The Woman in White came next to The Moonstone in establishing the fame of William Wilkie Collins. In it as in his other novels he worked on a principle quite different from that of Gaboriau and Poe and the school practically founded by them. They and their followers begin almost invariably with the work of solution; that is, the detective or the detector enters the scene at once, and it is the story of his accomplishment that gradually unfolds the plot.
IT was a singularly sultry and foreboding night in July. Walter Hartright, worn out by a summer of hard toil in his profession, felt the pulse of life sink low within him as he strolled slowly through the silent and lonely darkness of Hampstead Heath. Suddenly a hand was laid lightly on his shoulder from behind.
He turned. There stood the figure of a woman, dressed from head to foot in white. With rapid yet curiously mechanical utterance she asked : “Is that the way to London? Can I get a carriage? If you could show me where to get oneand if you will only promise not to interfere with meI want nothing else.”
She laid her hand on his arm and almost impelled him to hurry along with her; and when at last a cab came into view she ran to it, entered breathlessly, and was whirled toward London.
Walter Hartright had been walking about ten minutes more when a chaise with two men came headlong down the road they had just traversed. It drew up near a solitary policeman. “Have you seen a woman pass this way, policeman?” cried one. “A woman dressed all in white! She has escaped from my asylum.”
Receiving an answer in the negative, the men drove on before Hartright could say a word.
The incident seemed to him a dark omen; for in her -disjointed conversation the woman had mentioned Limmeridge House, whose dead mistress, Mrs. Fairlie, she said, had been kind to her once, long ago. And that very evening Walter Hartright had been engaged by letter to act as drawing-master for the two young nieces of Frederick Fairlie of Limmeridge House.
On his arrival there he found Mr. Fairlie, shut up in a heavily curtained and carpeted room, devoted entirely to the care of his precious nerves and anxious to have the drawing-lessons begin with as little trouble to himself as possible. As a result, Hartright was thrown at once into quite uncontrolled companionship with the two half-sistersMarian Halcombe, bright, amiable, capable, beautifully formed and full of womanly grace, but with a dark face like that of a man; and Laura Fairlie, bewitchingly beautiful, with wonderful eyes of a turquoise blue and with a nature as sensitive as that of a flower.
Marian’s father had left his daughter practically nothing; Laura had inherited a fortune from her father and was the ward of his brother, Frederick Fairlie, who had succeeded to the ownership of Limmeridge House.
When Hartright told Miss Halcombe the story of his meeting with the woman in white, she searched through her mother’s letters, and found one written to Mr. Fairlie, in which she told him of a new pupil whom she had placed in her village school. “I have taken a violent fancy, Philip,” she wrote, “to a little girl named Anne Catherick. I have dressed her in Laura’s old white frocks and hats and, my dear Philip, although she is not half so pretty, she does still bear a most extraordinary re-semblance in hair, color, complexion, eyes, and shape of face to our own dear Laura.”
Now followed three months of happiness for master and pupils, three months of sketching, riding, walking, and looking at the sea: a happiness that was ended suddenly by the realization coming to all three at once that Walter Hartright and Laura Fairlie were in love.
Marian Halcombe with her downright honesty spoke to him and counseled that he go away, since Laura had been engaged for some time to Sir Percival Glyde in obedience to her father’s dying desire; and Hartright realized that there was another obstacle in the difference of their fortunes.
Before he departed an anonymous letter came to Laura Fairlie, warning her in mysterious and passionate language not to marry Sir Percival Glyde. Search for the elderly woman who had given it to the gardener proved fruitless; but in the course of that search Hartright and Miss Halcombe learned that the village was excited over the story of a boy who had seen the white figure of a ghost standing beside Mrs. Fairlie’s gravestone the night before.
That evening Hartright concealed himself in the church, feeling little doubt as to the discovery that he was to make. A white figure stole through the dark, kneeled down and began to clean the stone where it was discolored. Stepping out he con-fronted Anne Catherick, the woman in white. And in that moment he saw, too, that except for the effects of suffering and sorrow her face was that of Laura Fairlie.
