The woman in white, p.27
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       The Woman in White, p.27

           Wilkie Collins


  June 16th.--I have a few lines more to add to this day's entry before Igo to bed to-night.

  About two hours after Sir Percival rose from the luncheon-table toreceive his solicitor, Mr. Merriman, in the library, I left my roomalone to take a walk in the plantations. Just as I was at the end ofthe landing the library door opened and the two gentlemen came out.Thinking it best not to disturb them by appearing on the stairs, Iresolved to defer going down till they had crossed the hall. Althoughthey spoke to each other in guarded tones, their words were pronouncedwith sufficient distinctness of utterance to reach my ears.

  "Make your mind easy, Sir Percival," I heard the lawyer say; "it allrests with Lady Glyde."

  I had turned to go back to my own room for a minute or two, but thesound of Laura's name on the lips of a stranger stopped me instantly.I daresay it was very wrong and very discreditable to listen, but whereis the woman, in the whole range of our sex, who can regulate heractions by the abstract principles of honour, when those principlespoint one way, and when her affections, and the interests which growout of them, point the other?

  I listened--and under similar circumstances I would listen again--yes!with my ear at the keyhole, if I could not possibly manage it in anyother way.

  "You quite understand, Sir Percival," the lawyer went on. "Lady Glydeis to sign her name in the presence of a witness--or of two witnesses,if you wish to be particularly careful--and is then to put her fingeron the seal and say, 'I deliver this as my act and deed.' If that isdone in a week's time the arrangement will be perfectly successful, andthe anxiety will be all over. If not----"

  "What do you mean by 'if not'?" asked Sir Percival angrily. "If thething must be done it SHALL be done. I promise you that, Merriman."

  "Just so, Sir Percival--just so; but there are two alternatives in alltransactions, and we lawyers like to look both of them in the faceboldly. If through any extraordinary circumstance the arrangementshould not be made, I think I may be able to get the parties to acceptbills at three months. But how the money is to be raised when thebills fall due----"

  "Damn the bills! The money is only to be got in one way, and in thatway, I tell you again, it SHALL be got. Take a glass of wine,Merriman, before you go."

  "Much obliged, Sir Percival, I have not a moment to lose if I am tocatch the up-train. You will let me know as soon as the arrangement iscomplete? and you will not forget the caution I recommended----"

  "Of course I won't. There's the dog-cart at the door for you. Mygroom will get you to the station in no time. Benjamin, drive likemad! Jump in. If Mr. Merriman misses the train you lose your place.Hold fast, Merriman, and if you are upset trust to the devil to savehis own." With that parting benediction the baronet turned about andwalked back to the library.

  I had not heard much, but the little that had reached my ears wasenough to make me feel uneasy. The "something" that "had happened" wasbut too plainly a serious money embarrassment, and Sir Percival'srelief from it depended upon Laura. The prospect of seeing herinvolved in her husband's secret difficulties filled me with dismay,exaggerated, no doubt, by my ignorance of business and my settleddistrust of Sir Percival. Instead of going out, as I proposed, I wentback immediately to Laura's room to tell her what I had heard.

  She received my bad news so composedly as to surprise me. Sheevidently knows more of her husband's character and her husband'sembarrassments than I have suspected up to this time.

  "I feared as much," she said, "when I heard of that strange gentlemanwho called, and declined to leave his name."

  "Who do you think the gentleman was, then?" I asked.

  "Some person who has heavy claims on Sir Percival," she answered, "andwho has been the cause of Mr. Merriman's visit here to-day."

  "Do you know anything about those claims?"

  "No, I know no particulars."

  "You will sign nothing, Laura, without first looking at it?"

  "Certainly not, Marian. Whatever I can harmlessly and honestly do tohelp him I will do--for the sake of making your life and mine, love, aseasy and as happy as possible. But I will do nothing ignorantly, whichwe might, one day, have reason to feel ashamed of. Let us say no moreabout it now. You have got your hat on--suppose we go and dream awaythe afternoon in the grounds?"

  On leaving the house we directed our steps to the nearest shade.

