The Woman in White, Page 26Wilkie Collins
June 15th.--The confusion of their arrival has had time to subside.Two days have elapsed since the return of the travellers, and thatinterval has sufficed to put the new machinery of our lives atBlackwater Park in fair working order. I may now return to my journal,with some little chance of being able to continue the entries in it ascollectedly as usual.
I think I must begin by putting down an odd remark which has suggesteditself to me since Laura came back.
When two members of a family or two intimate friends are separated, andone goes abroad and one remains at home, the return of the relative orfriend who has been travelling always seems to place the relative orfriend who has been staying at home at a painful disadvantage when thetwo first meet. The sudden encounter of the new thoughts and newhabits eagerly gained in the one case, with the old thoughts and oldhabits passively preserved in the other, seems at first to part thesympathies of the most loving relatives and the fondest friends, and toset a sudden strangeness, unexpected by both and uncontrollable byboth, between them on either side. After the first happiness of mymeeting with Laura was over, after we had sat down together hand inhand to recover breath enough and calmness enough to talk, I felt thisstrangeness instantly, and I could see that she felt it too. It haspartially worn away, now that we have fallen back into most of our oldhabits, and it will probably disappear before long. But it hascertainly had an influence over the first impressions that I haveformed of her, now that we are living together again--for which reasononly I have thought fit to mention it here.
She has found me unaltered, but I have found her changed.
Changed in person, and in one respect changed in character. I cannotabsolutely say that she is less beautiful than she used to be--I canonly say that she is less beautiful to me.
Others, who do not look at her with my eyes and my recollections, wouldprobably think her improved. There is more colour and more decisionand roundness of outline in her face than there used to be, and herfigure seems more firmly set and more sure and easy in all itsmovements than it was in her maiden days. But I miss something when Ilook at her--something that once belonged to the happy, innocent lifeof Laura Fairlie, and that I cannot find in Lady Glyde. There was inthe old times a freshness, a softness, an ever-varying and yetever-remaining tenderness of beauty in her face, the charm of which itis not possible to express in words, or, as poor Hartright used oftento say, in painting either. This is gone. I thought I saw the faintreflection of it for a moment when she turned pale under the agitationof our sudden meeting on the evening of her return, but it has neverreappeared since. None of her letters had prepared me for a personalchange in her. On the contrary, they had led me to expect that hermarriage had left her, in appearance at least, quite unaltered.Perhaps I read her letters wrongly in the past, and am now reading herface wrongly in the present? No matter! Whether her beauty has gainedor whether it has lost in the last six months, the separation eitherway has made her own dear self more precious to me than ever, and thatis one good result of her marriage, at any rate!
The second change, the change that I have observed in her character,has not surprised me, because I was prepared for it in this case by thetone of her letters. Now that she is at home again, I find her just asunwilling to enter into any details on the subject of her married lifeas I had previously found her all through the time of our separation,when we could only communicate with each other by writing. At thefirst approach I made to the forbidden topic she put her hand on mylips with a look and gesture which touchingly, almost painfully,recalled to my memory the days of her girlhood and the happy bygonetime when there were no secrets between us.
