Wilkie Collins’s success as a novelist rested mainly upon his extraordinary power of complex construction; but in nearly all his novels he had an ear-nest purpose to serve, a thesis to maintain, a sermon to preach. In Man and Wife he had two such purposes: first to assail the iniquity of English, Irish, and Scotch marriage laws, and secondly to show forth what he regarded as the brutalizing tendencies of athletics. The novel made a great impression when it appeared. It was dramatized in a powerful play, in which the distinguished American actress, Clara Morris, achieved one of her most conspicuous triumphs.
IN 1831 two young women parted, vowing eternal devotion to each other.
Blanche was on her way to India as a governess. Anne was presently going to Milan to pre-pare herself for a career as a singer.
Twenty-four years later Anne was the wife of a wealthy man named Vanborough and the mother of a girl, Anne, about twelve years old. She also had under her charge a little girl of five, the daughter of her friend Blanche, and bearing the same name. Blanche had late in life married the famous Sir Thomas Lundie, and this was their child sent to England in advance of their own arrival.
Vanborough had tired of his wife. She was beautiful, accomplished, and in all respects charming, but she had no gift to aid him in his ambitions.
Vanborough wanted to be rid of her and to marry the brilliant Lady Jane Parnell. He was courting Lady Jane in the guise of an unmarried man. Through her he hoped to achieve a parliamentary career with a peerage at the end of it.
A brilliant young lawyer, Goeffrey Delamayn, was employed to find a way out, and, albeit reluctantly, he found it.
The pair had been married in Ireland, the one being a Catholic and the other having been a Protestant until just before the marriage. Under the marriage laws enacted in England for the governance of Ireland, such a marriage was void, and the priest who celebrated it was a criminal for having done so.
Taking advantage of the law, Vanborough discarded his wife, thus rendering his daughter illegitimate, and married Lady Jane. The abandoned woman and her child took the mother’s maiden name, Silvester, and, rejecting the financial provision offered by Vanborough, went to live with Lady Lundiethe Blanche of the early friendship. The mother dying, Lady Lundie pledged herself to care for the girl Anne as for her own daughter.
Vanborough went into Parliament; but his success there was small, and in his disappointment he died by his own hand. Delamayn had a brilliant career at the bar, and in politics ending by becoming Lord Holchester and inheriting a great fortune. He had two sons, Julius and Geoffrey. Geoffrey was at the University, but was interested solely in athletics. Julius had taken his degree, married, and became a man of consequence.
Anne Silvester’s mother had dreaded nothing so much as that her daughter might be lured into following her own stage career, for which her beauty and her gifts would be capital enough. Lady Lundie had pledged herself to make of the younger Anne a governess, earning her own living. In fulfilment of that promise Lady Lundie had educated the girl in every conceivable way, and then had made her governess to her own daughter Blanche, seven years her junior. The two were like sisters in affection.
Lady Lundie set out for India again with her husband. Her health being frail, she was anxious about her daughter Blanche, and, in the conviction that Sir Thomas would marry again in the event of her own death, she exacted of Anne a promise to be a protecting sister to Blanche, just as Anne’s mother had exacted a promise from her, which she had fulfilled.
Lady Lundie died on the voyage. A year later Sir Thomas married again, and the new Lady Lundie respected the house-hold arrangements, leaving Anne as governess and elder sister to Blanche, being nevertheless jealous of Anne and antagonistic to Blanche.
A few months later Sir Thomas Lundie died, and Lady Lundie in 1868 reopened the Scottish estate of Windygates, entertaining a brilliant house company and giving a lawn party. While a game of croquet was in progress on the lawn, Geoffrey Delamayn, the athlete son of Lord Holchester, met Anne Silvester in the little summer-house, she having in a letter commanded him to do so. There was an angry scene between the two. Anne Silvester demanding that Geoffrey, being her husband in the eyes of God, should save her from disgrace by immediately making himself her husband in the eyes of the law as well. The brutal young athlete sought excuse, but the wronged woman insisted, and she met every difficulty he put forth with a plan the details of which she had fully wrought out in her mind. She would go immediately to the inn at Craig Fernie, a few miles away, and say, by way of securing accommodations there, that her husband was presently to join her. Delamayn was to present himself an hour or two later and ask for his wife. They were to remain there for a time avowedly as man and wife, and both, in a vague way, knew that under Scottish law this would make them man and wife in fact.