  As we passed an open space among the trees in front of the house, therewas Count Fosco, slowly walking backwards and forwards on the grass,sunning himself in the full blaze of the hot June afternoon. He had abroad straw hat on, with a violet-coloured ribbon round it. A blueblouse, with profuse white fancy-work over the bosom, covered hisprodigious body, and was girt about the place where his waist mightonce have been with a broad scarlet leather belt. Nankeen trousers,displaying more white fancy-work over the ankles, and purple moroccoslippers, adorned his lower extremities. He was singing Figaro'sfamous song in the Barber of Seville, with that crisply fluentvocalisation which is never heard from any other than an Italianthroat, accompanying himself on the concertina, which he played withecstatic throwings-up of his arms, and graceful twistings and turningsof his head, like a fat St. Cecilia masquerading in male attire."Figaro qua! Figaro la! Figaro su! Figaro giu!" sang the Count,jauntily tossing up the concertina at arm's length, and bowing to us,on one side of the instrument, with the airy grace and elegance ofFigaro himself at twenty years of age.

  "Take my word for it, Laura, that man knows something of Sir Percival'sembarrassments," I said, as we returned the Count's salutation from asafe distance.

  "What makes you think that?" she asked.

  "How should he have known, otherwise, that Mr. Merriman was SirPercival's solicitor?" I rejoined. "Besides, when I followed you outof the luncheon-room, he told me, without a single word of inquiry onmy part, that something had happened. Depend upon it, he knows morethan we do."

  "Don't ask him any questions if he does. Don't take him into ourconfidence!"

  "You seem to dislike him, Laura, in a very determined manner. What hashe said or done to justify you?"

  "Nothing, Marian. On the contrary, he was all kindness and attentionon our journey home, and he several times checked Sir Percival'soutbreaks of temper, in the most considerate manner towards me.Perhaps I dislike him because he has so much more power over my husbandthan I have. Perhaps it hurts my pride to be under any obligations tohis interference. All I know is, that I DO dislike him."

  The rest of the day and evening passed quietly enough. The Count and Iplayed at chess. For the first two games he politely allowed me toconquer him, and then, when he saw that I had found him out, begged mypardon, and at the third game checkmated me in ten minutes. SirPercival never once referred, all through the evening, to the lawyer'svisit. But either that event, or something else, had produced asingular alteration for the better in him. He was as polite andagreeable to all of us, as he used to be in the days of his probationat Limmeridge, and he was so amazingly attentive and kind to his wife,that even icy Madame Fosco was roused into looking at him with a gravesurprise. What does this mean? I think I can guess--I am afraid Lauracan guess--and I am sure Count Fosco knows. I caught Sir Percivallooking at him for approval more than once in the course of the evening.

  June 17th.--A day of events. I most fervently hope I may not have toadd, a day of disasters as well.

  Sir Percival was as silent at breakfast as he had been the eveningbefore, on the subject of the mysterious "arrangement" (as the lawyercalled it) which is hanging over our heads. An hour afterwards,however, he suddenly entered the morning-room, where his wife and Iwere waiting, with our hats on, for Madame Fosco to join us, andinquired for the Count.

  "We expect to see him here directly," I said.

  "The fact is," Sir Percival went on, walking nervously about the room,"I want Fosco and his wife in the library, for a mere businessformality, and I want you there, Laura, for a minute too." He stopped,and appeared to notice, for
the first time, that we were in our walkingcostume. "Have you just come in?" he asked, "or were you just goingout?"

  "We were all thinking of going to the lake this morning," said Laura."But if you have any other arrangement to propose----"

  "No, no," he answered hastily. "My arrangement can wait. After lunchwill do as well for it as after breakfast. All going to the lake, eh? Agood idea. Let's have an idle morning--I'll be one of the party."

  There was no mistaking his manner, even if it had been possible tomistake the uncharacteristic readiness which his words expressed, tosubmit his own plans and projects to the convenience of others. He wasevidently relieved at finding any excuse for delaying the businessformality in the library, to which his own words had referred. Myheart sank within me as I drew the inevitable inference.

  The Count and his wife joined us at that moment. The lady had herhusband's embroidered tobacco-pouch, and her store of paper in herhand, for the manufacture of the eternal cigarettes. The gentleman,dressed, as usual, in his blouse and straw hat, carried the gay littlepagoda-cage, with his darling white mice in it, and smiled on them, andon us, with a bland amiability which it was impossible to resist.

  "With your kind permission," said the Count, "I will take my smallfamily here--my poor-little-harmless-pretty-Mouseys, out for an airingalong with us. There are dogs about the house, and shall I leave myforlorn white children at the mercies of the dogs? Ah, never!"

