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The Woman in White, Page 72

Wilkie Collins


  There was no lamp in the hall, but by the dim light of the kitchencandle, which the girl had brought upstairs with her, I saw an elderlylady steal noiselessly out of a back room on the ground floor. Shecast one viperish look at me as I entered the hall, but said nothing,and went slowly upstairs without returning my bow. My familiarity withMarian's journal sufficiently assured me that the elderly lady wasMadame Fosco.

  The servant led me to the room which the Countess had just left. Ientered it, and found myself face to face with the Count.

  He was still in his evening dress, except his coat, which he had thrownacross a chair. His shirt-sleeves were turned up at the wrists, but nohigher. A carpet-bag was on one side of him, and a box on the other.Books, papers, and articles of wearing apparel were scattered about theroom. On a table, at one side of the door, stood the cage, so wellknown to me by description, which contained his white mice. Thecanaries and the cockatoo were probably in some other room. He wasseated before the box, packing it, when I went in, and rose with somepapers in his hand to receive me. His face still betrayed plain tracesof the shock that had overwhelmed him at the Opera. His fat cheekshung loose, his cold grey eyes were furtively vigilant, his voice,look, and manner were all sharply suspicious alike, as he advanced astep to meet me, and requested, with distant civility, that I wouldtake a chair.

  "You come here on business, sir?" he said. "I am at a loss to knowwhat that business can possibly be."

  The unconcealed curiosity, with which he looked hard in my face whilehe spoke, convinced me that I had passed unnoticed by him at the Opera.He had seen Pesca first, and from that moment till he left the theatrehe had evidently seen nothing else. My name would necessarily suggestto him that I had not come into his house with other than a hostilepurpose towards himself, but he appeared to be utterly ignorant thusfar of the real nature of my errand.

  "I am fortunate in finding you here to-night," I said. "You seem to beon the point of taking a journey?"

  "Is your business connected with my journey?"

  "In some degree."

  "In what degree? Do you know where I am going to?"

  "No. I only know why you are leaving London."

  He slipped by me with the quickness of thought, locked the door, andput the key in his pocket.

  "You and I, Mr. Hartright, are excellently well acquainted with oneanother by reputation," he said. "Did it, by any chance, occur to youwhen you came to this house that I was not the sort of man you couldtrifle with?"

  "It did occur to me," I replied. "And I have not come to trifle withyou. I am here on a matter of life and death, and if that door whichyou have locked was open at this moment, nothing you could say or dowould induce me to pass through it."

  I walked farther into the room, and stood opposite to him on the rugbefore the fireplace. He drew a chair in front of the door, and satdown on it, with his left arm resting on the table. The cage with thewhite mice was close to him, and the little creatures scampered out oftheir sleeping-place as his heavy arm shook the table, and peered athim through the gaps in the smartly painted wires.

  "On a matter of life and death," he repeated to himself. "Those wordsare more serious, perhaps, than you think. What do you mean?"

  "What I say."

  The perspiration broke out thickly on his broad forehead. His lefthand stole over the edge of the table. There was a drawer in it, witha lock, and the key was in the lock. His finger and thumb closed overthe key, but did not turn it.

  "So you know why I am leaving London?" he went on. "Tell me thereason, if you please." He turned the key, and unlocked the drawer ashe spoke.

  "I can do better than that," I replied. "I can SHOW you the reason, ifyou like."

  "How can you show it?"

  "You have got your coat off," I said. "Roll up the shirt-sleeve onyour left arm, and you will see it there."

  The same livid leaden change passed over his face which I had seen passover it at the theatre. The deadly glitter in his eyes shone steadyand straight into mine. He said nothing. But his left hand slowlyopened the table-drawer, and softly slipped into it. The harsh gratingnoise of something heavy that he was moving unseen to me sounded for amoment, then ceased. The silence that followed was so intense that thefaint ticking nibble of the white mice at their wires was distinctlyaudible where I stood.

  My life hung by a thread, and I knew it. At that final moment Ithought with HIS mind, I felt with HIS fingers--I was as certain as ifI had seen it of what he kept hidden from me in the drawer.

  "Wait a little," I said. "You have got the door locked--you see Idon't move--you see my hands are empty. Wait a little. I havesomething more to say."

