The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins
Part II. Paradise Regained
Chapter XXVIII. In the Dark.
WITH such a man as Miserrimus Dexter, and with such a purpose as I had in view, no half-confidences were possible. I must either risk the most unreserved acknowledgment of the interests that I really had at stake, or I must make the best excuse that occurred to me for abandoning my contemplated experiment at the last moment. In my present critical situation, no such refuge as a middle course lay before me--even if I had been inclined to take it. As things were, I ran risks, and plunged headlong into my own affairs at starting.
"Thus far, you know little or nothing about me, Mr. Dexter," I said. "You are, as I believe, quite unaware that my husband and I are not living together at the present time."
"Is it necessary to mention your husband?" he asked, coldly, without looking up from his embroidery, and without pausing in his work.
"It is absolutely necessary," I answered. "I can explain myself to you in no other way."
He bent his head, and sighed resignedly.
"You and your husband are not living together at the present time," he resumed. "Does that mean that Eustace has left you?"
"He has left me, and has gone abroad."
"Without any necessity for it?"
"Without the least necessity."
"Has he appointed no time for his return to you?"
"If he persevere in his present resolution, Mr. Dexter, Eustace will never return to me."
For the first time he raised his head from his embroidery--with a sudden appearance of interest.
"Is the quarrel so serious as that?" he asked. "Are you free of each other, pretty Mrs. Valeria, by common consent of both parties?"
The tone in which he put the question was not at all to my liking. The look he fixed on me was a look which unpleasantly suggested that I had trusted myself alone with him, and that he might end in taking advantage of it. I reminded him quietly, by my manner more than by my words, of the respect which he owed to me.
"You are entirely mistaken," I said. "There is no anger--there is not even a misunderstanding between us. Our parting has cost bitter sorrow, Mr. Dexter, to him and to me."
He submitted to be set right with ironical resignation. "I am all attention," he said, threading his needle. "Pray go on; I won't interrupt you again." Acting on this invitation, I told him the truth about my husband and myself quite unreservedly, taking care, however, at the same time, to put Eustace's motives in the best light that they would bear. Miserrimus Dexter dropped his embroidery on his lap, and laughed softly to himself, with an impish enjoyment of my poor little narrative, which set every nerve in me on edge as I looked at him.
"I see nothing to laugh at," I said, sharply.
His beautiful blue eyes rested on me with a look of innocent surprise.
"Nothing to laugh at," he repeated, "in such an exhibition of human folly as you have just described?" His expression suddenly changed his face darkened and hardened very strangely. "Stop!" he cried, before I could answer him. "There can be only one reason for you're taking it as seriously as you do. Mrs. Valeria! you are fond of your husband."
"Fond of him isn't strong enough to express it," I retorted. "I love him with my whole heart."
Miserrimus Dexter stroked his magnificent beard, and contemplatively repeated my words. "You love him with your whole heart? Do you know why?"
"Because I can't help it," I answered, doggedly.
He smiled satirically, and went on with his embroidery. "Curious!" he said to himself; "Eustace's first wife loved him too. There are some men whom the women all like, and there are other men whom the women never care for. Without the least reason for it in either case. The one man is just as good as the other; just as handsome, as agreeable, as honorable, and as high in rank as the other. And yet for Number One they will go through fire and water, and for Number Two they won't so much as turn their heads to look at him. Why? They don't know themselves--as Mrs. Valeria has just said! Is there a physical reason for it? Is there some potent magnetic emanation from Number One which Number Two doesn't possess? I must investigate this when I have the time, and when I find myself in the humor." Having so far settled the question to his own entire satisfaction, he looked up at me again. "I am still in the dark about you and your motives," he said. "I am still as far as ever from understanding what your interest is in investigating that hideous tragedy at Gleninch. Clever Mrs. Valeria, please take me by the hand, and lead me into the light. You're not offended with me are you? Make it up; and I will give you this pretty piece of embroidery when I have done it. I am only a poor, solitary, deformed wretch, with a quaint turn of mind; I mean no harm. Forgive me! indulge me! enlighten me!"
He resumed his childish ways; he recover, his innocent smile, with the odd little puckers and wrinkles accompanying it at the corners of his eyes. I began to doubt whether I might not have been unreasonably hard on him. I penitently resolved to be more considerate toward his infirmities of mind and body during the remainder of my visit.
"Let me go back for a moment, Mr. Dexter, to past times at Gleninch," I said. "You agree with me in believing Eustace to be absolutely innocent of the crime for which he was tried. Your evidence at the Trial tells me that."
He paused over his work, and looked at me with a grave and stern attention which presented his face in quite a new light.
"That is our opinion," I resumed. "But it was not the opinion of the Jury. Their verdict, you remember, was Not Proven. In plain English, the Jury who tried my husband declined to express their opinion, positively and publicly, that he was innocent. Am I right?"
Instead of answering, he suddenly put his embroidery back in the basket, and moved the machinery of his chair, so as to bring it close by mine.