  He chirruped paternally at his small white children through the bars ofthe pagoda, and we all left the house for the lake.

  In the plantation Sir Percival strayed away from us. It seems to bepart of his restless disposition always to separate himself from hiscompanions on these occasions, and always to occupy himself when he isalone in cutting new walking-sticks for his own use. The mere act ofcutting and lopping at hazard appears to please him. He has filled thehouse with walking-sticks of his own making, not one of which he evertakes up for a second time. When they have been once used his interestin them is all exhausted, and he thinks of nothing but going on andmaking more.

  At the old boat-house he joined us again. I will put down theconversation that ensued when we were all settled in our places exactlyas it passed. It is an important conversation, so far as I amconcerned, for it has seriously disposed me to distrust the influencewhich Count Fosco has exercised over my thoughts and feelings, and toresist it for the future as resolutely as I can.

  The boat-house was large enough to hold us all, but Sir Percivalremained outside trimming the last new stick with his pocket-axe. Wethree women found plenty of room on the large seat. Laura took herwork, and Madame Fosco began her cigarettes. I, as usual, had nothingto do. My hands always were, and always will be, as awkward as aman's. The Count good-humouredly took a stool many sizes too small forhim, and balanced himself on it with his back against the side of theshed, which creaked and groaned under his weight. He put thepagoda-cage on his lap, and let out the mice to crawl over him asusual. They are pretty, innocent-looking little creatures, but thesight of them creeping about a man's body is for some reason notpleasant to me. It excites a strange responsive creeping in my ownnerves, and suggests hideous ideas of men dying in prison with thecrawling creatures of the dungeon preying on them undisturbed.

  The morning was windy and cloudy, and the rapid alternations of shadowand sunlight over the waste of the lake made the view look doubly wild,weird, and gloomy.

  "Some people call that picturesque," said Sir Percival, pointing overthe wide prospect with his half-finished walking-stick. "I call it ablot on a gentleman's property. In my great-grandfather's time thelake flowed to this place. Look at it now! It is not four feet deepanywhere, and it is all puddles and pools. I wish I could afford todrain it, and plant it all over. My bailiff (a superstitious idiot)says he is quite sure the lake has a curse on it, like the Dead Sea.What do you think, Fosco? It looks just the place for a murder, doesn'tit?"

  "My good Percival," remonstrated the Count. "What is your solidEnglish sense thinking of? The water is too shallow to hide the body,and there is sand everywhere to print off the murderer's footsteps. Itis, upon the whole, the very worst place for a murder that I ever setmy eyes on."

  "Humbug!" said Sir Percival, cutting away fiercely at his stick. "Youknow what I mean. The dreary scenery, the lonely situation. If youchoose to understand me, you can--if you don't choose, I am not goingto trouble myself to explain my meaning."

  "And why not," asked the Count, "when your meaning can be explained byanybody in two words? If a fool was going to commit a murder, your lakeis the first place he would choose for it. If a wise man was going tocommit a murder, your lake is the last place he would choose for it.Is that your meaning? If it is, there is your explanation for you readymade. Take it, Percival, with your good Fosco's blessing."

  Laura looked at the Count with her dislike for him appearing a littletoo plainly in her face. He was so busy with his mice that he did notnotice her.

  "I am sorry to hear the lake-view connected with anything so horribleas the idea of murder," she said. "And if Count Fosco must dividemurderers into classes, I think he has been very unfortunate in hischoice of expressions. To describe them as fools only seems liketreating them with an indulgence to which they have no claim. And todescribe them as wise men sounds to me like a downright contradictionin terms. I have always heard that truly wise men are truly good men,and have a horror of crime."

  "My dear lady," said the Count, "those are admirable sentiments, and Ihave seen them stated at the tops of copy-books." He lifted one of thewhite mice in the palm of his hand, and spoke to it in his whimsicalway. "My pretty little smooth white rascal," he said, "here is a morallesson for you. A truly wise mouse is a truly good mouse. Mentionthat, if you please, to your companions, and never gnaw at the bars ofyour cage again as long as you live."

  "It is easy to turn everything into ridicule," said Laura resolutely;"but you will not find it quite so easy, Count Fosco, to give me aninstance of a wise man who has been a great criminal."

  The Count shrugged his huge shoulders, and smiled on Laura in thefriendliest manner.