"Whenever you and I are together, Marian," she said, "we shall both behappier and easier with one another, if we accept my married life forwhat it is, and say and think as little about it as possible. I wouldtell you everything, darling, about myself," she went on, nervouslybuckling and unbuckling the ribbon round my waist, "if my confidencescould only end there. But they could not--they would lead me intoconfidences about my husband too; and now I am married, I think I hadbetter avoid them, for his sake, and for your sake, and for mine. Idon't say that they would distress you, or distress me--I wouldn't haveyou think that for the world. But--I want to be so happy, now I havegot you back again, and I want you to be so happy too----" She brokeoff abruptly, and looked round the room, my own sitting-room, in whichwe were talking. "Ah!" she cried, clapping her hands with a brightsmile of recognition, "another old friend found already! Yourbook-case, Marian--your dear-little-shabby-old-satin-woodbook-case--how glad I am you brought it with you from Limmeridge! Andthe horrid heavy man's umbrella, that you always would walk out withwhen it rained! And first and foremost of all, your own dear, dark,clever, gipsy-face, looking at me just as usual! It is so like homeagain to be here. How can we make it more like home still? I will putmy father's portrait in your room instead of in mine--and I will keepall my little treasures from Limmeridge here--and we will pass hoursand hours every day with these four friendly walls round us. Oh,Marian!" she said, suddenly seating herself on a footstool at my knees,and looking up earnestly in my face, "promise you will never marry, andleave me. It is selfish to say so, but you are so much better off as asingle woman--unless--unless you are very fond of your husband--butyou won't be very fond of anybody but me, will you?" She stopped again,crossed my hands on my lap, and laid her face on them. "Have you beenwriting many letters, and receiving many letters lately?" she asked, inlow, suddenly-altered tones. I understood what the question meant, butI thought it my duty not to encourage her by meeting her half way."Have you heard from him?" she went on, coaxing me to forgive the moredirect appeal on which she now ventured, by kissing my hands, uponwhich her face still rested. "Is he well and happy, and getting on inhis profession? Has he recovered himself--and forgotten me?"
She should not have asked those questions. She should have rememberedher own resolution, on the morning when Sir Percival held her to hermarriage engagement, and when she resigned the book of Hartright'sdrawings into my hands for ever. But, ah me! where is the faultlesshuman creature who can persevere in a good resolution, withoutsometimes failing and falling back? Where is the woman who has everreally torn from her heart the image that has been once fixed in it bya true love? Books tell us that such unearthly creatures haveexisted--but what does our own experience say in answer to books?
I made no attempt to remonstrate with her: perhaps, because I sincerelyappreciated the fearless candour which let me see, what other women inher position might have had reasons for concealing even from theirdearest friends--perhaps, because I felt, in my own heart andconscience, that in her place I should have asked the same questionsand had the same thoughts. All I could honestly do was to reply that Ihad not written to him or heard from him lately, and then to turn theconversation to less dangerous topics.
There has been much to sadden me in our interview--my firstconfidential interview with her since her return. The change which hermarriage has produced in our relations towards each other, by placing aforbidden subject between us, for the first time in our lives; themelancholy conviction of the dearth of all warmth of feeling, of allclose sympathy, between her husband and herself, which her ownunwilling words now force on my mind; the distressing discovery thatthe influence of that ill-fated attachment still remains (no matter howinnocently, how harmlessly) rooted as deeply as ever in her heart--allthese are disclosures to sadden any woman who loves her as dearly, andfeels for her as acutely, as I do.
There is only one consolation to set against them--a consolation thatought to comfort me, and that does comfort me. All the graces andgentleness of her character--all the frank affection of her nature--allthe sweet, simple, womanly charms which used to make her the darlingand delight of every one who approached her, have come back to me withherself. Of my other impressions I am sometimes a little inclined todoubt. Of this last, best, happiest of all impressions, I grow moreand more certain every hour in
Let me turn, now, from her to her travelling companions. Her husbandmust engage my attention first. What have I observed in Sir Percival,since his return, to improve my opinion of him?
I can hardly say. Small vexations and annoyances seem to have besethim since he came back, and no man, under those circumstances, is everpresented at his best. He looks, as I think, thinner than he was whenhe left England. His wearisome cough and his comfortless restlessnesshave certainly increased. His manner--at least his manner towardsme--is much more abrupt than it used to be. He greeted me, on theevening of his return, with little or nothing of the ceremony andcivility of former times--no polite speeches of welcome--no appearanceof extraordinary gratification at seeing me--nothing but a short shakeof the hand, and a sharp "How-d'ye-do, Miss Halcombe--glad to see youagain." He seemed to accept me as one of the necessary fixtures ofBlackwater Park, to be satisfied at finding me established in my properplace, and then to pass me over altogether.