  "You have said enough," he replied, with a sudden composure sounnatural and so ghastly that it tried my nerves as no outbreak ofviolence could have tried them. "I want one moment for my ownthoughts, if you please. Do you guess what I am thinking about?"

  "Perhaps I do."

  "I am thinking," he remarked quietly, "whether I shall add to thedisorder in this room by scattering your brains about the fireplace."

  If I had moved at that moment, I saw in his face that he would havedone it.

  "I advise you to read two lines of writing which I have about me," Irejoined, "before you finally decide that question."

  The proposal appeared to excite his curiosity. He nodded his head. Itook Pesca's acknowledgment of the receipt of my letter out of mypocket-book, handed it to him at arm's length, and returned to myformer position in front of the fireplace.

  He read the lines aloud: "Your letter is received. If I don't hearfrom you before the time you mention, I will break the seal when theclock strikes."

  Another man in his position would have needed some explanation of thosewords--the Count felt no such necessity. One reading of the noteshowed him the precaution that I had taken as plainly as if he had beenpresent at the time when I adopted it. The expression of his facechanged on the instant, and his hand came out of the drawer empty.

  "I don't lock up my drawer, Mr. Hartright," he said, "and I don't saythat I may not scatter your brains about the fireplace yet. But I am ajust man even to my enemy, and I will acknowledge beforehand that theyare cleverer brains than I thought them. Come to the point, sir! Youwant something of me?"

  "I do, and I mean to have it."

  "On conditions?"

  "On no conditions."

  His hand dropped into the drawer again.

  "Bah! we are travelling in a circle," he said, "and those clever brainsof yours are in danger again. Your tone is deplorably imprudent,sir--moderate it on the spot! The risk of shooting you on the placewhere you stand is less to me than the risk of letting you out of thishouse, except on conditions that I dictate and approve. You have notgot my lamented friend to deal with now--you are face to face withFosco! If the lives of twenty Mr. Hartrights were the stepping-stonesto my safety, over all those stones I would go, sustained by my sublimeindifference, self-balanced by my impenetrable calm. Respect me, ifyou love your own life! I summon you to answer three questions beforeyou open your lips again. Hear them--they are necessary to thisinterview. Answer them--they are necessary to ME." He held up onefinger of his right hand. "First question!" he said. "You come herepossessed of information which may be true or may be false--where didyou get it?"

  "I decline to tell you."

  "No matter--I shall find out. If that information is true--mind I say,with the whole force of my resolution, if--you are making your marketof it here by treachery of your own or by treachery of some other man.I note that circumstance for future use in my memory, which forgetsnothing, and proceed." He held up another finger. "Second question!Those lines you invited me to read are without signature. Who wrotethem?"

  "A man whom I have every reason to depend on, and whom you have everyreason to fear."

  My answer reached him to some purpose. His left hand trembled audiblyin the drawer.

  "How lon
g do you give me," he asked, putting his third question in aquieter tone, "before the clock strikes and the seal is broken?"

  "Time enough for you to come to my terms," I replied.

  "Give me a plainer answer, Mr. Hartright. What hour is the clock tostrike?"

  "Nine, to-morrow morning."

  "Nine, to-morrow morning? Yes, yes--your trap is laid for me before Ican get my passport regulated and leave London. It is not earlier, Isuppose? We will see about that presently--I can keep you hostage here,and bargain with you to send for your letter before I let you go. Inthe meantime, be so good next as to mention your terms."

  "You shall hear them. They are simple, and soon stated. You knowwhose interests I represent in coming here?"

  He smiled with the most supreme composure, and carelessly waved hisright hand.

  "I consent to hazard a guess," he said jeeringly. "A lady's interests,of course!"

  "My Wife's interests."

  He looked at me with the first honest expression that had crossed hisface in my presence--an expression of blank amazement. I could seethat I sank in his estimation as a dangerous man from that moment. Heshut up the drawer at once, folded his arms over his breast, andlistened to me with a smile of satirical attention.

  "You are well enough aware," I went on, "of the course which myinquiries have taken for many months past, to know that any attempteddenial of plain facts will be quite useless in my presence. You areguilty of an infamous conspiracy! And the gain of a fortune of tenthousand pounds was your motive for it."