Anne secretly left the house and went to Craig Fernie, leaving behind a message to the new Lady Lundie, saying that she had been secretly married and had gone to join her husband.
But before the time came for Geoffrey Delamayn to fulfil his part of the programme, he received a message from his brother Julius to the effect that their father, Lord Holchester, was ill unto death in London. Geoffrey had already been for-bidden Lord Holchester’s house, because of his persistence in following athletics instead of scholarship, thereby making of himself an accomplished brute, rather than an educated man. Julius urged his younger brother to seize this opportunity of possible reinstatement in their father’s favor. He asked Geoffrey to meet him and go with him to London.
But Anne was waiting for him at Craig Fernie, and in his perplexity Geoffrey appealed to Arnold Brinkworth. Arnold was a young man of gentle birth and good education who had gone to sea in default of other means of support, but had recently inherited a Scottish estate, which he was that day to visit, in order to meet his tenants. In the meanwhile he had wooed and won Blanche Lundie, with the approval of Lady Lundie, Blanche’s stepmother, and Sir Patrick Lundie, a shrewd, good-natured old Scottish lawyer, who, since Sir Thomas’s death, had been recognized as the head of the Lundies.
Geoffrey Delamayn had once saved Arnold Brinkworth’s life by a superb feat of swimming. He called now for repayment of the service. He asked Brinkworth to go in his stead to Craig Fernie, and bear his message to Anne. Brinkworth consented to carry a note from Delamayn. The note bade the wronged woman wait and assured her of Geoffrey’s early coming and acceptance of her as his wife. It was written upon the blank page of Anne’s own letter demanding the justice of marriage. It was dated, with a memorandum of the hour, and signed by Geoffrey as Anne’s “husband soon to be.”
Bearing this note Arnold made his way to the inn. But in order to reach Anne there and not compromise her with the inn people, he must ask for her, not by any name, for she had given none, but as his wife, he impersonating Geoffrey and thus fulfilling Anne’s assurance to the inn people that her husband was out on the moors and would presently join her. Without knowing much about Scottish law, Anne knew enough to understand that the situation thus created was a compromising one for Arnold, whose engagement to her dearest friend on earth, Blanche, she would on no account put in peril. But a fearful storm arose, and, in spite of all considerations of prudence, Arnold remained overnight in one of the two rooms engaged. Early in the morning he left for his estates, but mean-while Bishopriggs, the shrewdly unscrupulous head-waiter of the Inn, who had once been discharged from Sir Patrick Lundie’s office for purloining papers, secured possession of the sheet containing Anne’s letter to Geoffrey and his note, promising marriage, in reply.
Geoffrey’s father was better when his two sons reached London, and Geoffrey was quickly hustled out of the house, lest his angry father should learn of his being there. Growing still better, Lord Holchester decided to give Geoffrey one more chance. He should have a younger son’s portion, if, before his father’s death, he married an acceptable gentlewoman. The woman selected for him by his mother and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Julius Delamayn, was a very rich young widow, Mrs. Glenarm. Mrs. Julius Delamayn invited that charming person to be her guest at Swanhaven Lodge, near Windygates, and within ten days’ time Geoffrey, chiefly by virtue of his muscles and his overbearing masterfulness, had secured her promise to marry him.
He had, meanwhile, entered himself as the champion of the South in the longest and severest foot-race that had ever been run by amateurs. The race was to be run a little later, and after a brief time Geoffrey went into training for what was regarded as the greatest athletic event of the century.
In the meanwhile the brutal fellow had -decided not only to abandon Anne Silvester, but deliberately to sacrifice Arnold Brinkworth as a convenient means of doing so. His dull mind had grasped the fact that, under Scottish law, Arnold’s act in representing himself at the inn as Anne’s husband might be construed into a marriage. He assumed that position, and in an interview roughly repudiated Anne, who promptly fled. Blanche, whose love for her governess was boundless, made every effort to find her, but in vain. Sir Patrick exhausted his resources in that behalf, and then, by way of diverting Blanche’s mind, hastened her marriage to Arnold Brinkworth.
