The Guilty River

Wilkie Collins

The Guilty River Page 10

If I am asked what impression of the writer those extraordinary pages produced on me, I feel at a loss how to reply.

Not one impression, but many impressions, troubled and confused my mind. Certain passages in the confession inclined me to believe that the writer was mad. But I altered my opinion at the next leaf, and set him down as a man with a bitter humor, disposed to make merry over his own bad qualities. At one time, his tone in writing of his early life, and his allusions to his mother, won my sympathy and respect. At another time, the picture of himself in his later years, and the defiant manner in which he presented it, almost made me regret that he had not died of the illness which had struck him deaf. In this state of uncertainty I may claim the merit of having arrived, so far as my own future conduct was concerned, at one positive conclusion. As strangers he and I had first met. As strangers I was determined we should remain.

Having made up my mind, so far, the next thing to do (with the clock on the mantel-piece striking midnight) was to go to bed.

I slept badly. The events that had happened, since my arrival in England, had excited me I suppose. Now and then, in the wakeful hours of the night, I thought of Cristel with some anxiety. Taking the Loger's exaggerated language for what it was really worth, the poor girl (as I was still inclined to fear) might have serious reason to regret that he had ever entered her father's cottage.

At the breakfast table, my stepmother and I met again.

Mrs. Roylake--in an exquisite morning dress; with her smile in perfect order--informed me that she was dying with curiosity. She had heard, from the servants, that I had not returned to the house until past ten o'clock on the previous night; and she was absolutely bewildered by the discovery. What could her dear Gerard have been doing, out in the dark by himself, for all that time?

"For some part of the time," I answered, "I was catching moths in Fordwitch Wood."

"What an extraordinary occupation for a young man! Well? And what did you do after that?"

"I walked on through the wood, and renewed my old associations with the river and the mill."

Mrs. Roylake's fascinating smile disappeared when I mentioned the mill. She suddenly became a cold lady--I might even say a stiff lady.

"I can't congratulate you on the first visit you have paid in our neighborhood," she said. "Of course that bold girl contrived to attract your notice?"

I replied that I had met with the "bold girl" purely by accident, on her side as well as on mine; and then I started a new topic. "Was it a pleasant dinner-party last night?" I asked--as if the subject really interested me. I had not been quite four and twenty hours in England yet, and I was becoming a humbug already.

My stepmother was her charming self again the moment my question had passed my lips. Society--provided it was not society at the mill--was always attractive as a topic of conversation. "Your absence was the only drawback," she answered. "I have asked the two ladies (my lord has an engagement) to dine here to-day, without ceremony. They are most anxious to meet you. My dear Gerard! you look surprised. Surely you know who the ladies are?"

I was obliged to acknowledge my ignorance.

Mrs. Roylake was shocked. "At any rate," she resumed, "you have heard of their father, Lord Uppercliff?"

I made another shameful confession. Either I had forgotten Lord Uppercliff, during my long absence abroad, or I had never heard of him.

Mrs. Roylake was disgusted. "And this is a foreign education!" she exclaimed. "Thank Heaven, you have returned to your own country! We will drive out after luncheon, and pay a round of visits." When this prospect was placed before me, I remembered having read in books of sensitive persons receiving impressions which made their blood run cold; I now found myself one of those persons, for the first time in my life. "In the meanwhile," Mrs. Roylake continued, "I must tell you--excuse me for laughing; it seems so very absurd that you should not know who Lord Uppercliff's daughters are--I must tell you that Lady Rachel is the eldest. She is married to the Honorable Captain Millbay, of the Navy, now away in his ship. A person of extraordinary strength of mind (I don't mean the Captain; I mean Lady Rachel); I admire her intellect, but her political and social opinions I must always view with regret. Her younger sister, Lady Lena--not married, Gerard; remember that!--is simply the most charming girl in England. If you don't fall in love with her, you will be the only young man in the county who has resisted Lady Lena. Poor Sir George--she refused him last week; you really must have heard of Sir George; our member of parliament; conservative of course; quite broken-hearted about Lady Lena; gone away to America to shoot bears. You seem to be restless. What are you fidgeting about? Ah, I know! You want to smoke after breakfast. Well, I won't be in your way. Go out on the terrace; your poor father always took his cigar on the terrace. They say smoking leads to meditation; I leave you to meditate on Lady Lena. Don't forget--luncheon at one o'clock, and the carriage at two."

She smiled, and kissed her hand, and fluttered out of the room. Charming; perfectly charming. And yet I was ungrateful enough to wish myself back in Germany again.

I lit my cigar, but not on the terrace. Leaving the house, I took the way once more that led to Fordwitch Wood. What would Mrs. Roylake have said, if she had discovered that I was going back to the mill? There was no other alternative. The portfolio was a trust confided to me; the sooner I returned it to the writer of the confession--the sooner I told him plainly the conclusion at which I had arrived--the more at ease my mind would be.

The sluggish river looked muddier than ever, the new cottage looked uglier than ever, exposed to the searching ordeal of sunlight. I knocked at the door on the ancient side of the building.

Cristel's father--shall I confess I had hoped that it might be Cristel herself?--let me in. In by-gone days, I dimly remembered him as old and small and withered. Advancing years had wasted him away, in the interval, until his white miller's clothes hung about him in empty folds. His fleshless face would have looked like the face of a mummy, but for the restless brightness of his little watchful black eyes. He stared at me in momentary perplexity, and, suddenly recovering himself, asked me to walk in.

"Are you the young master, sir? Ah, yes, yes; I thought so. My girl Cristy said she saw the young master last night. Thank you kindly, sir; I'm pretty well, considering how I've fallen away in my flesh. I have got a fine appetite, but somehow or other, my meals don't show on me. You will excuse my receiving you in the kitchen, sir; it's the best room we have. Did Cristy tell you how badly we are off here for repairs? You being our landlord, we look to you to help us. We are falling to pieces, as it were, on this old side of the house.

Wilkie Collins

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Adelaide Ann Procter