  He said nothing. But his face became overclouded suddenly by alowering anxiety.

  "Keep your gain," I said. (His face lightened again immediately, andhis eyes opened on me in wider and wider astonishment.) "I am not hereto disgrace myself by bargaining for money which has passed throughyour hands, and which has been the price of a vile crime.

  "Gently, Mr. Hartright. Your moral clap-traps have an excellent effectin England--keep them for yourself and your own countrymen, if youplease. The ten thousand pounds was a legacy left to my excellent wifeby the late Mr. Fairlie. Place the affair on those grounds, and I willdiscuss it if you like. To a man of my sentiments, however, thesubject is deplorably sordid. I prefer to pass it over. I invite youto resume the discussion of your terms. What do you demand?"

  "In the first place, I demand a full confession of the conspiracy,written and signed in my presence by yourself."

  He raised his finger again. "One!" he said, checking me off with thesteady attention of a practical man.

  "In the second place, I demand a plain proof, which does not depend onyour personal asseveration, of the date at which my wife leftBlackwater Park and travelled to London."

  "So! so! you can lay your finger, I see, on the weak place," heremarked composedly. "Any more?"

  "At present, no more."

  "Good! you have mentioned your terms, now listen to mine. Theresponsibility to myself of admitting what you are pleased to call the'conspiracy' is less, perhaps, upon the whole, than the responsibilityof laying you dead on that hearthrug. Let us say that I meet yourproposal--on my own conditions. The statement you demand of me shallbe written, and the plain proof shall be produced. You call a letterfrom my late lamented friend informing me of the day and hour of hiswife's arrival in London, written, signed, and dated by himself, aproof, I suppose? I can give you this. I can also send you to the manof whom I hired the carriage to fetch my visitor from the railway, onthe day when she arrived--his order-book may help you to your date,even if his coachman who drove me proves to be of no use. These thingsI can do, and will do, on conditions. I recite them. First condition!Madame Fosco and I leave this house when and how we please, withoutinterference of any kind on your part. Second condition! You waithere, in company with me, to see my agent, who is coming at seveno'clock in the morning to regulate my affairs. You give my agent awritten order to the man who has got your sealed letter to resign hispossession of it. You wait here till my agent places that letterunopened in my hands, and you then allow me one clear half-hour toleave the house--after which you resume your own freedom of action andgo where you please. Third condition! You give me the satisfaction ofa gentleman for your intrusion into my private affairs, and for thelanguage you have allowed yourself to use to me at this conference.The time and place, abroad, to be fixed in a letter from my hand when Iam safe on the Continent, and that letter to contain a strip of papermeasuring accurately the length of my sword. Those are my terms.Inform me if you accept them--Yes or No."

  The extraordinary mixture of prompt decision, far-sighted cunning, andmountebank bravado in this speech, staggered me for a moment--and onlyfor a moment. The one question to consider was, whether I wasjustified or not in possessing myself of the means of establishingLaura's identity at the cost of allowing the scoundrel who had robbedher of it to escape me with impunity. I knew that the motive ofsecuring the just recognition of my wife in the birthplace from whichshe had been driven out as an impostor, and of publicly erasing the liethat still profaned her mother's tombstone, was far purer, in itsfreedom from all taint of evil passion, than the vindictive motivewhich had mingled itself with my purpose from the first. And yet Icannot honestly say that my own moral convictions were strong enough todecide the struggle in me by themselves. They were helped by myremembrance of Sir Percival's death. How awfully, at the last moment,had the working of the retribution THERE been snatched from my feeblehands! What right had I to decide, in my poor mortal ignorance of thefuture, that this man, too, must escape with impunity because heescaped ME? I thought of these things--perhaps with the superstitioninherent in my nature, perhaps with a sense worthier of me thansuperstition. It was hard, when I had fastened my hold on him at last,to loosen it again of my own accord--but I forced myself to make thesacrifice. In plainer words, I determined to be guided by the onehigher motive of which I was certain, the motive of serving the causeof Laura and the cause of Truth.

  "I accept your conditions," I said. "With one reservation on my part."