Most men show something of their disposition in their own houses, whichthey have concealed elsewhere, and Sir Percival has already displayed amania for order and regularity, which is quite a new revelation of him,so far as my previous knowledge of his character is concerned. If Itake a book from the library and leave it on the table, he follows meand puts it back again. If I rise from a chair, and let it remainwhere I have been sitting, he carefully restores it to its proper placeagainst the wall. He picks up stray flower-blossoms from the carpet,and mutters to himself as discontentedly as if they were hot cindersburning holes in it, and he storms at the servants if there is a creasein the tablecloth, or a knife missing from its place at the dinner-table,as fiercely as if they had personally insulted him.
I have already referred to the small annoyances which appear to havetroubled him since his return. Much of the alteration for the worsewhich I have noticed in him may be due to these. I try to persuademyself that it is so, because I am anxious not to be disheartenedalready about the future. It is certainly trying to any man's temperto be met by a vexation the moment he sets foot in his own house again,after a long absence, and this annoying circumstance did really happento Sir Percival in my presence.
On the evening of their arrival the housekeeper followed me into thehall to receive her master and mistress and their guests. The instanthe saw her, Sir Percival asked if any one had called lately. Thehousekeeper mentioned to him, in reply, what she had previouslymentioned to me, the visit of the strange gentleman to make inquiriesabout the time of her master's return. He asked immediately for thegentleman's name. No name had been left. The gentleman's business? Nobusiness had been mentioned. What was the gentleman like? Thehousekeeper tried to describe him, but failed to distinguish thenameless visitor by any personal peculiarity which her master couldrecognise. Sir Percival frowned, stamped angrily on the floor, andwalked on into the house, taking no notice of anybody. Why he shouldhave been so discomposed by a trifle I cannot say--but he was seriouslydiscomposed, beyond all doubt.
Upon the whole, it will be best, perhaps, if I abstain from forming adecisive opinion of his manners, language, and conduct in his ownhouse, until time has enabled him to shake off the anxieties, whateverthey may be, which now evidently troubled his mind in secret. I willturn over to a new page, and my pen shall let Laura's husband alone forthe present.
The two guests--the Count and Countess Fosco--come next in mycatalogue. I will dispose of the Countess first, so as to have donewith the woman as soon as possible.
Laura was certainly not chargeable with any exaggeration, in writing meword that I should hardly recognise her aunt again when we met. Neverbefore have I beheld such a change produced in a woman by her marriageas has been produced in Madame Fosco.
As Eleanor Fairlie (aged seven-and-thirty), she was always talkingpretentious nonsense, and always worrying the unfortunate men withevery small exaction which a vain and foolish woman can impose onlong-suffering male humanity. As Madame Fosco (aged three-and-forty),she sits for hours together without saying a word, frozen up in thestrangest manner in herself. The hideously ridiculous love-locks whichused to hang on either side of her face are now replaced by stifflittle rows of very short curls, of the sort one sees in old-fashionedwigs. A plain, matronly cap covers her head, and makes her look, forthe first time in her life since I remember her, like a decent woman.Nobody (putting her husband out of the question, of course) now sees inher, what everybody once saw--I mean the structure of the femaleskeleton, in the upper regions of the collar-bones and theshoulder-blades. Clad in quiet black or grey gowns, made high roundthe throat--dresses that she would have laughed at, or screamed at, asthe whim of the moment inclined her, in her maiden days--she sitsspeechless in corners; her dry white hands (so dry that the pores ofher skin look chalky) incessantly engaged, either in monotonousembroidery work or in rolling up endless cigarettes for the Count's ownparticular smoking. On the few occasions when her cold blue eyes areoff her work, they are generally turned on her husband, with the lookof mute submissive inquiry which we are all familiar with in the eyesof a faithful dog. The only approach to an inward thaw which I haveyet detected under her outer covering of icy constraint, has betrayeditself, once or twice, in the form of a suppressed tigerish jealousy ofany woman in the house (the maids included) to whom the Count speaks,or on whom he looks with anything approaching to special interest orattention. Except in this one particular, she is always, morning,noon, and night, indoors and out, fair weather or foul, as cold as astatue, and as impenetrable as the stone out of which it is cut. Forthe common purposes of society the extraordinary change thus producedin her is, beyond all doubt, a change for the better, seeing that ithas transformed her into a civil, silent, unobtrusive woman, who isnever in the way. How far she is really reformed or deteriorated inher secret self, is another question. I have once or twice seen suddenchanges of expression on her pinched lips, and heard sudden inflexionsof tone in her calm voice, which have led me to suspect that herpresent state of suppression may have sealed up something dangerous inher nature, which used to evaporate harmlessly in the freedom of herformer life. It is quite possible that I may be altogether wrong inthis idea. My own impression, however, is, that I am right. Time willshow.
