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The Woman in White


Wilkie Collins


First Epoch


Second Epoch



Third Epoch



(of Clement's Inn, Teacher of Drawing)

This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a
Man's resolution can achieve.

If the machinery of the Law could be depended on to fathom every case
of suspicion, and to conduct every process of inquiry, with moderate
assistance only from the lubricating influences of oil of gold, the
events which fill these pages might have claimed their share of the
public attention in a Court of Justice.

But the Law is still, in certain inevitable cases, the pre-engaged
servant of the long purse; and the story is left to be told, for the
first time, in this place. As the Judge might once have heard it, so
the Reader shall hear it now. No circumstance of importance, from the
beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay
evidence. When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter
Hartright by name) happens to be more closely connected than others
with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own
person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of
narrator; and his task will be continued, from the point at which he
has left it off, by other persons who can speak to the circumstances
under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively
as he has spoken before them.

Thus, the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as
the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than
one witness - with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth
always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect; and to trace
the course of one complete series of events, by making the persons who
have been most closely connected with them, at each successive stage,
relate their own experience, word for word.

Let Walter Hartright, teacher of drawing, aged twenty-eight years, be
heard first.


It was the last day of July. The long hot summer was drawing to a
close; and we, the weary pilgrims of the London pavement, were
beginning to think of the cloud-shadows on the corn-fields, and the
autumn breezes on the sea-shore.

For my own poor part, the fading summer left me out of health, out of
spirits, and, if the truth must be told, out of money as well. During
the past year I had not managed my professional resources as carefully
as usual; and my extravagance now limited me to the prospect of
spending the autumn economically between my mother's cottage at
Hampstead and my own chambers in town.

The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was at
its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its
faintest; the small pulse of the life within me, and the great heart of
the city around me, seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more
languidly, with the sinking sun. I roused myself from the book which I
was dreaming over rather than reading, and left my chambers to meet the
cool night air in the suburbs. It was one of the two evenings in every
week which I was accustomed to spend with my mother and my sister. So
I turned my steps northward in the direction of Hampstead.

Events which I have yet to relate make it necessary to mention in this
place that my father had been dead some years at the period of which I
am now writing; and that my sister Sarah and I were the sole survivors
of a family of five children. My father was a drawing-master before
me. His exertions had made him highly successful in his profession;
and his affectionate anxiety to provide for the future of those who
were dependent on his labours had impelled him, from the time of his
marriage, to devote to the insuring of his life a much larger portion
of his income than most men consider it necessary to set aside for that
purpose. Thanks to his admirable prudence and self-denial my mother
and sister were left, after his death, as independent of the world as
they had been during his lifetime. I succeeded to his connection, and
had every reason to feel grateful for the prospect that awaited me at
my starting in life.

The quiet twilight was still trembling on the topmost ridges of the
heath; and the view of London below me had sunk into a black gulf in
the shadow of the cloudy night, when I stood before the gate of my
mother's cottage. I had hardly rung the bell before the house door was
opened violently; my worthy Italian friend, Professor Pesca, appeared
in the servant's place; and darted out joyously to receive me, with a
shrill foreign parody on an English cheer.

On his own account, and, I must be allowed to add, on mine also, the
Professor merits the honour of a formal introduction. Accident has made
him the starting-point of the strange family story which it is the
purpose of these pages to unfold.

I had first become acquainted with my Italian friend by meeting him at
certain great houses where he taught his own language and I taught
drawing. All I then knew of the history of his life was, that he had
once held a situation in the University of Padua; that he had left
Italy for political reasons (the nature of which he uniformly declined
to mention to any one); and that he had been for many years respectably
established in London as a teacher of languages.