"Who told you this?" he asked.
"I found it for myself in a book."
Thus far his face had expressed steady attention--and no more. Now, for the first time, I thought I saw something darkly passing over him which betrayed itself to my mind as rising distrust.
"Ladies are not generally in the habit of troubling their heads about dry questions of law," he said. "Mrs. Eustace Macallan the Second, you must have some very powerful motive for turning your studies that way."
"I have a very powerful motive, Mr. Dexter My husband is resigned to the Scotch Verdict His mother is resigned to it. His friends (so far as I know) are resigned to it--"
"Well! I don't agree with my husband, or his mother, or his friends. I refuse to submit to the Scotch Verdict."
The instant I said those words, the madness in him which I had hitherto denied, seemed to break out. He suddenly stretched himself over his chair: he pounced on me, with a hand on each of my shoulders; his wild eyes questioned me fiercely, frantically, within a few inches of my face.
"What do you mean?" he shouted, at the utmost pitch of his ringing and resonant voice.
A deadly fear of him shook me. I did my best to hide the outward betrayal of it. By look and word, I showed him, as firmly as I could, that I resented the liberty he had taken with me.
"Remove your hands, sir," I said, "and retire to your proper place."
He obeyed me mechanically. He apologized to me mechanically. His whole mind was evidently still filled with the words that I had spoken to him, and still bent on discovering what those words meant.
"I beg your pardon," he said; "I humbly beg your pardon. The subject excites me, frightens me, maddens me. You don't know what a difficulty I have in controlling myself. Never mind. Don't take me seriously. Don't be frightened at me. I am so ashamed of myself--I feel so small and so miserable at having offended you. Make me suffer for it. Take a stick and beat me. Tie me down in my chair. Call up Ariel, who is as strong as a horse, and tell her to hold me. Dear Mrs. Valeria! Injured Mrs. Valeria! I'll endure anything in the way of punishment, if you will only tell me what you mean by not submitting to the Scotch Verdict." He backed his chair penitently as he made that entreaty. "Am I far enough away yet?" he asked, with a rueful look. "Do I still frighten you? I'll drop out of sight, if you prefer it, in the bottom of the chair."
He lifted the sea-green coverlet. In another moment he would have disappeared like a puppet in a show if I had not stopped him.
"Say nothing more, and do nothing more; I accept your apologies," I said. "When I tell you that I refuse to submit to the opinion of the Scotch Jury, I mean exactly what my words express. That verdict has left a stain on my husband's character. He feels the stain bitterly. How bitterly no one knows so well as I do. His sense of his degradation is the sense that has parted him from me. It is not enough for him that I am persuaded of his innocence. Nothing will bring him back to me--nothing will persuade Eustace that I think him worthy to be the guide and companion of my life--but the proof of his innocence, set before the Jury which doubts it, and the public which doubts it, to this day. He and his friends and his lawyers all despair of ever finding that proof now. But I am his wife; and none of you love him as I love him. I alone refuse to despair; I alone refuse to listen to reason. If God spare me, Mr. Dexter, I dedicate my life to the vindication of my husband's innocence. You are his old friend--I am here to ask you to help me."
It appeared to be now my turn to frighten him. The color left his face. He passed his hand restlessly over his forehead, as if he were trying to brush some delusion out of his brain.
"Is this one of my dreams?" he asked, faintly. "Are you a Vision of the night?"
"I am only a friendless woman," I said, "who has lost all that she loved and prized, and who is trying to win it back again."
He began to move his chair nearer to me once more. I lifted my hand. He stopped the chair directly. There was a moment of silence. We sat watching one another. I saw his hands tremble as he laid them on the coverlet; I saw his face grow paler and paler, and his under lip drop. What dead and buried remembrances had I brought to life in him, in all their olden horror?
He was the first to speak again.
"So this is your interest," he said, "in clearing up the mystery of Mrs. Eustace Macallan's death?"
"And you believe that I can help you?"
He slowly lifted one of his hands, and pointed at me with his long forefinger.
"You suspect somebody," he said.
The tone in which he spoke was low and threatening; it warned me to be careful. At the same time, if I now shut him out of my confidence, I should lose the reward that might yet be to come, for all that I had suffered and risked at that perilous interview.
"You suspect somebody," he repeated.
"Perhaps!" was all that I said in return.
"Is the person within your reach?"
"Do you know where the person is?"
He laid his head languidly on the back of his chair, with a trembling long-drawn sigh. Was he disappointed? Or was he relieved? Or was he simply exhausted in mind and body alike? Who could fathom him? Who could say?
"Will you give me five minutes?" he asked, feebly and wearily, without raising his head. "You know already how any reference to events at Gleninch excites and shakes me. I shall be fit for it again, if you will kindly give me a few minutes to myself. There are books in the next room. Please excuse me."
I at once retired to the circular antechamber. He followed me in his chair, and closed the door between us.