And the magician who has wrought this wonderful transformation--theforeign husband who has tamed this once wayward English woman till herown relations hardly know her again--the Count himself? What of theCount?
This in two words: He looks like a man who could tame anything. If hehad married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed thetigress. If he had married me, I should have made his cigarettes, ashis wife does--I should have held my tongue when he looked at me, asshe holds hers.
I am almost afraid to confess it, even to these secret pages. The manhas interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him. In twoshort days he has made his way straight into my favourable estimation,and how he has worked the miracle is more than I can tell.
It absolutely startles me, now he is in my mind, to find how plainly Isee him!--how much more plainly than I see Sir Percival, or Mr.Fairlie, or Walter Hartright, or any other absent person of whom Ithink, with the one exception of Laura herself! I can hear his voice,as if he was speaking at this moment. I know what his conversation wasyesterday, as well as if I was hearing it now. How am I to describehim? There are peculiarities in his personal appearance, his habits,and his amusements, which I should blame in the boldest terms, orridicule in the most merciless manner, if I had seen them in anotherman. What is it that makes me unable to blame them, or to ridiculethem in HIM?
For example, he is immensely fat. Before this time I have alwaysespecially disliked corpulent humanity. I have always maintained thatthe popular notion of connecting excessive grossness of size andexcessive good-humour as inseparable allies was equivalent todeclaring, either that no people but amiable people ever get fat, orthat the accidental addition of so many pounds of flesh has a directlyfavourable influence o
ver the disposition of the person on whose bodythey accumulate. I have invariably combated both these absurdassertions by quoting examples of fat people who were as mean, vicious,and cruel as the leanest and the worst of their neighbours. I haveasked whether Henry the Eighth was an amiable character? Whether PopeAlexander the Sixth was a good man? Whether Mr. Murderer and Mrs.Murderess Manning were not both unusually stout people? Whether hirednurses, proverbially as cruel a set of women as are to be found in allEngland, were not, for the most part, also as fat a set of women as areto be found in all England?--and so on, through dozens of otherexamples, modern and ancient, native and foreign, high and low.Holding these strong opinions on the subject with might and main as Ido at this moment, here, nevertheless, is Count Fosco, as fat as Henrythe Eighth himself, established in my favour, at one day's notice,without let or hindrance from his own odious corpulence. Marvellousindeed!
Is it his face that has recommended him?
It may be his face. He is a most remarkable likeness, on a largescale, of the great Napoleon. His features have Napoleon's magnificentregularity--his expression recalls the grandly calm, immovable power ofthe Great Soldier's face. This striking resemblance certainlyimpressed me, to begin with; but there is something in him besides theresemblance, which has impressed me more. I think the influence I amnow trying to find is in his eyes. They are the most unfathomable greyeyes I ever saw, and they have at times a cold, clear, beautiful,irresistible glitter in them which forces me to look at him, and yetcauses me sensations, when I do look, which I would rather not feel.Other parts of his face and head have their strange peculiarities. Hiscomplexion, for instance, has a singular sallow-fairness, so much atvariance with the dark-brown colour of his hair, that I suspect thehair of being a wig, and his face, closely shaven all over, is smootherand freer from all marks and wrinkles than mine, though (according toSir Percival's account of him) he is close on sixty years of age. Butthese are not the prominent personal characteristics which distinguishhim, to my mind, from all the other men I have ever seen. The markedpeculiarity which singles him out from the rank and file of humanitylies entirely, so far as I can tell at present, in the extraordinaryexpression and extraordinary power of his eyes.