  "Most true!" he said. "The fool's crime is the crime that is foundout, and the wise man's crime is the crime that is NOT found out. If Icould give you an instance, it would not be the instance of a wise man.Dear Lady Glyde, your sound English common sense has been too much forme. It is checkmate for me this time, Miss Halcombe--ha?"

  "Stand to your guns, Laura," sneered Sir Percival, who had beenlistening in his place at the door. "Tell him next, that crimes causetheir own detection. There's another bit of copy-book morality foryou, Fosco. Crimes cause their own detection. What infernal humbug!"

  "I believe it to be true," said Laura quietly.

  Sir Percival burst out laughing, so violently, so outrageously, that hequite startled us all--the Count more than any of us.

  "I believe it too," I said, coming to Laura's rescue.

  Sir Percival, who had been unaccountably amused at his wife's remark,was just as unaccountably irritated by mine. He struck the new sticksavagely on the sand, and walked away from us.

  "Poor dear Percival!" cried Count Fosco, looking after him gaily, "heis the victim of English spleen. But, my dear Miss Halcombe, my dearLady Glyde, do you really believe that crimes cause their owndetection? And you, my angel," he continued, turning to his wife, whohad not uttered a word yet, "do you think so too?"

  "I wait to be instructed," replied the Countess, in tones of freezingreproof, intended for Laura and me, "before I venture on giving myopinion in the presence of well-informed men."

  "Do you, indeed?" I said. "I remember the time, Countess, when youadvocated the Rights of Women, and freedom of female opinion was one ofthem."

  "What is your view of the subject, Count?" asked Madame Fosco, calmlyproceeding with her cigarettes, and not taking the least notice of me.

  The Count stroked one of his white mice reflectively with his chubbylit
tle finger before he answered.

  "It is truly wonderful," he said, "how easily Society can consoleitself for the worst of its shortcomings with a little bit ofclap-trap. The machinery it has set up for the detection of crime ismiserably ineffective--and yet only invent a moral epigram, saying thatit works well, and you blind everybody to its blunders from thatmoment. Crimes cause their own detection, do they? And murder will out(another moral epigram), will it? Ask Coroners who sit at inquests inlarge towns if that is true, Lady Glyde. Ask secretaries oflife-assurance companies if that is true, Miss Halcombe. Read your ownpublic journals. In the few cases that get into the newspapers, arethere not instances of slain bodies found, and no murderers everdiscovered? Multiply the cases that are reported by the cases that areNOT reported, and the bodies that are found by the bodies that are NOTfound, and what conclusion do you come to? This. That there arefoolish criminals who are discovered, and wise criminals who escape.The hiding of a crime, or the detection of a crime, what is it? A trialof skill between the police on one side, and the individual on theother. When the criminal is a brutal, ignorant fool, the police in ninecases out of ten win. When the criminal is a resolute, educated,highly-intelligent man, the police in nine cases out of ten lose. Ifthe police win, you generally hear all about it. If the police lose,you generally hear nothing. And on this tottering foundation you buildup your comfortable moral maxim that Crime causes its own detection!Yes--all the crime you know of. And what of the rest?"

  "Devilish true, and very well put," cried a voice at the entrance ofthe boat-house. Sir Percival had recovered his equanimity, and hadcome back while we were listening to the Count.

  "Some of it may be true," I said, "and all of it may be very well put.But I don't see why Count Fosco should celebrate the victory of thecriminal over Society with so much exultation, or why you, SirPercival, should applaud him so loudly for doing it."

  "Do you hear that, Fosco?" asked Sir Percival. "Take my advice, andmake your peace with your audience. Tell them virtue's a finething--they like that, I can promise you."

  The Count laughed inwardly and silently, and two of the white mice inhis waistcoat, alarmed by the internal convulsion going on beneaththem, darted out in a violent hurry, and scrambled into their cageagain.

  "The ladies, my good Percival, shall tell me about virtue," he said."They are better authorities than I am, for they know what virtue is,and I don't."

  "You hear him?" said Sir Percival. "Isn't it awful?"

  "It is true," said the Count quietly. "I am a citizen of the world,and I have met, in my time, with so many different sorts of virtue,that I am puzzled, in my old age, to say which is the right sort andwhich is the wrong. Here, in England, there is one virtue. And there,in China, there is another virtue. And John Englishman says my virtueis the genuine virtue. And John Chinaman says my virtue is the genuinevirtue. And I say Yes to one, or No to the other, and am just as muchbewildered about it in the case of John with the top-boots as I am inthe case of John with the pigtail. Ah, nice little Mousey! come, kissme. What is your own private notion of a virtuous man, mypret-pret-pretty? A man who keeps you warm, and gives you plenty toeat. And a good notion, too, for it is intelligible, at the least."

