The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins
Part I. Paradise Lost
Chapter XI. The Return to Life.
My first remembrance when I began to recover my senses was the remembrance of Pain--agonizing pain, as if every nerve in my body were being twisted and torn out of me. My whole being writhed and quivered under the dumb and dreadful protest of Nature against the effort to recall me to life. I would have given worlds to be able to cry out--to entreat the unseen creatures about me to give me back to death. How long that speechless agony held me I never knew. In a longer or shorter time there stole over me slowly a sleepy sense of relief. I heard my own labored breathing. I felt my hands moving fee bly and mechanically, like the hands of a baby. I faintly opened my eyes and looked round me--as if I had passed through the ordeal of death, and had awakened to new senses in a new world.
The first person I saw was a man--a stranger. He moved quietly out of my sight; beckoning, as he disappeared, to some other person in the room.
Slowly and unwillingly the other person advanced to the sofa on which I lay. A faint cry of joy escaped me; I tried to hold out my feeble hands. The other person who was approaching me was my husband!
I looked at him eagerly. He never looked at me in return. With his eyes on the ground, with a strange appearance of confusion and distress in his face, he too moved away out of my sight. The unknown man whom I had first noticed followed him out of the room. I called after him faintly, "Eustace!" He never answered; he never returned. With an effort I moved my head on the pillow, so as to look round on the other side of the sofa. Another familiar face appeared before me as if in a dream. My good old Benjamin was sitting watching me, with the tears in his eyes.
He rose and took my hand silently, in his simple, kindly way.
"Where is Eustace?" I asked. "Why has he gone away and left me?"
I was still miserably weak. My eyes wandered mechanically round the room as I put the question. I saw Major Fitz-David, I saw the table on which the singing girl had opened the book to show it to me. I saw the girl herself, sitting alone in a corner, with her handkerchief to her eyes as if she were crying. In one mysterious moment my memory recovered its powers. The recollection of that fatal title-page came back to me in all its horror. The one feeling that it roused in me now was a longing to see my husband--to throw myself into his arms, and tell him how firmly I believed in his innocence, how truly and dearly I loved him. I seized on Benjamin with feeble, trembling hands. "Bring him back to me!" I cried, wildly. "Where is he? Help me to get up!"
A strange voice answered, firmly and kindly: "Compose yourself, madam. Mr. Woodville is waiting until you have recovered, in a room close by."
I looked at him, and recognized the stranger who had followed my husband out of the room. Why had he returned alone? Why was Eustace not with me, like the rest of them? I tried to raise myself, and get on my feet. The stranger gently pressed me back again on the pillow. I attempted to resist him--quite uselessly, of course. His firm hand held me as gently as ever in my place.
"You must rest a little," he said. "You must take some wine. If you exert yourself now you will faint again."
Old Benjamin stooped over me, and whispered a word of explanation.
"It's the doctor, my dear. You must do as he tells you."
The doctor! They had called the doctor in to help them! I began dimly to understand that my fainting fit must have presented symptoms far more serious than the fainting fits of women in general. I appealed to the doctor, in a helpless, querulous way, to account to me for my husband's extraordinary absence.
"Why did you let him leave the room?" I asked. "If I can't go to him, why don't you bring him here to me?"
The doctor appeared to be at a loss how to reply to me. He looked at Benjamin, and said, "Will you speak to Mrs. Woodville?"
Benjamin, in his turn, looked at Major Fitz-David, and said, "Will you?" The Major signed to them both to leave us. They rose together, and went into the front room, pulling the door to after them in its grooves. As they left us, the girl who had so strangely revealed my husband's secret to me rose in her corner and approached the sofa.
"I suppose I had better go too?" she said, addressing Major Fitz-David.
"If you please," the Major answered.
He spoke (as I thought) rather coldly. She tossed her head, and turned her back on him in high indignation. "I must say a word for myself!" cried this strange creature, with a hysterical outbreak of energy. "I must say a word, or I shall burst!"
With that extraordinary preface, she suddenly turned my way and poured out a perfect torrent of words on me.
