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The Complete Collection of Wilkie Collins
A Fair Penitent
A House to Let
A Rogue's Life
Heart and Science
Hide and Seek
I Say No
My Lady's Money
Poor Miss Finch
The Black Robe
The Dead Alive
The Evil Genius
The Fallen Leaves
The Frozen Deep
The Guilty River
The Haunted Hotel
The Law and the Lady
The Legacy of Cain
The Queen of Hearts
The Two Destinies
The Woman in White
A Fair Penitent, by Wilkie Collins
A FAIR PENITENT
By Wilkie Collins
About "A Fair Penitent"
This story first appeared in Charles Dickens' magazine, "Household Words," volume 16, number 382, July 18, 1857. Published anonymously, as all contributions to the magazine were, it was attributed definitely to Wilkie Collins by Anne Lohrli in her analysis of the magazine's financial accounts.
A FAIR PENITENT
Charles PineauDuclos was a French writer of biographies and novels, who lived and worked during the first half of the eighteenth century. He prospered sufficiently well, as a literary man, to be made secretary to the French Academy, and to be allowed to succeed Voltaire in the office of historiographer of France. He has left behind him, in his own country, the reputation of a lively writer of the second class, who addressed the public of his day with fair success, and who, since his death, has not troubled posterity to take any particular notice of him.
Among the papers left by Duclos, two manuscripts were found, which he probably intended to turn to some literary account. The first was a brief Memoir, written by himself, of a Frenchwoman, named Mademoiselle Gautier, who began life as an actress and who ended it as a Carmelite nun. The second manuscript was the lady's own account of the process of her conversion, and of the circumstances which attended her moral passage from the state of a sinner to the state of a saint. There are certain national peculiarities in the character of Mademoiselle Gautier and in the narrative of her conversion, which are perhaps interesting enough to be reproduced with some chance of pleasing the present day.
It appears, from the account given of her by Duclos, that Mademoiselle Gautier made her appearance on the stage of the Théâtre François in the year seventeen hundred and sixteen. She is described as a handsome woman, with a fine figure, a fresh complexion, a lively disposition, and a violent temper. Besides possessing capacity as an actress, she could write very good verses, she was clever at painting in miniature, and, most remarkable quality of all, she was possessed of prodigious muscular strength. It is recorded of Mademoiselle, that she could roll up a silver plate with her hands, and that she covered herself with distinction in a trial of strength with no less a person than the famous soldier, Marshal Saxe.
Nobody who is at all acquainted with the social history of the eighteenth century in France, need be told that Mademoiselle Gautier had a long list of lovers,--for the most part, persons of quality, marshals, counts, and so forth. The only man, however, who really attached her to him, was an actor at the Théâtre François, a famous player in his day, named Quinault Dufresne. Mademoiselle Gautier seems to have loved him with all the ardour of her naturally passionate disposition. At first, he returned her affection; but, as soon as she ventured to test the sincerity of his attachment by speaking of marriage, he cooled towards her immediately, and the connection between them was broken off. In all her former love-affairs, she had been noted for the high tone which she adopted towards her admirers, and for the despotic authority which she exercised over them even in her gayest moments. But the severance of her connection with Quinault Dufresne wounded her to her heart. She had loved the man so dearly, had made so many sacrifices for him, had counted so fondly on the devotion of her whole future life to him, that the first discovery of his coldness towards her broke her spirit at once and for ever. She fell into a condition of hopeless melancholy, looked back with remorse and horror at her past life, and abandoned the stage and the society in which she had lived, to end her days repentantly in the character of a Carmelite nun.
So far, her history is the history of hundreds of other women before her time and after it. The prominent interest of her life, for the student of human nature, lies in the story of her conversion, as told by herself. The greater part of the narrative--every page of which is more or less characteristic of the Frenchwoman of the eighteenth century--may be given, with certain suppressions and abridgments, in her own words. The reader will observe, at the outset, one curious fact. Mademoiselle Gautier does not so much as hint at the influence which the loss of her lover had in disposing her mind to reflect on serious subjects. She describes her conversion as if it had taken its rise in a sudden inspiration from Heaven. Even the name of Quinault Dufresne is not once mentioned from one end of her narrative to the other.
On the twenty-fifth of April, seventeen hundred and twenty-two (writes Mademoiselle Gautier), while I was still leading a life of pleasure--according to the pernicious ideas of pleasure which pass current in the world--I happen to awake, contrary to my usual custom, between eight and nine o'clock in the morning. I remember that it is my birthday; I ring for my people; and my maid answers the bell, alarmed by the idea that I am ill. I tell her to dress me that I may go to mass. I go to the Church of the Cordeliers, followed by my footman, and taking with me a little orphan whom I had adopted. The first part of the mass is celebrated without attracting my attention; but, at the second part the accusing voice of my conscience suddenly begins to speak. "What brings you here?" it says. "Do you come to reward God for making you the attractive person that you are, by mortally transgressing His laws every day of your life?" I hear that question, and I am unspeakably overwhelmed by it. I quit the chair on which I have hitherto been leaning carelessly, and I prostrate myself in an agony of remorse on the pavement of the church.
The mass over, I send home the footman and the orphan, remaining behind myself, plunged in inconceivable perplexity. At last I rouse myself on a sudden; I go to the sacristy; I demand a mass for my own proper advantage every day; I determine to attend it regularly; and, after three hours of agitation, I return home, resolved to enter on the path that leads to justification.
Six months passed. Every morning I went to my mass: every evening I spent in my customary dissipations.
Some of my friends indulged in considerable merriment at my expense when they found out my constant attendance at mass. Accordingly, I disguised myself as a boy, when I went to church, to escape observation. My disguise was found out, and the jokes against me were redoubled. Upon this, I began to think of the words of the Gospel, which declare the impossibility of serving two masters. I determined to abandon the service of Mammon.