Without being actually a dwarf - for he was perfectly well proportioned
from head to foot - Pesca was, I think, the smallest human being I ever
saw out of a show-room. Remarkable anywhere, by his personal
appearance, he was still further distinguished among the rank and file
of mankind by the harmless eccentricity of his character. The ruling
idea of his life appeared to be, that he was bound to show his
gratitude to the country which had afforded him an asylum and a means
of subsistence by doing his utmost to turn himself into an Englishman.
Not content with paying the nation in general the compliment of
invariably carrying an umbrella, and invariably wearing gaiters and a
white hat, the Professor further aspired to become an Englishman in his
habits and amusements, as well as in his personal appearance. Finding
us distinguished, as a nation, by our love of athletic exercises, the
little man, in the innocence of his heart, devoted himself impromptu to
all our English sports and pastimes whenever he had the opportunity of
joining them; firmly persuaded that he could adopt our national
amusements of the field by an effort of will precisely as he had
adopted our national gaiters and our national white hat.

I had seen him risk his limbs blindly at a fox-hunt and in a
cricket-field; and soon afterwards I saw him risk his life, just as
blindly, in the sea at Brighton.

We had met there accidentally, and were bathing together. If we had
been engaged in any exercise peculiar to my own nation I should, of
course, have looked after Pesca carefully; but as foreigners are
generally quite as well able to take care of themselves in the water as
Englishmen, it never occurred to me that the art of swimming might
merely add one more to the list of manly exercises which the Professor
believed that he could learn impromptu. Soon after we had both struck
out from shore, I stopped, finding my friend did not gain on me, and
turned round to look for him. To my horror and amazement, I saw
nothing between me and the beach but two little white arms which
struggled for an instant above the surface of the water, and then
disappeared from view. When I dived for him, the poor little man was
lying quietly coiled up at the bottom, in a hollow of shingle, looking
by many degrees smaller than I had ever seen him look before. During
the few minutes that elapsed while I was taking him in, the air revived
him, and he ascended the steps of the machine with my assistance. With
the partial recovery of his animation came the return of his wonderful
delusion on the subject of swimming. As soon as his chattering teeth
would let him speak, he smiled vacantly, and said he thought it must
have been the Cramp.

When he had thoroughly recovered himself, and had joined me on the
beach, his warm Southern nature broke through all artificial English
restraints in a moment. He overwhelmed me with the wildest expressions
of affection - exclaimed passionately, in his exaggerated Italian way,
that he would hold his life henceforth at my disposal - and declared
that he should never be happy again until he had found an opportunity
of proving his gratitude by rendering me some service which I might
remember, on my side, to the end of my days.

I did my best to stop the torrent of his tears and protestations by
persisting in treating the whole adventure as a good subject for a
joke; and succeeded at last, as I imagined, in lessening Pesca's
overwhelming sense of obligation to me. Little did I think
then - little did I think afterwards when our pleasant holiday had drawn
to an end - that the opportunity of serving me for which my grateful
companion so ardently longed was soon to come; that he was eagerly to
seize it on the instant; and that by so doing he was to turn the whole
current of my existence into a new channel, and to alter me to myself
almost past recognition.

Yet so it was. If I had not dived for Professor Pesca when he lay
under water on his shingle bed, I should in all human probability never
have been connected with the story which these pages will relate - I
should never, perhaps, have heard even the name of the woman who has
lived in all my thoughts, who has possessed herself of all my energies,
who has become the one guiding influence that now directs the purpose
of my life.


Pesca's face and manner, on the evening when we confronted each other
at my mother's gate, were more than sufficient to inform me that
something extraordinary had happened. It was quite useless, however,
to ask him for an immediate explanation. I could only conjecture,
while he was dragging me in by both hands, that (knowing my habits) he
had come to the cottage to make sure of meeting me that night, and that
he had some news to tell of an unusually agreeable kind.

We both bounced into the parlour in a highly abrupt and undignified
manner. My mother sat by the open window laughing and fanning herself.
Pesca was one of her especial favourites and his wildest eccentricities
were always pardonable in her eyes. Poor dear soul! from the first
moment when she found out that the little Professor was deeply and
gratefully attached to her son, she opened her heart to him
unreservedly, and took all his puzzling foreign peculiarities for
granted, without so much as attempting to understand any one of them.