He learned that she was staying at a farm near-by in company with a Mrs. Clements, who had nursed her in childhood and to whose home in London she had escaped from the asylum. She confessed that she had, written the anonymous letter, but when he mentioned the Baronet’s name she became quite wild and fled.
When Miss Halcombe went to the farm the next day Anne Catherick had disappeared again.
Weighed down not only by the heavy sorrow that his hope-less love had brought to him, but also by his fear that Laura Fairlie was about to marry a villain, Hartright departed and sought to forget by joining an expedition into Central America.
Sir Percival Glyde, a prepossessing and handsome man, arrived at Limmeridge House soon after. He explained his connection with Anne Catherick most readily and convincingly. He had sent her to an asylum at the instance of her mother, who had rendered his family faithful service. A letter of inquiry to Mrs. Catherick, upon which he insisted, brought a reply declaring that Sir Percival had been most kind to her afflicted daughter.
Still Marian could not rid herself of the impression that there was some dark mystery behind it all, and her distrust of Sir Percival was not lessened when he insisted that the marriage settlement provide that in the event of Laura’s death all her fortune should pass to him. Laura’s faithful old lawyer bitterly opposed this. But Frederick Fairlie protested petulantly against being annoyed by trivial details and gave his consent as Laura’s guardian. Laura herself had begun to lose all interest in life since the departure of Walter Hartright, and Marian Halcombe saw with a heavy heart that her dear sister was doomed to a future of unavailing and bitter sorrow. She consented to everything proposed listlessly and wearily; and listlessly, wearily she was married.
It was summer when Sir Percival Glyde and his wife came home from Italy to Blackwater Park, where Marian met them. With them came Count Fosco and his wife, who was Laura’s aunt on her father’s side. Count Fosco interested Marian strangely; Laura was evidently in almost abject fear of him. He was an immensely fat man, yet lithe and noiseless as a cat, with a face like Napoleon’s on a large scale and compelling gray eyes.
Sir Percival was at once rude to him and afraid of him. His wifewho as Miss Fairlie had been notoriously self-willed and whimsicalwas as submissive to him as a hound.
From the beginning Fosco played the role of mediator. Again and again he checked Sir Percival when the latter was on the point of being impolite or worse to Laura. Despite his efforts, however, the time came soon when the Baronet threw off the mask and appeared in his true colors.
His solicitor appeared suddenly in Blackwater Park and the two had a heated conversation. Marian accidentally over-heard enough to know that the Baronet’s creditors were pressing him hard and that he could escape ruin only by getting hold of some of Laura’s fortune. “You quite understand, Sir Percival?” the lawyer was saying. “Lady Glyde need merely sign her name in the presence of two witnesses and then put her finger on the seal and say, `I deliver this as my act and deed.’ ”
Marian warned Laura, with the result that when Sir Percival laid a folded paper before her for her signature she refused to sign until she had read it. His black temper broke instantly. He reiterated his demand that she sign at once, and when she still refused assailed her with shameful insult. Fosco interfered again. He took Sir Percival aside, and afterward informed Miss Halcombe that the question would not be raised again.
Soon after Laura met the woman in white in a little pine wood near the house. “I have been waiting daysI have risked being shut up again in the madhouse,” said the woman in white, “and all for you, Miss Fairlie, to save you. If you knew his secret he would be afraid of you, and if I can make him treat you mercifully, perhaps I shall meet your mother in heaven. My mother knows the secret, too, and has wasted under it half her lifetime.”
Startled by a noise, she whispered: “Tomorrowhere,” and fled. The next day when Marian followed Laura to the place, according to agreement, she found no one. Going back to the house she found that Laura had returned, sobbing, in the company of her husband, who had ordered her locked in her room under the guard of a servant. It was only after the intervention of Count Fosco that Marian was permitted to see her sister. Laura told her that she had not seen Anne Catherick, but had discovered the word “Look” traced in the sand, and had found there a buried letter in which Anne wrote that she had been seen by a tall, stout man, and did not dare to keep the appointment, but would come again as soon as possible.
