Miss Morris and the Stranger


Wilkie Collins

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Miss Morris and the Stranger Page 01



WHEN I first saw him, he was lost in one of the Dead Cities of England--situated on the South Coast, and called Sandwich.

Shall I describe Sandwich? I think not. Let us own the truth; descriptions of places, however nicely they may be written, are always more or less dull. Being a woman, I naturally hate dullness. Perhaps some description of Sandwich may drop out, as it were, from my report of our conversation when we first met as strangers in the street.

He began irritably. "I've lost myself," he said.

"People who don't know the town often do that," I remarked.

He went on: "Which is my way to the Fleur de Lys Inn?"

His way was, in the first place, to retrace his steps. Then to turn to the left. Then to go on until he found two streets meeting. Then to take the street on the right. Then to look out for the second turning on the left. Then to follow the turning until he smelled stables--and there was the inn. I put it in the clearest manner, and never stumbled over a word.

"How the devil am I to remember all that?" he said.

This was rude. We are naturally and properly indignant with any man who is rude to us. But whether we turn our backs on him in contempt, or whether we are merciful and give him a lesson in politeness, depends entirely on the man. He may be a bear, but he may also have his redeeming qualities. This man had redeeming qualities. I cannot positively say that he was either handsome or ugly, young or old, well or ill dressed. But I can speak with certainty to the personal attractions which recommended him to notice. For instance, the tone of his voice was persuasive. (Did you ever read a story, written by one of us, in which we failed to dwell on our hero's voice?) Then, again, his hair was reasonably long. (Are you acquainted with any woman who can endure a man with a cropped head?) Moreover, he was of a good height. (It must be a very tall woman who can feel favorably inclined toward a short man.) Lastly, although his eyes were not more than fairly presentable in form and color, the wretch had in some unaccountable manner become possessed of beautiful eyelashes. They were even better eyelashes than mine. I write quite seriously. There is one woman who is above the common weakness of vanity--and she holds the present pen.

So I gave my lost stranger a lesson in politeness. The lesson took the form of a trap. I asked him if he would like me to show him the way to the inn. He was still annoyed at losing himself. As I had anticipated, he bluntly answered: "Yes."

"When you were a boy, and you wanted something," I said, "did your mother teach you to say 'Please'?"

He positively blushed. "She did," he admitted; "and she taught me to say 'Beg your pardon' when I was rude. I'll say it now: 'Beg your pardon.' "

This curious apology increased my belief in his redeeming qualities. I led the way to the inn. He followed me in silence. No woman who respects herself can endure silence when she is in the company of a man. I made him talk.

"Do you come to us from Ramsgate?" I began. He only nodded his head. "We don't think much of Ramsgate here," I went on. "There is not an old building in the place. And their first Mayor was only elected the other day!"

This point of view seemed to be new to him. He made no attempt to dispute it; he only looked around him, and said: "Sandwich is a melancholy place, miss." He was so rapidly improving in politeness, that I encouraged him by a smile. As a citizen of Sandwich, I may say that we take it as a compliment when we are told that our town is a melancholy place. And why not? Melancholy is connected with dignity. And dignity is associated with age. And we are old. I teach my pupils logic, among other things--there is a specimen. Whatever may be said to the contrary, women can reason. They can also wander; and I must admit that I am wandering. Did I mention, at starting, that I was a governess? If not, that allusion to "pupils" must have come in rather abruptly. Let me make my excuses, and return to my lost stranger.

"Is there any such thing as a straight street in all Sandwich?" he asked.

"Not one straight street in the whole town."

"Any trade, miss?"

"As little as possible--and that is expiring."

"A decayed place, in short?"

"Thoroughly decayed."

My tone seemed to astonish him. "You speak as if you were proud of its being a decayed place," he said.

I quite respected him; this was such an intelligent remark to make. We do enjoy our decay: it is our chief distinction. Progress and prosperity everywhere else; decay and dissolution here. As a necessary consequence, we produce our own impression, and we like to be original. The sea deserted us long ago: it once washed our walls, it is now two miles away from us--we don't regret the sea. We had sometimes ninety-five ships in our harbor, Heaven only knows how many centuries ago; we now have one or two small coasting vessels, half their time aground in a muddy little river--we don't regret our harbor. But one house in the town is daring enough to anticipate the arrival of resident visitors, and announces furnished apartments to let. What a becoming contrast to our modern neighbor, Ramsgate! Our noble market-place exhibits the laws made by the corporation; and every week there are fewer and fewer people to obey the laws. How convenient! Look at our one warehouse by the river side--with the crane generally idle, and the windows mostly boarded up; and perhaps one man at the door, looking out for the job which his better sense tells him cannot possibly come. What a wholesome protest against the devastating hurry and over-work elsewhere, which has shattered the nerves of the nation! "Far from me and from my friends" (to borrow the eloquent language of Doctor Johnson) "be such frigid enthusiasm as shall conduct us indifferent and unmoved'' over the bridge by which you enter Sandwich, and pay a toll if you do it in a carriage. "That man is little to be envied" (Doctor Johnson again) who can lose himself in our labyrinthine streets, and not feel that he has reached the welcome limits of progress, and found a haven of rest in an age of hurry.

Wilkie Collins

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