The first vanity I gave up was the vanity of keeping a maid. By way of further accustoming myself to the retreat from the world which I now began to meditate, I declined all invitations to parties under the pretext of indisposition. But the nearer the Easter time approached at which I had settled in my own mind definitely to turn my back on worldly temptations and pleasures, the more violent became my internal struggles with myself. My health suffered under them to such an extent that I was troubled with perpetual attacks of retching and sickness, which, however, did not prevent me from writing my general confession, addressed to the vicar of Saint Sulpice, the parish in which I lived.
Just Heaven! what did I not suffer some days afterwards, when I united around me at dinner, for the last time, all the friends who had been dearest to me in the days of my worldly life! What words can describe the tumult of my heart when one of my guests said to me, "You are giving us too good a dinner for a Wednesday in Passion Week;" and when another answered, jestingly, "You forget that this is her farewell dinner to her friends!" I felt ready to faint while they were talking, and rose from table pretexting as an excuse, that I had a payment to make that evening, which I could not in honour defer any longer. The company rose with me, and saw me to the door. I got into my carriage, and the company returned to table. My nerves were in such a state that I shrieked at the first crack of the coachman's whip; and the company came running down again to know what was the matter. One of my servants cleverly stopped them from all hurrying out to the carriage together, by declaring that the scream proceeded from my adopted orphan. Upon this they returned quietly enough to their wine, and I drove off with my general confession to the vicar of Saint Sulpice.
My interview with the vicar lasted three hours. His joy at discovering that I was in a state of grace was extreme. My own emotions were quite indescribable. Late at night I returned to my own house, and found my guests all gone. I employed myself in writing farewell letters to the manager and company of the theatre, and in making the necessary arrangements for sending back my adopted orphan to his friends, with twenty pistoles. Finally, I directed the servants to say, if anybody enquired after me the next day, that I had gone out of town for some time; and after that, at five o'clock in the morning, I left my home in Paris never to return to it again.
By this time I had thoroughly recovered my tranquillity. I was as easy in my mind at leaving my house as I am now when I quit my cell to sing in the choir. Such already was the happy result of my perpetual masses, my general confession, and my three hours' interview with the vicar of Saint Sulpice.
Before taking leave of the world, I went to Versailles to say good-bye to my worthy patrons, Cardinal Fleury and the Duke de Gesvres. From them, I went to mass in the King's Chapel; and after that, I called on a lady of Versailles whom I had mortally offended, for the purpose of making my peace with her. She received me angrily enough. I told her I had not come to justify myself, but to ask her pardon. If she granted it, she would send me away happy. If she declined to be reconciled, Providence would probably be satisfied with my submission, but certainly not with her refusal. She felt the force of this argument; and we made it up on the spot.
I left Versailles immediately afterwards, without taking anything to eat; the act of humility which I had just performed being as good as a meal to me.
Towards evening, I entered the house of the Community of Saint Perpetua at Paris. I had ordered a little room to be furnished there for me, until the inventory of my worldly effects was completed, and until I could conclude my arrangements for entering a convent. On first installing myself, I began to feel hungry at last, and begged the Superior of the Community to give me for supper anything that remained from the dinner of the house. They had nothing but a little stewed carp, of which I eat with an excellent appetite. Marvellous to relate, although I had been able to keep nothing on my stomach for the past three months, although I had been dreadfully sick after a little rice soup on the evening before, the stewed carp of the sisterhood of Saint Perpetua, with some nuts afterwards for dessert, agreed with me charmingly, and I slept all through the night afterwards as peacefully as a child!
When the news of my retirement became public, it occasioned great talk in Paris. Various people assigned various reasons for the strange course that I had taken. Nobody, however, believed that I had quitted the world in the prime of my life (I was then thirty-one years old), never to return to it again. Meanwhile, my inventory was finished and my goods were sold. One of my friends sent a letter, entreating me to reconsider my determination. My mind was made up, and I wrote to say so. When my goods had been all sold, I left Paris to go and live incognito as a parlour-boarder in the Convent of the Ursuline nuns of Pondevaux. Here I wished to try the mode of life for a little while before I assumed the serious responsibility of taking the veil. I knew my own character--I remembered my early horror of total seclusion, and my inveterate dislike to the company of women only; and, moved by these considerations, I resolved, now that I had taken the first important step, to proceed in the future with caution.
The nuns of Pondevaux received me among them with great kindness. They gave me a large room, which I partitioned off into three small ones. I assisted at all the pious exercises of the place. Deceived by my fashionable appearance and my plump figure, the good nuns treated me as if I was a person of high distinction. This afflicted me, and I undeceived them. When they knew who I really was, they only behaved towards me with still greater kindness. I passed my time in reading and praying, and led the quietest, sweetest life it is possible to conceive.
After ten months' sojourn at Pondevaux, I went to Lyons, and entered (still as parlour-boarder only) the House of Anticaille, occupied by the nuns of the Order of Saint Mary. Here, I enjoyed the advantage of having for director of my conscience that holy man, Father Deveaux. He belonged to the Order of the Jesuits; and he was good enough, when I first asked him for advice, to suggest that I should get up at eleven o'clock at night to say my prayers, and should remain absorbed in devotion until midnight. In obedience to the directions of this saintly person, I kept myself awake as well as I could till eleven o'clock. I then got on my knees with great fervour, and I blush to confess it, immediately fell as fast asleep as a dormouse. This went on for several nights, when Father Deveaux finding that my midnight devotions were rather too much for me, was so obliging as to prescribe another species of pious exercise, in a letter which he wrote to me with his own hand. The holy father, after deeply regretting my inability to keep awake, informed me that he had a new act of penitence to suggest to me by the performance of which I might still hope to expiate my sins. He then, in the plainest terms, advised me to have recourse to the discipline of flagellation, every Friday, using the cat-o'-nine-tails on my bare shoulders for the length of time that it would take to repeat a Miserere. In conclusion, he informed me that the nuns of Anticaille would probably lend me the necessary instrument of flagellation; but, if they made any difficulty about it, he was benevolently ready to furnish me with a new and special cat-o'-nine-tails of his own making.
