The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins
Part I. Paradise Lost
Chapter VIII. The Friend of the Women.
I FIND it impossible to describe my sensations while the carriage was taking me to Major Fitz-David's house. I doubt, indeed, if I really felt or thought at all, in the true sense of those words.
From the moment when I had resigned myself into the hands of the chambermaid I seemed in some strange way to have lost my ordinary identity--to have stepped out of my own character. At other times my temperament was of the nervous and anxious sort, and my tendency was to exaggerate any difficulties that might place themselves in my way. At other times, having before me the prospect of a critical interview with a stranger, I should have considered with myself what it might be wise to pass over, and what it might be wise to say. Now I never gave my coming interview with the Major a thought; I felt an unreasoning confidence in myself, and a blind faith in him. Now neither the past nor the future troubled me; I lived unreflectingly in the present. I looked at the shops as we drove by them, and at the other carriages as they passed mine. I noticed--yes, and enjoyed--the glances of admiration which chance foot-passengers on the pavement cast on me. I said to myself, "This looks well for my prospect of making a friend of the Major!" When we drew up at the door in Vivian Place, it is no exaggeration to say that I had but one anxiety--anxiety to find the Major at home.
The door was opened by a servant out of livery, an old man who looked as if he might have been a soldier in his earlier days. He eyed me with a grave attention, which relaxed little by little into sly approval. I asked for Major Fitz-David. The answer was not altogether encouraging: the man was not sure whether his master were at home or not.
I gave him my card. My cards, being part of my wedding outfit, necessarily had the false name printed on them--Mrs. Eustace Woodville. The servant showed me into a front room on the ground-floor, and disappeared with my card in his hand.
Looking about me, I noticed a door in the wall opposite the window, communicating with some inner room. The door was not of the ordinary kind. It fitted into the thickness of the partition wall, and worked in grooves. Looking a little nearer, I saw that it had not been pulled out so as completely to close the doorway. Only the merest chink was left; but it was enough to convey to my ears all that passed in the next room.
"What did you say, Oliver, when she asked for me?" inquired a man's voice, pitched cautiously in a low key.
"I said I was not sure you were at home, sir," answered the voice of the servant who had let me in.
There was a pause. The first speaker was evidently Major Fitz-David himself. I waited to hear more.
"I think I had better not see her, Oliver," the Major's voice resumed.
"Very good, sir."
"Say I have gone out, and you don't know when I shall be back again. Beg the lady to write, if she has any business with me."
Oliver stopped. There was another and longer pause. Then the master resumed the examination of the man.
"Is she young, Oliver?"
"Better than pretty, sir, to my thinking."
"Aye? aye? What you call a fine woman--eh, Oliver?"
"Nearly as tall as I am, Major."
"Aye? aye? aye? A good figure?"
"As slim as a sapling, sir, and as upright as a dart."
"On second thoughts, I am at home, Oliver. Show her in! show her in!"
So far, one thing at least seemed to be clear. I had done well in sending for the chambermaid. What would Oliver's report of me have been if I had presented myself to him with my colorless cheeks and my ill-dressed hair?
The servant reappeared, and conducted me to the inner room. Major Fitz-David advanced to welcome me. What was the Major like?
Well, he was like a well-preserved old gentleman of, say, sixty years old, little and lean, and chiefly remarkable by the extraordinary length of his nose. After this feature, I noticed next his beautiful brown wig; his sparkling little gray eyes; his rosy complexion; his short military whisker, dyed to match his wig; his white teeth and his winning smile; his smart blue frock-coat, with a camellia in the button-hole; and his splendid ring, a ruby, flashing on his little finger as he courteously signed to me to take a chair.
"Dear Mrs. Woodville, how very kind of you this is! I have been longing to have the happiness of knowing you. Eustace is an old friend of mine. I congratulated him when I heard of his marriage. May I make a confession?--I envy him now I have seen his wife."
The future of my life was perhaps in this man's hands. I studied him attentively: I tried to read his character in his face.
The Major's sparkling little gray eyes softened as they looked at me; the Major's strong and sturdy voice dropped to its lowest and tenderest tones when he spoke to me; the Major's manner expressed, from the moment when I entered the room, a happy mixture of admiration and respect. He drew his chair close to mine, as if it were a privilege to be near me. He took my hand and lifted my glove to his lips, as if that glove were the most delicious luxury the world could produce. "Dear Mrs. Woodville," he said, as he softly laid my hand back on my lap, "bear with an old fellow who worships your enchanting sex. You really brighten this dull house. It is such a pleasure to see you!"
There was no need for the old gentleman to make his little confession. Women, children, and dogs proverbially know by instinct who the people are who really like them. The women had a warm friend--perhaps at one time a dangerously warm friend--in Major Fitz-David. I knew as much of him as that before I had settled myself in my chair and opened my lips to answer him.
"Thank you, Major, for your kind reception and your pretty compliment," I said, matching my host's easy tone as closely as the necessary restraints on my side would permit. "You have made your confession. May I make mine?"
