The woman in white, p.29
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       The Woman in White, p.29

           Wilkie Collins
 

  V

  June 17th.--When the dinner hour brought us together again, Count Foscowas in his usual excellent spirits. He exerted himself to interest andamuse us, as if he was determined to efface from our memories allrecollection of what had passed in the library that afternoon. Livelydescriptions of his adventures in travelling, amusing anecdotes ofremarkable people whom he had met with abroad, quaint comparisonsbetween the social customs of various nations, illustrated by examplesdrawn from men and women indiscriminately all over Europe, humorousconfessions of the innocent follies of his own early life, when heruled the fashions of a second-rate Italian town, and wrotepreposterous romances on the French model for a second-rate Italiannewspaper--all flowed in succession so easily and so gaily from hislips, and all addressed our various curiosities and various interestsso directly and so delicately, that Laura and I listened to him with asmuch attention and, inconsistent as it may seem, with as muchadmiration also, as Madame Fosco herself. Women can resist a man'slove, a man's fame, a man's personal appearance, and a man's money, butthey cannot resist a man's tongue when he knows how to talk to them.

  After dinner, while the favourable impression which he had produced onus was still vivid in our minds, the Count modestly withdrew to read inthe library.

  Laura proposed a stroll in the grounds to enjoy the close of the longevening. It was necessary in common politeness to ask Madame Fosco tojoin us, but this time she had apparently received her ordersbeforehand, and she begged we would kindly excuse her. "The Count willprobably want a fresh supply of cigarettes," she remarked by way ofapology, "and nobody can make them to his satisfaction but myself." Hercold blue eyes almost warmed as she spoke the words--she lookedactually proud of being the officiating medium through which her lordand master composed himself with tobacco-smoke!

  Laura and I went out together alone.

  It was a misty, heavy evening. There was a sense of blight in the air;the flowers were drooping in the garden, and the ground was parched anddewless. The western heaven, as we saw it over the quiet trees, was ofa pale yellow hue, and the sun was setting faintly in a haze. Comingrain seemed near--it would fall probably with the fall of night.

  "Which way shall we go?" I asked

  "Towards the lake, Marian, if you like," she answered.

  "You seem unaccountably fond, Laura, of that dismal lake."

  "No, not of the lake but of the scenery about it. The sand and heathand the fir-trees are the only objects I can discover, in all thislarge place, to remind me of Limmeridge. But we will walk in someother direction if you prefer it."

  "I have no favourite walks at Blackwater Park, my love. One is thesame as another to me. Let us go to the lake--we may find it cooler inthe open space than we find it here."

  We walked through the shadowy plantation in silence. The heaviness inthe evening air oppressed us both, and when we reached the boat-housewe were glad to sit down and rest inside.

  A white fog hung low over the lake. The dense brown line of the treeson the opposite bank appeared above it, like a dwarf forest floating inthe sky. The sandy ground, shelving downward from where we sat, waslost mysteriously in the outward layers of the fog. The silence washorrible. No rustling of the leaves--no bird's note in the wood--nocry of water-fowl from the pools of the hidden lake. Even the croakingof the frogs had ceased to-night.

  "It is very desolate and gloomy," said Laura. "But we can be morealone here than anywhere else."

  She spoke quietly and looked at the wilderness of sand and mist withsteady, thoughtful eyes. I could see that her mind was too muchoccupied to feel the dreary impressions from without which had fastenedthemselves already on mine.

  "I promised, Marian, to tell you the truth about my married life,instead of leaving you any longer to guess it for yourself," she began."That secret is the first I have ever had from you, love, and I amdetermined it shall be the last. I was silent, as you know, for yoursake--and perhaps a little for my own sake as well. It is very hard fora woman to confess that the man to whom she has given her whole life isthe man of all others who cares least for the gift. If you weremarried yourself, Marian--and especially if you were happilymarried--you would feel for me as no single woman CAN feel, howeverkind and true she may be."

  What answer could I make? I could only take her hand and look at herwith my whole heart as well as my eyes would let me.

  "How often," she went on, "I have heard you laughing over what you usedto call your 'poverty!' how often you have made me mock-speeches ofcongratulation on my wealth! Oh, Marian, never laugh again. Thank Godfor your poverty--it has made you your own mistress, and has saved youfrom the lot that has fallen on ME."

  A sad beginning on the lips of a young wife!--sad in its quietplain-spoken truth. The few days we had all passed together atBlackwater Park had been many enough to show me--to show any one--whather husband had married her for.