  "Stay a minute, Count," I interposed. "Accepting your illustration,surely we have one unquestionable virtue in England which is wanting inChina. The Chinese authorities kill thousands of innocent people onthe most frivolous pretexts. We in England are free from all guilt ofthat kind--we commit no such dreadful crime--we abhor recklessbloodshed with all our hearts."

  "Quite right, Marian," said Laura. "Well thought of, and wellexpressed."

  "Pray allow the Count to proceed," said Madame Fosco, with sterncivility. "You will find, young ladies, that HE never speaks withouthaving excellent reasons for all that he says."

  "Thank you, my angel," replied the Count. "Have a bon-bon?" He tookout of his pocket a pretty little inlaid box, and placed it open on thetable. "Chocolat a la Vanille," cried the impenetrable man, cheerfullyrattling the sweetmeats in the box, and bowing all round. "Offered byFosco as an act of homage to the charming society."

  "Be good enough to go on, Count," said his wife, with a spitefulreference to myself. "Oblige me by answering Miss Halcombe."

  "Miss Halcombe is unanswerable," replied the polite Italian; "that isto say, so far as she goes. Yes! I agree with her. John Bull doesabhor the crimes of John Chinaman. He is the quickest old gentleman atfinding out faults that are his neighbours', and the slowest oldgentleman at finding out the faults that are his own, who exists on theface of creation. Is he so very much better in this way than thepeople whom he condemns in their way? English Society, Miss Halcombe,is as often the accomplice as it is the enemy of crime. Yes! yes!Crime is in this country what crime is in other countries--a goodfriend to a man and to those about him as often as it is an enemy. Agreat rascal provides for his wife and family. The worse he is themore he makes them the objects for your sympathy. He often providesalso for himself. A profligate spendthrift who is always borrowingmoney will get more from his friends than the rigidly honest man whoonly borrows of them once, under pressure of the direst want. In theone case the friends will not be at all surprised, and they will give.In the other case they will be very much surprised, and they willhesitate. Is the prison that Mr. Scoundrel lives in at the end of hiscareer a more uncomfortable place than the workhouse that Mr. Honestylives in at the end of his career? When John-Howard-Philanthropistwants to relieve misery he goes to find it in prisons, where crime iswretched--not in huts and hovels, where virtue is wretched too. Who isthe English poet who has won the most universal sympathy--who makes theeasiest of all subjects for pathetic writing and pathetic painting?That nice young person who began life with a forgery, and ended it by asuicide--your dear, romantic, interesting Chatterton. Which gets onbest, do you think, of two poor starving dressmakers--the woman whoresists temptation and is honest, or the woman who falls undertemptation and steals? You all know that the stealing is the making ofthat second woman's fortune--it advertises her from length to breadthof good-humoured, charitable England--and she is relieved, as thebreaker of a commandment, when she would have been left to starve, asthe keeper of it. Come here, my jolly little Mouse! Hey! presto! pass!I transform you, for the time being, into a respectable lady. Stopthere, in the palm of my great big hand, my dear, and listen. Youmarry the poor man whom you love, Mouse, and one half your friendspity, and the other half blame you. And now, on the contrary, you sellyourself for gold to a man you don't care for, and all your friendsrejoice over you, and a minister of public worship sanctions the basehorror of the vilest of all human bargains, and smiles and smirksafterwards at your table, if you are polite enough to ask him tobreakfast. Hey! presto! pass! Be a mouse again, and squeak. If youcontinue to be a lady much longer, I shall have you telling me thatSociety abhors crime--and then, Mouse, I shall doubt if your own eyesand ears are really of any use to you. Ah! I am a bad man, Lady Glyde,am I not? I say what other people only think, and when all the rest ofthe world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mineis the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows thebare bones beneath. I will get up on my big elephant's legs, before Ido myself any more harm in your amiable estimations--I will get up andtake a little airy walk of my own. Dear ladies, as your excellentSheridan said, I go--and leave my character behind me."

  He got up, put the cage on the table, and paused for a moment to countthe mice in it. "One, two, three, four----Ha!" he cried, with a lookof horror, "where, in the name of Heaven, is the fifth--the youngest,the whitest, the most amiable of all--my Benjamin of mice!"