  "What reservation may that be?" he asked.

  "It refers to the sealed letter," I answered. "I require you todestroy it unopened in my presence as soon as it is placed in yourhands."

  My object in making this stipulation was simply to prevent him fromcarrying away written evidence of the nature of my communication withPesca. The fact of my communication he would necessarily discover,when I gave the address to his agent in the morning. But he could makeno use of it on his own unsupported testimony--even if he reallyventured to try the experiment--which need excite in me the slightestapprehension on Pesca's account.

  "I grant your reservation," he replied, after considering the questiongravely for a minute or two. "It is not worth dispute--the lettershall be destroyed when it comes into my hands."

  He rose, as he spoke, from the chair in which he had been sittingopposite to me up to this time. With one effort he appeared to freehis mind from the whole pressure on it of the interview between us thusfar. "Ouf!" he cried, stretching his arms luxuriously, "the skirmishwas hot while it lasted. Take a seat, Mr. Hartright. We meet asmortal enemies hereafter--let us, like gallant gentlemen, exchangepolite attentions in the meantime. Permit me to take the liberty ofcalling for my wife."

  He unlocked and opened the door. "Eleanor!" he called out in his deepvoice. The lady of the viperish face came in "Madame Fosco--Mr.Hartright," said the Count, introducing us with easy dignity. "Myangel," he went on, addressing his wife, "will your labours of packingup allow you time to make me some nice strong coffee? I have writingbusiness to transact with Mr. Hartright--and I require the fullpossession of my intelligence to do justice to myself."

  Madame Fosco bowed her head twice--once sternly to me, oncesubmissively to her husband, and glided out of the room.

  The Count walked to a writing-table near the window, opened his desk,and took from it several quires of paper and a bundle of quill pens.He scattered the pens about the tabl
e, so that they might lie ready inall directions to be taken up when wanted, and then cut the paper intoa heap of narrow slips, of the form used by professional writers forthe press. "I shall make this a remarkable document," he said, lookingat me over his shoulder. "Habits of literary composition are perfectlyfamiliar to me. One of the rarest of all the intellectualaccomplishments that a man can possess is the grand faculty ofarranging his ideas. Immense privilege! I possess it. Do you?"

  He marched backwards and forwards in the room, until the coffeeappeared, humming to himself, and marking the places at which obstaclesoccurred in the arrangement of his ideas, by striking his forehead fromtime to time with the palm of his hand. The enormous audacity withwhich he seized on the situation in which I placed him, and made it thepedestal on which his vanity mounted for the one cherished purpose ofself-display, mastered my astonishment by main force. Sincerely as Iloathed the man, the prodigious strength of his character, even in itsmost trivial aspects, impressed me in spite of myself.

  The coffee was brought in by Madame Fosco. He kissed her hand ingrateful acknowledgment, and escorted her to the door; returned, pouredout a cup of coffee for himself, and took it to the writing-table.

  "May I offer you some coffee, Mr. Hartright?" he said, before he satdown.

  I declined.

  "What! you think I shall poison you?" he said gaily. "The Englishintellect is sound, so far as it goes," he continued, seating himselfat the table; "but it has one grave defect--it is always cautious inthe wrong place."

  He dipped his pen in the ink, placed the first slip of paper before himwith a thump of his hand on the desk, cleared his throat, and began.He wrote with great noise and rapidity, in so large and bold a hand,and with such wide spaces between the lines, that he reached the bottomof the slip in not more than two minutes certainly from the time whenhe started at the top. Each slip as he finished it was paged, andtossed over his shoulder out of his way on the floor. When his firstpen was worn out, THAT went over his shoulder too, and he pounced on asecond from the supply scattered about the table. Slip after slip, bydozens, by fifties, by hundreds, flew over his shoulders on either sideof him till he had snowed himself up in paper all round his chair. Hourafter hour passed--and there I sat watching, there he sat writing. Henever stopped, except to sip his coffee, and when that was exhausted,to smack his forehead from time to time. One o'clock struck, two,three, four--and still the slips flew about all round him; still theuntiring pen scraped its way ceaselessly from top to bottom of thepage, still the white chaos of paper rose higher and higher all roundhis chair. At four o'clock I heard a sudden splutter of the pen,indicative of the flourish with which he signed his name. "Bravo!" hecried, springing to his feet with the activity of a young man, andlooking me straight in the face with a smile of superb triumph.