  "You shall not be distressed," she said, "by hearing how soon mydisappointments and my trials began--or even by knowing what they were.It is bad enough to have them on my memory. If I tell you how hereceived the first and last attempt at remonstrance that I ever made,you will know how he has always treated me, as well as if I haddescribed it in so many words. It was one day at Rome when we hadridden out together to the tomb of Cecilia Metella. The sky was calmand lovely, and the grand old ruin looked beautiful, and theremembrance that a husband's love had raised it in the old time to awife's memory, made me feel more tenderly and more anxiously towards myhusband than I had ever felt yet. 'Would you build such a tomb for ME,Percival?' I asked him. 'You said you loved me dearly before we weremarried, and yet, since that time----' I could get no farther. Marian!he was not even looking at me! I pulled down my veil, thinking it bestnot to let him see that the tears were in my eyes. I fancied he hadnot paid any attention to me, but he had. He said, 'Come away,' andlaughed to himself as he helped me on to my horse. He mounted his ownhorse and laughed again as we rode away. 'If I do build you a tomb,'he said, 'it will be done with your own money. I wonder whetherCecilia Metella had a fortune and paid for hers.' I made no reply--howcould I, when I was crying behind my veil? 'Ah, you light-complexionedwomen are all sulky,' he said. 'What do you want? compliments and softspeeches? Well! I'm in a good humour this morning. Consider thecompliments paid and the speeches said.' Men little know when they sayhard things to us how well we remember them, and how much harm they dous. It would have been better for me if I had gone on crying, but hiscontempt dried up my tears and hardened my heart. From that time,Marian, I never checked myself again in thinking of Walter Hartright.I let the memory of those happy days, when we were so fond of eachother in secret, come back and comfort me. What else had I to look tofor consolation? If we had been together you would have helped me tobetter things. I know it was wrong, darling, but tell me if I waswrong without any excuse."

  I was obliged to turn my face from her. "Don't ask me!" I said. "HaveI suffered as you have suffered? What right have I to decide?"

  "I used to think of him," she pursued, dropping her voice and movingcloser to me, "I used to think of him when Percival left me alone atnight to go among the Opera people. I used to fancy what I might havebeen if it had pleased God to bless me with poverty, and if I had beenhis wife. I used to see myself in my neat cheap gown, sitting at homeand waiting for him while he was earning our bread--sitting at home andworking for him and loving him all the better because I had to work forhim--seeing him come in tired and taking off his hat and coat for him,and, Marian, pleasing him with little dishes at dinner that I hadlearnt to make for his sake. Oh! I hope he is never lonely enough andsad enough to think of me and see me as I have thought of HIM and seeHIM!"

  As she said those melancholy words, all the lost tenderness returned toher voice, and all the lost beauty trembled back into her face. Hereyes rested as lovingly on the blighted, solitary, ill-omened viewbefore us, as if they saw the friendly hills of Cumberland in the dimand threatening sky.

&
nbsp; "Don't speak of Walter any more," I said, as soon as I could controlmyself. "Oh, Laura, spare us both the wretchedness of talking of himnow!"

  She roused herself, and looked at me tenderly.

  "I would rather be silent about him for ever," she answered, "thancause you a moment's pain."

  "It is in your interests," I pleaded; "it is for your sake that Ispeak. If your husband heard you----"

  "It would not surprise him if he did hear me."

  She made that strange reply with a weary calmness and coldness. Thechange in her manner, when she gave the answer, startled me almost asmuch as the answer itself.

  "Not surprise him!" I repeated. "Laura! remember what you aresaying--you frighten me!"

  "It is true," she said; "it is what I wanted to tell you to-day, whenwe were talking in your room. My only secret when I opened my heart tohim at Limmeridge was a harmless secret, Marian--you said so yourself.The name was all I kept from him, and he has discovered it."

  I heard her, but I could say nothing. Her last words had killed thelittle hope that still lived in me.