"You hear how the Major speaks to me?" she began. "He blames me--poor Me--for everything that has happened. I am as innocent as the new-born babe. I acted for the best. I thought you wanted the book. I don't know now what made you faint dead away when I opened it. And the Major blames Me! As if it was my fault! I am not one of the fainting sort myself; but I feel it, I can tell you. Yes! I feel it, though I don't faint about it. I come of respectable parents--I do. My name is Hoighty--Miss Hoighty. I have my own self-respect; and it's wounded. I say my self-respect is wounded, when I find myself blamed without deserving it. You deserve it, if anybody does. Didn't you tell me you were looking for a book? And didn't I present it to you promiscuously, with the best intentions? I think you might say so yourself, now the doctor has brought you to again. I think you might speak up for a poor girl who is worked to death with singing and languages and what not--a poor girl who has nobody else to speak for her. I am as respectable as you are, if you come to that. My name is Hoighty. My parents are in business, and my mamma has seen better days, and mixed in the best of company."
There Miss Hoighty lifted her handkerchief again to her face, and burst modestly into tears behind it.
It was certainly hard to hold her responsible for what had happened. I answered as kindly as I could, and I attempted to speak to Major Fitz-David in her defense. He knew what terrible anxieties were oppressing me at that moment; and, considerately refusing to hear a word, he took the task of consoling his young prima donna entirely on himself. What he said to her I neither heard nor cared to hear: he spoke in a whisper. It ended in his pacifying Miss Hoighty, by kissing her hand, and leading her (as he might have led a duchess) out of the room.
"I hope that foolish girl has not annoyed you--at such a time as this," he said, very earnestly, when he returned to the sofa. "I can't tell you how grieved I am at what has happened. I was careful to warn you, as you may remember. Still, if I could only have foreseen--"
I let him proceed no further. No human forethought could have provided against what had happened. Besides, dreadful as the discovery had been, I would rather have made it, and suffered under it, as I was suffering now, than have been kept in the dark. I told him this. And then I turned to the one subject that was now of any interest to me--the subject of my unhappy husband.
"How did he come to this house?" I asked.
He came here with Mr. Benjamin shortly after I returned," the Major replied.
"Long after I was taken ill?"
"No. I had just sent for the doctor--feeling seriously alarmed about you."
"What brought him here? Did he return to the hotel and miss me?"
"Yes. He returned earlier than he had anticipated, and he felt uneasy at not finding you at the hotel."
"Did he suspect me of being with you? Did he come here from the hotel?"
"No. He appears to have gone first to Mr. Benjamin to inquire about you. What he heard from your old friend I cannot say. I only know that Mr. Benjamin accompanied him when he came here."
This brief explanation was quite enough for me--I understood what had happened. Eustace would easily frighten simple old Benjamin about my absence from the hotel; and, once alarmed, Benjamin would be persuaded without difficulty to repeat the few words which had passed between us on the subject of Major Fitz-David. My husband's presence in the Major's house was perfectly explained. But his extraordinary conduct in leaving the room at the very time when I was just recovering my senses still remained to be accounted for. Major Fitz-David looked seriously embarrassed when I put the question to him.
"I hardly know how to explain it to you," he said. "Eustace has surprised and disappointed me."
He spoke very gravely. His looks told me more than his words: his looks alarmed me.
"Eustace has not quarreled with you?" I said.
"He understands that you have not broken your promise to him?"
"Certainly. My youn g vocalist (Miss Hoighty) told the doctor exactly what had happened; and the doctor in her presence repeated the statement to your husband."
"Did the doctor see the Trial?"
"Neither the doctor nor Mr. Benjamin has seen the Trial. I have locked it up; and I have carefully kept the terrible story of your connection with the prisoner a secret from all of them. Mr. Benjamin evidently has his suspicions. But the doctor has no idea, and Miss Hoighty has no idea, of the true cause of your fainting fit. They both believe that you are subject to serious nervous attacks, and that your husband's name is really Woodville. All that the truest friend could do to spare Eustace I have done. He persists, nevertheless, in blaming me for letting you enter my house. And worse, far worse than this, he persists in declaring the event of to-day has fatally estranged you from him. 'There is an end of our married life,' he said to me, 'now she knows that I am the man who was tried at Edinburgh for poisoning my wife!"'
