. No circumstance of
importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall
be related on hearsay evidence. When the writer of these
introductory lines (Walter Hartright by name) happens to be more
closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded,
he will describe them in his own person. When his experience
fails, he will retire from the position of narrator; and his task
will be continued, from the point at which he has left it off, by
other persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from
their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he has
spoken before them.
Thus, the story here presented will be told by more than one pen,
as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by
more than one witness--with the same object, in both cases, to
present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible
aspect; and to trace the course of one complete series of events,
by making the persons who have been most closely connected with
them, at each successive stage, relate their own experience, word
Let Walter Hartright, teacher of drawing, aged twenty-eight years,
be heard first.
It was the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a
close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were
beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields, and
the autumn breezes on the sea-shore.
For my own poor part, the fading summer left me out of health, out
of spirits, and, if the truth must be told, out of money as well.
During the past year I had not managed my professional resources
as carefully as usual; and my extravagance now limited me to the
prospect of spending the autumn economically between my mother's
cottage at Hampstead and my own chambers in town.
The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was
at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its
faintest; the small pulse of the life within me, and the great
heart of the city around me, seemed to be sinking in unison,
languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun. I roused
myself from the book which I was dreaming over rather than
reading, and left my chambers to meet the cool night air in the
suburbs. It was one of the two evenings in every week which I was
accustomed to spend with my mother and my sister. So I turned my
steps northward in the direction of Hampstead.
Events which I have yet to relate make it necessary to mention in
this place that my father had been dead some years at the period
of which I am now writing; and that my sister Sarah and I were the
sole survivors of a family of five children. My father was a
drawing-master before me. His exertions had made him highly
successful in his profession; and his affectionate anxiety to
provide for the future of those who were dependent on his labours
had impelled him, from the time of his marriage, to devote to the
insuring of his life a much larger portion of his income than most
men consider it necessary to set aside for that purpose. Thanks
to his admirable prudence and self-denial my mother and sister
were left, after his death, as independent of the world as they
had been during his lifetime. I succeeded to his connection, and
had every reason to feel grateful for the prospect that awaited me
at my starting in life.
The quiet twilight was still trembling on the topmost ridges of
the heath; and the view of London below me had sunk into a black
gulf in the shadow of the cloudy night, when I stood before the
gate of my mother's cottage. I had hardly rung the bell before
the house door was opened violently; my worthy Italian friend,
Professor Pesca, appeared in the servant's place; and darted out
joyously to receive me, with a shrill foreign parody on an English
On his own account, and, I must be allowed to add, on mine also,
the Professor merits the honour of a formal introduction.
Accident has made him the starting-point of the strange family
story which it is the purpose of these pages to unfold.
I had first become acquainted with my Italian friend by meeting
him at certain great houses where he taught his own language and I
taught drawing. All I then knew of the history of his life was,
that he had once held a situation in the University of Padua; that
he had left Italy for political reasons (the nature of which he
uniformly declined to mention to any one); and that he had been
for many years respectably established in London as a teacher of
Without being actually a dwarf--for he was perfectly well
proportioned from head to foot--Pesca was, I think, the smallest
human being I ever saw out of a show-room. Remarkable anywhere,
by his personal appearance, he was still further distinguished
among the rank and file of mankind by the harmless eccentricity of
his character. The ruling idea of his life appeared to be, that
he was bound to show his gratitude to the country which had
afforded him an asylum and a means of subsistence by doing his
utmost to turn himself into an Englishman. Not content with
paying the nation in general the compliment of invariably carrying
an umbrella, and invariably wearing gaiters and a white hat, the
Professor further aspired to become an Englishman in his habits
and amusements, as well as in his personal appearance. Finding us
distinguished, as a nation, by our love of athletic exercises, the
little man, in the innocence of his heart, devoted himself
impromptu to all our English sports and pastimes whenever he had
the opportunity of joining them; firmly persuaded that he could
adopt our national amusements of the field by an effort of will
precisely as he had adopted our national gaiters and our national
I had seen him risk his limbs blindly at a fox-hunt and in a
cricket-field; and soon afterwards I saw him risk his life, just
as blindly, in the sea at Brighton.
We had met there accidentally, and were bathing together. If we
had been engaged in any exercise peculiar to my own nation I
should, of course, have looked after Pesca carefully; but as
foreigners are generally quite as well able to take care of
themselves in the water as Englishmen, it never occurred to me
that the art of swimming might merely add one more to the list of
manly exercises which the Professor believed that he could learn
impromptu. Soon after we had both struck out from shore, I
stopped, finding my friend did not gain on me, and turned round to
look for him. To my horror and amazement, I saw nothing between
me and the beach but two little white arms which struggled for an
instant above the surface of the water, and then disappeared from
view. When I dived for him, the poor little man was lying quietly
coiled up at the bottom, in a hollow of shingle, looking by many
degrees smaller than I had ever seen him look before. During the
few minutes that elapsed while I was taking him in, the air
revived him, and he ascended the steps of the machine with my
assistance. With the partial recovery of his animation came the
return of his wonderful delusion on the subject of swimming. As
soon as his chattering teeth would let him speak, he smiled
vacantly, and said he thought it must have been the Cramp.
When he had thoroughly recovered himself, and had joined me on the
beach, his warm Southern nature broke through all artificial
English restraints in a moment. He overwhelmed me with the
wildest expressions of affection--exclaimed passionately, in his
exaggerated Italian way, that he would hold his life henceforth at
my disposal--and declared that he should never be happy again
until he had found an opportunity of proving his gratitude by
rendering me some service which I might remember, on my side, to
the end of my days.
I did my best to stop the torrent of his tears and protestations
by persisting in treating the whole adventure as a good subject
for a joke; and succeeded at last, as I imagined, in lessening
Pesca's overwhelming sense of obligation to me. Little did I
think then--little did I think afterwards when our pleasant
holiday had drawn to an end--that the opportunity of serving me
for which my grateful companion so ardently longed was soon to
come; that he was eagerly to seize it on the instant; and that by
so doing he was to turn the whole current of my existence into a
new channel, and to alter me to myself almost past recognition.
Yet so it was. If I had not dived for Professor Pesca when he lay
under water on his shingle bed, I should in all human probability
never have been connected with the story which these pages will
relate--I should never, perhaps, have heard even the name of the
woman who has lived in all my thoughts, who has possessed herself
of all my energies, who has become the one guiding influence that
now directs the purpose of my life.
Pesca's face and manner, on the evening when we confronted each
other at my mother's gate, were more than sufficient to inform me
that something extraordinary had happened. It was quite useless,
however, to ask him for an immediate explanation. I could only
conjecture, while he was dragging me in by both hands, that
(knowing my habits) he had come to the cottage to make sure of
meeting me that night, and that he had some news to tell of an
unusually agreeable kind.
We both bounced into the parlour in a highly abrupt and
undignified manner. My mother sat by the open window laughing and
fanning herself. Pesca was one of her especial favourites and his
wildest eccentricities were always pardonable in her eyes. Poor
dear soul! from the first moment when she found out that the
little Professor was deeply and gratefully attached to her son,
she opened her heart to him unreservedly, and took all his
puzzling foreign peculiarities for granted, without so much as
attempting to understand any one of them.
My sister Sarah, with all the advantages of youth, was, strangely
enough, less pliable. She did full justice to Pesca's excellent
qualities of heart; but she could not accept him implicitly, as my
mother accepted him, for my sake. Her insular notions of
propriety rose in perpetual revolt against Pesca's constitutional
contempt for appearances; and she was always more or less
undisguisedly astonished at her mother's familiarity with the
eccentric little foreigner. I have observed, not only in my
sister's case, but in the instances of others, that we of the
young generation are nothing like so hearty and so impulsive as
some of our elders. I constantly see old people flushed and
excited by the prospect of some anticipated pleasure which
altogether fails to ruffle the tranquillity of their serene
grandchildren. Are we, I wonder, quite such genuine boys and
girls now as our seniors were in their time? Has the great advance
in education taken rather too long a stride; and are we in these
modern days, just the least trifle in the world too well brought
Without attempting to answer those questions decisively, I may at
least record that I never saw my mother and my sister together in
Pesca's society, without finding my mother much the younger woman
of the two. On this occasion, for example, while the old lady was
laughing heartily over the boyish manner in which we tumbled into
the parlour, Sarah was perturbedly picking up the broken pieces of
a teacup, which the Professor had knocked off the table in his
precipitate advance to meet me at the door.
"I don't know what would have happened, Walter," said my mother,
"if you had delayed much longer. Pesca has been half mad with
impatience, and I have been half mad with curiosity. The
Professor has brought some wonderful news with him, in which he
says you are concerned; and he has cruelly refused to give us the
smallest hint of it till his friend Walter appeared."
"Very provoking: it spoils the Set," murmured Sarah to herself,
mournfully absorbed over the ruins of the broken cup.
While these words were being spoken, Pesca, happily and fussily
unconscious of the irreparable wrong which the crockery had
suffered at his hands, was dragging a large arm-chair to the
opposite end of the room, so as to command us all three, in the
character of a public speaker addressing an audience. Having
turned the chair with its back towards us, he jumped into it on
his knees, and excitedly addressed his small congregation of three
from an impromptu pulpit.
"Now, my good dears," began Pesca (who always said "good dears"
when he meant "worthy friends"), "listen to me. The time has
come--I recite my good news--I speak at last."
"Hear, hear!" said my mother, humouring the joke.
"The next thing he will break, mamma," whispered Sarah, "will be
the back of the best arm-chair."
