THE WOMAN IN WHITE By WILKIE COLLINS
Condensed by ALICE FOX PITTS
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IT was a close and sultry night early in August, and I, Walter Hartright, master of drawing, aged twenty-eight, was walking from Hampstead to London. In one moment every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid gently on my shoulder. There, in the middle of the highroad, stood a woman dressed from head to foot in white garments. She asked me the way to London. I told her, and we parted.
Ten minutes later a carriage passed me and a few yards beyond stopped near a policeman. A man put his head from the window and asked: "Have you seen a woman pass this way—a woman in white? She has escaped from my asylum." At a shake of the policeman's head the carriage drove rapidly on.
The next day I was at Limmeridge House, Cumberland, in the service of Frederick Fairlie, Esquire. I was there to instruct his two young nieces in the art of painting. I found Marian Halcombe to be dark and ugly, but intelligent. Laura Fairlie, her half-sister, was light, pretty, and dependent. They were devoted to each other, and before my engagement was up I admired the one and loved the other.
My feelings were the cause of my leaving Limmeridge House. Marian Halcombe brought to me a realization of my own heart. "You must leave," she said, "not because you are only a teacher of drawing, but because Laura Fairlie is engaged to be married."
A few days before I left Cumberland, while walking alone in the evening, I was confronted by the same face which had first looked into mine on the London highroad by night. But I was startled less by its sudden reappearance than by my immediate recognition of an ominous likeness between this fugitive from the asylum and my fair pupil at Limmeridge House. Still greater was my consternation when the woman admitted having come to the neighborhood for the sole purpose of thwarting the proposed marriage of Laura Fairlie.
I left Limmeridge House, and soon after embarked on an expedition to Central America. The same year Laura Fairlie became the bride of Sir Percival Glyde, Bart., and with her sister went to live at Blackwater Park, her husband's country estate. Count Fosco, an audacious and domineering Italian, and his wife were guests of the household. But all was not as harmonious as an English country party should be. Lady Glyde and her sister, as inseparable and confiding as ever, felt a perceptible coolness rising between them and the two gentlemen. Coolness turned to suspicion and soon to fear.
Then it was that Lady Glyde met the Woman in White. The mysterious person stole noiselessly up to her in the twilight one evening and whispered: "If you knew your husband's secret, he would be afraid of you. He would not dare use you as he has used me. I ought to have saved you before it was too late." But before the secret was told there were footsteps in the distance and the woman moved stealthily away.
Sir Percival learned of that brief interview, and was afraid of his wife. He demanded, begged, threatened her to tell him all she knew. What had been a battle of wits between the two sisters and the two men became a struggle of strategy, and the women lost the fight. Lady Glyde was decoyed into leaving Blackwater Park for Count Fosco's London home. Less than two weeks later a tombstone in Cumberland bore this inscription, "Sacred to the memory of Laura, Lady Glyde."
On my return from Central America the same year I heard of the death, and immediately visited the grave. As I approached it, two women came toward me. One was Marian Halcombe; the other was veiled, but when she raised this covering from her face, there, looking at me, was Laura, Lady Glyde. She was pale, nervous, and depressed—more perfect than ever in her resemblance to the Woman in White.
Marian Halcombe told me what she knew. She had found her sister in an asylum, and in the grave at our feet was her mysterious double. Sir Percival's boldness and Count Fosco's cleverness had succeeded in exchanging the destinies of the two women. The circumstance had netted these two gentlemen some thirty thousand pounds, derived from the estate of Lady Glyde.
The fortune was gone beyond recall, but Lady Glyde's true identity might yet be established in the face of such evidence as her death certificate and tombstone, and the incredulity of her friends and relatives. This I determined to do. Cast upon the world alone, the sisters readily agreed to allow me to take up their fight, and I determined that Laura should one day re-enter her father's estate recognized by all.
It soon was apparent that Sir Percival and Count Fosco were the persons I must fight. I worked secretly but directly, for I had no funds with which to carry on a fight through the courts. The secret with which the Woman in White had threatened Sir Percival seemed to me to be the key to the whole situation. Through a series of inquiries, working always under the watch of spies, I found it opportune to look up the marriage registration of Sir Percival's parents. I found it in a little country church—and it was forged. I was no sooner in possession of the knowledge of his illegitimate birth than Sir Percival, in furious desperation to destroy the evidence, entered the little church by night, set fire to the structure, and through the agency of his own stupidity and an old-fashioned wooden lock, trapped himself into an awful death.
Laura was free of her husband, but she remained an outcast—a woman dead to her friends and relatives. I was still determined this should not be. My only hope of success lay in Count Fosco, who alone had the evidence which could establish her legal existence. But to acknowledge Lady Glyde's identity would be to admit his guilt of one of the greatest of crimes. My task looked difficult, but an unknown agency came to my aid.
Count Fosco was a traitor to one of the world-wide Italian secret societies. The knowledge came to me by chance, but it served me in good stead. I went to his house one night and bartered my silence for the evidence of Laura's existence. Count Fosco, in a long exposition, gave the details of his own and Sir Percival's cunning. Then he left England forever. To clear up the last shred of mystery surrounding the Woman in White I sought out her childhood home. I pieced together her story from her old friends and relatives. Fate had made her the illegitimate half-sister of her counterpart and the chance possessor of Sir Percival's secret.
My labors ended, Marian Halcombe and her sister, who was now my wife, returned to the happy companionship of those days at Limmeridge House before Sir Percival's cunning had usurped the consummation of our love. On the death of Laura's uncle some months later her son and mine became the heir of the estate and fortune of the house of Limmeridge.