My sister Sarah, with all the advantages of youth, was, strangely
enough, less pliable. She did full justice to Pesca's excellent
qualities of heart; but she could not accept him implicitly, as my
mother accepted him, for my sake. Her insular notions of propriety
rose in perpetual revolt against Pesca's constitutional contempt for
appearances; and she was always more or less undisguisedly astonished
at her mother's familiarity with the eccentric little foreigner. I
have observed, not only in my sister's case, but in the instances of
others, that we of the young generation are nothing like so hearty and
so impulsive as some of our elders. I constantly see old people
flushed and excited by the prospect of some anticipated pleasure which
altogether fails to ruffle the tranquillity of their serene
grandchildren. Are we, I wonder, quite such genuine boys and girls now
as our seniors were in their time? Has the great advance in education
taken rather too long a stride; and are we in these modern days, just
the least trifle in the world too well brought up?

Without attempting to answer those questions decisively, I may at least
record that I never saw my mother and my sister together in Pesca's
society, without finding my mother much the younger woman of the two.
On this occasion, for example, while the old lady was laughing heartily
over the boyish manner in which we tumbled into the parlour, Sarah was
perturbedly picking up the broken pieces of a teacup, which the
Professor had knocked off the table in his precipitate advance to meet
me at the door.

"I don't know what would have happened, Walter," said my mother, "if
you had delayed much longer. Pesca has been half mad with impatience,
and I have been half mad with curiosity. The Professor has brought
some wonderful news with him, in which he says you are concerned; and
he has cruelly refused to give us the smallest hint of it till his
friend Walter appeared."

"Very provoking: it spoils the Set," murmured Sarah to herself,
mournfully absorbed over the ruins of the broken cup.

While these words were being spoken, Pesca, happily and fussily
unconscious of the irreparable wrong which the crockery had suffered at
his hands, was dragging a large arm-chair to the opposite end of the
room, so as to command us all three, in the character of a public
speaker addressing an audience. Having turned the chair with its back
towards us, he jumped into it on his knees, and excitedly addressed his
small congregation of three from an impromptu pulpit.

"Now, my good dears," began Pesca (who always said "good dears" when he
meant "worthy friends"), "listen to me. The time has come - I recite my
good news - I speak at last."

"Hear, hear!" said my mother, humouring the joke.

"The next thing he will break, mamma," whispered Sarah, "will be the
back of the best arm-chair."

"I go back into my life, and I address myself to the noblest of created
beings," continued Pesca, vehemently apostrophising my unworthy self
over the top rail of the chair. "Who found me dead at the bottom of
the sea (through Cramp); and who pulled me up to the top; and what did
I say when I got into my own life and my own clothes again?"

"Much more than was at all necessary," I answered as doggedly as
possible; for the least encouragement in connection with this subject
invariably let loose the Professor's emotions in a flood of tears.

"I said," persisted Pesca, "that my life belonged to my dear friend,
Walter, for the rest of my days - and so it does. I said that I should
never be happy again till I had found the opportunity of doing a good
Something for Walter - and I have never been contented with myself till
this most blessed day. Now," cried the enthusiastic little man at the
top of his voice, "the overflowing happiness bursts out of me at every
pore of my skin, like a perspiration; for on my faith, and soul, and
honour, the something is done at last, and the only word to say now
is - Right-all-right!"

It may be necessary to explain here that Pesca prided himself on being
a perfect Englishman in his language, as well as in his dress, manners,
and amusements. Having picked up a few of our most familiar colloquial
expressions, he scattered them about over his conversation whenever
they happened to occur to him, turning them, in his high relish for
their sound and his general ignorance of their sense, into compound
words and repetitions of his own, and always running them into each
other, as if they consisted of one long syllable.