"I go back into my life, and I address myself to the noblest of
created beings," continued Pesca, vehemently apostrophising my
unworthy self over the top rail of the chair. "Who found me dead
at the bottom of the sea (through Cramp); and who pulled me up to
the top; and what did I say when I got into my own life and my own
"Much more than was at all necessary," I answered as doggedly as
possible; for the least encouragement in connection with this
subject invariably let loose the Professor's emotions in a flood
"I said," persisted Pesca, "that my life belonged to my dear
friend, Walter, for the rest of my days--and so it does. I said
that I should never be happy again till I had found the
opportunity of doing a good Something for Walter--and I have never
been contented with myself till this most blessed day. Now,"
cried the enthusiastic little man at the top of his voice, "the
overflowing happiness bursts out of me at every pore of my skin,
like a perspiration; for on my faith, and soul, and honour, the
something is done at last, and the only word to say now is--Right-
It may be necessary to explain here that Pesca prided himself on
being a perfect Englishman in his language, as well as in his
dress, manners, and amusements. Having picked up a few of our
most familiar colloquial expressions, he scattered them about over
his conversation whenever they happened to occur to him, turning
them, in his high relish for their sound and his general ignorance
of their sense, into compound words and repetitions of his own,
and always running them into each other, as if they consisted of
one long syllable.
"Among the fine London Houses where I teach the language of my
native country," said the Professor, rushing into his long-
deferred explanation without another word of preface, "there is
one, mighty fine, in the big place called Portland. You all know
where that is? Yes, yes--course-of-course. The fine house, my
good dears, has got inside it a fine family. A Mamma, fair and
fat; three young Misses, fair and fat; two young Misters, fair and
fat; and a Papa, the fairest and the fattest of all, who is a
mighty merchant, up to his eyes in gold--a fine man once, but
seeing that he has got a naked head and two chins, fine no longer
at the present time. Now mind! I teach the sublime Dante to the
young Misses, and ah!--my-soul-bless-my-soul!--it is not in human
language to say how the sublime Dante puzzles the pretty heads of
all three! No matter--all in good time--and the more lessons the
better for me. Now mind! Imagine to yourselves that I am teaching
the young Misses to-day, as usual. We are all four of us down
together in the Hell of Dante. At the Seventh Circle--but no
matter for that: all the Circles are alike to the three young
Misses, fair and fat,--at the Seventh Circle, nevertheless, my
pupils are sticking fast; and I, to set them going again, recite,
explain, and blow myself up red-hot with useless enthusiasm, when--
a creak of boots in the passage outside, and in comes the golden
Papa, the mighty merchant with the naked head and the two chins.--
Ha! my good dears, I am closer than you think for to the business,
now. Have you been patient so far? or have you said to yourselves,
'Deuce-what-the-deuce! Pesca is long-winded to-night?'"
We declared that we were deeply interested. The Professor went
"In his hand, the golden Papa has a letter; and after he has made
his excuse for disturbing us in our Infernal Region with the
common mortal Business of the house, he addresses himself to the
three young Misses, and begins, as you English begin everything in
this blessed world that you have to say, with a great O. 'O, my
dears,' says the mighty merchant, 'I have got here a letter from
my friend, Mr.----'(the name has slipped out of my mind; but no
matter; we shall come back to that; yes, yes--right-all-right).
So the Papa says, 'I have got a letter from my friend, the Mister;
and he wants a recommend from me, of a drawing-master, to go down
to his house in the country.' My-soul-bless-my-soul! when I heard
the golden Papa say those words, if I had been big enough to reach
up to him, I should have put my arms round his neck, and pressed
him to my bosom in a long and grateful hug! As it was, I only
bounced upon my chair. My seat was on thorns, and my soul was on
fire to speak but I held my tongue, and let Papa go on. 'Perhaps
you know,' says this good man of money, twiddling his friend's
letter this way and that, in his golden fingers and thumbs,
'perhaps you know, my dears, of a drawing-master that I can
recommend?' The three young Misses all look at each other, and
then say (with the indispensable great O to begin) "O, dear no,
Papa! But here is Mr. Pesca' At the mention of myself I can hold
no longer--the thought of you, my good dears, mounts like blood to
my head--I start from my seat, as if a spike had grown up from the
ground through the bottom of my chair--I address myself to the
mighty merchant, and I say (English phrase) 'Dear sir, I have the
man! The first and foremost drawing-master of the world! Recommend
him by the post to-night, and send him off, bag and baggage
(English phrase again--ha!), send him off, bag and baggage, by the
train to-morrow!' 'Stop, stop,' says Papa; 'is he a foreigner, or
an Englishman?' 'English to the bone of his back,' I answer.
'Respectable?' says Papa. 'Sir,' I say (for this last question of
his outrages me, and I have done being familiar with him--'Sir!
the immortal fire of genius burns in this Englishman's bosom, and,
what is more, his father had it before him!' 'Never mind,' says
the golden barbarian of a Papa, 'never mind about his genius, Mr.
Pesca. We don't want genius in this country, unless it is
accompanied by respectability--and then we are very glad to have
it, very glad indeed. Can your friend produce testimonials--
letters that speak to his character?' I wave my hand negligently.
'Letters?' I say. 'Ha! my-soul-bless-my-soul! I should think so,
indeed! Volumes of letters and portfolios of testimonials, if you
like!' 'One or two will do,' says this man of phlegm and money.
'Let him send them to me, with his name and address. And--stop,
stop, Mr. Pesca--before you go to your friend, you had better take
a note.' 'Bank-note!' I say, indignantly. 'No bank-note, if you
please, till my brave Englishman has earned it first.' 'Bank-
note!' says Papa, in a great surprise, 'who talked of bank-note? I
mean a note of the terms--a memorandum of what he is expected to
do. Go on with your lesson, Mr. Pesca, and I will give you the
necessary extract from my friend's letter.' Down sits the man of
merchandise and money to his pen, ink, and paper; and down I go
once again into the Hell of Dante, with my three young Misses
after me. In ten minutes' time the note is written, and the boots
of Papa are creaking themselves away in the passage outside. From
that moment, on my faith, and soul, and honour, I know nothing
more! The glorious thought that I have caught my opportunity at
last, and that my grateful service for my dearest friend in the
world is as good as done already, flies up into my head and makes
me drunk. How I pull my young Misses and myself out of our
Infernal Region again, how my other business is done afterwards,
how my little bit of dinner slides itself down my throat, I know
no more than a man in the moon. Enough for me, that here I am,
with the mighty merchant's note in my hand, as large as life, as
hot as fire, and as happy as a king! Ha! ha! ha! right-right-
right-all-right!" Here the Professor waved the memorandum of terms
over his head, and ended his long and voluble narrative with his
shrill Italian parody on an English cheer.
My mother rose the moment he had done, with flushed cheeks and
brightened eyes. She caught the little man warmly by both hands.
"My dear, good Pesca," she said, "I never doubted your true
affection for Walter--but I am more than ever persuaded of it
"I am sure we are very much obliged to Professor Pesca, for
Walter's sake," added Sarah. She half rose, while she spoke, as
if to approach the armchair, in her turn; but, observing that
Pesca was rapturously kissing my, mother's hands, looked serious,
and resumed her seat. "If the familiar little man treats my
mother in that way, how will he treat ME?" Faces sometimes tell
truth; and that was unquestionably the thought in Sarah's mind, as
she sat down again.
Although I myself was gratefully sensible of the kindness of
Pesca's motives, my spirits were hardly so much elevated as they
ought to have been by the prospect of future employment now placed
before me. When the Professor had quite done with my mother's
hand, and when I had warmly thanked him for his interference on my
behalf, I asked to be allowed to look at the note of terms which
his respectable patron had drawn up for my inspection.
Pesca handed me the paper, with a triumphant flourish of the hand.
"Read!" said the little man majestically. "I promise you my
friend, the writing of the golden Papa speaks with a tongue of
trumpets for itself."
The note of terms was plain, straightforward, and comprehensive,
at any rate. It informed me,
First, That Frederick Fairlie, Esquire, of Limmeridge House.
Cumberland, wanted to engage the services of a thoroughly
competent drawing-master, for a period of four months certain.
Secondly, That the duties which the master was expected to perform
would be of a twofold kind. He was to superintend the instruction
of two young ladies in the art of painting in water-colours; and
he was to devote his leisure time, afterwards, to the business of
repairing and mounting a valuable collection of drawings, which
had been suffered to fall into a condition of total neglect.
Thirdly, That the terms offered to the person who should undertake
and properly perform these duties were four guineas a week; that
he was to reside at Limmeridge House; and that he was to be
treated there on the footing of a gentleman.
Fourthly, and lastly, That no person need think of applying for
this situation unless he could furnish the most unexceptionable
references to character and abilities. The references were to be
sent to Mr. Fairlie's friend in London, who was empowered to
conclude all necessary arrangements. These instructions were
followed by the name and address of Pesca's employer in Portland
Place--and there the note, or memorandum, ended.
The prospect which this offer of an engagement held out was
certainly an attractive one. The employment was likely to be both
easy and agreeable; it was proposed to me at the autumn time of
the year when I was least occupied; and the terms, judging by my
personal experience in my profession, were surprisingly liberal.
I knew this; I knew that I ought to consider myself very fortunate
if I succeeded in securing the offered employment--and yet, no
sooner had I read the memorandum than I felt an inexplicable
unwillingness within me to stir in the matter. I had never in the
whole of my previous experience found my duty and my inclination
so painfully and so unaccountably at variance as I found them now.
"Oh, Walter, your father never had such a chance as this!" said my
mother, when she had read the note of terms and had handed it back
"Such distinguished people to know," remarked Sarah, straightening
herself in the chair; "and on such gratifying terms of equality
"Yes, yes; the terms, in every sense, are tempting enough," I
replied impatiently. "But before I send in my testimonials, I
should like a little time to consider----"
"Consider!" exclaimed my mother. "Why, Walter, what is the matter
"Consider!" echoed my sister. "What a very extraordinary thing to
say, under the circumstances!"
