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The Woman in White, Page 71

Wilkie Collins


  MY first conviction as soon as I found myself outside the house, wasthat no alternative was left me but to act at once on the information Ihad received--to make sure of the Count that night, or to risk theloss, if I only delayed till the morning, of Laura's last chance. Ilooked at my watch--it was ten o'clock.

  Not the shadow of a doubt crossed my mind of the purpose for which theCount had left the theatre. His escape from us, that evening, wasbeyond all question the preliminary only to his escape from London.The mark of the Brotherhood was on his arm--I felt as certain of it asif he had shown me the brand; and the betrayal of the Brotherhood wason his conscience--I had seen it in his recognition of Pesca.

  It was easy to understand why that recognition had not been mutual. Aman of the Count's character would never risk the terrible consequencesof turning spy without looking to his personal security quite ascarefully as he looked to his golden reward. The shaven face, which Ihad pointed out at the Opera, might have been covered by a beard inPesca's time--his dark brown hair might be a wig--his name wasevidently a false one. The accident of time might have helped him aswell--his immense corpulence might have come with his later years.There was every reason why Pesca should not have known him again--everyreason also why he should have known Pesca, whose singular personalappearance made a marked man of him, go where he might.

  I have said that I felt certain of the purpose in the Count's mind whenhe escaped us at the theatre. How could I doubt it, when I saw, withmy own eyes, that he believed himself, in spite of the change in hisappearance, to have been recognised by Pesca, and to be therefore indanger of his life? If I could get speech of him that night, if I couldshow him that I, too knew of the mortal peril in which he stood, whatresult would follow? Plainly this. One of us must be master of thesituation--one of us must inevitably be at the mercy of the other.

  I owed it to myself to consider the chances against me before Iconfronted them. I owed it to my wife to do all that lay in my powerto lessen the risk.

  The chances against me wanted no reckoning up--they were all merged inone. If the Count discovered, by my own avowal, that the direct way tohis safety lay through my life, he was probably the last man inexistence who would shrink from throwing me off my guard and takingthat way, when he had me alone within his reach. The only means ofdefence against him on which I could at all rely to lessen the risk,presented themselves, after a little careful thinking, clearly enough.Before I made any personal acknowledgment of my discovery in hispresence, I must place the discovery itself where it would be ready forinstant use against him, and safe from any attempt at suppression onhis part. If I laid the mine under his feet before I approached him,and if I left instructions with a third person to fire it on theexpiration of a certain time, unless directions to the contrary werepreviously received under my own hand, or from my own lips--in thatevent the Count's security was absolutely dependent upon mine, and Imight hold the vantage ground over him securely, even in his own house.

  This idea occurred to me when I was close to the new lodgings which wehad taken on returning from the sea-side. I went in without disturbingany one, by the help of my key. A light was in the hall, and I stoleup with it to my workroom to make my preparations, and absolutely tocommit myself to an interview with the Count, before either Laura orMarian could have the slightest suspicion of what I intended to do.

  A letter addressed to Pesca represented the surest measure ofprecaution which it was now possible for me to take. I wrote asfollows--

  "The man whom I pointed out to you at the Opera is a member of theBrotherhood, and has been false to his trust. Put both these assertionsto the test instantly. You know the name he goes by in England. Hisaddress is No. 5 Forest Road, St. John's Wood. On the love you oncebore me, use the power entrusted to you without mercy and without delayagainst that man. I have risked all and lost all--and the forfeit ofmy failure has been paid with my life."

  I signed and dated these lines, enclosed them in an envelope, andsealed it up. On the outside I wrote this direction: "Keep theenclosure unopened until nine o'clock to-morrow morning. If you do nothear from me, or see me, before that time, break the seal when theclock strikes, and read the contents." I added my initials, andprotected the whole by enclosing it in a second sealed envelope,addressed to Pesca at his lodgings.

  Nothing remained to be done after this but to find the means of sendingmy letter to its destination immediately. I should then haveaccomplished all that lay in my power. If anything happened to me inthe Count's house, I had now provided for his answering it with hislife.

  That the means of preventing his escape, under any circumstanceswhatever, were at Pesca's disposal, if he chose to exert them, I didnot for an instant doubt. The extraordinary anxiety which he hadexpressed to remain unenlightened as to the Count's identity--or, inother words, to be left uncertain enough about facts to justify him tohis own conscience in remaining passive--betrayed plainly that themeans of exercising the terrible justice of the Brotherhood were readyto his hand, although, as a naturally humane man, he had shrunk fromplainly saying as much in my presence. The deadly certainty with whichthe vengeance of foreign political societies can hunt down a traitor tothe cause, hide himself where he may, had been too often exemplified,even in my superficial experience, to allow of any doubt. Consideringthe subject only as a reader of newspapers, cases recurred to mymemory, both in London and in Paris, of foreigners found stabbed in thestreets, whose assassins could never be traced--of bodies and parts ofbodies thrown into the Thames and the Seine, by hands that could neverbe discovered--of deaths by secret violence which could only beaccounted for in one way. I have disguised nothing relating to myselfin these pages, and I do not disguise here that I believed I hadwritten Count Fosco's death-warrant, if the fatal emergency happenedwhich authorised Pesca to open my enclosure.

  I left my room to go down to the ground floor of the house, and speakto the landlord about finding me a messenger. He happened to beascending the stairs at the time, and we met on the landing. His son, aquick lad, was the messenger he proposed to me on hearing what Iwanted. We had the boy upstairs, and I gave him his directions. Hewas to take the letter in a cab, to put it into Professor Pesca's ownhands, and to bring me back a line of acknowledgment from thatgentleman--returning in the cab, and keeping it at the door for my use.It was then nearly half-past ten. I calculated that the boy might beback in twenty minutes, and that I might drive to St. John's Wood, onhis return, in twenty minutes more.