While Laura was reading this note her husband came, seized her by the arm, said that he knew of her interview the preceding day, and angrily demanded to know what she had learned. When she told him all that the woman in white had said, he laughed mockingly, and replied that she knew more. “And you shall tell it,” he shouted. “I’ll wring it out of you!” and dragged her to the house.
That evening Marian discovered that Sir Percival and Count Fosco were together in the library. She stole along the leaden roof and crouched near the edge where she could hearfor she was willing to dare all to save her sister.
She learned that they were plotting Laura’s death, by which Fosco’s wife would receive ten thousand pounds and Sir Percival would be released from his difficulties.
The Count then demanded to know the secret about Anne Catherick. Sir Percival refused to tell him what it was, but said she knew what would ruin him.
Fosco thought he could find her and asked how she looked. “She’s a sickly image of my wife,” said Sir Percival, and Marian heard an exclamation from Fosco, followed by a curious laugh.
When at last the conversation was ended, Marian was so cold and stiff from the rain that had been falling that she could scarcely arise. She crawled back to her room and fell senseless on the floor.
Thus they found her the next morning, delirious. Count Fosco at once sent his wife to London, whence she returned with a nurse, a small, wiry, sly person, Mrs. Rubelle. Within a week the illness became a deadly fever, and it was three weeks before the danger was over.
When the change for the better took place Count Fosco picked a quarrel with the doctor, who dropped the case indignantly. On the same day Sir Percival announced that he would break up the establishment, and discharged all the servants at once. Within twenty-four hours there remained in it, besides the family, only Mrs. Rubelle and a stupid maid.
Laura, worn out with watching Marian, could not leave her room for a few days. When she did she found Marian’s room empty. Sir Percival told her that Marian had left with Count Fosco and his wife for their new home in St. John’s Wood, in London, where she intended to stay for a few days before going on to Limmeridge House.
Laura insisted on following; Sir Percival, so recently bent on keeping her a prisoner, made no objection, and she went the following morning, quite alone.
Marian Halcombe had not, however, left Blackwater Park. She was lying in another wing of the building, to which she had been removed secretly while in a deep sleep following the fever.
Two days later her worst forebodings were more than realized. The news came from Fosco that Laura had died from heart-disease in his house the day after her arrival.
Three months afterward Walter Hartright returned from Central America, with the image of Laura Fairlie brighter than ever in his soulto learn that she was dead.
In a quiet autumn afternoon he reached the graveyard at Limmeridge, where he had once waited for the woman in white. He kneeled beside the cross on which was now a new inscription : ” Sacred to the Memory of Laura, Lady Glyde.” Lying with his head on the base of the stone and his eyes closed, he was roused by the sound of footsteps, and looking up he saw two veiled women. One of them raised her veil. It was Marian, worn, wasted, and changed. The other woman came slowly on, stepped to the side of the cross, and raised her veil. Walter Hartright, staring at her with unutterable dread, saw Laura, Lady Glyde, looking at him over the grave.
His heart turned faint, his mind sank into darkness and confusion. It was long before he could grasp the purport of the story that Marian Halcombe had to tell.
For three weeks after she received the news from Fosco she remained unable to move. Then she hurried at once to Limmeridge House, where she found two letters. One was from her old lawyer, who at her request had investigated the circumstances thoroughly and reported that there was no doubt that Laura’s death had been perfectly natural. She had been overcome with heart-disease, superinduced by worry and excitement, and the highly reputable physicians who attended her had watched the progress of the illness from the first attack to the end.