"Consider!" chimed in the Professor. "What is there to consider
about? Answer me this! Have you not been complaining of your
health, and have you not been longing for what you call a smack of
the country breeze? Well! there in your hand is the paper that
offers you perpetual choking mouthfuls of country breeze for four
months' time. Is it not so? Ha! Again--you want money. Well! Is
four golden guineas a week nothing? My-soul-bless-my-soul! only
give it to me--and my boots shall creak like the golden Papa's,
with a sense of the overpowering richness of the man who walks in
them! Four guineas a week, and, more than that, the charming
society of two young misses! and, more than that, your bed, your
breakfast, your dinner, your gorging English teas and lunches and
drinks of foaming beer, all for nothing--why, Walter, my dear good
friend--deuce-what-the-deuce!--for the first time in my life I
have not eyes enough in my head to look, and wonder at you!"
Neither my mother's evident astonishment at my behaviour, nor
Pesca's fervid enumeration of the advantages offered to me by the
new employment, had any effect in shaking my unreasonable
disinclination to go to Limmeridge House. After starting all the
petty objections that I could think of to going to Cumberland, and
after hearing them answered, one after another, to my own complete
discomfiture, I tried to set up a last obstacle by asking what was
to become of my pupils in London while I was teaching Mr.
Fairlie's young ladies to sketch from nature. The obvious answer
to this was, that the greater part of them would be away on their
autumn travels, and that the few who remained at home might be
confided to the care of one of my brother drawing-masters, whose
pupils I had once taken off his hands under similar circumstances.
My sister reminded me that this gentleman had expressly placed his
services at my disposal, during the present season, in case I
wished to leave town; my mother seriously appealed to me not to
let an idle caprice stand in the way of my own interests and my
own health; and Pesca piteously entreated that I would not wound
him to the heart by rejecting the first grateful offer of service
that he had been able to make to the friend who had saved his
The evident sincerity and affection which inspired these
remonstrances would have influenced any man with an atom of good
feeling in his composition. Though I could not conquer my own
unaccountable perversity, I had at least virtue enough to be
heartily ashamed of it, and to end the discussion pleasantly by
giving way, and promising to do all that was wanted of me.
The rest of the evening passed merrily enough in humorous
anticipations of my coming life with the two young ladies in
Cumberland. Pesca, inspired by our national grog, which appeared
to get into his head, in the most marvellous manner, five minutes
after it had gone down his throat, asserted his claims to be
considered a complete Englishman by making a series of speeches in
rapid succession, proposing my mother's health, my sister's
health, my health, and the healths, in mass, of Mr. Fairlie and
the two young Misses, pathetically returning thanks himself,
immediately afterwards, for the whole party. "A secret, Walter,"
said my little friend confidentially, as we walked home together.
"I am flushed by the recollection of my own eloquence. My soul
bursts itself with ambition. One of these days I go into your
noble Parliament. It is the dream of my whole life to be
Honourable Pesca, M.P.!"
The next morning I sent my testimonials to the Professor's
employer in Portland Place. Three days passed, and I concluded,
with secret satisfaction, that my papers had not been found
sufficiently explicit. On the fourth day, however, an answer
came. It announced that Mr. Fairlie accepted my services, and
requested me to start for Cumberland immediately. All the
necessary instructions for my journey were carefully and clearly
added in a postscript.
I made my arrangements, unwillingly enough, for leaving London
early the next day. Towards evening Pesca looked in, on his way
to a dinner-party, to bid me good-bye.
"I shall dry my tears in your absence," said the Professor gaily,
"with this glorious thought. It is my auspicious hand that has
given the first push to your fortune in the world. Go, my friend!
When your sun shines in Cumberland (English proverb), in the name
of heaven make your hay. Marry one of the two young Misses;
become Honourable Hartright, M.P.; and when you are on the top of
the ladder remember that Pesca, at the bottom, has done it all!"
I tried to laugh with my little friend over his parting jest, but
my spirits were not to be commanded. Something jarred in me
almost painfully while he was speaking his light farewell words.
When I was left alone again nothing remained to be done but to
walk to the Hampstead cottage and bid my mother and Sarah good-
The heat had been painfully oppressive all day, and it was now a
close and sultry night.
My mother and sister had spoken so many last words, and had begged
me to wait another five minutes so many times, that it was nearly
midnight when the servant locked the garden-gate behind me. I
walked forward a few paces on the shortest way back to London,
then stopped and hesitated.
The moon was full and broad in the dark blue starless sky, and the
broken ground of the heath looked wild enough in the mysterious
light to be hundreds of miles away from the great city that lay
beneath it. The idea of descending any sooner than I could help
into the heat and gloom of London repelled me. The prospect of
going to bed in my airless chambers, and the prospect of gradual
suffocation, seemed, in my present restless frame of mind and
body, to be one and the same thing. I determined to stroll home
in the purer air by the most roundabout way I could take; to
follow the white winding paths across the lonely heath; and to
approach London through its most open suburb by striking into the
Finchley Road, and so getting back, in the cool of the new
morning, by the western side of the Regent's Park.
I wound my way down slowly over the heath, enjoying the divine
stillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of
light and shade as they followed each other over the broken ground
on every side of me. So long as I was proceeding through this
first and prettiest part of my night walk my mind remained
passively open to the impressions produced by the view; and I
thought but little on any subject--indeed, so far as my own
sensations were concerned, I can hardly say that I thought at all.
But when I had left the heath and had turned into the by-road,
where there was less to see, the ideas naturally engendered by the
approaching change in my habits and occupations gradually drew
more and more of my attention exclusively to themselves. By the
time I had arrived at the end of the road I had become completely
absorbed in my own fanciful visions of Limmeridge House, of Mr.
Fairlie, and of the two ladies whose practice in the art of water-
colour painting I was so soon to superintend.
I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four
roads met--the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the
road to Finchley, the road to West End, and the road back to
London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and
was strolling along the lonely high-road--idly wondering, I
remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like--when,
in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a
stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my
shoulder from behind me.
I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the
handle of my stick.
There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road--there, as if
it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the
heaven--stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to
foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine,
her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.
I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this
extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and
in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman
"Is that the road to London?" she said.
I looked attentively at her, as she put that singular question to
me. It was then nearly one o'clock. All I could discern
distinctly by the moonlight was a colourless, youthful face,
meagre and sharp to look at about the cheeks and chin; large,
grave, wistfully attentive eyes; nervous, uncertain lips; and
light hair of a pale, brownish-yellow hue. There was nothing
wild, nothing immodest in her manner: it was quiet and self-
controlled, a little melancholy and a little touched by suspicion;
not exactly the manner of a lady, and, at the same time, not the
manner of a woman in the humblest rank of life. The voice, little
as I had yet heard of it, had something curiously still and
mechanical in its tones, and the utterance was remarkably rapid.
She held a small bag in her hand: and her dress--bonnet, shawl,
and gown all of white--was, so far as I could guess, certainly not
composed of very delicate or very expensive materials. Her figure
was slight, and rather above the average height--her gait and
actions free from the slightest approach to extravagance. This
was all that I could observe of her in the dim light and under the
perplexingly strange circumstances of our meeting. What sort of a
woman she was, and how she came to be out alone in the high-road,
an hour after midnight, I altogether failed to guess. The one
thing of which I felt certain was, that the grossest of mankind
could not have misconstrued her motive in speaking, even at that
suspiciously late hour and in that suspiciously lonely place.
"Did you hear me?" she said, still quietly and rapidly, and
without the least fretfulness or impatience. "I asked if that was
the way to London."
"Yes," I replied, "that is the way: it leads to St. John's Wood
and the Regent's Park. You must excuse my not answering you
before. I was rather startled by your sudden appearance in the
road; and I am, even now, quite unable to account for it."
"You don't suspect me of doing anything wrong, do you? have done
nothing wrong. I have met with an accident--I am very unfortunate
in being here alone so late. Why do you suspect me of doing
She spoke with unnecessary earnestness and agitation, and shrank
back from me several paces. I did my best to reassure her.
"Pray don't suppose that I have any idea of suspecting you," I
said, "or any other wish than to be of assistance to you, if I
can. I only wondered at your appearance in the road, because it
seemed to me to be empty the instant before I saw you."
She turned, and pointed back to a place at the junction of the
road to London and the road to Hampstead, where there was a gap in
"I heard you coming," she said, "and hid there to see what sort of
man you were, before I risked speaking. I doubted and feared
about it till you passed; and then I was obliged to steal after
you, and touch you."
Steal after me and touch me? Why not call to me? Strange, to say
the least of it.
"May I trust you?" she asked. "You don't think the worse of me
because I have met with an accident?" She stopped in confusion;
shifted her bag from one hand to the other; and sighed bitterly.
The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The
natural impulse to assist her and to spare her got the better of
the judgment, the caution, the worldly tact, which an older,
wiser, and colder man might have summoned to help him in this
"You may trust me for any harmless purpose," I said. "If it
troubles you to explain your strange situation to me, don't think
of returning to the subject again. I have no right to ask you for
any explanations. Tell me how I can help you; and if I can, I
"You are very kind, and I am very, very thankful to have met you."
The first touch of womanly tenderness that I had heard from her
trembled in her voice as she said the words; but no tears
glistened in those large, wistfully attentive eyes of hers, which
were still fixed on me. "I have only been in London once before,"
she went on, more and more rapidly, "and I know nothing about that
side of it, yonder. Can I get a fly, or a carriage of any kind?
Is it too late? I don't know. If you could show me where to get a
fly--and if you will only promise not to interfere with me, and to
let me leave you, when and how I please--I have a friend in London
who will be glad to receive me--I want nothing else--will you
She looked anxiously up and down the road; shifted her bag again
from one hand to the other; repeated the words, "Will you
promise?" and looked hard in my face, with a pleading fear and
confusion that it troubled me to see.
What could I do? Here was a stranger utterly and helplessly at my
mercy--and that stranger a forlorn woman. No house was near; no
one was passing whom I could consult; and no earthly right existed
on my part to give me a power of control over her, even if I had
known how to exercise it. I trace these lines, self-
distrustfully, with the shadows of after-events darkening the very
paper I write on; and still I say, what could I do?