  When the lad had departed on his errand I returned to my own room for alittle while, to put certain papers in order, so that they might beeasily found in case of the worst. The key of the old-fashionedbureau in which the papers were kept I sealed up, and left it on mytable, with Marian's name written on the outside of the little packet.This done, I went downstairs to the sitting-room, in which I expectedto find Laura and Marian awaiting my return from the Opera. I felt myhand trembling for the first time when I laid it on the lock of thedoor.

  No one was in the room but Marian. She was reading, and she looked ather watch, in surprise, when I came in.

  "How early you are back!" she said. "You must have come away beforethe Opera was over."

  "Yes," I replied, "neither Pesca nor I waited for the end. Where isLaura?"

  "She had one of her bad headaches this evening, and I advised her to goto bed when we had done tea."

  I left the room again on the pretext of wishing to see whether Laurawas asleep. Marian's quick eyes were beginning to look inquiringly atmy face--Marian's quick instinct was beginning to discover that I hadsomething weighing on my mind.

  When I entered the bedchamber, and softly approached the bedside by thedim flicker of the night-lamp, my wife was asleep.

  We had not been married quite a month yet. If my heart was heavy, ifmy resolution for a moment faltered again, when I looked at her faceturned faithfully to my pillow in her sleep--when I saw her handresting open on the coverlid, a
s if it was waiting unconsciously formine--surely there was some excuse for me? I only allowed myself a fewminutes to kneel down at the bedside, and to look close at her--soclose that her breath, as it came and went, fluttered on my face. Ionly touched her hand and her cheek with my lips at parting. Shestirred in her sleep and murmured my name, but without waking. Ilingered for an instant at the door to look at her again. "God blessand keep you, my darling!" I whispered, and left her.

  Marian was at the stairhead waiting for me. She had a folded slip ofpaper in her hand.

  "The landlord's son has brought this for you," she said. "He has got acab at the door--he says you ordered him to keep it at your disposal."

  "Quite right, Marian. I want the cab--I am going out again."

  I descended the stairs as I spoke, and looked into the sitting-room toread the slip of paper by the light on the table. It contained thesetwo sentences in Pesca's handwriting--

  "Your letter is received. If I don't see you before the time youmention, I will break the seal when the clock strikes."

  I placed the paper in my pocket-book, and made for the door. Marian metme on the threshold, and pushed me back into the room, where thecandle-light fell full on my face. She held me by both hands, and hereyes fastened searchingly on mine.

  "I see!" she said, in a low eager whisper. "You are trying the lastchance to-night."

  "Yes, the last chance and the best," I whispered back.

  "Not alone! Oh, Walter, for God's sake, not alone! Let me go with you.Don't refuse me because I'm only a woman. I must go! I will go! I'llwait outside in the cab!"

  It was my turn now to hold HER. She tried to break away from me andget down first to the door.

  "If you want to help me," I said, "stop here and sleep in my wife'sroom to-night. Only let me go away with my mind easy about Laura, andI answer for everything else. Come, Marian, give me a kiss, and showthat you have the courage to wait till I come back."

  I dared not allow her time to say a word more. She tried to hold meagain. I unclasped her hands, and was out of the room in a moment.The boy below heard me on the stairs, and opened the hall-door. Ijumped into the cab before the driver could get off the box. "ForestRoad, St. John's Wood," I called to him through the front window."Double fare if you get there in a quarter of an hour." "I'll do it,sir." I looked at my watch. Eleven o'clock. Not a minute to lose.

  The rapid motion of the cab, the sense that every instant now wasbringing me nearer to the Count, the conviction that I was embarked atlast, without let or hindrance, on my hazardous enterprise, heated meinto such a fever of excitement that I shouted to the man to go fasterand faster. As we left the streets, and crossed St. John's Wood Road,my impatience so completely overpowered me that I stood up in the caband stretched my head out of the window, to see the end of the journeybefore we reached it. Just as a church clock in the distance struckthe quarter past, we turned into the Forest Road. I stopped the drivera little away from the Count's house, paid and dismissed him, andwalked on to the door.

  As I approached the garden gate, I saw another person advancing towardsit also from the direction opposite to mine. We met under the gas lampin the road, and looked at each other. I instantly recognised thelight-haired foreigner with the scar on his cheek, and I thought herecognised me. He said nothing, and instead of stopping at the house,as I did, he slowly walked on. Was he in the Forest Road by accident?Or had he followed the Count home from the Opera?

  I did not pursue those questions. After waiting a little till theforeigner had slowly passed out of sight, I rang the gate bell. It wasthen twenty minutes past eleven--late enough to make it quite easy forthe Count to get rid of me by the excuse that he was in bed.

  The only way of providing against this contingency was to send in myname without asking any preliminary questions, and to let him know, atthe same time, that I had a serious motive for wishing to see him atthat late hour. Accordingly, while I was waiting, I took out my cardand wrote under my name "On important business." The maid-servantanswered the door while I was writing the last word in pencil, andasked me distrustfully what I "pleased to want."

  "Be so good as to take that to your master," I replied, giving her thecard.

  I saw, by the girl's hesitation of manner, that if I had asked for theCount in the first instance she would only have followed herinstructions by telling me he was not at home. She was staggered bythe confidence with which I gave her the card. After staring at me, ingreat perturbation, she went back into the house with my message,closing the door, and leaving me to wait in the garden.

  In a minute or so she reappeared. "Her master's compliments, and wouldI be so obliging as to say what my business was?" "Take my complimentsback," I replied, "and say that the business cannot be mentioned to anyone but your master." She left me again, again returned, and this timeasked me to walk in.

  I followed her at once. In another moment I was inside the Count'shouse.