Miss Morris and the Stranger

Wilkie Collins

Miss Morris and the Stranger Page 02

I am wandering again. Bear with the unpremeditated enthusiasm of a citizen who only attained years of discretion at her last birthday. We shall soon have done with Sandwich; we are close to the door of the inn.

"You can't mistake it now, sir," I said. "Good-morning."

He looked down at me from under his beautiful eyelashes (have I mentioned that I am a little woman?), and he asked in his persuasive tones: "Must we say good-by?"

I made him a bow.

"Would you allow me to see you safe home?" he suggested.

Any other man would have offended me. This man blushed like a boy, and looked at the pavement instead of looking at me. By this time I had made up my mind about him. He was not only a gentleman beyond all doubt, but a shy gentleman as well. His bluntness and his odd remarks were, as I thought, partly efforts to disguise his shyness, and partly refuges in which he tried to forget his own sense of it. I answered his audacious proposal amiably and pleasantly. "You would only lose your way again," I said, "and I should have to take you back to the inn for the second time."

Wasted words! My obstinate stranger only made another proposal.

"I have ordered lunch here," he said, "and I am quite alone." He stopped in confusion, and looked as if he rather expected me to box his ears. "I shall be forty next birthday," he went on; "I am old enough to be your father." I all but burst out laughing, and stepped across the street, on my way home. He followed me. "We might invite the landlady to join us," he said, looking the picture of a headlong man, dismayed by the consciousness of his own imprudence. "Couldn't you honor me by lunching with me if we had the landlady?" he asked.

This was a little too much. "Quite out of the question, sir--and you ought to know it," I said with severity. He half put out his hand. "Won't you even shake hands with me?" he inquired piteously. When we have most properly administered a reproof to a man, what is the perversity which makes us weakly pity him the minute afterward? I was fool enough to shake hands with this perfect stranger. And, having done it, I completed the total loss of my dignity by running away. Our dear crooked little streets hid me from him directly.

As I rang at the door-bell of my employer's house, a thought occurred to me which might have been alarming to a better regulated mind than mine.

"Suppose he should come back to Sandwich?"


BEFORE many more days passed I had troubles of my own to contend with, which put the eccentric stranger out of my head for the time.

Unfortunately, my troubles are part of my story; and my early life mixes itself up with them. In consideration of what is to follow, may I say two words relating to the period before I was a governess?

I am the orphan daughter of a shopkeeper of Sandwich. My father died, leaving to his widow and child an honest name and a little income of L80 a year. We kept on the shop--neither gaining nor losing by it. The truth is nobody would buy our poor little business. I was thirteen years old at the time; and I was able to help my mother, whose health was then beginning to fail. Never shall I forget a certain bright summer's day, when I saw a new customer enter our shop. He was an elderly gentleman; and he seemed surprised to find so young a girl as myself in charge of the business, and, what is more, competent to support the charge. I answered his questions in a manner which seemed to please him. He soon discovered that my education (excepting my knowledge of the business) had been sadly neglected; and he inquired if he could see my mother. She was resting on the sofa in the back parlor--and she received him there. When he came out, he patted me on the cheek. "I have taken a fancy to you," he said, "and perhaps I shall come back again." He did come back again. My mother had referred him to the rector for our characters in the town, and he had heard what our clergyman could say for us. Our only relations had emigrated to Australia, and were not doing well there. My mother's death would leave me, so far as relatives were concerned, literally alone in the world. "Give this girl a first-rate education," said our elderly customer, sitting at our tea-table in the back parlor, "and she will do. If you will send her to school, ma'am, I'll pay for her education." My poor mother began to cry at the prospect of parting with me. The old gentleman said: "Think of it," and got up to go. He gave me his card as I opened the shop-door for him. "If you find yourself in trouble," he whispered, so that my mother could not hear him, "be a wise child, and write and tell me of it." I looked at the card. Our kind-hearted customer was no less a person than Sir Gervase Damian, of Garrum Park, Sussex--with landed property in our county as well! He had made himself (through the rector, no doubt) far better acquainted than I was with the true state of my mother's health. In four months from the memorable day when the great man had taken tea with us, my time had come to be alone in the world. I have no courage to dwell on it; my spirits sink, even at this distance of time, when I think of myself in those days. The good rector helped me with his advice--I wrote to Sir Gervase Damian.

A change had come over his life as well as mine in the interval since we had met.

Sir Gervas e had married for the second time--and, what was more foolish still, perhaps, at his age, had married a young woman. She was said to be consumptive, and of a jealous temper as well. Her husband's only child by his first wife, a son and heir, was so angry at his father's second marriage that he left the house. The landed property being entailed, Sir Gervase could only express his sense of his son's conduct by making a new will, which left all his property in money to his young wife.

These particulars I gathered from the steward, who was expressly sent to visit me at Sandwich.

"Sir Gervase never makes a promise without keeping it," this gentleman informed me. "I am directed to take you to a first-rate ladies' school in the neighborhood of London, and to make all the necessary arrangements for your remaining there until you are eighteen years of age.

Wilkie Collins

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