  Neither Laura nor I were in any favorable disposition to be amused.The Count's glib cynicism had revealed a new aspect of his nature fromwhich we both recoiled. But it was impossible to resist the comicaldistress of so very large a man at the loss of so very small a mouse.We laughed in spite of ourselves; and when Madame Fosco rose to s
et theexample of leaving the boat-house empty, so that her husband mightsearch it to its remotest corners, we rose also to follow her out.

  Before we had taken three steps, the Count's quick eye discovered thelost mouse under the seat that we had been occupying. He pulled asidethe bench, took the little animal up in his hand, and then suddenlystopped, on his knees, looking intently at a particular place on theground just beneath him.

  When he rose to his feet again, his hand shook so that he could hardlyput the mouse back in the cage, and his face was of a faint lividyellow hue all over.

  "Percival!" he said, in a whisper. "Percival! come here."

  Sir Percival had paid no attention to any of us for the last tenminutes. He had been entirely absorbed in writing figures on the sand,and then rubbing them out again with the point of his stick.

  "What's the matter now?" he asked, lounging carelessly into theboat-house.

  "Do you see nothing there?" said the Count, catching him nervously bythe collar with one hand, and pointing with the other to the place nearwhich he had found the mouse.

  "I see plenty of dry sand," answered Sir Percival, "and a spot of dirtin the middle of it."

  "Not dirt," whispered the Count, fastening the other hand suddenly onSir Percival's collar, and shaking it in his agitation. "Blood."

  Laura was near enough to hear the last word, softly as he whispered it.She turned to me with a look of terror.

  "Nonsense, my dear," I said. "There is no need to be alarmed. It isonly the blood of a poor little stray dog."

  Everybody was astonished, and everybody's eyes were fixed on meinquiringly.

  "How do you know that?" asked Sir Percival, speaking first.

  "I found the dog here, dying, on the day when you all returned fromabroad," I replied. "The poor creature had strayed into theplantation, and had been shot by your keeper."

  "Whose dog was it?" inquired Sir Percival. "Not one of mine?"

  "Did you try to save the poor thing?" asked Laura earnestly. "Surelyyou tried to save it, Marian?"

  "Yes," I said, "the housekeeper and I both did our best--but the dogwas mortally wounded, and he died under our hands."

  "Whose dog was it?" persisted Sir Percival, repeating his question alittle irritably. "One of mine?"

  "No, not one of yours."

  "Whose then? Did the housekeeper know?"

  The housekeeper's report of Mrs. Catherick's desire to conceal hervisit to Blackwater Park from Sir Percival's knowledge recurred to mymemory the moment he put that last question, and I half doubted thediscretion of answering it; but in my anxiety to quiet the generalalarm, I had thoughtlessly advanced too far to draw back, except at therisk of exciting suspicion, which might only make matters worse. Therewas nothing for it but to answer at once, without reference to results.

  "Yes," I said. "The housekeeper knew. She told me it was Mrs.Catherick's dog."

  Sir Percival had hitherto remained at the inner end of the boat-housewith Count Fosco, while I spoke to him from the door. But the instantMrs. Catherick's name passed my lips he pushed by the Count roughly,and placed himself face to face with me under the open daylight.

  "How came the housekeeper to know it was Mrs. Catherick's dog?" heasked, fixing his eyes on mine with a frowning interest and attention,which half angered, half startled me.

  "She knew it," I said quietly, "because Mrs. Catherick brought the dogwith her."

  "Brought it with her? Where did she bring it with her?"

  "To this house."

  "What the devil did Mrs. Catherick want at this house?"

  The manner in which he put the question was even more offensive thanthe language in which he expressed it. I marked my sense of his wantof common politeness by silently turning away from him.

  Just as I moved the Count's persuasive hand was laid on his shoulder,and the Count's mellifluous voice interposed to quiet him.

  "My dear Percival!--gently--gently!"

  Sir Percival looked round in his angriest manner. The Count onlysmiled and repeated the soothing application.

  "Gently, my good friend--gently!"

  Sir Percival hesitated, followed me a few steps, and, to my greatsurprise, offered me an apology.

  "I beg your pardon, Miss Halcombe," he said. "I have been out of orderlately, and I am afraid I am a little irritable. But I should like toknow what Mrs. Catherick could possibly want here. When did she come?Was the housekeeper the only person who saw her?"