  "It happened at Rome," she went on, as wearily calm and cold as ever."We were at a little party given to the English by some friends of SirPercival's--Mr. and Mrs. Markland. Mrs. Markland had the reputation ofsketching very beautifully, and some of the guests prevailed on her toshow us her drawings. We all admired them, but something I saidattracted her attention particularly to me. 'Surely you drawyourself?' she asked. 'I used to draw a little once,' I answered, 'butI have given it up.' 'If you have once drawn,' she said, 'you may taketo it again one of these days, and if you do, I wish you would let merecommend you a master.' I said nothing--you know why, Marian--andtried to change the conversation. But Mrs. Markland persisted. 'Ihave had all sorts of teachers,' she went on, 'but the best of all, themost intelligent and the most attentive, was a Mr. Hartright. If youever take up your drawing again, do try him as a master. He is a youngman--modest and gentlemanlike--I am sure you will like him. 'Think ofthose words being spoken to me publicly, in the presence ofstrangers--strangers who had been invited to meet the bride andbridegroom! I did all I could to control myself--I said nothing, andlooked down close at the drawings. When I ventured to raise my headagain, my eyes and my husband's eyes met, and I knew, by his look, thatmy face had betrayed me. 'We will see about Mr. Hartright,' he said,looking at me all the time, 'when we get back to England. I agree withyou, Mrs. Markland--I think Lady Glyde is sure to like him.' He laid anemphasis on the last words which made my cheeks burn, and set my heartbeating as if it would stifle me. Nothing more was said. We came awayearly. He was silent in the carriage driving back to the hotel. Hehelped me out, and followed me upstairs as usual. But the moment wewere in the drawing-room, he locked the door, pushed me down into achair, and stood over me with his hands on my shoulders. 'Ever sincethat morning when you made your audacious confession to me atLimmeridge,' he said, 'I have wanted to find out the man, and I foundhim in your face to-night. Your drawing-master was the man, and hisname is Hartright. You shall repent it, and he shall repent it, to thelast hour of your lives. Now go to bed and dream of him if you like,with the marks of my horsewhip on his shoulders.' Whenever he is angrywith me now he refers to what I acknowledged to him in your presencewith a sneer or a threat. I have no power to prevent him from puttinghis own horrible construction on the confidence I placed in him. Ihave no influence to make him believe me, or to keep him silent. Youlooked surprised to-day when you heard him tell me that I had made avirtue of necessity in marrying him. You will not be surprised againwhen you hear him repeat it, the next time he is out of temper----Oh,Marian! don't! don't! you hurt me!"

  I had caught her in my arms, and the sting and torment of my remorsehad closed them round her like a vice. Yes! my remorse. The whitedespair of Walter's face, when my cruel words struck him to the heartin the summer-house at Limmeridge, rose before me in mute, unendurablereproach. My hand had pointed the way which led the man my sisterloved, step by step, far from his country and his friends. Betweenthose two young hearts I had stood, to sunder them for ever, the onefrom the other, and his life and her life lay wasted before me alike inwitness of the deed. I had done this, and done it for Sir PercivalGlyde.

  For Sir Percival Glyde.

  I heard her speaking, and I knew by the tone of her voice that she wascomforting me--I, who deserved nothing but the reproach of her silence!How long it was before I mastered the absorbing misery of my ownthoughts, I cannot tell. I was first conscious that she was kissingme, and then my eyes seemed to wake on a sudden to their sense ofoutward things, and I knew that I was looking mechanically straightbefore me at the prospect of the lake.

  "It is late," I heard her whisper. "It will be dark in theplantation." She shook my arm and repeated, "Marian! it will be dark inthe plantation."

  "Give me a minute longer," I said--"a minute, to get better in."

  I was afraid to trust myself to look at her yet, and I kept my eyesfixed on the view.

  It WAS late. The dense brown line of trees in the sky had faded in thegathering darkness to the faint resemblance of a long wreath of smoke.The mist over the lake below had stealthily enlarged, and advanced onus. The silence was as breathless as ever, but the horror of it hadgone, and the solemn mystery of its stillness was all that remained.

  "We are far from the house," she whispered. "Let us go back."

  She stopped suddenly, and turned her face from me towards the entranceof the boat-house.

  "Marian!" she said, trembling violently. "Do you see nothing? Look!"

  "Where?"

  "Down there, below us."

  She pointed. My eyes followed her hand, and I saw it too.

  A living figure was moving over the waste of heath in the distance. Itcrossed our range of view from the boat-house, and passed darkly alongthe outer edge of the mist. It stopped far off, in front ofus--waited--and passed on; moving slowly, with the white cloud of mistbehind it and above it--slowly, slowly, till it glided by the edge ofthe boat-house, and we saw it no more.

  We were both unnerved by what had passed between us that evening. Someminutes elapsed before Laura would venture into the plantation, andbefore I could make up my mind to lead her back to the house.

  "Was it a man or a woman?" she asked in a whisper, as we moved at lastinto the dark dampness of the outer air.

  "I am not certain."

  "Which do you think?"

  "It looked like a woman."

  "I was afraid it was a man in a long cloak."

  "It may be a man. In this dim light it is not possible to be certain."

  "Wait, Marian! I'm frightened--I don't see the path. Suppose thefigure should follow us?"

  "Not at all likely, Laura. There is really nothing to be alarmedabout. The shores of the lake are not far from the village, and theyare free to any one to walk on by day or night. It is only wonderfulwe have seen no living creature there before."

  We were now in the plantation. It was very dark--so dark, that wefound some difficulty in keeping the path. I gave Laura my arm, and wewalked as fast as we could on our way back.

  Before we were half-way through she stopped, and forced me to stop withher. She was listening.

  "Hush," she whispered. "I hear something behind us."

  "Dead leaves," I said to cheer her, "or a twig blown off the trees."

  "It is summer time, Marian, and there is not a breath of wind. Listen!"

  I heard the sound too--a sound like a light footstep following us.

  "No matter who it is, or what it is," I said, "let us walk on. Inanother minute, if there is anything to alarm us, we shall be nearenough to the house to be heard."