Never was woman more amazed or more angry than I, when I first read this letter. "What!" cried I to myself, "does this man seriously recommend me to lash my own shoulders? Just Heaven, what impertinence! And yet, is it not my duty to put up with it? Does not this apparent insolence proceed from the pen of a holy man? If he tells me to flog my wickedness out of me, is it not my bounden duty to lay on the scourge with all my might immediately? Sinner that I am! I am thinking remorsefully of my plump shoulders and the dimples on my back, when I ought to be thinking of nothing but the cat-o'-nine-tails and obedience to Father Deveaux?"
These reflections soon gave me the resolution which I had wanted at first. I was ashamed to ask the nuns for an instrument of flagellation; so I made one for myself of stout cord, pitilessly knotted at very short intervals. This done, I shut myself up while the nuns were at prayer, uncovered my shoulders, and rained such a shower of lashes on them, in the first fervour of my newly-awakened zeal, that I fairly flogged myself down on the ground, flat on my nose, before I had repeated more of the Miserere than the first two or three lines.
I burst out crying, shedding tears of spite against myself when I ought to have been shedding tears of devotional gratitude for the kindness of Father Deveaux. All through the night I never closed my eyes, and in the morning I found my poor shoulders (once so generally admired for their whiteness) striped with all the colours of the rainbow. The sight threw me into a passion, and I profanely said to myself while I was dressing, "The next time I see Father Deveaux, I will give my tongue full swing, and make the hair of that holy man stand on end with terror!" A few hours afterwards, he came to the convent, and all my resolution melted away at the sight of him. His imposing exterior had such an effect on me that I could only humbly entreat him to excuse me from indicting a second flagellation on myself. He smiled, benignantly, and granted my request with a saintly amiability. "Give me the cat-o'-nine-tails," he said, in conclusion, "and I will keep it for you till you ask me for it again. You are sure to ask for it again, dear child--to ask for it on your bended knees!"
Pious and prophetic man! Before many days had passed his words came true. If he had persisted severely in ordering me to flog myself, I might have opposed him for months together; but, as it was, who could resist the amiable indulgence he showed towards my weakness? The very next day after my interview, I began to feel ashamed of my own cowardice; and the day after that I went down on my knees, exactly as he had predicted, and said, "Father Deveaux, give me back my cat-o'-nine-tails." From that time I cheerfully underwent the discipline of flagellation, learning the regular method of practising it from the sisterhood, and feeling, in a spiritual point of view, immensely the better for it.
The nuns, finding that I cheerfully devoted myself to every act of self-sacrifice prescribed by the rules of their convent, wondered very much that I still hesitated about taking the veil. I begged them not to mention the subject to me till my mind was quite made up about it. They respected my wish, and said no more; but they lent me books to read which assisted in strengthening my wavering resolution. Among these books was the Life of Madame de Montmorenci, who, after the shocking death of her husband, entered the Order of St. Mary. The great example of this lady made me reflect seriously, and I communicated my thoughts, as a matter of course, to Father Deveaux. He assured me that the one last greatest sacrifice which remained for me to make was the sacrifice of my liberty. I had long known that this was my duty, and I now felt, for the first time, that I had courage and resolution enough boldly to face the idea of taking the veil.
While I was in this happy frame of mind, I happened to meet with the history of the famous Rancé, founder, or rather reformer, of the Order of La Trappe. I found a strange similarity between my own worldly errors and those of this illustrious penitent. The discovery had such an effect on me, that I spurned all idea of entering a convent where the rules were comparatively easy, as was the case at Anticaille, and determined, when I did take the veil, to enter an Order whose discipline was as severe as the discipline of La Trappe itself. Father Deveaux informed me that I should find exactly what I wanted among the Carmelite nuns; and, by his advice, I immediately put myself in communication with the Archbishop of Villeroi. I opened my heart to this worthy prelate, convinced him of my sincerity, and gained from him a promise that he would get me admitted among the Carmelite nuns of Lyons. One thing I begged of him at parting, which was, that he would tell the whole truth about my former life and about the profession that I had exercised in the world. I was resolved to deceive nobody, and to enter no convent under false pretences of any sort.
My wishes were scrupulously fulfilled; and the nuns were dreadfully frightened when they heard that I had been an actress at Paris. But the Archbishop promising to answer for me, and to take all their scruples on his own conscience, they consented to receive me. I could not trust myself to take formal leave of the nuns of Anticaille, who had been so kind to me, and towards whom I felt so gratefully. So I wrote my farewell to them after privately leaving their house, telling them frankly the motives which animated me, and asking their pardon for separating myself from them in secret.
On the fourteenth of October, seventeen hundred and twenty-four, I entered the Carmelite convent at Lyons, eighteen months after my flight from the world, and my abandonment of my profession--to adopt which, I may say, in my own defence, that I was first led through sheer poverty. At the age of seventeen years, and possessing (if I may credit report) remarkable personal charms, I was left perfectly destitute through the spendthrift habits of my father. I was easily persuaded to go on the stage, and soon tempted, with my youth and inexperience, to lead an irregular life. I do not wish to assert that dissipation necessarily follows the choice of the actress's profession, for I have known many estimable women on the stage. I, unhappily, was not one of the number. I confess it to my shame, and, as the chief of sinners, I am only the more grateful to the mercy of Heaven which accomplished my conversion.
