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The Woman in White, Page 75

Wilkie Collins


  Two more events remain to be added to the chain before it reachesfairly from the outset of the story to the close.

  While our new sense of freedom from the long oppression of the past wasstill strange to us, I was sent for by the friend who had given me myfirst employment in wood engraving, to receive from him a freshtestimony of his regard for my welfare. He had been commissioned byhis employers to go to Paris, and to examine for them a fresh discoveryin the practical application of his Art, the merits of which they wereanxious to ascertain. His own engagements had not allowed him leisuretime to undertake the errand, and he had most kindly suggested that itshould be transferred to me. I could have no hesitation in thankfullyaccepting the offer, for if I acquitted myself of my commission as Ihoped I should, the result would be a permanent engagement on theillustrated newspaper, to which I was now only occasionally attached.

  I received my instructions and packed up for the journey the next day.On leaving Laura once more (under what changed circumstances!) in hersister's care, a serious consideration recurred to me, which had morethan once crossed my wife's mind, as well as my own, already--I meanthe consideration of Marian's future. Had we any right to let ourselfish affection accept the devotion of all that generous life? Was itnot our duty, our best expression of gratitude, to forget ourselves,and to think only of HER? I tried to say this when we were alone for amoment, before I went away. She took my hand, and silenced me at thefirst words.

  "After all that we three have suffered together," she said "there canbe no parting between us till the last parting of all. My heart and myhappiness, Walter, are with Laura and you. Wait a little till thereare children's voices at your fireside. I will teach them to speak forme in THEIR language, and the first lesson they say to their father andmother shall be--We can't spare our aunt!"

  My journey to Paris was not undertaken alone. At the eleventh hourPesca decided that he would accompany me. He had not recovered hiscustomary cheerfulness since the night at the Opera, and he determinedto try what a week's holiday would do to raise his spirits.

  I performed the errand entrusted to me, and drew out the necessaryreport, on the fourth day from our arrival in Paris. The fifth day Iarranged to devote to sight-seeing and amusements in Pesca's company.

  Our hotel had been too full to accommodate us both on the same floor.My room was on the second story, and Pesca's was above me, on thethird. On the morning of the fifth day I went upstairs to see if theProfessor was ready to go out. Just before I reached the landing I sawhis door opened from the inside--a long, delicate, nervous hand (not myfriend's hand certainly) held it ajar. At the same time I heardPesca's voice saying eagerly, in low tones, and in his own language--"Iremember the name, but I don't know the man. You saw at the Opera hewas so changed that I could not recognise him. I will forward thereport--I can do no more." "No more need be done," answered the secondvoice. The door opened wide, and the light-haired man with the scar onhis cheek--the man I had seen following Count Fosco's cab a weekbefore--came out. He bowed as I drew aside to let him pass--his facewas fearfully pale--and he held fast by the banisters as he descendedthe stairs.

  I pushed open the door and entered Pesca's room. He was crouched up,in the strangest manner, in a corner of the sofa. He seemed to shrinkfrom me when I approached him.

  "Am I disturbing you?" I asked. "I did not know you had a friend withyou till I saw him come out."

  "No friend," said Pesca eagerly. "I see him to-day for the first timeand the last."

  "I am afraid he has brought you bad news?"

  "Horrible news, Walter! Let us go back to London--I don't want to stophere--I am sorry I ever came. The misfortunes of my youth are veryhard upon me," he said, turning his face to the wall, "very hard uponme in my later time. I try to forget them--and they will not forgetME!"

  "We can't return, I am afraid, before the afternoon," I replied. "Wouldyou like to come out with me in the meantime?"

  "No, my friend, I will wait here. But let us go back to-day--pray letus go back."

  I left him with the assurance that he should leave Paris thatafternoon. We had arranged the evening before to ascend the Cathedralof Notre Dame, with Victor Hugo's noble romance for our guide. Therewas nothing in the French capital that I was more anxious to see, and Ideparted by myself for the church.

