The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins possesses the art of writing plays and stories so as to awaken and sustain the interest of the reader. He can create and work out a plot. It is true that the subject-matter of the plot is generally rather trivial, the characters commonplace, the whole tone and cast of the work conventional and insignificant. But the story, such as it is, has the merit of being neatly and pleasantly told. The author has set himself assiduously to inquire how the materials which he has been able to collect should be strung together, what proportion the several parts should bear to each other, and how the end of the story may be constantly anticipated by introductory hints without its precise character £ divulged. The result of this painstaking industry is that the reader is carried gently on, and is forced to take an interest in the web of circumstance which is spun for his benefit. Few writers give themselves so much trouble. If they have anything to say, they are ordinarily wrapped up in saying it, and trust to the guidance of their own genius to give it expression. If they have nothing to say, they are so happily constituted as not to perceive their own defects. It is, rare to find an author who, without originality, or great powers of any sort, has the gift of seeing how much arrangement and contrivance may do to enhance the value of the little he has to offer. This gift has been sufficient to ensure Mr. Collins a very considerable success, and his novels have been welcomed by the public, which always relishes the treat of small ingenuities, and likes any species of unambitious, intelligible entertainment. Besides, to have the art of narration implies the possession of many good literary qualities. It indicates that sort of good sense and good taste which rejects the superfluous, the incongruous, and the extravagant. It involves the power of putting a mass of detached minute facts into a decisive and appreciable shape. It makes us sure that the writer will keep clear of all that could annoy, weary, or offend us. The ‘Dead Secret’ is no secret to a numerous class of readers, nor will it long remain a mystery to those who set out in search of it for the ¿rst time. Perhaps it is doubtful how far the intentions of a novelist should be impenetrable,-what light should glimmer at the end of his shadowy vistas,–what clues should be afforded to the pilgrims of romance. Of course no one is tempted on by utter darkness, yet in a tale which appeals simply to one element in the imagination-curiosity; it is a proof of defective development if we at once anticipate the catastrophe. The secret is buried (not dead), but its cofin is of crystal.
The Dead Secret.
Excerpt from the text:
“Will she last out the night, I wonder?”
“Look at the clock, Mathew.”
“Ten minutes past twelve! She has lasted the night out. She has lived, Robert, to see ten minutes of the new day.”
These words were spoken in the kitchen of a large country house situated on the west coast of Cornwall. The speakers were two of the men-servants composing the establishment of Captain Treverton, an officer in the navy, and the eldest male representative of an old Cornish family. Both the servants communicated with each other restrainedly, in whispers–sitting close together, and looking round expectantly toward the door whenever the talk flagged between them.
“It’s an awful thing,” said the elder of the men, “for us two to be alone here, at this dark time, counting out the minutes that our mistress has left to live!”
“Robert,” said the other, “you have been in the service here since you were a boy–did you ever hear that our mistress was a play-actress when our master married her?”
“How came you to know that?” inquired the elder servant, sharply.
“Hush!” cried the other, rising quickly from his chair.
A bell rang in the passage outside.
“Is that for one of us?” asked Mathew.
“Can’t you tell, by the sound, which is which of those bells yet?” exclaimed Robert, contemptuously. “That bell is for Sarah Leeson. Go out into the passage and look.”
The younger servant took a candle and obeyed. When he opened the kitchen-door, a long row of bells met his eye on the wall opposite. Above each of them was painted, in neat black letters, the distinguishing title of the servant whom it was specially intended to summon. The row of letters began with Housekeeper and Butler, and ended with Kitchen-maid and Footman’s Boy.
Looking along the bells, Mathew easily discovered that one of them was still in motion. Above it were the words Lady’s-maid. Observing this, he passed quickly along the passage, and knocked at an old-fashioned oak door at the end of it. No answer being given, he opened the door and looked into the room. It was dark and empty.
“Sarah is not in the housekeeper’s room,” said Mathew, returning to his fellow-servant in the kitchen.
“She is gone to her own room, then,” rejoined the other. “Go up and tell her that she is wanted by her mistress.”
The bell rang again as Mathew went out.
“Quick!–quick!” cried Robert. “Tell her she is wanted directly. Wanted,” he continued to himself in lower tones, “perhaps for the last time!”
Mathew ascended three flights of stairs–passed half-way down a long arched gallery–and knocked at another old-fashioned oak door. This time the signal was answered. A low, clear, sweet voice, inside the room, inquired who was waiting without? In a few hasty words Mathew told his errand. Before he had done speaking the door was quietly and quickly opened, and Sarah Leeson confronted him on the threshold, with her candle in her hand.