When I entered the convent, I entreated the prioress to let me live in perfect obscurity, without corresponding with my friends, or even with my relations. She declined to grant this last request, thinking that my zeal was leading me too far. On the other hand, she complied with my wish to be employed at once, without the slightest preparatory indulgence or consideration, on any menial labour which the discipline of the convent might require from me. On the first day of my admission a broom was put into my hands. I was appointed also to wash up the dishes, to scour the saucepans, to draw water from a deep well, to carry each sister's pitcher to its proper place, and to scrub the tables in the refectory. From these occupations I got on in time to making rope shoes for the sisterhood, and to taking care of the great clock of the convent; this last employment requiring me to pull up three immensely heavy weights regularly every day. Seven years of my life passed in this hard work, and I can honestly say that I never murmured over it.
To return, however, to the period of my admission into the convent.
After three months of probation, I took the veil on the twentieth of January, seventeen hundred and twenty-five. The Archbishop did me the honour to preside at the ceremony; and, in spite of the rigour of the season, all Lyons poured into the church to see me take the vows. I was deeply affected; but I never faltered in my resolution. I pronounced the oaths with a firm voice, and with a tranquillity which astonished all the spectators,--a tranquillity which has never once failed me since that time.
Such is the story of my conversion. Providence sent me into the world with an excellent nature, with a true heart, with a remarkable susceptibility to the influence of estimable sentiments. My parents neglected my education, and left me in the world, destitute of everything but youth, beauty, and a lively temperament. I tried hard to be virtuous; I vowed, before I was out of my teens, and when I happened to be struck down by a serious illness, to leave the stage, and to keep my reputation unblemished, if anybody would only give me two hundred livres a year to live upon. Nobody came forward to help me, and I fell.
Heaven pardon the rich people of Paris who might have preserved my virtue at so small a cost! Heaven grant me courage to follow the better path into which its mercy has led me, and to persevere in a life of penitence and devotion to the end of my days!
So this singular confession ends. Besides the little vanities and levities which appear here and there on its surface, there is surely a strong under-current of sincerity and frankness which fit it to appeal in some degree to the sympathy as well as the curiosity of the reader. It is impossible to read the narrative without feeling that there must have been something really genuine and hearty in Mademoiselle Gautier's nature; and it is a gratifying proof of the honest integrity of her purpose to know that she persevered to the last in the life of humility and seclusion which her conscience had convinced her was the best life that she could lead. Persons who knew her in the Carmelite convent, report that she lived and died in it, preserving to the last, all the better part of the youthful liveliness of her character. She always received visitors with pleasure, always talked to them with surprising cheerfulness, always assisted the poor, and always willingly wrote letters to her former patrons in Paris to help the interests of her needy friends. Towards the end of her life, she was afflicted with blindness; but she was a trouble to no one in consequence of this affliction, for she continued, in spite of it, to clean her own cell, to make her own bed, and to cook her own food just as usual. One little characteristic vanity--harmless enough, surely?--remained with her to the last. She never forgot her own handsome face, which all Paris had admired in the by-gone time; and she contrived to get a dispensation from the Pope which allowed her to receive visitors in the convent parlour without a veil.
A House to Let
A HOUSE TO LET (FULL TEXT) by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Adelaide Ann Procter
Over the Way The Manchester Marriage Going into Society Three Evenings in the House Trottle's Report Let at Last
OVER THE WAY
I had been living at Tunbridge Wells and nowhere else, going on for ten years, when my medical man--very clever in his profession, and the prettiest player I ever saw in my life of a hand at Long Whist, which was a noble and a princely game before Short was heard of--said to me, one day, as he sat feeling my pulse on the actual sofa which my poor dear sister Jane worked before her spine came on, and laid her on a board for fifteen months at a stretch--the most upright woman that ever lived--said to me, "What we want, ma'am, is a fillip."
"Good gracious, goodness gracious, Doctor Towers!" says I, quite startled at the man, for he was so christened himself: "don't talk as if you were alluding to people's names; but say what you mean."
"I mean, my dear ma'am, that we want a little change of air and scene."
"Bless the man!" said I; "does he mean we or me!"
"I mean you, ma'am."
"Then Lard forgive you, Doctor Towers," I said; "why don't you get into a habit of expressing yourself in a straightforward manner, like a loyal subject of our gracious Queen Victoria, and a member of the Church of England?"
Towers laughed, as he generally does when he has fidgetted me into any of my impatient ways--one of my states, as I call them--and then he began,--
"Tone, ma'am, Tone, is all you require!" He appealed to Trottle, who just then came in with the coal-scuttle, looking, in his nice black suit, like an amiable man putting on coals from motives of benevolence.
Trottle (whom I always call my right hand) has been in my service two-and- thirty years. He entered my service, far away from England. He is the best of creatures, and the most respectable of men; but, opinionated.
"What you want, ma'am," says Trottle, making up the fire in his quiet and skilful way, "is Tone."
"Lard forgive you both!" says I, bursting out a-laughing; "I see you are in a conspiracy against me, so I suppose you must do what you like with me, and take me to London for a change."
For some weeks Towers had hinted at London, and consequently I was prepared for him. When we had got to this point, we got on so expeditiously, that Trottle was packed off to London next day but one, to find some sort of place for me to lay my troublesome old head in.
Trottle came back to me at the Wells after two days' absence, with accounts of a charming place that could be taken for six months certain, with liberty to renew on the same terms for another six, and which really did afford every accommodation that I wanted.
"Could you really find no fault at all in the rooms, Trottle?" I asked him.
"Not a single one, ma'am. They are exactly suitable to you. There is not a fault in them. There is but one fault outside of them."
"And what's that?"
"They are opposite a House to Let."
"O!" I said, considering of it. "But is that such a very great objection?"