  "Done, Mr. Hartright!" he announced with a self-renovating thump of hisfist on his broad breast. "Done, to my own profound satisfaction--toYOUR profound astonishment, when you read what I have written. Thesubject is exhausted: the man--Fosco--is not. I proceed to thearrangement of my slips--to the revision of my slips--to the reading ofmy slips--addressed emphatically to your private ear. Four o'clock hasjust struck. Good! Arrangement, revision, reading, from four to five.Short snooze of restoration for myself from five to six. Finalpreparations from six to seven. Affair of agent and sealed letter fromseven to eight. At eight, en route. Behold the programme!"

  He sat down cross-legged on the floor among his papers, strung themtogether with a bodkin and a piece of string--revised them, wrote allthe titles and honours by which he was personally distinguished at thehead of the first page, and then read the manuscript to me with loudtheatrical emphasis and profuse theatrical gesticulation. The readerwill have an opportunity, ere long, of forming his own opinion of thedocument. It will be sufficient to mention here that it answered mypurpose.

  He next wrote me the address of the person from whom he had hired thefly, and handed me Sir Percival's letter. It was dated from Hampshireon the 25th of July, and it announced the journey of "Lady Glyde" toLondon on the 26th. Thus, on the very day (the 25th) when the doctor'scertificate declared that she had died in St. John's Wood, she wasalive, by Sir Percival's own showing, at Blackwater--and, on the dayafter, she was to take a journey! When the proof of that journey wasobtained from the flyman, the evidence would be complete.

  "A quarter-past five," said the Count, looking at his watch. "Time formy restorative snooze. I personally resemble Napoleon the Great, asyou may have remarked, Mr. Hartright--I also resemble that immortal manin my power of commanding sleep at will. Excuse me one moment. I willsummon Madame Fosco, to keep you from feeling dull."

  Knowing as well as he did, that he was summoning Madame Fosco to ensuremy not leaving the house while he was asleep, I made no reply, andoccupied myself in tying up the papers which he had placed in mypossession.

  The lady came in, cool, pale, and venomous as ever. "Amuse Mr.Hartright, my angel," said the Count. He placed a chair for her,kissed her hand for the second time, withdrew to a sofa, and, in threeminutes, was as peacefully and happily asleep as the most virtuous manin existence.

  Madame Fosco took a book from the table, sat down, and looked at me,with the steady vindictive malice of a woman who never forgot and neverforgave.

  "I have been listening to your conversation with my husband," she said."If I had been in HIS place--I would have laid you dead on thehearthrug."

  With those words she opened her book, and never looked at me or spoketo me from that time till the time when her husband woke.

  He opened his eyes and rose from the sofa, accurately to an hour fromthe time when he had gone to sleep.

  "I feel infinitely refreshed," he remarked. "Eleanor, my good wife,are you all ready upstairs? That is well. My little packing here canbe completed in ten minutes--my travelling-dress assumed in ten minutesmore. What remains before the agent comes?" He looked about the room,and noticed the cage with his white mice in it. "Ah!" he criedpiteously, "a last laceration of my sympathies still remains. Myinnocent pets! my little cherished children! what am I to do with them?For the present we are settled nowhere; for the present we travelincessantly--the less baggage we carry the better for ourselves. Mycockatoo, my canaries, and my little mice--who will cherish them whentheir good Papa is gone?"

  He walked about the room deep in thought. He had not been at alltroubled about writing his confession, but he was visibly perplexed anddistressed about the far more important question of the disposal of hispets. After long consideration he suddenly sat down again at thewriting-table.

  "An idea!" he exclaimed. "I will offer my canaries and my cockatoo tothis vast Metropolis--my agent shall present them in my name to theZoological Gardens of London. The Document that describes them shallbe drawn out on the spot."

  He began to write, repeating the words as they flowed from his pen.

  "Number one. Cockatoo of transcendent plumage: attraction, of himself,to all visitors of taste. Number two. Canaries of unrivalled vivacityand intelligence: worthy of the garden of Eden, worthy also of thegarden in the Regent's Park. Homage to British Zoology. Offered byFosco."