What I did do, was to try and gain time by questioning her. "Are
you sure that your friend in London will receive you at such a
late hour as this?" I said.
"Quite sure. Only say you will let me leave you when and how I
please--only say you won't interfere with me. Will you promise?"
As she repeated the words for the third time, she came close to me
and laid her hand, with a sudden gentle stealthiness, on my bosom--
a thin hand; a cold hand (when I removed it with mine) even on
that sultry night. Remember that I was young; remember that the
hand which touched me was a woman's.
"Will you promise?"
One word! The little familiar word that is on everybody's lips,
every hour in the day. Oh me! and I tremble, now, when I write
We set our faces towards London, and walked on together in the
first still hour of the new day--I, and this woman, whose name,
whose character, whose story, whose objects in life, whose very
presence by my side, at that moment, were fathomless mysteries to
me. It was like a dream. Was I Walter Hartright? Was this the
well-known, uneventful road, where holiday people strolled on
Sundays? Had I really left, little more than an hour since, the
quiet, decent, conventionally domestic atmosphere of my mother's
cottage? I was too bewildered--too conscious also of a vague sense
of something like self-reproach--to speak to my strange companion
for some minutes. It was her voice again that first broke the
silence between us.
"I want to ask you something," she said suddenly. "Do you know
many people in London?"
"Yes, a great many."
"Many men of rank and title?" There was an unmistakable tone of
suspicion in the strange question. I hesitated about answering
"Some," I said, after a moment's silence.
"Many"--she came to a full stop, and looked me searchingly in the
face--"many men of the rank of Baronet?"
Too much astonished to reply, I questioned her in my turn.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I hope, for my own sake, there is one Baronet that you
"Will you tell me his name?"
"I can't--I daren't--I forget myself when I mention it." She spoke
loudly and almost fiercely, raised her clenched hand in the air,
and shook it passionately; then, on a sudden, controlled herself
again, and added, in tones lowered to a whisper "Tell me which of
them YOU know."
I could hardly refuse to humour her in such a trifle, and I
mentioned three names. Two, the names of fathers of families
whose daughters I taught; one, the name of a bachelor who had once
taken me a cruise in his yacht, to make sketches for him.
"Ah! you DON'T know him," she said, with a sigh of relief. "Are
you a man of rank and title yourself?"
"Far from it. I am only a drawing-master."
As the reply passed my lips--a little bitterly, perhaps--she took
my arm with the abruptness which characterised all her actions.
"Not a man of rank and title," she repeated to herself. "Thank
God! I may trust HIM."
I had hitherto contrived to master my curiosity out of
consideration for my companion; but it got the better of me now.
"I am afraid you have serious reason to complain of some man of
rank and title?" I said. "I am afraid the baronet, whose name you
are unwilling to mention to me, has done you some grievous wrong?
Is he the cause of your being out here at this strange time of
"Don't ask me: don't make me talk of it," she answered. "I'm not
fit now. I have been cruelly used and cruelly wronged. You will
be kinder than ever, if you will walk on fast, and not speak to
me. I sadly want to quiet myself, if I can."
We moved forward again at a quick pace; and for half an hour, at
least, not a word passed on either side. From time to time, being
forbidden to make any more inquiries, I stole a look at her face.
It was always the same; the lips close shut, the brow frowning,
the eyes looking straight forward, eagerly and yet absently. We
had reached the first houses, and were close on the new Wesleyan
college, before her set features relaxed and she spoke once more.
"Do you live in London?" she said.
"Yes." As I answered, it struck me that she might have formed some
intention of appealing to me for assistance or advice, and that I
ought to spare her a possible disappointment by warning her of my
approaching absence from home. So I added, "But to-morrow I shall
be away from London for some time. I am going into the country."
"Where?" she asked. "North or south?"
"Cumberland!" she repeated the word tenderly. "Ah! wish I was
going there too. I was once happy in Cumberland."
I tried again to lift the veil that hung between this woman and
"Perhaps you were born," I said, "in the beautiful Lake country."
"No," she answered. "I was born in Hampshire; but I once went to
school for a little while in Cumberland. Lakes? I don't remember
any lakes. It's Limmeridge village, and Limmeridge House, I
should like to see again."
It was my turn now to stop suddenly. In the excited state of my
curiosity, at that moment, the chance reference to Mr. Fairlie's
place of residence, on the lips of my strange companion, staggered
me with astonishment.
"Did you hear anybody calling after us?" she asked, looking up and
down the road affrightedly, the instant I stopped.
"No, no. I was only struck by the name of Limmeridge House. I
heard it mentioned by some Cumberland people a few days since."
"Ah! not my people. Mrs. Fairlie is dead; and her husband is
dead; and their little girl may be married and gone away by this
time. I can't say who lives at Limmeridge now. If any more are
left there of that name, I only know I love them for Mrs.
She seemed about to say more; but while she was speaking, we came
within view of the turnpike, at the top of the Avenue Road. Her
hand tightened round my arm, and she looked anxiously at the gate
"Is the turnpike man looking out?" she asked.
He was not looking out; no one else was near the place when we
passed through the gate. The sight of the gas-lamps and houses
seemed to agitate her, and to make her impatient.
"This is London," she said. "Do you see any carriage I can get? I
am tired and frightened. I want to shut myself in and be driven
I explained to her that we must walk a little further to get to a
cab-stand, unless we were fortunate enough to meet with an empty
vehicle; and then tried to resume the subject of Cumberland. It
was useless. That idea of shutting herself in, and being driven
away, had now got full possession of her mind. She could think
and talk of nothing else.
We had hardly proceeded a third of the way down the Avenue Road
when I saw a cab draw up at a house a few doors below us, on the
opposite side of the way. A gentleman got out and let himself in
at the garden door. I hailed the cab, as the driver mounted the
box again. When we crossed the road, my companion's impatience
increased to such an extent that she almost forced me to run.
"It's so late," she said. "I am only in a hurry because it's so
"I can't take you, sir, if you're not going towards Tottenham
Court Road," said the driver civilly, when I opened the cab door.
"My horse is dead beat, and I can't get him no further than the
"Yes, yes. That will do for me. I'm going that way--I'm going
that way." She spoke with breathless eagerness, and pressed by me
into the cab.
I had assured myself that the man was sober as well as civil
before I let her enter the vehicle. And now, when she was seated
inside, I entreated her to let me see her set down safely at her
"No, no, no," she said vehemently. "I'm quite safe, and quite
happy now. If you are a gentleman, remember your promise. Let
him drive on till I stop him. Thank you--oh! thank you, thank
My hand was on the cab door. She caught it in hers, kissed it,
and pushed it away. The cab drove off at the same moment--I
started into the road, with some vague idea of stopping it again,
I hardly knew why--hesitated from dread of frightening and
distressing her--called, at last, but not loudly enough to attract
the driver's attention. The sound of the wheels grew fainter in
the distance--the cab melted into the black shadows on the road--
the woman in white was gone.
Ten minutes or more had passed. I was still on the same side of
the way; now mechanically walking forward a few paces; now
stopping again absently. At one moment I found myself doubting
the reality of my own adventure; at another I was perplexed and
distressed by an uneasy sense of having done wrong, which yet left
me confusedly ignorant of how I could have done right. I hardly
knew where I was going, or what I meant to do next; I was
conscious of nothing but the confusion of my own thoughts, when I
was abruptly recalled to myself--awakened, I might almost say--by
the sound of rapidly approaching wheels close behind me.
I was on the dark side of the road, in the thick shadow of some
garden trees, when I stopped to look round. On the opposite and
lighter side of the way, a short distance below me, a policeman
was strolling along in the direction of the Regent's Park.
The carriage passed me--an open chaise driven by two men.
"Stop!" cried one. "There's a policeman. Let's ask him."
The horse was instantly pulled up, a few yards beyond the dark
place where I stood.
"Policeman!" cried the first speaker. "Have you seen a woman pass
"What sort of woman, sir?"
"A woman in a lavender-coloured gown----"
"No, no," interposed the second man. "The clothes we gave her
were found on her bed. She must have gone away in the clothes she
wore when she came to us. In white, policeman. A woman in
"I haven't seen her, sir."
"If you or any of your men meet with the woman, stop her, and send
her in careful keeping to that address. I'll pay all expenses,
and a fair reward into the bargain."
The policeman looked at the card that was handed down to him.
"Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?"
"Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in
white. Drive on."
"She has escaped from my Asylum!"
I cannot say with truth that the terrible inference which those
words suggested flashed upon me like a new revelation. Some of
the strange questions put to me by the woman in white, after my
ill-considered promise to leave her free to act as she pleased,
had suggested the conclusion either that she was naturally flighty
and unsettled, or that some recent shock of terror had disturbed
the balance of her faculties. But the idea of absolute insanity
which we all associate with the very name of an Asylum, had, I can
honestly declare, never occurred to me, in connection with her. I
had seen nothing, in her language or her actions, to justify it at
the time; and even with the new light thrown on her by the words
which the stranger had addressed to the policeman, I could see
nothing to justify it now.
What had I done? Assisted the victim of the most horrible of all
false imprisonments to escape; or cast loose on the wide world of
London an unfortunate creature, whose actions it was my duty, and
every man's duty, mercifully to control? I turned sick at heart
when the question occurred to me, and when I felt self-
reproachfully that it was asked too late.
In the disturbed state of my mind, it was useless to think of
going to bed, when I at last got back to my chambers in Clement's
Inn. Before many hours elapsed it would be necessary to start on
my journey to Cumberland. I sat down and tried, first to sketch,
then to read--but the woman in white got between me and my pencil,
between me and my book. Had the forlorn creature come to any
harm? That was my first thought, though I shrank selfishly from
confronting it. Other thoughts followed, on which it was less
harrowing to dwell. Where had she stopped the cab? What had
become of her now? Had she been traced and captured by the men in
the chaise? Or was she still capable of controlling her own
actions; and were we two following our widely parted roads towards
one point in the mysterious future, at which we were to meet once
It was a relief when the hour came to lock my door, to bid
farewell to London pursuits, London pupils, and London friends,
and to be in movement again towards new interests and a new life.