The other letter was from Count Fosco to Mr. Fairlie. It gave all the details of Laura’s illness and death. In a postscript he mentioned that Anne Catherick had been captured and returned to the asylum, and he warned Mr. Fairlie that she might try to annoy him with letters, because her insane hatred of Sir Percival had taken a new turn. She was now under the delusion that she was not Anne Catherick, but Lady Glyde.
Despite all this evidence Marian could not rid herself of the belief that her sister had been murdered. But the detectives she employed reported that Sir Percival had gone to Paris before Lady Glyde died, and was living there quietly; and that there was absolutely nothing suspicious about the Foscos.
Foiled at all points, she decided to see Anne Catherick, went to the asylum and was directed to a part of the grounds where the patient was then walking with an attendant. When she got there she foundLaura.
The next day, when Laura was taken for a walk, as usual, the attendant, who had yielded to a heavy bribe from Marian, allowed her to escape, and that night found the two sisters safe in Limmeridge House.
Laura, whose mind had been terribly shaken by the frightful events that had crowded on her, remembered only that Count Fosco had met her and taken her to a house in London, where he gave her something to counteract a sudden faintness. She became still more giddy. Two strangers entered the room, looked at her curiously and asked her curious questions. Then she fainted again and when she recovered she was in the asylum.
The plot was clear as day. But there arose a simple and yet insuperable obstacle against proving it.
Frederick Fairlie angrily declared that Marian had allowed herself to be duped by Anne Catherick, insisting that he could not recognize his niece in the worn woman before him. The servants, too, who had not seen Laura since her marriage, were uncertain. She had left Limmeridge House a blooming young girl. She returned a pale, haggard, wild-eyed woman.
Marian realized that there was no hope except in instant flight. The conspirators would spare neither money nor effort to recapture Laura. Mr. Fairlie would help them, convinced as he was that she was truly Anne Catherick. The sisters went to the graveyard for a farewell visit, and there they found Walter Hartright.
A week later three plainly dressed people took cheap lodgings in a poor and crowded neighborhood in London’s east side. The man described himself as an artist and the two women as his sisters. There, shut out from all his old sources of income, Walter Hartright obtained work under an assumed name. He and Marian set aside their small fortunes for the work of exposing the plot that had robbed Laura of her fortune and her identity, and lived rigorously on Walter’s small earnings. Their old lawyer, secretly approached, could give them no hope. He had not seen Laura in years. He pointed out that with Mr. Fairlie’s evidence against them the task was hopeless. Indeed, he himself inclined to believe Marian and Hartright the dupes of a mad woman’s delusiondupes whom the courts of law would be more inclined to look upon as calculating agents.
When Walter Hartright reported this to Marian, he said:
“There is only one hope. It is in the secret that Anne Catherick and her mother knew. If its betrayal means ruin to Sir Percival, its knowledge will give us a club to force confession from him.”
Acting on this conviction, he sought Mrs. Clements. She told him all she knew. Mrs. Catherick and she had been neighbors twenty-two years ago in Old Welmingham, where Mrs. Catherick’s husband was parish clerk. He had left her suddenly after discovering that she had held several secret meetings with Sir Percival Glyde in the vestry of the church. About the same time Anne was born, and Mrs. Clements had nursed her and gradually come to look on her almost as her own daughter, since her mother seemed to hate her.
With this meager information he hurried to Old Welmingham. From Mrs. Catherick he elicited nothing. His other inquiries in the town were equally fruitless, except that he found the secret had something to do with a happening in those far-off days in the vestry.
Feeling himself against a dead wall, Hartright sought the old parish clerk, who had taken Catherick’s place when that man left the country after the scandal. The talkative old fellow cheerfully showed Hartright everything, including the church register, and the artist at once looked through the entries under the years that would about correspond with Sir Percival’s birth. After a long search his eye was caught by an entry crowded in the most peculiar and suspicious way into a tiny space at the bottom of the page. It recorded the marriage of Cecilia Jane Elster to Sir Felix Glyde.
When the old clerk put the register away again Hartright remarked on the insecure place in which it was stored, guarded as it was by a rusty old lock and surrounded by the accumulated litter of a century.