His manner and his command of our language may also have assisted him,in some degree, to establish himself in my good opinion. He has thatquiet deference, that look of pleased, attentive interest in listeningto a woman, and that secret gentleness in his voice in speaking to awoman, which, say what we may, we can none of us resist. Here, too,his unusual command of the English language necessarily helps him. Ihad often heard of the extraordinary aptitude which many Italians showin mastering our strong, hard, Northern speech; but, until I saw CountFosco, I had never supposed it possible that any foreigner could havespoken English as he speaks it. There are times when it is almostimpossible to detect by his accent that he is not a countryman of ourown, and as for fluency, there are very few born Englishmen who cantalk with as few stoppages and repetitions as the Count. He mayconstruct his sentences more or less in the foreign way, but I havenever yet heard him use a wrong expression, or hesitate for a moment inhis choice of a word.
All the smallest characteristics of this strange man have somethingstrikingly original and perplexingly contradictory in them. Fat as heis and old as he is, his movements are astonishingly light and easy.He is as noiseless in a room as any of us women, and more than that,with all his look of unmistakable mental firmness and power, he is asnervously sensitive as the weakest of us. He starts at chance noisesas inveterately as Laura herself. He winced and shuddered yesterday,when Sir Percival beat one of the spaniels, so that I felt ashamed ofmy own want of tenderness and sensibility by comparison with the Count.
The relation of this last incident reminds me of one of his mostcurious peculiarities, which I have not yet mentioned--hisextraordinary fondness for pet animals.
Some of these he has left on the Continent, but he has brought with himto this house a cockatoo, two canary-birds, and a whole family of whitemice. He attends to all the necessities of these strange favouriteshimself, and he has taught the creatures to be surprisingly fond of himand familiar with him. The cockatoo, a most vicious and treacherousbird towards every one else, absolutely seems to love him. When helets it out of its cage, it hops on to his knee, and claws its way uphis great big body, and rubs its top-knot against his sallow doublechin in the most caressing manner imaginable. He has only to set thedoors of the canaries' cages open, and to call them, and the prettylittle cleverly trained creatures perch fearlessly on his hand, mounthis fat outstretched fingers one by one, when he tells them to "goupstairs," and sing together as if they would burst their throats withdelight when they get to the top finger. His white mice live in alittle pagoda of gaily-painted wirework, designed and made by himself.They are almost as tame as the canaries, and they are perpetually letout like the canaries. They crawl all over him, popping in and out ofhis waistcoat, and sitting in couples, white as snow, on his capaciousshoulders. He seems to be even fonder of his mice than of his otherpets, smiles at them, and kisses them, and calls them by all sorts ofendearing names. If it be possible to suppose an Englishman with anytaste for such childish interests and amusements as these, thatEnglishman would certainly feel rather ashamed of them, and would beanxious to apologise for them, in the company of grown-up people. Butthe Count, apparently, sees nothing ridiculous in the amazing contrastbetween his colossal self and his frail little pets. He would blandlykiss his white mice and twitter to his canary-birds amid an assembly ofEnglish fox-hunters, and would only pity them as barbarians when theywere all laughing their loudest at him.
It seems hardly credible while I am writing it down, but it iscertainly true, that this same man, who has all the fondness of an oldmaid for his cockatoo, and all the small dexterities of an organ-boy inmanaging his white mice, can talk, when anything happens to rouse him,with a daring independence of thought, a knowledge of books in everylanguage, and an experience of society in half the capitals of Europe,which would make him the prominent personage of any assembly in thecivilised world. This trainer of canary-birds, this architect of apagoda for white mice, is (as Sir Percival himself has told me) one ofthe first experimental chemists living, and has discovered, among otherwonderful inventions, a means of petrifying the body after death, so asto preserve it, as hard as marble, to the end of time. This fat,indolent, elderly man, whose nerves are so finely strung that he startsat chance noises, and winces when he sees a house-spaniel get awhipping, went into the stable-yard on the morning after his arrival,and put his hand on the head of a chained bloodhound--a beast so savagethat the very groom who feeds him keeps out of his reach. His wife andI were present, and I shall not forget the scene that followed, shortas it was.