  "The only person," I answered, "so far as I know."

  The Count interposed again.

  "In that case why not question the housekeeper?" he said. "Why not go,Percival, to the fountain-head of information at once?"

  "Quite right!" said Sir Percival. "Of course the housekeeper is thefirst person to question. Excessively stupid of me not to see itmyself." With those words he instantly left us to return to the house.

  The motive of the Count's interference, which had puzzled me at first,betrayed itself when Sir Percival's back was turned. He had a host ofquestions to put to me about Mrs. Catherick, and the cause of her visitto Blackwater Park, which he could scarcely have asked in his friend'spresence. I made my answers as short as I civilly could, for I hadalready determined to check the least approach to any exchanging ofconfidences between Count Fosco and myself. Laura, however,unconsciously helped him to extract all my information, by makinginquiries herself, which left me no alternative but to reply to her, orto appear in the very unenviable and very false character of adepositary of Sir Percival's secrets. The end of it was, that, inabout ten minutes' time, the Count knew as much as I know of Mrs.Catherick, and of the events which have so strangely connected us withher daughter, Anne, from the time when Hartright met with her to thisday.

  The effect of my information on him was, in one respect, curious enough.

  Intimately as he knows Sir Percival, and closely as he appears to beassociated with Sir Percival's private affairs in general, he iscertainly as far as I am from knowing anything of the true story ofAnne Catherick. The unsolved mystery in connection with this unhappywoman is now rendered doubly suspicious, in my eyes, by the absoluteconviction which I feel, that the clue to it has been hidden by SirPercival from the most intimate friend he has in the world. It wasimpossible to mistake the eager curiosity of the Count's look andmanner while he drank in greedily every word that fell from my lips.There are many kinds of curiosity, I know--but there is nomisinterpreting the curiosity of blank surprise: if I ever saw it in mylife I saw it in the Count's face.

  While the questions and answers were going on, we had all beenstrolling quietly back through the plantation. As soon as we reachedthe house the first object that we saw in front of it was SirPercival's dog-cart, with the horse put to and the groom waiting by itin his stable-jacket. If these unexpected appearances were to betrusted, the examination of the house-keeper had produced importantresults already.

  "A fine horse, my friend," said the Count, addressing the groom withthe most engaging familiarity of manner, "You are going to drive out?"

  "I am not going, sir," replied the man, looking at his stable-jacket,and evidently wondering whether the foreign gentleman took it for hislivery. "My master drives himself."

  "Aha!" said the Count, "does he indeed? I wonder he gives himself thetrouble when he has got you to drive for him. Is he going to fatiguethat nice, shining, pretty horse by taking him very far to-day?"

  "I don't know, sir," answered the man. "The horse is a mare, if youplease, sir. She's the highest-couraged thing we've got in thestables. Her name's Brown Molly, sir, and she'll go till she drops.Sir Percival usually takes Isaac of York for the short distances."

  "And your shining courageous Brown Molly for the long?"

  "Logical inference, Miss Halcombe," continued the Count, wheeling roundbriskly, and addressing me. "Sir Percival is going a long distanceto-day."

  I made no reply. I had my own inferences to draw, from what I knewthrough the housekeeper a
nd from what I saw before me, and I did notchoose to share them with Count Fosco.

  When Sir Percival was in Cumberland (I thought to myself), he walkedaway a long distance, on Anne's account, to question the family atTodd's Corner. Now he is in Hampshire, is he going to drive away along distance, on Anne's account again, to question Mrs. Catherick atWelmingham?

  We all entered the house. As we crossed the hall Sir Percival came outfrom the library to meet us. He looked hurried and pale andanxious--but for all that, he was in his most polite mood when he spoketo us.

  "I am sorry to say I am obliged to leave you," he began--"a longdrive--a matter that I can't very well put off. I shall be back ingood time to-morrow--but before I go I should like that littlebusiness-formality, which I spoke of this morning, to be settled.Laura, will you come into the library? It won't take a minute--a mereformality. Countess, may I trouble you also? I want you and theCountess, Fosco, to be witnesses to a signature--nothing more. Come inat once and get it over."

  He held the library door open until they had passed in, followed them,and shut it softly.

  I remained, for a moment afterwards, standing alone in the hall, withmy heart beating fast and my mind misgiving me sadly. Then I went onto the staircase, and ascended slowly to my own room.