"I think it my duty to mention it, ma'am. It is a dull object to look at. Otherwise, I was so greatly pleased with the lodging that I should have closed with the terms at once, as I had your authority to do."
Trottle thinking so highly of the place, in my interest, I wished not to disappoint him. Consequently I said:
"The empty House may let, perhaps."
"O, dear no, ma'am," said Trottle, shaking his head with decision; "it won't let. It never does let, ma'am."
"Mercy me!Why not?"
"Nobody knows, ma'am. All I have to mention is, ma'am, that the House won't let!"
"How long has this unfortunate House been to let, in the name of Fortune?" said I.
"Ever so long," said Trottle. "Years."
"Is it in ruins?"
"It's a good deal out of repair, ma'am, but it's not in ruins."
The long and the short of this business was, that next day I had a pair of post-horses put to my chariot--for, I never travel by railway: not that I have anything to say against railways, except that they came in when I was too old to take to them; and that they made ducks and drakes of a few turnpike-bonds I had--and so I went up myself, with Trottle in the rumble, to look at the inside of this same lodging, and at the outside of this same House.
As I say, I went and saw for myself. The lodging was perfect. That, I was sure it would be; because Trottle is the best judge of comfort I know. The empty house was an eyesore; and that I was sure it would be too, for the same reason. However, setting the one thing against the other, the good against the bad, the lodging very soon got the victory over the House. My lawyer, Mr. Squares, of Crown Office Row; Temple, drew up an agreement; which his young man jabbered over so dreadfully when he read it to me, that I didn't understand one word of it except my own name; and hardly that, and I signed it, and the other party signed it, and, in three weeks' time, I moved my old bones, bag and baggage, up to London.
For the first month or so, I arranged to leave Trottle at the Wells. I made this arrangement, not only because there was a good deal to take care of in the way of my school-children and pensioners, and also of a new stove in the hall to air the house in my absence, which appeared to me calculated to blow up and burst; but, likewise because I suspect Trottle (though the steadiest of men, and a widower between sixty and seventy) to be what I call rather a Philanderer. I mean, that when any friend comes down to see me and brings a maid, Trottle is always remarkably ready to show that maid the Wells of an evening; and that I have more than once noticed the shadow of his arm, outside the room door nearly opposite my chair, encircling that maid's waist on the landing, like a table-cloth brush.
Therefore, I thought it just as well, before any London Philandering took place, that I should have a little time to look round me, and to see what girls were in and about the place. So, nobody stayed with me in my new lodging at first after Trottle had established me there safe and sound, but Peggy Flobbins, my maid; a most affectionate and attached woman, who never was an object of Philandering since I have known her, and is not likely to begin to become so after nine-and-twenty years next March.
It was the fifth of November when I first breakfasted in my new rooms. The Guys were going about in the brown fog, like magnified monsters of insects in table-beer, and there was a Guy resting on the door-steps of the House to Let. I put on my glasses, partly to see how the boys were pleased with what I sent them out by Peggy, and partly to make sure that she didn't approach too near the ridiculous object, which of course was full of sky-rockets, and might go off into bangs at any moment. In this way it happened that the first time I ever looked at the House to Let, after I became its opposite neighbour, I had my glasses on. And this might not have happened once in fifty times, for my sight is uncommonly good for my time of life; and I wear glasses as little as I can, for fear of spoiling it.
I knew already that it was a ten-roomed house, very dirty, and much dilapidated; that the area-rails were rusty and peeling away, and that two or three of them were wanting, or half-wanting; that there were broken panes of glass in the windows, and blotches of mud on other panes, which the boys had thrown at them; that there was quite a collection of stones in the area, also proceeding from those Young Mischiefs; that there were games chalked on the pavement before the house, and likenesses of ghosts chalked on the street-door; that the windows were all darkened by rotting old blinds, or shutters, or both; that the bills "To Let," had curled up, as if the damp air of the place had given them cramps; or had dropped down into corners, as if they were no more. I had seen all this on my first visit, and I had remarked to Trottle, that the lower part of the black board about terms was split away; that the rest had become illegible, and that the very stone of the door-steps was broken across. Notwithstanding, I sat at my breakfast table on that Please to Remember the fifth of November morning, staring at the House through my glasses, as if I had never looked at it before.
All at once--in the first-floor window on my right--down in a low corner, at a hole in a blind or a shutter--I found that I was looking at a secret Eye. The reflection of my fire may have touched it and made it shine; but, I saw it shine and vanish.
The eye might have seen me, or it might not have seen me, sitting there in the glow of my fire--you can take which probability you prefer, without offence--but something struck through my frame, as if the sparkle of this eye had been electric, and had flashed straight at me. It had such an effect upon me, that I could not remain by myself, and I rang for Flobbins, and invented some little jobs for her, to keep her in the room. After my breakfast was cleared away, I sat in the same place with my glasses on, moving my head, now so, and now so, trying whether, with the shining of my fire and the flaws in the window-glass, I could reproduce any sparkle seeming to be up there, that was like the sparkle of an eye. But no; I could make nothing like it. I could make ripples and crooked lines in the front of the House to Let, and I could even twist one window up and loop it into another; but, I could make no eye, nor anything like an eye. So I convinced myself that I really had seen an eye.
Well, to be sure I could not get rid of the impression of this eye, and it troubled me and troubled me, until it was almost a torment. I don't think I was previously inclined to concern my head much about the opposite House; but, after this eye, my head was full of the house; and I thought of little else than the house, and I watched the house, and I talked about the house, and I dreamed of the house. In all this, I fully believe now, there was a good Providence. But, you will judge for yourself about that, bye-and-bye.