“Ay, ay,” said the old man, “our old vestry counsel used to worry about that, too. And he kept an exact copy of it in his safe in Knowlesbury, near here. Very few know of it.”
Hartright saw a gleam of hope. If, as he had immediately suspected, the entry of the marriage was a forgery, it could be proved from the duplicate register. All the old stories that he had heard about the curious, hidden life of Sir Percival’s parents came back to him. He hastened to Knowlesbury. There was no entry of any marriage of Sir Felix Glyde.
This was the secret! It was in Hartright’s hand at last. The disclosure of that secret would prove Sir Percival an illegitimate child and thus strip him of the estate. The disclosure of the forgery would send him to prison!
He determined to make sure that the register in the vestry of the church was put into a safe place at once. Returning to Old Welmingham he reached the clerk’s house after dark, and they hurried to the church. A light shone from within, but the door was barred. As they arrived the light changed to a leaping blaze. A hand within began to turn the key, but the rusty lock refused to obey. The hidden man threw himself against the mighty door. In vain! In another moment the whole vestry, combustible as tinder, was a mass of fire. Scream after scream came from within. Then all was still save the roar of the flame.
When the firemen at last ventured to enter they found the terribly burned body of a man lying face down in a corner. It was Sir Percival Glyde.
The next day Mrs. Catherick confessed that this was indeed the secret. Sir Percival’s parents never had been married and she had been bribed by him to steal her husband’s keys and to help him make the forged entry. The resemblance of Anne Catherick to Laura was explained by the fact that she was a natural daughter of Laura’s father.
And now that the secret was learned at last, it was useless!
But here Chanceblind, inscrutable Chancewas to step in and complete what human wit could not. It led straight to Count FoscoFosco, whose plot had worked itself out with such terrible smoothness; Fosco, in whose armor there seemed no vulnerable link, against whose fearful intellect there seemed no weapon.
Many months had passedmonths of unavailing effort. Unavailing as they were, however, in the direction of reinstating Laura, they had brought a great happiness; for she had been married to Walter Hartright.
One evening Hartright was with an Italian friend, a refugee whose life he had once saved, when they met Count Fosco face to face. In that instant the huge, lordly, masterful man seemed to cower and shrink; he turned leaden pale and fled.
Hartright urged his friend till the latter told him that he was a leader in a great secret brotherhood and that Fosco, also a leader at one time, had betrayed its secrets. The duty lay upon him under the most sacred of oaths to set the brotherhood’s agents on his trail without delay.
Thus armed by Chance, Hartright boldly entered the Fosco house, which he found disordered, in evident preparation for hasty flight. Under the threat to notify the brotherhood at once, he forced a written confession. Fosco told how he had traced Anne Catherick to London and had lured her to his house, where she had disturbed his arrangements by dying a day too soon, for she died a day before Laura left Blackwater Park; but, luckily for his plans, no one remembered that date.
Laura arrived the next day and was taken to Mrs. Rubelle’s house, where two medical men saw her and certified to her insanity, after which she was taken to the asylum.
Fosco’s confession related all the steps in the conspiracy in close detailhe being further incited to accuracy and fulness by the promise that no steps would be taken to recover from his wife the ten thousand pounds which she had received on proof of Laura’s death.
With the exact dates of all the steps of the conspiracy in his possessionthe total lack of which had been a fatal flaw hithertoHartright easily obtained sufficient legal proof. With-in a week Laura’s name was struck from the tombstone in Limmeridge and Mr. Fairlie had acknowledged her openly as his niece.
Fosco fled to France and lived there in disguise and close concealment. But the brotherhood found him before the year was out. Scarcely had the news of his death removed the last lingering shadow of fear from Laura, before the news of another death camesimultaneously with the birth of a son to Walter and Laura. The death was that of Mr. Fairlie; and Walter Hartright’s son was the heir of Limmeridge House.