The Black Robe Page 01
The Black Robe
by Wilkie Collins
BEFORE THE STORY.
THE doctors could do no more for the Dowager Lady Berrick.
When the medical advisers of a lady who has reached seventy years of age recommend the mild climate of the South of France, they mean in plain language that they have arrived at the end of their resources. Her ladyship gave the mild climate a fair trial, and then decided (as she herself expressed it) to "die at home." Traveling slowly, she had reached Paris at the date when I last heard of her. It was then the beginning of November. A week later, I met with her nephew, Lewis Romayne, at the club.
"What brings you to London at this time of year?" I asked.
"The fatality that pursues me," he answered grimly. "I am one of the unluckiest men living."
He was thirty years old; he was not married; he was the enviable possessor of the fine old country seat, called Vange Abbey; he had no poor relations; and he was one of the handsomest men in England. When I add that I am, myself, a retired army officer, with a wretched income, a disagreeable wife, four ugly children, and a burden of fifty years on my back, no one will be surprised to hear that I answered Romayne, with bitter sincerity, in these words:
"I wish to heaven I could change places with you!"
"I wish to heaven you could!" he burst out, with equal sincerity on his side. "Read that."
He handed me a letter addressed to him by the traveling medical attendant of Lady Berrick. After resting in Paris, the patient had continued her homeward journey as far as Boulogne. In her suffering condition, she was liable to sudden fits of caprice. An insurmountable horror of the Channel passage had got possession of her; she positively refused to be taken on board the steamboat. In this difficulty, the lady who held the post of her "companion" had ventured on a suggestion. Would Lady Berrick consent to make the Channel passage if her nephew came to Boulogne expressly to accompany her on the voyage? The reply had been so immediately favorable, that the doctor lost no time in communicating with Mr. Lewis Romayne. This was the substance of the letter.
It was needless to ask any more questions--Romayne was plainly on his way to Boulogne. I gave him some useful information. "Try the oysters," I said, "at the restaurant on the pier."
He never even thanked me. He was thinking entirely of himself.
"Just look at my position," he said. "I detest Boulogne; I cordially share my aunt's horror of the Channel passage; I had looked forward to some months of happy retirement in the country among my books--and what happens to me? I am brought to London in this season of fogs, to travel by the tidal train at seven to-morrow morning--and all for a woman with whom I have no sympathies in common. If I am not an unlucky man--who is?"
He spoke in a tone of vehement irritation which seemed to me, under the circumstances, to be simply absurd. But my nervous system is not the irritable system--sorely tried by night study and strong tea--of my friend Romayne. "It's only a matter of two days," I remarked, by way of reconciling him to his situation.
"How do I know that?" he retorted. "In two days the weather may be stormy. In two days she may be too ill to be moved. Unfortunately, I am her heir; and I am told I must submit to any whim that seizes her. I'm rich enough already; I don't want her money. Besides, I dislike all traveling--and especially traveling alone. You are an idle man. If you were a good friend, you would offer to go with me." He added, with the delicacy which was one of the redeeming points in his wayward character. "Of course as my guest."
I had known him long enough not to take offense at his reminding me, in this considerate way, that I was a poor man. The proposed change of scene tempted me. What did I care for the Channel passage? Besides, there was the irresistible attraction of getting away from home. The end of it was that I accepted Romayne's invitation.
SHORTLY after noon, on the next day, we were established at Boulogne--near Lady Berrick, but not at her hotel. "If we live in the same house," Romayne reminded me, "we shall be bored by the companion and the doctor. Meetings on the stairs, you know, and exchanging bows and small talk." He hated those trivial conventionalities of society, in which, other people delight. When somebody once asked him in what company he felt most at ease? he made a shocking answer--he said, "In the company of dogs."
I waited for him on the pier while he went to see her ladyship. He joined me again with his bitterest smile. "What did I tell you? She is not well enough to see me to-day. The doctor looks grave, and the companion puts her handkerchief to her eyes. We may be kept in this place for weeks to come."
The afternoon proved to be rainy. Our early dinner was a bad one. This last circumstance tried his temper sorely. He was no gourmand; the question of cookery was (with him) purely a matter of digestion. Those late hours of study, and that abuse of tea to which I have already alluded, had sadly injured his stomach. The doctors warned him of serious consequences to his nervous system, unless he altered his habits. He had little faith in medical science, and he greatly overrated the restorative capacity of his constitution. So far as I know, he had always neglected the doctors' advice.
The weather cleared toward evening, and we went out for a walk. We passed a church--a Roman Catholic church, of course--the doors of which were still open. Some poor women were kneeling at their prayers in the dim light. "Wait a minute," said Romayne. "I am in a vile temper. Let me try to put myself into a better frame of mind."
I followed him into the church. He knelt down in a dark corner by himself. I confess I was surprised. He had been baptized in the Church of England; but, so far as outward practice was concerned, he belonged to no religious community. I had often heard him speak with sincere reverence and admiration of the spirit of Christianity--but he never, to my knowledge, attended any place of public worship. When we met again outside the church, I asked if he had been converted to the Roman Catholic faith.
"No," he said. "I hate the inveterate striving of that priesthood after social influence and political power as cordially as the fiercest Protestant living. But let us not forget that the Church of Rome has great merits to set against great faults. Its system is administered with an admirable knowledge of the higher needs of human nature. Take as one example what you have just seen. The solemn tranquillity of that church, the poor people praying near me, the few words of prayer by which I silently united myself to my fellow-creatures, have calmed me and done me good. In our country I should have found the church closed, out of service hours." He took my arm and abruptly changed the subject. "How will you occupy yourself," he asked, "if my aunt receives me to-morrow?"
I assured him that I should easily find ways and means of getting through the time.