  We went on quickly--so quickly, that Laura was breathless by the timewe were nearly through the plantation, and within sight of the lightedwindows.

  I waited a moment to give her breathing-time. Just as we were about toproceed she stopped me again, and signed to me with her hand to li
stenonce more. We both heard distinctly a long, heavy sigh behind us, inthe black depths of the trees.

  "Who's there?" I called out.

  There was no answer.

  "Who's there?" I repeated.

  An instant of silence followed, and then we heard the light fall of thefootsteps again, fainter and fainter--sinking away into thedarkness--sinking, sinking, sinking--till they were lost in the silence.

  We hurried out from the trees to the open lawn beyond, crossed itrapidly; and without another word passing between us, reached the house.

  In the light of the hall-lamp Laura looked at me, with white cheeks andstartled eyes.

  "I am half dead with fear," she said. "Who could it have been?"

  "We will try to guess to-morrow," I replied. "In the meantime saynothing to any one of what we have heard and seen."

  "Why not?"

  "Because silence is safe, and we have need of safety in this house."

  I sent Laura upstairs immediately, waited a minute to take off my hatand put my hair smooth, and then went at once to make my firstinvestigations in the library, on pretence of searching for a book.

  There sat the Count, filling out the largest easy-chair in the house,smoking and reading calmly, with his feet on an ottoman, his cravatacross his knees, and his shirt collar wide open. And there sat MadameFosco, like a quiet child, on a stool by his side, making cigarettes.Neither husband nor wife could, by any possibility, have been out latethat evening, and have just got back to the house in a hurry. I feltthat my object in visiting the library was answered the moment I seteyes on them.

  Count Fosco rose in polite confusion and tied his cravat on when Ientered the room.

  "Pray don't let me disturb you," I said. "I have only come here to geta book."

  "All unfortunate men of my size suffer from the heat," said the Count,refreshing himself gravely with a large green fan. "I wish I couldchange places with my excellent wife. She is as cool at this moment asa fish in the pond outside."

  The Countess allowed herself to thaw under the influence of herhusband's quaint comparison. "I am never warm, Miss Halcombe," sheremarked, with the modest air of a woman who was confessing to one ofher own merits.

  "Have you and Lady Glyde been out this evening?" asked the Count, whileI was taking a book from the shelves to preserve appearances.

  "Yes, we went out to get a little air."

  "May I ask in what direction?"

  "In the direction of the lake--as far as the boat-house."

  "Aha? As far as the boat-house?"

  Under other circumstances I might have resented his curiosity. Butto-night I hailed it as another proof that neither he nor his wife wereconnected with the mysterious appearance at the lake.

  "No more adventures, I suppose, this evening?" he went on. "No morediscoveries, like your discovery of the wounded dog?"

  He fixed his unfathomable grey eyes on me, with that cold, clear,irresistible glitter in them which always forces me to look at him, andalways makes me uneasy while I do look. An unutterable suspicion thathis mind is prying into mine overcomes me at these times, and itovercame me now.

  "No," I said shortly; "no adventures--no discoveries."

  I tried to look away from him and leave the room. Strange as it seems,I hardly think I should have succeeded in the attempt if Madame Foscohad not helped me by causing him to move and look away first.

  "Count, you are keeping Miss Halcombe standing," she said.

  The moment he turned round to get me a chair, I seized myopportunity--thanked him--made my excuses--and slipped out.

  An hour later, when Laura's maid happened to be in her mistress's room,I took occasion to refer to the closeness of the night, with a view toascertaining next how the servants had been passing their time.

  "Have you been suffering much from the heat downstairs?" I asked.

  "No, miss," said the girl, "we have not felt it to speak of."

  "You have been out in the woods then, I suppose?"

  "Some of us thought of going, miss. But cook said she should take herchair into the cool court-yard, outside the kitchen door, and on secondthoughts, all the rest of us took our chairs out there too."

  The housekeeper was now the only person who remained to be accountedfor.

  "Is Mrs. Michelson gone to bed yet?" I inquired.

  "I should think not, miss," said the girl, smiling. "Mrs. Michelson ismore likely to be getting up just now than going to bed."

  "Why? What do you mean? Has Mrs. Michelson been taking to her bed inthe daytime?"

  "No, miss, not exactly, but the next thing to it. She's been asleepall the evening on the sofa in her own room."

  Putting together what I observed for myself in the library, and what Ihave just heard from Laura's maid, one conclusion seems inevitable.The figure we saw at the lake was not the figure of Madame Fosco, ofher husband, or of any of the servants. The footsteps we heard behindus were not the footsteps of any one belonging to the house.

  Who could it have been?

  It seems useless to inquire. I cannot even decide whether the figurewas a man's or a woman's. I can only say that I think it was a woman's.