Anne had gone to Glasgow. There she gave birth to a dead child. Her anxiety to protect Arnold and Blanche was so great that, before she was really able to travel with safety, she visited Swanhaven and secured an interview with Geoffrey’s prospective wife, which served only to bring fresh insult upon her. Geoffrey now openly declared that Anne had made herself Arnold’s wife by virtue of the happenings at the inn. Through mistaken kindness, all the facts of the case were kept from Blanche’s knowledge, and her marriage with Arnold was hastened.
Old Bishopriggs tried to trade upon the letter he had in his possession. Sir Patrick set many traps for him, but he was too wary to be caught, until at last Anne Silvester found him and compelled him to return the letter to her for a consideration much smaller than he had hoped to secure. Her only desire was to protect Arnold and Blanche by securing possession of a document that might be used to harass them. Her first thought was to destroy the paper. Fortunately she decided to preserve it instead, as a means of protecting the innocent in case of need.
Arnold and Blanche were married and spent their honey-moon on the Continent. The newspapers got hold of the facts of the strange case and made them public, with disguises and reserves, but with sufficient definiteness to alarm Sir Patrick Lundie, who had learned from Arnold the incident of the inn. He instantly summoned the bridal pair back to England, and set to work to adjust matters if possible. If the Craig Fernie occurrence had in reality made Arnold Brinkworth and Anne Silvester man and wife in the eyes of the law, then Arnold’s marriage with Blanche was bigamous. Sir Patrick set all his legal wits at work to find what could be done.
Anne had sought to see Geoffrey in order to save Blanche’s happiness, and had succeeded only in throwing him into a fit of anger, dangerous to him in his training. He had gone into the race in unfit condition and had lost it by a physical collapse near the end.
Meanwhile Lady Lundie, Blanche’s stepmother, had by accident learned the facts of the situation. She went to London and adroitly managed to see Blanche alone before her presence was known. She shocked and horrified Blanche with a tale that hinted of the invalidity of her marriage with Arnold. Blanche refused to believe. Lady Lundie placed her where she could hear without being seen; then she taxed Arnold with the story and he admitted the facts. Having heard his admission, to which he had not attached the explanation, Blanche consented to flee with Lady Lundie and accept her protection.
Lady Lundie brought matters to a crisis by sending a letter to Sir Patrick, telling him what she had done and claiming the right to protect her stepdaughter against any attempts by Sir Patrick or Arnold to see her.
The situation was perplexing. If Sir Patrick should assert his rights as Blanche’s guardian, he must contend that she was not married to Arnold. If, on the other hand, he should contend that her marriage was valid, then his rights as her guardian had ceased.
Sir Patrick was a cool-headed, shrewd, diplomatic person, and by the exercise of all his ingenuity and persuasiveness he managed at last to secure a private hearing of the case in Lady Lundie’s drawing-room, with everybody present who was in any way concerned. Chief among these was Anne Silvester, and her spirit of heroic self-sacrifice in behalf of her friend Blanche filled Sir Patrick with admiration.
Anne had once wanted Geoffrey Delamayn to make her his wife because she then loved him. Later she had wanted him to make her his wife for the sake of her reputation. Now she abhorred and loathed him, but she was more than ever determined to make him acknowledge her as his wife, in order that there might be no possible cloud upon Blanche’s life. She fully understood the power the British law authorizes a husband to exercise over his wife, and she knew with what brutality Geoffrey Delamayn would exercise that power if forced to accept her as his wife. But for Blanche’s sake she was ready for the sacrifice.
At the informal hearing where all were present, including Geoffrey’s lawyers, Sir Patrick sought by every means in his power. to secure an adjustment without accepting Anne’s sacrifice. It was all to no purpose ; Geoffrey insisted upon it that the incidents at the inn had made Arnold and Anne man and wife. He denied everything else. In that way only could he leave himself free to marry Mrs. Glenarm with her income of ten thousand pounds a year.
At Sir Patrick’s suggestion, Arnold made a frank statement of the facts as to the meeting at the inn, and Anne fully con-firmed them. Blanche declared her belief in the statement and her confidence in her husband, but at Lady Lundie’s suggestion she declined to make the reconciliation complete until it should be conclusively proved that the events had not in law made Arnold Anne’s husband.