"Mind that dog, sir," said the groom; "he flies at everybody!" "He doesthat, my friend," replied the Count quietly, "because everybody isafraid of him. Let us see if he flies at me." And he laid his plump,yellow-white fingers, on which the canary-birds had been perching tenminutes before, upon the formidable brute's head, and looked himstraight in the eyes. "You big dogs are all cowards," he said,addressing the animal contemptuously, with his face and the dog'swithin an inch of each other. "You would kill a poor cat, you infernalcoward. You would fly at a starving beggar, you infernal coward.Anything that you can surprise unawares--anything that is afraid ofyour big body, and your wicked white teeth, and your slobbering,bloodthirsty mouth, is the thing you like to fly at. You couldthrottle me at this moment, you mean, miserable bully, and you daren'tso much as look me in the face, because I'm not afraid of you. Willyou think better of it, and try your teeth in my fat neck? Bah! notyou!" He turned away, laughing at the astonishment of the men in theyard, and the dog crept back meekly to his kennel. "Ah! my nicewaistcoat!" he said pathetically. "I am sorry I came here. Some ofthat brute's slobber has got on my pretty clean waistcoat." Those wordsexpress another of his incomprehensible oddities. He is as fond offine c
lothes as the veriest fool in existence, and has appeared in fourmagnificent waistcoats already--all of light garish colours, and allimmensely large even for him--in the two days of his residence atBlackwater Park.
His tact and cleverness in small things are quite as noticeable as thesingular inconsistencies in his character, and the childish trivialityof his ordinary tastes and pursuits.
I can see already that he means to live on excellent terms with all ofus during the period of his sojourn in this place. He has evidentlydiscovered that Laura secretly dislikes him (she confessed as much tome when I pressed her on the subject)--but he has also found out thatshe is extravagantly fond of flowers. Whenever she wants a nosegay hehas got one to give her, gathered and arranged by himself, and greatlyto my amusement, he is always cunningly provided with a duplicate,composed of exactly the same flowers, grouped in exactly the same way,to appease his icily jealous wife before she can so much as thinkherself aggrieved. His management of the Countess (in public) is asight to see. He bows to her, he habitually addresses her as "myangel," he carries his canaries to pay her little visits on his fingersand to sing to her, he kisses her hand when she gives him hiscigarettes; he presents her with sugar-plums in return, which he putsinto her mouth playfully, from a box in his pocket. The rod of ironwith which he rules her never appears in company--it is a private rod,and is always kept upstairs.
His method of recommending himself to me is entirely different. Heflatters my vanity by talking to me as seriously and sensibly as if Iwas a man. Yes! I can find him out when I am away from him--I know heflatters my vanity, when I think of him up here in my own room--andyet, when I go downstairs, and get into his company again, he willblind me again, and I shall be flattered again, just as if I had neverfound him out at all! He can manage me as he manages his wife andLaura, as he managed the bloodhound in the stable-yard, as he managesSir Percival himself, every hour in the day. "My good Percival! how Ilike your rough English humour!"--"My good Percival! how I enjoy yoursolid English sense!" He puts the rudest remarks Sir Percival can makeon his effeminate tastes and amusements quietly away from him in thatmanner--always calling the baronet by his Christian name, smiling athim with the calmest superiority, patting him on the shoulder, andbearing with him benignantly, as a good-humoured father bears with awayward son.
The interest which I really cannot help feeling in this strangelyoriginal man has led me to question Sir Percival about his past life.
