The Woman in White, Chapter II, Wilkie Collins
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
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
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, 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.
Collins, Wilkie. "Chapter 2." The Woman in White. United Kingdom: All the Year Round, 1859. N. pag. Online-literature.com. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
In lines 25-27, the speaker observes,
"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."
Here, prudence means