My landlord was a butler, who had married a cook, and set up housekeeping. They had not kept house longer than a couple of years, and they knew no more about the House to Let than I did. Neither could I find out anything concerning it among the trades-people or otherwise; further than what Trottle had told me at first. It had been empty, some said six years, some said eight, some said ten. It never did let, they all agreed, and it never would let.
I soon felt convinced that I should work myself into one of my states about the House; and I soon did. I lived for a whole month in a flurry, that was always getting worse. Towers's prescriptions, which I had brought to London with me, were of no more use than nothing. In the cold winter sunlight, in the thick winter fog, in the black winter rain, in the white winter snow, the House was equally on my mind. I have heard, as everybody else has, of a spirit's haunting a house; but I have had my own personal experience of a house's haunting a spirit; for that House haunted mine.
In all that month's time, I never saw anyone go into the House nor come out of the House. I supposed that such a thing must take place sometimes, in the dead of the night, or the glimmer of the morning; but, I never saw it done. I got no relief from having my curtains drawn when it came on dark, and shutting out the House. The Eye then began to shine in my fire.
I am a single old woman. I should say at once, without being at all afraid of the name, I am an old maid; only that I am older than the phrase would express. The time was when I had my love-trouble, but, it is long and long ago. He was killed at sea (Dear Heaven rest his blessed head!) when I was twenty-five. I have all my life, since ever I can remember, been deeply fond of children. I have always felt such a love for them, that I have had my sorrowful and sinful times when I have fancied something must have gone wrong in my life--something must have been turned aside from its original intention I mean--or I should have been the proud and happy mother of many children, and a fond old grandmother this day. I have soon known better in the cheerfulness and contentment that God has blessed me with and given me abundant reason for; and yet I have had to dry my eyes even then, when I have thought of my dear, brave, hopeful, handsome, bright-eyed Charley, and the trust meant to cheer me with. Charley was my youngest brother, and he went to India. He married there, and sent his gentle little wife home to me to be confined, and she was to go back to him, and the baby was to be left with me, and I was to bring it up. It never belonged to this life. It took its silent place among the other incidents in my story that might have been, but never were. I had hardly time to whisper to her "Dead my own!" or she to answer, "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust! O lay it on my breast and comfort Charley!" when she had gone to seek her baby at Our Saviour's feet. I went to Charley, and I told him there was nothing left but me, poor me; and I lived with Charley, out there, several years. He was a man of fifty, when he fell asleep in my arms. His face had changed to be almost old and a little stern; but, it softened, and softened when I laid it down that I might cry and pray beside it; and, when I looked at it for the last time, it was my dear, untroubled, handsome, youthful Charley of long ago.
--I was going on to tell that the loneliness of the House to Let brought back all these recollections, and that they had quite pierced my heart one evening, when Flobbins, opening the door, and looking very much as if she wanted to laugh but thought better of it, said:
"Mr. Jabez Jarber, ma'am!"
Upon which Mr. Jarber ambled in, in his usual absurd way, saying:
Which I am obliged to confess is my name. A pretty one and proper one enough when it was given to me: but, a good many years out of date now, and always sounding particularly high-flown and comical from his lips. So I said, sharply:
"Though it is Sophonisba, Jarber, you are not obliged to mention it, that I see."
In reply to this observation, the ridiculous man put the tips of my five right-hand fingers to his lips, and said again, with an aggravating accent on the third syllable:
I don't burn lamps, because I can't abide the smell of oil, and wax candles belonged to my day. I hope the convenient situation of one of my tall old candlesticks on the table at my elbow will be my excuse for saying, that if he did that again, I would chop his toes with it. (I am sorry to add that when I told him so, I knew his toes to be tender.) But, really, at my time of life and at Jarber's, it is too much of a good thing. There is an orchestra still standing in the open air at the Wells, before which, in the presence of a throng of fine company, I have walked a minuet with Jarber. But, there is a house still standing, in which I have worn a pinafore, and had a tooth drawn by fastening a thread to the tooth and the door-handle, and toddling away from the door. And how should I look now, at my years, in a pinafore, or having a door for my dentist?
Besides, Jarber always was more or less an absurd man. He was sweetly dressed, and beautifully perfumed, and many girls of my day would have given their ears for him; though I am bound to add that he never cared a fig for them, or their advances either, and that he was very constant to me. For, he not only proposed to me before my love-happiness ended in sorrow, but afterwards too: not once, nor yet twice: nor will we say how many times. However many they were, or however few they were, the last time he paid me that compliment was immediately after he had presented me with a digestive dinner-pill stuck on the point of a pin. And I said on that occasion, laughing heartily, "Now, Jarber, if you don't know that two people whose united ages would make about a hundred and fifty, have got to be old, I do; and I beg to swallow this nonsense in the form of this pill" (which I took on the spot), "and I request to, hear no more of it."
After that, he conducted himself pretty well. He was always a little squeezed man, was Jarber, in little sprigged waistcoats; and he had always little legs and a little smile, and a little voice, and little round-about ways. As long as I can remember him he was always going little errands for people, and carrying little gossip. At this present time when he called me "Sophonisba!" he had a little old-fashioned lodging in that new neighbourhood of mine. I had not seen him for two or three years, but I had heard that he still went out with a little perspective-glass and stood on door-steps in Saint James's Street, to see the nobility go to Court; and went in his little cloak and goloshes outside Willis's rooms to see them go to Almack's; and caught the frightfullest colds, and got himself trodden upon by coachmen and linkmen, until he went home to his landlady a mass of bruises, and had to be nursed for a month.
Jarber took off his little fur-collared cloak, and sat down opposite me, with his little cane and hat in his hand.
"Let us have no more Sophonisbaing, if you please, Jarber," I said. "Call me Sarah. How do you do? I hope you are pretty well."
"Thank you. And you?" said Jarber.
"I am as well as an old woman can expect to be."