Sir Percival either knows little, or will tell me little, about it. Heand the Count first met many years ago, at Rome, under the dangerouscircumstances to which I have alluded elsewhere. Since that time theyhave been perpetually together in London, in Paris, and in Vienna--butnever in Italy again; the Count having, oddly enough, not crossed thefrontiers of his native country for years past. Perhaps he has beenmade the victim of some political persecution? At all events, he seemsto be patriotically anxious not to lose sight of any of his owncountrymen who may happen to be in England. On the evening of hisarrival he asked how far we were from the nearest town, and whether weknew of any Italian gentlemen who might happen to be settled there. Heis certainly in correspondence with people on the Continent, for hisletters have all sorts of odd stamps on them, and I saw one for himthis morning, waiting in his place at the breakfast-table, with a huge,official-looking seal on it. Perhaps he is in correspondence with hisgovernment? And yet, that is hardly to be reconciled either with myother idea that he may be a political exile.
How much I seem to have written about Count Fosco! And what does it allamount to?--as poor, dear Mr. Gilmore would ask, in his impenetrablebusiness-like way I can only repeat that I do assuredly feel, even onthis short acquaintance, a strange, half-willing, half-unwillingliking for the Count. He seems to have established over me the samesort of ascendency which he has evidently gained over Sir Percival.Free, and even rude, as he may occasionally be in his manner towardshis fat friend, Sir Percival is nevertheless afraid, as I can plainlysee, of giving any serious offence to the Count. I wonder whether I amafraid too? I certainly never saw a man, in all my experience, whom Ishould be so sorry to have for an enemy. Is this because I like him,or because I am afraid of him? Chi sa?--as Count Fosco might say in hisown language. Who knows?
June 16th.--Something to chronicle to-day besides my own ideas andimpressions. A visitor has arrived--quite unknown to Laura and to me,and apparently quite unexpected by Sir Percival.
We were all at lunch, in the room with the new French windows that openinto the verandah, and the Count (who devours pastry as I have neveryet seen it devoured by any human beings but girls at boarding-schools)had just amused us by asking gravely for his fourth tart--when theservant entered to announce the visitor.
"Mr. Merriman has just come, Sir Percival, and wishes to see youimmediately."
Sir Percival started, and looked at the man with an expression of angryalarm.
"Mr. Merriman!" he repeated, as if he thought his own ears must havedeceived him.
"Yes, Sir Percival--Mr. Merriman, from London."
"Where is he?"
"In the library, Sir Percival."
He left the table the instant the last answer was given, and hurriedout of the room without saying a word to any of us.
"Who is Mr. Merriman?" asked Laura, appealing to me.
"I have not the least idea," was all I could say in reply.
The Count had finished his fourth tart, and had gone to a side-tableto look after his vicious cockatoo. He turned round to us with thebird perched on his shoulder.
"Mr. Merriman is Sir Percival's solicitor," he said quietly.
Sir Percival's solicitor. It was a perfectly straightforward answer toLaura's question, and yet, under the circumstances, it was notsatisfactory. If Mr. Merriman had been specially sent for by hisclient, there would have been nothing very wonderful in his leavingtown to obey the summons. But when a lawyer travels from London toHampshire without being sent for, and when his arrival at a gentleman'shouse seriously startles the gentleman himself, it may be safely takenfor granted that the legal visitor is the bearer of some very importantand very unexpected news--news which may be either very good or verybad, but which cannot, in either case, be of the common everyday kind.
Laura and I sat silent at the table for a quarter of an hour or more,wondering uneasily what had happened, and waiting for the chance of SirPercival's speedy return. There were no signs of his return, and werose to leave the room.
The Count, attentive as usual, advanced from the corner in which he hadbeen feeding his cockatoo, with the bird still perched on his shoulder,and opened the door for us. Laura and Madame Fosco went out first.Just as I was on the point of following them he made a sign with hishand, and spoke to me, before I passed him, in the oddest manner.
"Yes," he said, quietly answering the unexpressed idea at that momentin my mind, as if I had plainly confided it to him in so manywords--"yes, Miss Halcombe, something HAS happened."
I was on the point of answering, "I never said so," but the viciouscockatoo ruffled his clipped wings and gave a screech that set all mynerves on edge in an instant, and made me only too glad to get out ofthe room.
I joined Laura at the foot of the stairs. The thought in her mind wasthe same as the thought in mine, which Count Fosco had surprised, andwhen she spoke her words were almost the echo of his. She, too, saidto me secretly that she was afraid something had happened.