Not tall, not handsome, not in her first youth–shy and irresolute in manner–simple in dress to the utmost limits of plainness–the lady’s-maid, in spite of all these disadvantages, was a woman whom it was impossible to look at without a feeling of curiosity, if not of interest. Few men, at first sight of her, could have resisted the desire to find out who she was; few would have been satisfied with receiving for answer, She is Mrs. Treverton’s maid; few would have refrained from the attempt to extract some secret information for themselves from her face and manner; and none, not even the most patient and practiced of observers, could have succeeded in discovering more than that she must have passed through the ordeal of some great suffering at some former period of her life. Much in her manner, and more in her face, said plainly and sadly: I am the wreck of something that you might once have liked to see; a wreck that can never be repaired–that must drift on through life unnoticed, unguided, unpitied–drift till the fatal shore is touched, and the waves of Time have swallowed up these broken relics of me forever. This was the story that was told in Sarah Leeson’s face–this, and no more.
No two men interpreting that story for themselves, would probably have agreed on the nature of the suffering which this woman had undergone. It was hard to say, at the outset, whether the past pain that had set its ineffaceable mark on her had been pain of the body or pain of the mind. But whatever the nature of the affliction she had suffered, the traces it had left were deeply and strikingly visible in every part of her face.
Her cheeks had lost their roundness and their natural color; her lips, singularly flexible in movement and delicate in form, had faded to an unhealthy paleness; her eyes, large and black and overshadowed by unusually thick lashes, had contracted an anxious startled look, which never left them and which piteously expressed the painful acuteness of her sensibility, the inherent timidity of her disposition. So far, the marks which sorrow or sickness had set on her were the marks common to most victims of mental or physical suffering. The one extraordinary personal deterioration which she had undergone consisted in the unnatural change that had passed over the color of her hair. It was as thick and soft, it grew as gracefully, as the hair of a young girl; but it was as gray as the hair of an old woman. It seemed to contradict, in the most startling manner, every personal assertion of youth that still existed in her face. With all its haggardness and paleness, no one could have looked at it and supposed for a moment that it was the face of an elderly woman. Wan as they might be, there was not a wrinkle in her cheeks. Her eyes, viewed apart from their prevailing expression of uneasiness and timidity, still preserved that bright, clear moisture which is never seen in the eyes of the old. The skin about her temples was as delicately smooth as the skin of a child. These and other physical signs which never mislead, showed that she was still, as to years, in the very prime of her life. Sickly and sorrow-stricken as she was, she looked, from the eyes downward, a woman who had barely reached thirty years of age. From the eyes upward, the effect of her abundant gray hair, seen in connection with her face, was not simply incongruous–it was absolutely startling; so startling as to make it no paradox to say that she would have looked most natural, most like herself if her hair had been dyed. In her case, Art would have seemed to be the truth, because Nature looked like falsehood.
What shock had stricken her hair, in the very maturity of its luxuriance, with the hue of an unnatural old age? Was it a serious illness, or a dreadful grief that had turned her gray in the prime of her womanhood? That question had often been agitated among her fellow-servants, who were all struck by the peculiarities of her personal appearance, and rendered a little suspicious of her, as well, by an inveterate habit that she had of talking to herself. Inquire as they might, however, their curiosity was always baffled. Nothing more could be discovered than that Sarah Leeson was, in the common phrase, touchy on the subject of her gray hair and her habit of talking to herself, and that Sarah Leeson’s mistress had long since forbidden every one, from her husband downward, to ruffle her maid’s tranquillity by inquisitive questions.
She stood for an instant speechless, on that momentous morning of the twenty-third of August, before the servant who summoned her to her mistress’s death-bed–the light of the candle flaring brightly over her large, startled, black eyes, and the luxuriant, unnatural gray hair above them. She stood a moment silent–her hand trembling while she held the candlestick, so that the extinguisher lying loose in it rattled incessantly–then thanked the servant for calling her. The trouble and fear in her voice, as she spoke, seemed to add to its sweetness; the agitation of her manner took nothing away from its habitual gentleness, its delicate, winning, feminine restraint. Mathew, who, like the other servants, secretly distrusted and disliked her for differing from the ordinary pattern of professed lady’s-maids, was, on this particular occasion, so subdued by her manner and her tone as she thanked him, that he offered to carry her candle for her to the door of her mistress’s bed-chamber. She shook her head, and thanked him again, then passed before him quickly on her way out of the gallery.
The room in which Mrs. Treverton lay dying was on the floor beneath. Sarah hesitated twice before she knocked at the door. It was opened by Captain Treverton.
The instant she saw her master she started back from him. If she had dreaded a blow she could hardly have drawn away more suddenly, or with an expression of greater alarm. There was nothing in Captain Treverton’s face to warrant the suspicion of ill-treatment, or even of harsh words. His countenance was kind, hearty, and open; and the tears were still trickling down it which he had shed by his wife’s bedside.
“Go in,” he said, turning away his face. “She does not wish the nurse to attend; she only wishes for you. Call me if the doctor–” His voice faltered, and he hurried away without attempting to finish the sentence.
Sarah Leeson, instead of entering her mistress’s room stood looking after her master attentively, with her pale cheeks turned to a deathly whiteness–with an eager, doubting, questioning terror in her eyes. When he had disappeared round the corner of the gallery, she listened for a moment outside the door of the sick-room–whispered affrightedly to herself, “Can she have told him?”–then opened the door, with a visible effort to recover her self-control; and, after lingering suspiciously on the threshold for a moment, went in.