Even the bustle and confusion at the railway terminus, so
wearisome and bewildering at other times, roused me and did me
My travelling instructions directed me to go to Carlisle, and then
to diverge by a branch railway which ran in the direction of the
coast. As a misfortune to begin with, our engine broke down
between Lancaster and Carlisle. The delay occasioned by this
accident caused me to be too late for the branch train, by which I
was to have gone on immediately. I had to wait some hours; and
when a later train finally deposited me at the nearest station to
Limmeridge House, it was past ten, and the night was so dark that
I could hardly see my way to the pony-chaise which Mr. Fairlie had
ordered to be in waiting for me.
The driver was evidently discomposed by the lateness of my
arrival. He was in that state of highly respectful sulkiness
which is peculiar to English servants. We drove away slowly
through the darkness in perfect silence. The roads were bad, and
the dense obscurity of the night increased the difficulty of
getting over the ground quickly. It was, by my watch, nearly an
hour and a half from the time of our leaving the station before I
heard the sound of the sea in the distance, and the crunch of our
wheels on a smooth gravel drive. We had passed one gate before
entering the drive, and we passed another before we drew up at the
house. I was received by a solemn man-servant out of livery, was
informed that the family had retired for the night, and was then
led into a large and lofty room where my supper was awaiting me,
in a forlorn manner, at one extremity of a lonesome mahogany
wilderness of dining-table.
I was too tired and out of spirits to eat or drink much,
especially with the solemn servant waiting on me as elaborately as
if a small dinner party had arrived at the house instead of a
solitary man. In a quarter of an hour I was ready to be taken up
to my bedchamber. The solemn servant conducted me into a prettily
furnished room--said, "Breakfast at nine o'clock, sir"--looked all
round him to see that everything was in its proper place, and
"What shall I see in my dreams to-night?" I thought to myself, as
I put out the candle; "the woman in white? or the unknown
inhabitants of this Cumberland mansion?" It was a strange
sensation to be sleeping in the house, like a friend of the
family, and yet not to know one of the inmates, even by sight!
When I rose the next morning and drew up my blind, the sea opened
before me joyously under the broad August sunlight, and the
distant coast of Scotland fringed the horizon with its lines of
The view was such a surprise, and such a change to me, after my
weary London experience of brick and mortar landscape, that I
seemed to burst into a new life and a new set of thoughts the
moment I looked at it. A confused sensation of having suddenly
lost my familiarity with the past, without acquiring any
additional clearness of idea in reference to the present or the
future, took possession of my mind. Circumstances that were but a
few days old faded back in my memory, as if they had happened
months and months since. Pesca's quaint announcement of the means
by which he had procured me my present employment; the farewell
evening I had passed with my mother and sister; even my mysterious
adventure on the way home from Hampstead--had all become like
events which might have occurred at some former epoch of my
existence. Although the woman in white was still in my mind, the
image of her seemed to have grown dull and faint already.
A little before nine o'clock, I descended to the ground-floor of
the house. The solemn man-servant of the night before met me
wandering among the passages, and compassionately showed me the
way to the breakfast-room.
My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed a
well-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long
room, with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the
window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her
back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was
struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace
of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely
and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders
with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes
of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its
natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by
stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed
myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I
moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means
of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately.
The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon
as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a
flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the
window--and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward
a few steps--and I said to myself, The lady is young. She
approached nearer--and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise
which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!
Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more
flatly contradicted--never was the fair promise of a lovely figure
more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that
crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the
dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a
large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing,
resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually
low down on her forehead. Her expression--bright, frank, and
intelligent--appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether
wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and
pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive
is beauty incomplete. To see such a face as this set on shoulders
that a sculptor would have longed to model--to be charmed by the
modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs
betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost
repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features
in which the perfectly shaped figure ended--was to feel a
sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all
in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and
contradictions of a dream.
"Mr. Hartright?" said the lady interrogatively, her dark face
lighting up with a smile, and softening and growing womanly the
moment she began to speak. "We resigned all hope of you last
night, and went to bed as usual. Accept my apologies for our
apparent want of attention; and allow me to introduce myself as
one of your pupils. Shall we shake hands? I suppose we must come
to it sooner or later--and why not sooner?"
These odd words of welcome were spoken in a clear, ringing,
pleasant voice. The offered hand--rather large, but beautifully
formed--was given to me with the easy, unaffected self-reliance of
a highly-bred woman. We sat down together at the breakfast-table
in as cordial and customary a manner as if we had known each other
for years, and had met at Limmeridge House to talk over old times
by previous appointment.
"I hope you come here good-humouredly determined to make the best
of your position," continued the lady. "You will have to begin
this morning by putting up with no other company at breakfast than
mine. My sister is in her own room, nursing that essentially
feminine malady, a slight headache; and her old governness, Mrs.
Vesey, is charitably attending on her with restorative tea. My
uncle, Mr. Fairlie, never joins us at any of our meals: he is an
invalid, and keeps bachelor state in his own apartments. There is
nobody else in the house but me. Two young ladies have been
staying here, but they went away yesterday, in despair; and no
wonder. All through their visit (in consequence of Mr. Fairlie's
invalid condition) we produced no such convenience in the house as
a flirtable, danceable, small-talkable creature of the male sex;
and the consequence was, we did nothing but quarrel, especially at
dinner-time. How can you expect four women to dine together alone
every day, and not quarrel? We are such fools, we can't entertain
each other at table. You see I don't think much of my own sex,
Mr. Hartright--which will you have, tea or coffee?--no woman does
think much of her own sex, although few of them confess it as
freely as I do. Dear me, you look puzzled. Why? Are you
wondering what you will have for breakfast? or are you surprised
at my careless way of talking? In the first case, I advise you, as
a friend, to have nothing to do with that cold ham at your elbow,
and to wait till the omelette comes in. In the second case, I
will give you some tea to compose your spirits, and do all a woman
can (which is very little, by-the-bye) to hold my tongue."
She handed me my cup of tea, laughing gaily. Her light flow of
talk, and her lively familiarity of manner with a total stranger,
were accompanied by an unaffected naturalness and an easy inborn
confidence in herself and her position, which would have secured
her the respect of the most audacious man breathing. While it was
impossible to be formal and reserved in her company, it was more
than impossible to take the faintest vestige of a liberty with
her, even in thought. I felt this instinctively, even while I
caught the infection of her own bright gaiety of spirits--even
while I did my best to answer her in her own frank, lively way.
"Yes, yes," she said, when I had suggested the only explanation I
could offer, to account for my perplexed looks, "I understand.
You are such a perfect stranger in the house, that you are puzzled
by my familiar references to the worthy inhabitants. Natural
enough: I ought to have thought of it before. At any rate, I can
set it right now. Suppose I begin with myself, so as to get done
with that part of the subject as soon as possible? My name is
Marian Halcombe; and I am as inaccurate as women usually are, in
calling Mr. Fairlie my uncle, and Miss Fairlie my sister. My
mother was twice married: the first time to Mr. Halcombe, my
father; the second time to Mr. Fairlie, my half-sister's father.
Except that we are both orphans, we are in every respect as unlike
each other as possible. My father was a poor man, and Miss
Fairlie's father was a rich man. I have got nothing, and she has
a fortune. I am dark and ugly, and she is fair and pretty.
Everybody thinks me crabbed and odd (with perfect justice); and
everybody thinks her sweet-tempered and charming (with more
justice still). In short, she is an angel; and I am---- Try
some of that marmalade, Mr. Hartright, and finish the sentence, in
the name of female propriety, for yourself. What am I to tell you
about Mr. Fairlie? Upon my honour, I hardly know. He is sure to
send for you after breakfast, and you can study him for yourself.
In the meantime, I may inform you, first, that he is the late Mr.
Fairlie's younger brother; secondly, that he is a single man; and
thirdly, that he is Miss Fairlie's guardian. I won't live without
her, and she can't live without me; and that is how I come to be
at Limmeridge House. My sister and I are honestly fond of each
other; which, you will say, is perfectly unaccountable, under the
circumstances, and I quite agree with you--but so it is. You must
please both of us, Mr. Hartright, or please neither of us: and,
what is still more trying, you will be thrown entirely upon our
society. Mrs. Vesey is an excellent person, who possesses all the
cardinal virtues, and counts for nothing; and Mr. Fairlie is too
great an invalid to be a companion for anybody. I don't know what
is the matter with him, and the doctors don't know what is the
matter with him, and he doesn't know himself what is the matter
with him. We all say it's on the nerves, and we none of us know
what we mean when we say it. However, I advise you to humour his
little peculiarities, when you see him to-day. Admire his
collection of coins, prints, and water-colour drawings, and you
will win his heart. Upon my word, if you can be contented with a
quiet country life, I don't see why you should not get on very
well here. From breakfast to lunch, Mr. Fairlie's drawings will
occupy you. After lunch, Miss Fairlie and I shoulder our sketch-
books, and go out to misrepresent Nature, under your directions.
Drawing is her favourite whim, mind, not mine. Women can't draw--
their minds are too flighty, and their eyes are too inattentive.
No matter--my sister likes it; so I waste paint and spoil paper,
for her sake, as composedly as any woman in England. As for the
evenings, I think we can help you through them. Miss Fairlie
plays delightfully. For my own poor part, I don't know one note
of music from the other; but I can match you at chess, backgammon,
ecarte, and (with the inevitable female drawbacks) even at
billiards as well. What do you think of the programme? Can you
reconcile yourself to our quiet, regular life? or do you mean to
be restless, and secretly thirst for change and adventure, in the
humdrum atmosphere of Limmeridge House?"