Major Fitz-David lifted my hand again from my lap and drew his chair as close as possible to mine. I looked at him gravely and tried to release my hand. Major Fitz-David declined to let go of it, and proceeded to tell me why.
"I have just heard you speak for the first time," he said. "I am under the charm of your voice. Dear Mrs. Woodville, bear with an old fellow who is under the charm! Don't grudge me my innocent little pleasures. Lend me--I wish I could say give me--this pretty hand. I am such an admirer of pretty hands! I can listen so much better with a pretty hand in mine. The ladies indulge my weakness. Please indulge me too. Yes? And what were you going to say?"
"I was going to say, Major, that I felt particularly sensible of your kind welcome because, as it happens, I have a favor to ask of you."
I was conscious, while I spoke, that I was approaching the object of my visit a little too abruptly. But Major Fitz-David's admiration rose from one climax to another with such alarming rapidity that I felt the importance of administering a practical check to it. I trusted to those ominous words, "a favor to ask of you," to administer the check, and I did not trust in vain. My aged admirer gently dropped my hand, and, with all possible politeness, changed the subject.
"The favor is granted, of course!" he said. "And now, tell me, how is our dear Eustace?"
"Anxious and out of spirits." I answered.
"Anxious and out of spirits!" repeated the Major. "The enviable man who is married to You anxious and out of spirits? Monstrous! Eustace fairly disgusts me. I shall take him off the list of my friends."
"In that case, take me off the list with him, Major. I am in wretched spirits too. You are my husband's old friend. I may acknowledge to you that our married life is just now not quite a happy one."
Major Fitz-David lifted his eyebrows (dyed to match his whiskers) in polite surprise.
"Already!" he exclaimed. "What can Eustace be made of? Has he no appreciation of beauty and grace? Is he the most insensible of living beings?"
"He is the best and dearest of men," I answered. "But there is some dreadful mystery in his past life--"
I could get no further; Major Fitz-David deliberately stopped me. He did it with the smoothest politeness, on the surface. But I saw a look in his bright little eyes which said, plainly, "If you will venture on delicate ground, madam, don't ask me to accompany you."
"My charming friend!" he exclaimed. "May I call you my charming friend? You have--among a thousand other delightful qualities which I can see already--a vivid imagination. Don't let it get the upper hand. Take an old fellow's advice; don't let it get the upper hand! What can I offer you, dear Mrs. Woodville? A cup of tea?"
"Call me by my right name, sir," I answered, boldly. "I have made a discovery. I know as well as you do that my name is Macallan."
The Major started, and looked at me very attentively. His manner became grave, his tone changed completely, when he spoke next.
"May I ask," he said, "if you have communicated to your husband the discovery which you have just mentioned to me?"
"Certainly!" I answered. "I consider that my husband owes me an explanation. I have asked him to tell me what his extraordinary conduct means--and he has refused, in language that frightens me. I have appealed to his mother--and she has refused to explain, in language that humiliates me. Dear Major Fitz-David, I have no friends to take my part: I have nobody to come to but you! Do me the greatest of all favors--tell me why your friend Eustace has married me under a false name!"
"Do me the greatest of all favors;" answered the Major. "Don't ask me to say a word about it."
He looked, in spite of his unsatisfactory reply, as if he really felt for me. I determined to try my utmost powers of persuasion; I resolved not to be beaten at the first repulse.
"I must ask you," I said. "Think of my position. How can I live, knowing what I know--and knowing no more? I would rather hear the most horrible thing you can tell me than be condemned (as I am now) to perpetual misgiving and perpetual suspense. I love my husband with all my heart; but I cannot live with him on these terms: the misery of it would drive me mad. I am only a woman, Major. I can only throw myself on your kindness. Don't--pray, pray don't keep me in the dark!"
I could say no more. In the reckless impulse of the moment I snatched up his hand and raised it to my lips. The gallant old gentleman started as if I had given him an electric shock.
"My dear, dear lady!" he exclaimed, "I can't tell you how I feel for you! You charm me, you overwhelm me, you touch me to the heart. What can I say? What can I do? I can only imitate your admirable frankness, your fearless candor. You have told me what your position is. Let me tell you, in my turn, how I am placed. Compose yourself--pray compose yourself! I have a smelling-bottle here at the service of the ladies. Permit me to offer it."
He brought me the smelling-bottle; he put a little stool under my feet; he entreated me to take time enough to compose myself. "Infernal fool!" I heard him say to himself, as he considerately turned away from me for a few moments. "If I had been her husband, come what might of it, I would have told her the truth!"
Was he referring to Eustace? And was he going to do what he would have done in my husband's place?--was he really going to tell me the truth?
The idea had barely crossed my mind when I was startled by a loud and peremptory knocking at the street door. The Major stopped and listened attentively. In a few moments the door was opened, and the rustling of a woman's dress was plainly audible in the hall. The Major hurried to the door of the room with the activity of a young man. He was too late. The door was violently opened from the outer side, just as he got to it. The lady of the rustling dress burst into the room.