  Approaching Notre Dame by the river-side, I passed on my way theterrible dead-house of Paris--the Morgue. A great crowd clamoured andheaved round the door. There was evidently something inside whichexcited the popular curiosity, and fed the popular appetite for horror.

  I should have walked on to the church if the conversation of two menand a woman on the outskirts of the crowd had not caught my ear. Theyhad just come out from seeing the sight in the Morgue, and the accountthey were giving of the dead body to their neighbours described it asthe corpse of a man--a man of immense size, with a strange mark on hisleft arm.

  The moment those words reached me I stopped and took my place with thecrowd going in. Some dim foreshadowing of the truth had crossed mymind when I heard Pesca's voice through the open door, and when I sawthe stranger's face as he passed me on the stairs of the hotel. Nowthe truth itself was revealed to me--revealed in the chance words thathad just reached my ears. Other vengeance than mine had followed thatfated man from the theatre to his own door--from his own door to hisrefuge in Paris. Other vengeance than mine had called him to the dayof reckoning, and had exacted from him the penalty of his life. Themoment when I had pointed him out to Pesca at the theatre in thehearing of that stranger by our side, who was looking for him too--wasthe moment that sealed his doom. I remembered the struggle in my ownheart, when he and I stood face to face--the struggle before I couldlet him escape me--and shuddered as I recalled it.

  Slowly, inch by inch, I pressed in with the crowd, moving nearer andnearer to the great glass screen that parts the dead from the living atthe Morgue--nearer and nearer, till I was close behind the front row ofspectators, and could look in.

  There he lay, unowned, unknown, exposed to the flippant curiosity of aFrench mob! There was the dreadful end of that long life of degradedability and heartless crime! Hushed in the sublime repose of death, thebroad, firm, massive face and head fronted us so grandly that thechattering Frenchwomen about me lifted their hands in admiration, andcried in shrill chorus, "Ah, what a handsome man!" The wound that hadkilled him had been struck with a knife or dagger exactly over hisheart. No other traces of violence appeared about the body except onthe left arm, and there, exactly in the place where I had seen thebrand on Pesca's arm, were two deep cuts in the shape of the letter T,which entirely obliterated the mark of the Brotherhood. His clothes,hung above him, showed that he had been himself conscious of hisdanger--they were clothes that had disguised him as a French artisan.For a few moments, but not for longer, I forced myself to see thesethings through the glass screen. I can write of them at no greaterlength, for I saw no more.

  The few facts in connection with his death which I subsequentlyascertained (partly from Pesca and partly from other sources), may bestated here before the subject is dismissed from these pages.

  His body was taken out of the Seine in the disguise which I havedescribed, nothing being found on him which revealed his name, hisrank, or his place of abode. The hand that struck him was nevertraced, and the circumstances under which he was killed were neverdiscovered. I leave others to draw their own conclusions in referenceto the secret of the assassination as I have drawn mine. When I haveintimated that the foreigner with the scar was a member of theBrotherhood (admitted in Italy after Pesca's departure from his nativecountry), and when I have further added that the two cuts, in the formof a T, on the left arm of the dead man, signified the Italian word"Traditore," and showed that justice had been done by the Brotherhoodon a traitor, I have contributed all that I know towards elucidatingthe mystery of Count Fosco's death.

  The body was identified the day after I had seen it by mean
s of ananonymous letter addressed to his wife. He was buried by Madame Foscoin the cemetery of Pere la Chaise. Fresh funeral wreaths continue tothis day to be hung on the ornamental bronze railings round the tomb bythe Countess's own hand. She lives in the strictest retirement atVersailles. Not long since she published a biography of her deceasedhusband. The work throws no light whatever on the name that was reallyhis own or on the secret history of his life--it is almost entirelydevoted to the praise of his domestic virtues, the assertion of hisrare abilities, and the enumeration of the honours conferred on him.The circumstances attending his death are very briefly noticed, and aresummed up on the last page in this sentence--"His life was one longassertion of the rights of the aristocracy and the sacred principles ofOrder, and he died a martyr to his cause."