"Among the fine London Houses where I teach the language of my native
country," said the Professor, rushing into his long-deferred
explanation without another word of preface, "there is one, mighty
fine, in the big place called Portland. You all know where that is?
Yes, yes - course-of-course. The fine house, my good dears, has got
inside it a fine family. A Mamma, fair and fat; three young Misses,
fair and fat; two young Misters, fair and fat; and a Papa, the fairest
and the fattest of all, who is a mighty merchant, up to his eyes in
gold - a fine man once, but seeing that he has got a naked head and two
chins, fine no longer at the present time. Now mind! I teach the
sublime Dante to the young Misses, and ah! - my-soul-bless-my-soul! - it
is not in human language to say how the sublime Dante puzzles the
pretty heads of all three! No matter - all in good time - and the more
lessons the better for me. Now mind! Imagine to yourselves that I am
teaching the young Misses to-day, as usual. We are all four of us down
together in the Hell of Dante. At the Seventh Circle - but no matter
for that: all the Circles are alike to the three young Misses, fair and
fat, - at the Seventh Circle, nevertheless, my pupils are sticking fast;
and I, to set them going again, recite, explain, and blow myself up
red-hot with useless enthusiasm, when - a creak of boots in the passage
outside, and in comes the golden Papa, the mighty merchant with the
naked head and the two chins. - Ha! my good dears, I am closer than you
think for to the business, now. Have you been patient so far? or have
you said to yourselves, 'Deuce-what-the-deuce! Pesca is long-winded

We declared that we were deeply interested. The Professor went on:

"In his hand, the golden Papa has a letter; and after he has made his
excuse for disturbing us in our Infernal Region with the common mortal
Business of the house, he addresses himself to the three young Misses,
and begins, as you English begin everything in this blessed world that
you have to say, with a great O. 'O, my dears,' says the mighty
merchant, 'I have got here a letter from my friend, Mr. - - '(the name
has slipped out of my mind; but no matter; we shall come back to that;
yes, yes - right-all-right). So the Papa says, 'I have got a letter from
my friend, the Mister; and he wants a recommend from me, of a
drawing-master, to go down to his house in the country.'
My-soul-bless-my-soul! when I heard the golden Papa say those words, if
I had been big enough to reach up to him, I should have put my arms
round his neck, and pressed him to my bosom in a long and grateful hug!
As it was, I only bounced upon my chair. My seat was on thorns, and my
soul was on fire to speak but I held my tongue, and let Papa go on.
'Perhaps you know,' says this good man of money, twiddling his friend's
letter this way and that, in his golden fingers and thumbs, 'perhaps
you know, my dears, of a drawing-master that I can recommend?' The
three young Misses all look at each other, and then say (with the
indispensable great O to begin) "O, dear no, Papa! But here is Mr.
Pesca' At the mention of myself I can hold no longer - the thought of
you, my good dears, mounts like blood to my head - I start from my seat,
as if a spike had grown up from the ground through the bottom of my
chair - I address myself to the mighty merchant, and I say (English
phrase) 'Dear sir, I have the man! The first and foremost
drawing-master of the world! Recommend him by the post to-night, and
send him off, bag and baggage (English phrase again - ha!), send him
off, bag and baggage, by the train to-morrow!' 'Stop, stop,' says
Papa; 'is he a foreigner, or an Englishman?' 'English to the bone of
his back,' I answer. 'Respectable?' says Papa. 'Sir,' I say (for this
last question of his outrages me, and I have done being familiar with
him - ) 'Sir! the immortal fire of genius burns in this Englishman's
bosom, and, what is more, his father had it before him!' 'Never mind,'
says the golden barbarian of a Papa, 'never mind about his genius, Mr.
Pesca. We don't want genius in this country, unless it is accompanied
by respectability - and then we are very glad to have it, very glad
indeed. Can your friend produce testimonials - letters that speak to
his character?' I wave my hand negligently. 'Letters?' I say. 'Ha!
my-soul-bless-my-soul! I should think so, indeed! Volumes of letters
and portfolios of testimonials, if you like!' 'One or two will do,'
says this man of phlegm and money. 'Let him send them to me, with his
name and address. And - stop, stop, Mr. Pesca - before you go to your
friend, you had better take a note.' 'Bank-note!' I say, indignantly.
'No bank-note, if you please, till my brave Englishman has earned it
first.' 'Bank-note!' says Papa, in a great surprise, 'who talked of
bank-note? I mean a note of the terms - a memorandum of what he is
expected to do. Go on with your lesson, Mr. Pesca, and I will give you
the necessary extract from my friend's letter.' Down sits the man of
merchandise and money to his pen, ink, and paper; and down I go once
again into the Hell of Dante, with my three young Misses after me. In
ten minutes' time the note is written, and the boots of Papa are
creaking themselves away in the passage outside. From that moment, on
my faith, and soul, and honour, I know nothing more! The glorious
thought that I have caught my opportunity at last, and that my grateful
service for my dearest friend in the world is as good as done already,
flies up into my head and makes me drunk. How I pull my young Misses
and myself out of our Infernal Region again, how my other business is
done afterwards, how my little bit of dinner slides itself down my
throat, I know no more than a man in the moon. Enough for me, that
here I am, with the mighty merchant's note in my hand, as large as
life, as hot as fire, and as happy as a king! Ha! ha! ha!
right-right-right-all-right!" Here the Professor waved the memorandum
of terms over his head, and ended his long and voluble narrative with
his shrill Italian parody on an English cheer."

