Fatal Fortune


Wilkie Collins

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Fatal Fortune Page 01





ONE fine morning more than three months since, you were riding with your brother, Miss Anstell, in Hyde Park. It was a hot day, and you had allowed your horses to fall into a walking pace. As you passed the railing on the right-hand side, near the eastern extremity of the lake in the park, neither you nor your brother noticed a solitary woman loitering on the footpath to look at the riders as they went by.

The solitary woman was my old nurse, Nancy Connell. And these were the words she heard exchanged between you and your brother, as you slowly passed her:

Your brother said, "Is it true that Mary Brading and her husband have gone to America?"

You laughed, as if the question amused you, and answered, "Quite true."

"How long will they be away?" your brother asked next.

"As long as they live," you answered, with another laugh.

By this time you had passed beyond Nancy Connell's hearing. She owns to having followed your horses a few steps to hear what was said next. She looked particularly at your brother. He took your reply seriously; he seemed to be quite astonished by it.

"Leave England and settle in America!" he exclaimed. "Why should they do that?"

"Who can tell why?" you answered. "Mary Brading's husband is mad, and Mary Brading herself is not much better."

You touched your horse with the whip, and in a moment more you and your brother were out of my old nurse's hearing. She wrote and told me what I here tell you, by a recent mail. I have been thinking of those last words of yours, in my leisure hours, more seriously than you would suppose. The end of it is that I take up my pen, on behalf of my husband and myself, to tell you the story of our marriage, and the reason for our emigration to the United States of America.

It matters little or nothing to him or to me whether our friends in England think us both mad or not. Their opinions, hostile or favorable, are of no sort of importance to us. But you are an exception to the rule. In bygone days at school we were fast and firm friends; and--what weighs with me even more than this--you were heartily loved and admired by my dear mother. She spoke of you tenderly on her death-bed. Events have separated us of late years. But I cannot forget the old times; and I cannot feel indifferent to your opinion of me and of my husband, though an ocean does separate us, and though we are never likely to look on one another again. It is very foolish of me, I dare say, to take seriously to heart what you said in one of your thoughtless moments. I can only plead in excuse that I have gone through a great deal of suffering, and that I was always (as you may remember) a person of sensitive temperament, easily excited and easily depressed.

Enough of this. Do me the last favor I shall ever ask of you. Read what follows, and judge for yourself whether my husband and I are quite so mad as you were disposed to think us when Nancy Connell heard you talking to your brother in Hyde Park.

II. IT is now more than a year since I went to Eastbourne, on the coast of Sussex, with my father and my brother James.

My brother had then, as we hoped, recovered from the effects of a fall in the hunting-field. He complained, however, at times of pain in his head; and the doctors advised us to try the sea-air. We removed to Eastbourne, without a suspicion of the serious nature of the injury that he had received. For a few days all went well. We liked the place; the air agreed with us; and we determined to prolong our residence for some weeks to come.

On our sixth day at the sea-side--a memorable day to me, for reasons which you have still to hear--my brother complained again of the old pain in his head. He and I went out together to try what exercise would do toward relieving him. We walked through the town to the fort at one end of it, and then followed a footpath running by the side of the sea, over a dreary waste of shingle, bounded at its inland extremity by the road to Hastings and by the marshy country beyond.

We had left the fort at some little distance behind us. I was walking in front, and James was following me. He was talking as quietly as usual, when he suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence. I turned round in surprise, and discovered my brother prostrate on the path, in convulsions terrible to see.

It was the first epileptic fit I had ever witnessed. My presence of mind entirely deserted me. I could only wring my hands in horror, and scream for help. No one appeared either from the direction of the fort or of the highroad. I was too far off, I suppose, to make myself heard. Looking ahead of me along the path, I discovered, to my infinite relief, the figure of a man running toward me. As he came nearer, I saw that he was unmistakably a gentleman--young, and eager to be of service to me.

"Pray compose yourself," he said, after a look at my brother. "It is very dreadful to see, but it is not dangerous. We must wait until the convulsions are over, and then I can help you."

He seemed to know so much about it that I thought he might be a medical man. I put the question to him plainly.

He colored, and looked a little confused.

"I am not a doctor," he said. "I happen to have seen persons afflicted with epilepsy; and I have heard medical men say that it is useless to interfere until the fit is over. See!" he added. "Your brother is quieter already. He will soon feel a sense of relief which will more than compensate him for what he has suffered. I will help him to get to the fort, and, once there, we can send for a carriage to take him home."

In five minutes more we were on our way to the fort; the stranger supporting my brother as attentively and tenderly as if he had been an old friend. When the carriage had been obtained, he insisted on accompanying us to our own door, on the chance that his services might still be of some use. He left us, asking permission to call and inquire after James's health the next day. A more modest, gentle, and unassuming person I never met with.

Wilkie Collins

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