I rose from the sofa in horror.
"Good God!" I cried, "does Eustace suppose that I doubt his innocence?"
"He denies that it is possible for you or for anybody to believe in his innocence," the Major replied.
"Help me to the door," I said. "Where is he? I must and will see him!"
I dropped back exhausted on the sofa as I said the words. Major Fitz-David poured out a glass of wine from the bottle on the table, and insisted on my drinking it.
"You shall see him," said the Major. "I promise you that. The doctor has forbidden him to leave the house until you have seen him. Only wait a little! My poor, dear lady, wait, if it is only for a few minutes, until you are stronger."
I had no choice but to obey him. Oh, those miserable, helpless minutes on the sofa! I cannot write of them without shuddering at the recollection--even at this distance of time.
"Bring him here!" I said. "Pray, pray bring him here!"
"Who is to persuade him to come back?" asked the Major, sadly. "How can I, how can anybody, prevail with a man--a madman I had almost said!--who could leave you at the moment when you first opened your eyes on him? I saw Eustace alone in the next room while the doctor was in attendance on you. I tried to shake his obstinate distrust of your belief in his innocence and of my belief in his innocence by every argument and every appeal that an old friend could address to him. He had but one answer to give me. Reason as I might, and plead as I might, he still persisted in referring me to the Scotch Verdict."
"The Scotch Verdict?" I repeated. "What is that?"
The Major looked surprised at the question.
"Have you really never heard of the Trial?" he said.
"I thought it strange," he went on, "when you told me you had found out your husband's true name, that the discovery appeared to have suggested no painful association to your mind. It is not more than three years since all England was talking of your husband. One can hardly wonder at his taking refuge, poor fellow, in an assumed name. Where could you have been at the time?"
"Did you say it was three years ago?" I asked.
"I think I can explain my strange ignorance of what was so well known to every one else. Three years since my father was alive. I was living with him in a country-house in Italy--up in the mountains, near Sienna. We never saw an English newspaper or met with an English traveler for weeks and weeks together. It is just possible that there might have been some reference made to the Trial in my father's letters from England. If there were, he never told me of it. Or, if he did mention the case, I felt no interest in it, and forgot it again directly. Tell me--what has the Verdict to do with my husband's horrible doubt of us? Eustace is a free man. The Verdict was Not Guilty, of course?"
Major Fitz-David shook his head sadly.
"Eustace was tried in Scotland," he said. "There is a verdict allowed by the Scotch law, which (so far as I know) is not permitted by the laws of any other civilized country on the face of the earth. When the jury are in doubt whether to condemn or acquit the prisoner brought before them, they are permitted, in Scotland, to express that doubt by a form of compromise. If there is not evidence enough, on the one hand, to justify them in finding a prisoner guilty, and not evidence enough, on the other hand, to thoroughly convince them that a prisoner is innocent, they extricate themselves from the difficulty by finding a verdict of Not Proven."
"Was that the Verdict when Eustace was tried?" I asked.
"The jury were not quite satisfied that my husband was guilty? and not quite satisfied that my husband was innocent? Is that what the Scotch Verdict means?"
"That is what the Scotch Verdict means. For three years that doubt about him in the minds of the jury who tried him has stood on public record."
Oh, my poor darling! my innocent martyr! I understood it at last. The false name in which he had married me; the terrible words he had spoken when he had warned me to respect his secret; the still more terrible doubt that he felt of me at that moment--it was all intelligible to my sympathies, it was all clear to my understanding, now. I got up again from the sofa, strong in a daring resolution which the Scotch Verdict had suddenly kindled in me--a resolution at once too sacred and too desperate to be confided, in the first instance, to any other than my husband's ear.
"Take me to Eustace!" I cried. "I am strong enough to bear anything now."
After one searching look at me, the Major silently offered me his arm, and led me out of the room.