Jarber was beginning:
"Say, not old, Sophon--" but I looked at the candlestick, and he left off; pretending not to have said anything.
"I am infirm, of course," I said, "and so are you. Let us both be thankful it's no worse."
"Is it possible that you look worried?" said Jarber.
"It is very possible. I have no doubt it is the fact."
"And what has worried my Soph-, soft-hearted friend," said Jarber.
"Something not easy, I suppose, to comprehend. I am worried to death by a House to Let, over the way."
Jarber went with his little tip-toe step to the window-curtains, peeped out, and looked round at me.
"Yes," said I, in answer: "that house."
After peeping out again, Jarber came back to his chair with a tender air, and asked: "How does it worry you, S-arah?"
"It is a mystery to me," said I. "Of course every house is a mystery, more or less; but, something that I don't care to mention" (for truly the Eye was so slight a thing to mention that I was more than half ashamed of it), "has made that House so mysterious to me, and has so fixed it in my mind, that I have had no peace for a month. I foresee that I shall have no peace, either, until Trottle comes to me, next Monday."
I might have mentioned before, that there is a lone-standing jealousy between Trottle and Jarber; and that there is never any love lost between those two.
"Trottle," petulantly repeated Jarber, with a little flourish of his cane; "how is Trottle to restore the lost peace of Sarah?"
"He will exert himself to find out something about the House. I have fallen into that state about it, that I really must discover by some means or other, good or bad, fair or foul, how and why it is that that House remains To Let."
"And why Trottle? Why not," putting his little hat to his heart; "why not, Jarber?
"To tell you the truth, I have never thought of Jarber in the matter. And now I do think of Jarber, through your having the kindness to suggest him--for which I am really and truly obliged to you--I don't think he could do it."
"I think it would be too much for you, Jarber."
"There would be coming and going, and fetching and carrying, Jarber, and you might catch cold."
"Sarah! What can be done by Trottle, can be done by me. I am on terms of acquaintance with every person of responsibility in this parish. I am intimate at the Circulating Library. I converse daily with the Assessed Taxes. I lodge with the Water Rate. I know the Medical Man. I lounge habitually at the House Agent's. I dine with the Churchwardens. I move to the Guardians. Trottle! A person in the sphere of a domestic, and totally unknown to society!"
"Don't be warm, Jarber. In mentioning Trottle, I have naturally relied on my Right-Hand, who would take any trouble to gratify even a whim of his old mistress's. But, if you can find out anything to help to unravel the mystery of this House to Let, I shall be fully as much obliged to you as if there was never a Trottle in the land."
Jarber rose and put on his little cloak. A couple of fierce brass lions held it tight round his little throat; but a couple of the mildest Hares might have done that, I am sure. "Sarah," he said, "I go. Expect me on Monday evening, the Sixth, when perhaps you will give me a cup of tea;--may I ask for no Green? Adieu!"
This was on a Thursday, the second of December. When I reflected that Trottle would come back on Monday, too, I had My misgivings as to the difficulty of keeping the two powers from open warfare, and indeed I was more uneasy than I quite like to confess. However, the empty House swallowed up that thought next morning, as it swallowed up most other thoughts now, and the House quite preyed upon me all that day, and all the Saturday.
It was a very wet Sunday: raining and blowing from morning to night. When the bells rang for afternoon church, they seemed to ring in the commotion of the puddles as well as in the wind, and they sounded very loud and dismal indeed, and the street looked very dismal indeed, and the House looked dismallest of all.
I was reading my prayers near the light, and my fire was growing in the darkening window-glass, when, looking up, as I prayed for the fatherless children and widows and all who were desolate and oppressed,--I saw the Eye again. It passed in a moment, as it had done before; but, this time, I was inwardly more convinced that I had seen it.
Well to be sure, I had a night that night! Whenever I closed my own eyes, it was to see eyes. Next morning, at an unreasonably, and I should have said (but for that railroad) an impossibly early hour, comes Trottle. As soon as he had told me all about the Wells, I told him all about the House. He listened with as great interest and attention as I could possibly wish, until I came to JabezJarber, when he cooled in an instant, and became opinionated.
"Now, Trottle," I said, pretending not to notice, "when Mr. Jarber comes back this evening, we must all lay our heads together."
"I should hardly think that would be wanted, ma'am; Mr. Jarber's head is surely equal to anything."
Being determined not to notice, I said again, that we must all lay our heads together.
"Whatever you order, ma'am, shall be obeyed. Still, it cannot be doubted, I should think, that Mr. Jarber's head is equal, if not superior, to any pressure that can be brought to bear upon it."
This was provoking; and his way, when he came in and out all through the day, of pretending not to see the House to Let, was more provoking still. However, being quite resolved not to notice, I gave no sign whatever that I did notice. But, when evening came, and he showed in Jarber, and, when Jarber wouldn't be helped off with his cloak, and poked his cane into cane chair-backs and china ornaments and his own eye, in trying to unclasp his brazen lions of himself (which he couldn't do, after all), I could have shaken them both.
As it was, I only shook the tea-pot, and made the tea. Jarber had brought from under his cloak, a roll of paper, with which he had triumphantly pointed over the way, like the Ghost of Hamlet's Father appearing to the late Mr. Kemble, and which he had laid on the table.
"A discovery?" said I, pointing to it, when he was seated, and had got his tea-cup.--"Don't go, Trottle."
"The first of a series of discoveries," answered Jarber. "Account of a former tenant, compiled from the Water Rate, and Medical Man."
"Don't go, Trottle," I repeated. For, I saw him making imperceptibly to the door.
"Begging your pardon, ma'am, I might be in Mr. Jarber's way?"
Jarber looked that he decidedly thought he might be. I relieved myself with a good angry croak, and said--always determined not to notice:
"Have the goodness to sit down, if you please, Trottle. I wish you to hear this."