She had run on thus far, in her gracefully bantering way, with no
other interruptions on my part than the unimportant replies which
politeness required of me. The turn of the expression, however,
in her last question, or rather the one chance word, "adventure,"
lightly as it fell from her lips, recalled my thoughts to my
meeting with the woman in white, and urged me to discover the
connection which the stranger's own reference to Mrs. Fairlie
informed me must once have existed between the nameless fugitive
from the Asylum, and the former mistress of Limmeridge House.
"Even if I were the most restless of mankind," I said, "I should
be in no danger of thirsting after adventures for some time to
come. The very night before I arrived at this house, I met with
an adventure; and the wonder and excitement of it, I can assure
you, Miss Halcombe, will last me for the whole term of my stay in
Cumberland, if not for a much longer period."
"You don't say so, Mr. Hartright! May I hear it?"
"You have a claim to hear it. The chief person in the adventure
was a total stranger to me, and may perhaps be a total stranger to
you; but she certainly mentioned the name of the late Mrs. Fairlie
in terms of the sincerest gratitude and regard."
"Mentioned my mother's name! You interest me indescribably. Pray
I at once related the circumstances under which I had met the
woman in white, exactly as they had occurred; and I repeated what
she had said to me about Mrs. Fairlie and Limmeridge House, word
Miss Halcombe's bright resolute eyes looked eagerly into mine,
from the beginning of the narrative to the end. Her face
expressed vivid interest and astonishment, but nothing more. She
was evidently as far from knowing of any clue to the mystery as I
"Are you quite sure of those words referring to my mother?" she
"Quite sure," I replied. "Whoever she may be, the woman was once
at school in the village of Limmeridge, was treated with especial
kindness by Mrs. Fairlie, and, in grateful remembrance of that
kindness, feels an affectionate interest in all surviving members
of the family. She knew that Mrs. Fairlie and her husband were
both dead; and she spoke of Miss Fairlie as if they had known each
other when they were children."
"You said, I think, that she denied belonging to this place?"
"Yes, she told me she came from Hampshire."
"And you entirely failed to find out her name?"
"Very strange. I think you were quite justified, Mr. Hartright,
in giving the poor creature her liberty, for she seems to have
done nothing in your presence to show herself unfit to enjoy it.
But I wish you had been a little more resolute about finding out
her name. We must really clear up this mystery, in some way. You
had better not speak of it yet to Mr. Fairlie, or to my sister.
They are both of them, I am certain, quite as ignorant of who the
woman is, and of what her past history in connection with us can
be, as I am myself. But they are also, in widely different ways,
rather nervous and sensitive; and you would only fidget one and
alarm the other to no purpose. As for myself, I am all aflame
with curiosity, and I devote my whole energies to the business of
discovery from this moment. When my mother came here, after her
second marriage, she certainly established the village school just
as it exists at the present time. But the old teachers are all
dead, or gone elsewhere; and no enlightenment is to be hoped for
from that quarter. The only other alternative I can think of----"
At this point we were interrupted by the entrance of the servant,
with a message from Mr. Fairlie, intimating that he would be glad
to see me, as soon as I had done breakfast.
"Wait in the hall," said Miss Halcombe, answering the servant for
me, in her quick, ready way. "Mr. Hartright will come out
directly. I was about to say," she went on, addressing me again,
"that my sister and I have a large collection of my mother's
letters, addressed to my father and to hers. In the absence of
any other means of getting information, I will pass the morning in
looking over my mother's correspondence with Mr. Fairlie. He was
fond of London, and was constantly away from his country home; and
she was accustomed, at such times, to write and report to him how
things went on at Limmeridge. Her letters are full of references
to the school in which she took so strong an interest; and I think
it more than likely that I may have discovered something when we
meet again. The luncheon hour is two, Mr. Hartright. I shall
have the pleasure of introducing you to my sister by that time,
and we will occupy the afternoon in driving round the
neighbourhood and showing you all our pet points of view. Till
two o'clock, then, farewell."
She nodded to me with the lively grace, the delightful refinement
of familiarity, which characterised all that she did and all that
she said; and disappeared by a door at the lower end of the room.
As soon as she had left me, I turned my steps towards the hall,
and followed the servant, on my way, for the first time, to the
presence of Mr. Fairlie.
My conductor led me upstairs into a passage which took us back to
the bedchamber in which I had slept during the past night; and
opening the door next to it, begged me to look in.
"I have my master's orders to show you your own sitting-room,
sir," said the man, "and to inquire if you approve of the
situation and the light."
I must have been hard to please, indeed, if I had not approved of
the room, and of everything about it. The bow-window looked out
on the same lovely view which I had admired, in the morning, from
my bedroom. The furniture was the perfection of luxury and
beauty; the table in the centre was bright with gaily bound books,
elegant conveniences for writing, and beautiful flowers; the
second table, near the window, was covered with all the necessary
materials for mounting water-colour drawings, and had a little
easel attached to it, which I could expand or fold up at will; the
walls were hung with gaily tinted chintz; and the floor was spread
with Indian matting in maize-colour and red. It was the prettiest
and most luxurious little sitting-room I had ever seen; and I
admired it with the warmest enthusiasm.
The solemn servant was far too highly trained to betray the
slightest satisfaction. He bowed with icy deference when my terms
of eulogy were all exhausted, and silently opened the door for me
to go out into the passage again.
We turned a corner, and entered a long second passage, ascended a
short flight of stairs at the end, crossed a small circular upper
hall, and stopped in front of a door covered with dark baize. The
servant opened this door, and led me on a few yards to a second;
opened that also, and disclosed two curtains of pale sea-green
silk hanging before us; raised one of them noiselessly; softly
uttered the words, "Mr. Hartright," and left me.
I found myself in a large, lofty room, with a magnificent carved
ceiling, and with a carpet over the floor, so thick and soft that
it felt like piles of velvet under my feet. One side of the room
was occupied by a long bookcase of some rare inlaid wood that was
quite new to me. It was not more than six feet high, and the top
was adorned with statuettes in marble, ranged at regular distances
one from the other. On the opposite side stood two antique
cabinets; and between them, and above them, hung a picture of the
Virgin and Child, protected by glass, and bearing Raphael's name
on the gilt tablet at the bottom of the frame. On my right hand
and on my left, as I stood inside the door, were chiffoniers and
little stands in buhl and marquetterie, loaded with figures in
Dresden china, with rare vases, ivory ornaments, and toys and
curiosities that sparkled at all points with gold, silver, and
precious stones. At the lower end of the room, opposite to me,
the windows were concealed and the sunlight was tempered by large
blinds of the same pale sea-green colour as the curtains over the
door. The light thus produced was deliciously soft, mysterious,
and subdued; it fell equally upon all the objects in the room; it
helped to intensify the deep silence, and the air of profound
seclusion that possessed the place; and it surrounded, with an
appropriate halo of repose, the solitary figure of the master of
the house, leaning back, listlessly composed, in a large easy-
chair, with a reading-easel fastened on one of its arms, and a
little table on the other.
If a man's personal appearance, when he is out of his dressing-
room, and when he has passed forty, can be accepted as a safe
guide to his time of life--which is more than doubtful--Mr.
Fairlie's age, when I saw him, might have been reasonably computed
at over fifty and under sixty years. His beardless face was thin,
worn, and transparently pale, but not wrinkled; his nose was high
and hooked; his eyes were of a dim greyish blue, large, prominent,
and rather red round the rims of the eyelids; his hair was scanty,
soft to look at, and of that light sandy colour which is the last
to disclose its own changes towards grey. He was dressed in a
dark frock-coat, of some substance much thinner than cloth, and in
waistcoat and trousers of spotless white. His feet were
effeminately small, and were clad in buff-coloured silk stockings,
and little womanish bronze-leather slippers. Two rings adorned
his white delicate hands, the value of which even my inexperienced
observation detected to be all but priceless. Upon the whole, he
had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look--something
singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a
man, and, at the same time, something which could by no
possibility have looked natural and appropriate if it had been
transferred to the personal appearance of a woman. My morning's
experience of Miss Halcombe had predisposed me to be pleased with
everybody in the house; but my sympathies shut themselves up
resolutely at the first sight of Mr. Fairlie.
On approaching nearer to him, I discovered that he was not so
entirely without occupation as I had at first supposed. Placed
amid the other rare and beautiful objects on a large round table
near him, was a dwarf cabinet in ebony and silver, containing
coins of all shapes and sizes, set out in little drawers lined
with dark purple velvet. One of these drawers lay on the small
table attached to his chair; and near it were some tiny jeweller's
brushes, a wash-leather "stump," and a little bottle of liquid,
all waiting to be used in various ways for the removal of any
accidental impurities which might be discovered on the coins. His
frail white fingers were listlessly toying with something which
looked, to my uninstructed eyes, like a dirty pewter medal with
ragged edges, when I advanced within a respectful distance of his
chair, and stopped to make my bow.
"So glad to possess you at Limmeridge, Mr. Hartright," he said in
a querulous, croaking voice, which combined, in anything but an
agreeable manner, a discordantly high tone with a drowsily languid
utterance. "Pray sit down. And don't trouble yourself to move
the chair, please. In the wretched state of my nerves, movement
of any kind is exquisitely painful to me. Have you seen your
studio? Will it do?"
"I have just come from seeing the room, Mr. Fairlie; and I assure
He stopped me in the middle of the sentence, by closing his eyes,
and holding up one of his white hands imploringly. I paused in
astonishment; and the croaking voice honoured me with this
"Pray excuse me. But could you contrive to speak in a lower key?
In the wretched state of my nerves, loud sound of any kind is
indescribable torture to me. You will pardon an invalid? I only
say to you what the lamentable state of my health obliges me to
say to everybody. Yes. And you really like the room?"
"I could wish for nothing prettier and nothing more comfortable,"
I answered, dropping my voice, and beginning to discover already
that Mr. Fairlie's selfish affectation and Mr. Fairlie's wretched
nerves meant one and the same thing.