My mother rose the moment he had done, with flushed cheeks and
brightened eyes. She caught the little man warmly by both hands.

"My dear, good Pesca," she said, "I never doubted your true affection
for Walter - but I am more than ever persuaded of it now!"

"I am sure we are very much obliged to Professor Pesca, for Walter's
sake," added Sarah. She half rose, while she spoke, as if to approach
the arm-chair, in her turn; but, observing that Pesca was rapturously
kissing my mother's hands, looked serious, and resumed her seat. "If
the familiar little man treats my mother in that way, how will he treat
ME?" Faces sometimes tell truth; and that was unquestionably the
thought in Sarah's mind, as she sat down again.

Although I myself was gratefully sensible of the kindness of Pesca's
motives, my spirits were hardly so much elevated as they ought to have
been by the prospect of future employment now placed before me. When
the Professor had quite done with my mother's hand, and when I had
warmly thanked him for his interference on my behalf, I asked to be
allowed to look at the note of terms which his respectable patron had
drawn up for my inspection.

Pesca handed me the paper, with a triumphant flourish of the hand.

"Read!" said the little man majestically. "I promise you my friend,
the writing of the golden Papa speaks with a tongue of trumpets for

The note of terms was plain, straightforward, and comprehensive, at any
rate. It informed me,

First, That Frederick Fairlie, Esquire, of Limmeridge House.
Cumberland, wanted to engage the services of a thoroughly competent
drawing-master, for a period of four months certain.

Secondly, That the duties which the master was expected to perform
would be of a twofold kind. He was to superintend the instruction of
two young ladies in the art of painting in water-colours; and he was to
devote his leisure time, afterwards, to the business of repairing and
mounting a valuable collection of drawings, which had been suffered to
fall into a condition of total neglect.

Thirdly, That the terms offered to the person who should undertake and
properly perform these duties were four guineas a week; that he was to
reside at Limmeridge House; and that he was to be treated there on the
footing of a gentleman.

Fourthly, and lastly, That no person need think of applying for this
situation unless he could furnish the most unexceptionable references
to character and abilities. The references were to be sent to Mr.
Fairlie's friend in London, who was empowered to conclude all necessary

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