  The pen spluttered again, and the flourish was attached to hissignature.

  "Count! you have not included the mice," said Madame Fosco

  He left the table, took her hand, and placed it on his heart.

  "All human resolution, Eleanor," he said solemnly, "has its limits. MYlimits are inscribed on that Document. I cannot part with my whitemice. Bear with me, my angel, and remove them to their travelling cageupstairs."

  "Admirable tenderness!" said Madame Fosco, admiring her husband, with alast viperish look in my direction. She took up the cage carefully,and left the room.

  The Count looked at his watch. In spite of his resolute assumption ofcomposure, he was getting anxious for the agent's arrival. The candleshad long since been extinguished, and the sunlight of the new morningpoured into the room.
It was not till five minutes past seven that thegate bell rang, and the agent made his appearance. He was a foreignerwith a dark beard.

  "Mr. Hartright--Monsieur Rubelle," said the Count, introducing us. Hetook the agent (a foreign spy, in every line of his face, if ever therewas one yet) into a corner of the room, whispered some directions tohim, and then left us together. "Monsieur Rubelle," as soon as we werealone, suggested with great politeness that I should favour him withhis instructions. I wrote two lines to Pesca, authorising him todeliver my sealed letter "to the bearer," directed the note, and handedit to Monsieur Rubelle.

  The agent waited with me till his employer returned, equipped intravelling costume. The Count examined the address of my letter beforehe dismissed the agent. "I thought so!" he said, turning on me with adark look, and altering again in his manner from that moment.

  He completed his packing, and then sat consulting a travelling map,making entries in his pocket-book, and looking every now and thenimpatiently at his watch. Not another word, addressed to myself,passed his lips. The near approach of the hour for his departure, andthe proof he had seen of the communication established between Pescaand myself, had plainly recalled his whole attention to the measuresthat were necessary for securing his escape.

  A little before eight o'clock, Monsieur Rubelle came back with myunopened letter in his hand. The Count looked carefully at thesuperscription and the seal, lit a candle, and burnt the letter. "Iperform my promise," he said, "but this matter, Mr. Hartright, shallnot end here."

  The agent had kept at the door the cab in which he had returned. He andthe maid-servant now busied themselves in removing the luggage. MadameFosco came downstairs, thickly veiled, with the travelling cage of thewhite mice in her hand. She neither spoke to me nor looked towards me.Her husband escorted her to the cab. "Follow me as far as the passage,"he whispered in my ear; "I may want to speak to you at the last moment."

  I went out to the door, the agent standing below me in the frontgarden. The Count came back alone, and drew me a few steps inside thepassage.

  "Remember the Third condition!" he whispered. "You shall hear from me,Mr. Hartright--I may claim from you the satisfaction of a gentlemansooner than you think for." He caught my hand before I was aware ofhim, and wrung it hard--then turned to the door, stopped, and came backto me again.

  "One word more," he said confidentially. "When I last saw MissHalcombe, she looked thin and ill. I am anxious about that admirablewoman. Take care of her, sir! With my hand on my heart, I solemnlyimplore you, take care of Miss Halcombe!"

  Those were the last words he said to me before he squeezed his hugebody into the cab and drove off.

  The agent and I waited at the door a few moments looking after him.While we were standing together, a second cab appeared from a turning alittle way down the road. It followed the direction previously takenby the Count's cab, and as it passed the house and the open gardengate, a person inside looked at us out of the window. The stranger atthe Opera again!--the foreigner with a scar on his left cheek.

  "You wait here with me, sir, for half an hour more!" said MonsieurRubelle.

  "I do."

  We returned to the sitting-room. I was in no humour to speak to theagent, or to allow him to speak to me. I took out the papers which theCount had placed in my hands, and read the terrible story of theconspiracy told by the man who had planned and perpetrated it.


  (Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of theBrazen Crown, Perpetual Arch-Master of the Rosicrucian Masons ofMesopotamia; Attached (in Honorary Capacities) to Societies Musical,Societies Medical, Societies Philosophical, and Societies GeneralBenevolent, throughout Europe; etc. etc. etc.)