"So glad. You will find your position here, Mr. Hartright,
properly recognised. There is none of the horrid English
barbarity of feeling about the social position of an artist in
this house. So much of my early life has been passed abroad, that
I have quite cast my insular skin in that respect. I wish I could
say the same of the gentry--detestable word, but I suppose I must
use it--of the gentry in the neighbourhood. They are sad Goths in
Art, Mr. Hartright. People, I do assure you, who would have
opened their eyes in astonishment, if they had seen Charles the
Fifth pick up Titian's brush for him. Do you mind putting this
tray of coins back in the cabinet, and giving me the next one to
it? In the wretched state of my nerves, exertion of any kind is
unspeakably disagreeable to me. Yes. Thank you."
As a practical commentary on the liberal social theory which he
had just favoured me by illustrating, Mr. Fairlie's cool request
rather amused me. I put back one drawer and gave him the other,
with all possible politeness. He began trifling with the new set
of coins and the little brushes immediately; languidly looking at
them and admiring them all the time he was speaking to me.
"A thousand thanks and a thousand excuses. Do you like coins?
Yes. So glad we have another taste in common besides our taste
for Art. Now, about the pecuniary arrangements between us--do
tell me--are they satisfactory?"
"Most satisfactory, Mr. Fairlie."
"So glad. And--what next? Ah! I remember. Yes. In reference to
the consideration which you are good enough to accept for giving
me the benefit of your accomplishments in art, my steward will
wait on you at the end of the first week, to ascertain your
wishes. And--what next? Curious, is it not? I had a great deal
more to say: and I appear to have quite forgotten it. Do you mind
touching the bell? In that corner. Yes. Thank you."
I rang; and a new servant noiselessly made his appearance--a
foreigner, with a set smile and perfectly brushed hair--a valet
every inch of him.
"Louis," said Mr. Fairlie, dreamily dusting the tips of his
fingers with one of the tiny brushes for the coins, "I made some
entries in my tablettes this morning. Find my tablettes. A
thousand pardons, Mr. Hartright, I'm afraid I bore you."
As he wearily closed his eyes again, before I could answer, and as
he did most assuredly bore me, I sat silent, and looked up at the
Madonna and Child by Raphael. In the meantime, the valet left the
room, and returned shortly with a little ivory book. Mr. Fairlie,
after first relieving himself by a gentle sigh, let the book drop
open with one hand, and held up the tiny brush with the other, as
a sign to the servant to wait for further orders.
"Yes. Just so!" said Mr. Fairlie, consulting the tablettes.
"Louis, take down that portfolio." He pointed, as he spoke, to
several portfolios placed near the window, on mahogany stands.
"No. Not the one with the green back--that contains my Rembrandt
etchings, Mr. Hartright. Do you like etchings? Yes? So glad we
have another taste in common. The portfolio with the red back,
Louis. Don't drop it! You have no idea of the tortures I should
suffer, Mr. Hartright, if Louis dropped that portfolio. Is it
safe on the chair? Do YOU think it safe, Mr. Hartright? Yes? So
glad. Will you oblige me by looking at the drawings, if you
really think they are quite safe. Louis, go away. What an ass
you are. Don't you see me holding the tablettes? Do you suppose I
want to hold them? Then why not relieve me of the tablettes
without being told? A thousand pardons, Mr. Hartright; servants
are such asses, are they not? Do tell me--what do you think of the
drawings? They have come from a sale in a shocking state--I
thought they smelt of horrid dealers' and brokers' fingers when I
looked at them last. CAN you undertake them?"
Although my nerves were not delicate enough to detect the odour of
plebeian fingers which had offended Mr. Fairlie's nostrils, my
taste was sufficiently educated to enable me to appreciate the
value of the drawings, while I turned them over. They were, for
the most part, really fine specimens of English water-colour art;
and they had deserved much better treatment at the hands of their
former possessor than they appeared to have received.
"The drawings," I answered, "require careful straining and
mounting; and, in my opinion, they are well worth----"
"I beg your pardon," interposed Mr. Fairlie. "Do you mind my
closing my eyes while you speak? Even this light is too much for
"I was about to say that the drawings are well worth all the time
Mr. Fairlie suddenly opened his eyes again, and rolled them with
an expression of helpless alarm in the direction of the window.
"I entreat you to excuse me, Mr. Hartright," he said in a feeble
flutter. "But surely I hear some horrid children in the garden--
my private garden--below?"
"I can't say, Mr. Fairlie. I heard nothing myself."
"Oblige me--you have been so very good in humouring my poor
nerves--oblige me by lifting up a corner of the blind. Don't let
the sun in on me, Mr. Hartright! Have you got the blind up? Yes?
Then will you be so very kind as to look into the garden and make
I complied with this new request. The garden was carefully walled
in, all round. Not a human creature, large or small, appeared in
any part of the sacred seclusion. I reported that gratifying fact
to Mr. Fairlie.
"A thousand thanks. My fancy, I suppose. There are no children,
thank Heaven, in the house; but the servants (persons born without
nerves) will encourage the children from the village. Such brats--
oh, dear me, such brats! Shall I confess it, Mr. Hartright?--I
sadly want a reform in the construction of children. Nature's
only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of
incessant noise. Surely our delightful Raffaello's conception is
He pointed to the picture of the Madonna, the upper part of which
represented the conventional cherubs of Italian Art, celestially
provided with sitting accommodation for their chins, on balloons
of buff-coloured cloud.
"Quite a model family!" said Mr. Fairlie, leering at the cherubs.
"Such nice round faces, and such nice soft wings, and--nothing
else. No dirty little legs to run about on, and no noisy little
lungs to scream with. How immeasurably superior to the existing
construction! I will close my eyes again, if you will allow me.
And you really can manage the drawings? So glad. Is there
anything else to settle? if there is, I think I have forgotten it.
Shall we ring for Louis again?"
Being, by this time, quite as anxious, on my side, as Mr. Fairlie
evidently was on his, to bring the interview to a speedy
conclusion, I thought I would try to render the summoning of the
servant unnecessary, by offering the requisite suggestion on my
"The only point, Mr. Fairlie, that remains to be discussed," I
said, "refers, I think, to the instruction in sketching which I am
engaged to communicate to the two young ladies."
"Ah! just so," said Mr. Fairlie. "I wish I felt strong enough to
go into that part of the arrangement--but I don't. The ladies who
profit by your kind services, Mr. Hartright, must settle, and
decide, and so on, for themselves. My niece is fond of your
charming art. She knows just enough about it to be conscious of
her own sad defects. Please take pains with her. Yes. Is there
anything else? No. We quite understand each other--don't we? I
have no right to detain you any longer from your delightful
pursuit--have I? So pleasant to have settled everything--such a
sensible relief to have done business. Do you mind ringing for
Louis to carry the portfolio to your own room?"
"I will carry it there myself, Mr. Fairlie, if you will allow me."
"Will you really? Are you strong enough? How nice to be so strong!
Are you sure you won't drop it? So glad to possess you at
Limmeridge, Mr. Hartright. I am such a sufferer that I hardly
dare hope to enjoy much of your society. Would you mind taking
great pains not to let the doors bang, and not to drop the
portfolio? Thank you. Gently with the curtains, please--the
slightest noise from them goes through me like a knife. Yes. GOOD
When the sea-green curtains were closed, and when the two baize
doors were shut behind me, I stopped for a moment in the little
circular hall beyond, and drew a long, luxurious breath of relief.
It was like coming to the surface of the water after deep diving,
to find myself once more on the outside of Mr. Fairlie's room.
As soon as I was comfortably established for the morning in my
pretty little studio, the first resolution at which I arrived was
to turn my steps no more in the direction of the apartments
occupied by the master of the house, except in the very improbable
event of his honouring me with a special invitation to pay him
another visit. Having settled this satisfactory plan of future
conduct in reference to Mr. Fairlie, I soon recovered the serenity
of temper of which my employer's haughty familiarity and impudent
politeness had, for the moment, deprived me. The remaining hours
of the morning passed away pleasantly enough, in looking over the
drawings, arranging them in sets, trimming their ragged edges, and
accomplishing the other necessary preparations in anticipation of
the business of mounting them. I ought, perhaps, to have made
more progress than this; but, as the luncheon-time drew near, I
grew restless and unsettled, and felt unable to fix my attention
on work, even though that work was only of the humble manual kind.
At two o'clock I descended again to the breakfast-room, a little
anxiously. Expectations of some interest were connected with my
approaching reappearance in that part of the house. My
introduction to Miss Fairlie was now close at hand; and, if Miss
Halcombe's search through her mother's letters had produced the
result which she anticipated, the time had come for clearing up
the mystery of the woman in white.
When I entered the room, I found Miss Halcombe and an elderly lady
seated at the luncheon-table.
The elderly lady, when I was presented to her, proved to be Miss
Fairlie's former governess, Mrs. Vesey, who had been briefly
described to me by my lively companion at the breakfast-table, as
possessed of "all the cardinal virtues, and counting for nothing."
I can do little more than offer my humble testimony to the
truthfulness of Miss Halcombe's sketch of the old lady's
character. Mrs. Vesey looked the personification of human
composure and female amiability. A calm enjoyment of a calm
existence beamed in drowsy smiles on her plump, placid face. Some
of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life.
Mrs. Vesey SAT through life. Sat in the house, early and late;
sat in the garden; sat in unexpected window-seats in passages; sat
(on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking;
sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything,
before she answered Yes, or No, to the commonest question--always
with the same serene smile on her lips, the same vacantly-
attentive turn of the head, the same snugly-comfortable position
of her hands and arms, under every possible change of domestic
circumstances. A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and
harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that
she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth. Nature
has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such
a vast variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be
now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the
different processes that she is carrying on at the same time.
Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private
persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs.
Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences
of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.
"Now, Mrs. Vesey," said Miss Halcombe, looking brighter, sharper,
and readier than ever, by contrast with the undemonstrative old
lady at her side, "what will you have? A cutlet?"