Sir Patrick took Anne into another room, and pleaded with her to take back the letter which, if used, would condemn her to submit herself to Geoffrey Delamayn as his wife and as an enemy, helpless in his brutal hands. So great was his pity for her and his admiration for her heroism that he stood ready to sacrifice even Blanche’s happiness to her salvation. Anne resolutely insisted that the letter should be used, and, returning to the drawing-room, Sir Patrick presented it, citing a decision of the courts which had been sustained by the House of Lords, that a document such as that actually and unquestionably constituted a marriage in itself. Geoffrey’s own lawyers declared, after examining the paper, that at the time when Arnold Brinkworth went to the inn in behalf of Geoffrey Delamayn, Geoffrey Delamayn and Anne Silvester were already man and wife.
In moody anger Geoffrey accepted the decision. He re-minded Anne that but for her he might have made friends with his father; that but for her he might have married Mrs. Glen-arm and possessed himself of her colossal fortune; that but for her he would have crowned his athletic career by winning the foot-race. In brief, his utterance was a threat of vengeance. He called a cab and ordered her into it. Loathing and fearing him as she did, she had no choice but to obey. She was his wife, and in British law the wife is subject to her husband’s commands.
At this time Geoffrey was living in a secluded house, with a walled-in garden, as the tenant of a strange woman, Hester Dethridge. Hester had been cook at Windygates. She was dumb, though not deaf. She heard what was said to her, and replied either by signs or by writing on a slate which she always carried slung to her belt.
In such a place Anne was completely a prisoner; Geoffrey kept the outer gates locked, and himself carried the key. He gave Anne her choice of rooms, and while moodily seeming to threaten her, took pains to profess penitence and to seek reconciliation.
Hester’s history had been peculiar. Brought up in devout piety as a Primitive Methodist, she had married against the will of her parents. Her husband, a paper-hanger, had proved to be a drunkard. He had squandered her savings, and when she had fled from him to earn money he had followed and used his authority under the marriage laws to despoil her. She read somewhere an account of how women in her situation sometimes killed their husbands by placing a wet towel over their mouths and noses while they lay in a drunken torpor. Employing her instead of a journeyman in his business, her husband had taught her how to remove paper from a wall, repair the wall beneath, and replace the paper so as to show no sign of disturbance. What he had taught her she practised. She made an opening of that kind between his bedroom and her own. Passing her hands through the opening, she smothered him, after which she restored the wall to its original condition. He was found dead in a room locked within, and no suspicion of homicide arose.
From that hour she had been dumb except in prayer. She inherited property, including the house in which Geoffrey Delamayn was now living as her lodger. She had written a confession of her crime, which she kept always in her bosom, so that it might be buried with her for God to read after she was dead.
By accident Geoffrey got possession of the confession and read it. He was already contemplating the murder of Anne and trying to invent a plan by which it might be accomplished without danger of subsequent discovery. Here was a plan ready to his hand. He compelled Hester to instruct him and to prepare the walls. Having possession of her confession he had her in his power.
In the meanwhile Sir Patrick Lundie and BIanche were torn with apprehension for Anne’s safety, and were planning her rescue by fair means or foul.
By arrangement with them she was to place a light in her window as a signal whenever she could escape to the rear garden gate. An enforced change in her quarters on the night before had aroused her suspicions and deprived her of sleep. On this second night she must wait for some hours before Geoffrey would be off guard and she free to set the signal-light. Exhausted, she lay down to sleep during these spare hours. Suddenly she awoke to find a light shining through a hole that had been been made in the wall, and through that hole she saw Geoffrey lying dead of a paralytic stroke with the insane woman bending over him.
Anne gave the alarm and was promptly joined by Sir Patrick and Arnold, together with a policeman who at their instigation had forced his way into the garden.
Hester Dethridge, now hopelessly insane, was taken to an asylum. Lady Lundie had broken off all relations with Sir Patrick, Blanche, and Arnold.
Some months later she unexpectedly appeared at Holchester House, and Julius, now Lord Holchester, informed her that Arnold and Blanche were expecting an heir and that Sir Patrick had married Anne Silvester, a fact which made of Anne the Lady Lundie, and relegated herself, at forty years of age, to the nominal place of dowager Lady Lundie. Mrs. Glenarm had turned Catholic and entered a convent.