Trottle bowed in the stiffest manner, and took the remotest chair he could find. Even that, he moved close to the draught from the keyhole of the door.
"Firstly," Jarber began, after sipping his tea, "would my Sophon--"
"Begin again, Jarber," said I.
"Would you be much surprised, if this House to Let should turn out to be the property of a relation of your own?"
"I should indeed be very much surprised."
"Then it belongs to your first cousin (I learn, by the way, that he is ill at this time) George Forley."
"Then that is a bad beginning. I cannot deny that George Forley stands in the relation of first cousin to me; but I hold no communication with him. George Forley has been a hard, bitter, stony father to a child now dead. George Forley was most implacable and unrelenting to one of his two daughters who made a poor marriage. George Forley brought all the weight of his band to bear as heavily against that crushed thing, as he brought it to bear lightly, favouringly, and advantageously upon her sister, who made a rich marriage. I hope that, with the measure George Forley meted, it may not be measured out to him again. I will give George Forley no worse wish."
I was strong upon the subject, and I could not keep the tears out of my eyes; for, that young girl's was a cruel story, and I had dropped many a tear over it before.
"The house being George Forley's," said I, "is almost enough to account for there being a Fate upon it, if Fate there is. Is there anything about George Forley in those sheets of paper?"
"Not a word."
"I am glad to hear it. Please to read on. Trottle, why don't you come nearer? Why do you sit mortifying yourself in those arctic regions? Come nearer."
"Thank you, ma'am; I am quite near enough to Mr. Jarber."
Jarber rounded his chair, to get his back full to my opinionated friend and servant, and, beginning to read, tossed the words at him over his (JabezJarber's) own ear and shoulder.
He read what follows:
THE MANCHESTER MARRIAGE
Mr. and Mrs. Openshaw came from Manchester to London and took the House To Let. He had been, what is called in Lancashire, a Salesman for a large manufacturing firm, who were extending their business, and opening a warehouse in London; where Mr. Openshaw was now to superintend the business. He rather enjoyed the change of residence; having a kind of curiosity about London, which he had never yet been able to gratify in his brief visits to the metropolis. At the same time he had an odd, shrewd, contempt for the inhabitants; whom he had always pictured to himself as fine, lazy people; caring nothing but for fashion and aristocracy, and lounging away their days in Bond Street, and such places; ruining good English, and ready in their turn to despise him as a provincial. The hours that the men of business kept in the city scandalised him too; accustomed as he was to the early dinners of Manchester folk, and the consequently far longer evenings. Still, he was pleased to go to London; though he would not for the world have confessed it, even to himself, and always spoke of the step to his friends as one demanded of him by the interests of his employers, and sweetened to him by a considerable increase of salary. His salary indeed was so liberal that he might have been justified in taking a much larger House than this one, had he not thought himself bound to set an example to Londoners of how little a Manchester man of business cared for show. Inside, however, he furnished the House with an unusual degree of comfort, and, in the winter time, he insisted on keeping up as large fires as the grates would allow, in every room where the temperature was in the least chilly. Moreover, his northern sense of hospitality was such, that, if he were at home, he could hardly suffer a visitor to leave the house without forcing meat and drink upon him. Every servant in the house was well warmed, well fed, and kindly treated; for their master scorned all petty saving in aught that conduced to comfort; while he amused himself by following out all his accustomed habits and individual ways in defiance of what any of his new neighbours might think.
His wife was a pretty, gentle woman, of suitable age and character. He was forty-two, she thirty-five. He was loud and decided; she soft and yielding. They had two children or rather, I should say, she had two; for the elder, a girl of eleven, was Mrs. Openshaw's child by Frank Wilson her first husband. The younger was a little boy, Edwin, who could just prattle, and to whom his father delighted to speak in the broadest and most unintelligible Lancashire dialect, in order to keep up what he called the true Saxon accent.
Mrs. Openshaw's Christian-name was Alice, and her first husband had been her own cousin. She was the orphan niece of a sea-captain in Liverpool: a quiet, grave little creature, of great personal attraction when she was fifteen or sixteen, with regular features and a blooming complexion. But she was very shy, and believed herself to be very stupid and awkward; and was frequently scolded by her aunt, her own uncle's second wife. So when her cousin, Frank Wilson, came home from a long absence at sea, and first was kind and protective to her; secondly, attentive and thirdly, desperately in love with her, she hardly knew how to be grateful enough to him. It is true she would have preferred his remaining in the first or second stages of behaviour; for his violent love puzzled and frightened her. Her uncle neither helped nor hindered the love affair though it was going on under his own eyes. Frank's step-mother had such a variable temper, that there was no knowing whether what she liked one day she would like the next, or not. At length she went to such extremes of crossness, that Alice was only too glad to shut her eyes and rush blindly at the chance of escape from domestic tyranny offered her by a marriage with her cousin; and, liking him better than any one in the world except her uncle (who was at this time at sea) she went off one morning and was married to him; her only bridesmaid being the housemaid at her aunt's. The consequence was, that Frank and his wife went into lodgings, and Mrs. Wilson refused to see them, and turned away Norah, the warm-hearted housemaid; whom they accordingly took into their service. When Captain Wilson returned from his voyage, he was very cordial with the young couple, and spent many an evening at their lodgings; smoking his pipe, and sipping his grog; but he told them that, for quietness' sake, he could not ask them to his own house; for his wife was bitter against them. They were not very unhappy about this.
The seed of future unhappiness lay rather in Frank's vehement, passionate disposition; which led him to resent his wife's shyness and want of demonstration as failures in conjugal duty. He was already tormenting himself, and her too, in a slighter degree, by apprehensions and imaginations of what might befall her during his approaching absence at sea. At last he went to his father and urged him