Mrs. Vesey crossed her dimpled hands on the edge of the table,
smiled placidly, and said, "Yes, dear."
"What is that opposite Mr. Hartright? Boiled chicken, is it not? I
thought you liked boiled chicken better than cutlet, Mrs. Vesey?"
Mrs. Vesey took her dimpled hands off the edge of the table and
crossed them on her lap instead; nodded contemplatively at the
boiled chicken, and said, "Yes, dear."
"Well, but which will you have, to-day? Shall Mr. Hartright give
you some chicken? or shall I give you some cutlet?"
Mrs. Vesey put one of her dimpled hands back again on the edge of
the table; hesitated drowsily, and said, "Which you please, dear."
"Mercy on me! it's a question for your taste, my good lady, not
for mine. Suppose you have a little of both? and suppose you
begin with the chicken, because Mr. Hartright looks devoured by
anxiety to carve for you."
Mrs. Vesey put the other dimpled hand back on the edge of the
table; brightened dimly one moment; went out again the next; bowed
obediently, and said, "If you please, sir."
Surely a mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless
old lady! But enough, perhaps, for the present, of Mrs. Vesey.
All this time, there were no signs of Miss Fairlie. We finished
our luncheon; and still she never appeared. Miss Halcombe, whose
quick eye nothing escaped, noticed the looks that I cast, from
time to time, in the direction of the door.
"I understand you, Mr. Hartright," she said; "you are wondering
what has become of your other pupil. She has been downstairs, and
has got over her headache; but has not sufficiently recovered her
appetite to join us at lunch. If you will put yourself under my
charge, I think I can undertake to find her somewhere in the
She took up a parasol lying on a chair near her, and led the way
out, by a long window at the bottom of the room, which opened on
to the lawn. It is almost unnecessary to say that we left Mrs.
Vesey still seated at the table, with her dimpled hands still
crossed on the edge of it; apparently settled in that position for
the rest of the afternoon.
As we crossed the lawn, Miss Halcombe looked at me significantly,
and shook her head.
"That mysterious adventure of yours," she said, "still remains
involved in its own appropriate midnight darkness. I have been
all the morning looking over my mother's letters, and I have made
no discoveries yet. However, don't despair, Mr. Hartright. This
is a matter of curiosity; and you have got a woman for your ally.
Under such conditions success is certain, sooner or later. The
letters are not exhausted. I have three packets still left, and
you may confidently rely on my spending the whole evening over
Here, then, was one of my anticipations of the morning still
unfulfilled. I began to wonder, next, whether my introduction to
Miss Fairlie would disappoint the expectations that I had been
forming of her since breakfast-time.
"And how did you get on with Mr. Fairlie?" inquired Miss Halcombe,
as we left the lawn and turned into a shrubbery. "Was he
particularly nervous this morning? Never mind considering about
your answer, Mr. Hartright. The mere fact of your being obliged
to consider is enough for me. I see in your face that he WAS
particularly nervous; and, as I am amiably unwilling to throw you
into the same condition, I ask no more."
We turned off into a winding path while she was speaking, and
approached a pretty summer-house, built of wood, in the form of a
miniature Swiss chalet. The one room of the summer-house, as we
ascended the steps of the door, was occupied by a young lady. She
was standing near a rustic table, looking out at the inland view
of moor and hill presented by a gap in the trees, and absently
turning over the leaves of a little sketch-book that lay at her
side. This was Miss Fairlie.
How can I describe her? How can I separate her from my own
sensations, and from all that has happened in the later time? How
can I see her again as she looked when my eyes first rested on
her--as she should look, now, to the eyes that are about to see
her in these pages?
The water-colour drawing that I made of Laura Fairlie, at an after
period, in the place and attitude in which I first saw her, lies
on my desk while I write. I look at it, and there dawns upon me
brightly, from the dark greenish-brown background of the summer-
house, a light, youthful figure, clothed in a simple muslin dress,
the pattern of it formed by broad alternate stripes of delicate
blue and white. A scarf of the same material sits crisply and
closely round her shoulders, and a little straw hat of the natural
colour, plainly and sparingly trimmed with ribbon to match the
gown, covers her head, and throws its soft pearly shadow over the
upper part of her face. Her hair is of so faint and pale a brown--
not flaxen, and yet almost as light; not golden, and yet almost
as glossy--that it nearly melts, here and there, into the shadow
of the hat. It is plainly parted and drawn back over her ears,
and the line of it ripples naturally as it crosses her forehead.
The eyebrows are rather darker than the hair; and the eyes are of
that soft, limpid, turquoise blue, so often sung by the poets, so
seldom seen in real life. Lovely eyes in colour, lovely eyes in
form--large and tender and quietly thoughtful--but beautiful above
all things in the clear truthfulness of look that dwells in their
inmost depths, and shines through all their changes of expression
with the light of a purer and a better world. The charm--most
gently and yet most distinctly expressed--which they shed over the
whole face, so covers and transforms its little natural human
blemishes elsewhere, that it is difficult to estimate the relative
merits and defects of the other features. It is hard to see that
the lower part of the face is too delicately refined away towards
the chin to be in full and fair proportion with the upper part;
that the nose, in escaping the aquiline bend (always hard and
cruel in a woman, no matter how abstractedly perfect it may be),
has erred a little in the other extreme, and has missed the ideal
straightness of line; and that the sweet, sensitive lips are
subject to a slight nervous contraction, when she smiles, which
draws them upward a little at one corner, towards the cheek. It
might be possible to note these blemishes in another woman's face
but it is not easy to dwell on them in hers, so subtly are they
connected with all that is individual and characteristic in her
expression, and so closely does the expression depend for its full
play and life, in every other feature, on the moving impulse of
Does my poor portrait of her, my fond, patient labour of long and
happy days, show me these things? Ah, how few of them are in the
dim mechanical drawing, and how many in the mind with which I
regard it! A fair, delicate girl, in a pretty light dress,
trifling with the leaves of a sketch-book, while she looks up from
it with truthful, innocent blue eyes--that is all the drawing can
say; all, perhaps, that even the deeper reach of thought and pen
can say in their language, either. The woman who first gives
life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills
a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us
till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too
deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by other
charms than those which the senses feel and which the resources of
expression can realise. The mystery which underlies the beauty of
women is never raised above the reach of all expression until it
has claimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls.
Then, and then only, has it passed beyond the narrow region on
which light falls, in this world, from the pencil and the pen.
Think of her as you thought of the first woman who quickened the
pulses within you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir.
Let the kind, candid blue eyes meet yours, as they met mine, with
the one matchless look which we both remember so well. Let her
voice speak the music that you once loved best, attuned as sweetly
to your ear as to mine. Let her footstep, as she comes and goes,
in these pages, be like that other footstep to whose airy fall
your own heart once beat time. Take her as the visionary nursling
of your own fancy; and she will grow upon you, all the more
clearly, as the living woman who dwells in mine.
Among the sensations that crowded on me, when my eyes first looked
upon her--familiar sensations which we all know, which spring to
life in most of our hearts, die again in so many, and renew their
bright existence in so few--there was one that troubled and
perplexed me: one that seemed strangely inconsistent and
unaccountably out of place in Miss Fairlie's presence.
Mingling with the vivid impression produced by the charm of her
fair face and head, her sweet expression, and her winning
simplicity of manner, was another impression, which, in a shadowy
way, suggested to me the idea of something wanting. At one time
it seemed like something wanting in HER: at another, like
something wanting in myself, which hindered me from understanding
her as I ought. The impression was always strongest in the most
contradictory manner, when she looked at me; or, in other words,
when I was most conscious of the harmony and charm of her face,
and yet, at the same time, most troubled by the sense of an
incompleteness which it was impossible to discover. Something
wanting, something wanting--and where it was, and what it was, I
could not say.
The effect of this curious caprice of fancy (as I thought it then)
was not of a nature to set me at my ease, during a first interview
with Miss Fairlie. The few kind words of welcome which she spoke
found me hardly self-possessed enough to thank her in the
customary phrases of reply. Observing my hesitation, and no doubt
attributing it, naturally enough, to some momentary shyness on my
part, Miss Halcombe took the business of talking, as easily and
readily as usual, into her own hands.
"Look there, Mr. Hartright," she said, pointing to the sketch-book
on the table, and to the little delicate wandering hand that was
still trifling with it. "Surely you will acknowledge that your
model pupil is found at last? The moment she hears that you are in
the house, she seizes her inestimable sketch-book looks universal
Nature straight in the face, and longs to begin!"
Miss Fairlie laughed with a ready good-humour, which broke out as
brightly as if it had been part of the sunshine above us, over her
"I must not take credit to myself where no credit is due," she
said, her clear, truthful blue eyes looking alternately at Miss
Halcombe and at me. "Fond as I am of drawing, I am so conscious
of my own ignorance that I am more afraid than anxious to begin.
Now I know you are here, Mr. Hartright, I find myself looking over
my sketches, as I used to look over my lessons when I was a little
girl, and when I was sadly afraid that I should turn out not fit
to be heard."
She made the confession very prettily and simply, and, with
quaint, childish earnestness, drew the sketch-book away close to
her own side of the table. Miss Halcombe cut the knot of the
little embarrassment forthwith, in her resolute, downright way.
"Good, bad, or indifferent," she said, "the pupil's sketches must
pass through the fiery ordeal of the master's judgment--and
there's an end of it. Suppose we take them with us in the
carriage, Laura, and let Mr. Hartright see them, for the first
time, under circumstances of perpetual jolting and interruption?
If we can only confuse him all through the drive, between Nature
as it is, when he looks up at the view, and Nature as it is not
when he looks down again at our sketch-books, we shall drive him
into the last desperate refuge of paying us compliments, and shall
slip through his professional fingers with our pet feathers of
vanity all unruffled."
"I hope Mr. Hartright will pay ME no compliments," said Miss
Fairlie, as we all left the summer-house.
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