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The Woman in White, Page 33

Wilkie Collins


  June 19th.--I had only got as far as the top of the stairs when thelocking of Laura's door suggested to me the precaution of also lockingmy own door, and keeping the key safely about me while I was out of theroom. My journal was already secured with other papers in the tabledrawer, but my writing materials were left out. These included a sealbearing the common device of two doves drinking out of the same cup,and some sheets of blotting-paper, which had the impression on them ofthe closing lines of my writing in these pages traced during the pastnight. Distorted by the suspicion which had now become a part ofmyself, even such trifles as these looked too dangerous to be trustedwithout a guard--even the locked table drawer seemed to be notsufficiently protected in my absence until the means of access to ithad been carefully secured as well.

  I found no appearance of any one having entered the room while I hadbeen talking with Laura. My writing materials (which I had given theservant instructions never to meddle with) were scattered over thetable much as usual. The only circumstance in connection with themthat at all struck me was that the seal lay tidily in the tray with thepencils and the wax. It was not in my careless habits (I am sorry tosay) to put it there, neither did I remember putting it there. But asI could not call to mind, on the other hand, where else I had thrown itdown, and as I was also doubtful whether I might not for once have laidit mechanically in the right place, I abstained from adding to theperplexity with which the day's events had filled my mind by troublingit afresh about a trifle. I locked the door, put the key in my pocket,and went downstairs.

  Madame Fosco was alone in the hall looking at the weather-glass.

  "Still falling," she said. "I am afraid we must expect more rain."

  Her face was composed again to its customary expression and itscustomary colour. But the hand with which she pointed to the dial ofthe weather-glass still trembled.

  Could she have told her husband already that she had overheard Laurareviling him, in my company, as a "spy?" My strong suspicion that shemust have told him, my irresistible dread (all the more overpoweringfrom its very vagueness) of the consequences which might follow, myfixed conviction, derived from various little self-betrayals whichwomen notice in each other, that Madame Fosco, in spite of herwell-assumed external civility, had not forgiven her niece forinnocently standing between her and the legacy of ten thousandpounds--all rushed upon my mind together, all impelled me to speak inthe vain hope of using my own influence and my own powers of persuasionfor the atonement of Laura's offence.

  "May I trust to your kindness to excuse me, Madame Fosco, if I ventureto speak to you on an exceedingly painful subject?"

  She crossed her hands in front of her and bowed her head solemnly,without uttering a word, and without taking her eyes off mine for amoment.

  "When you were so good as to bring me back my handkerchief," I went on,"I am very, very much afraid you must have accidentally heard Laura saysomething which I am unwilling to repeat, and which I will not attemptto defend. I will only venture to hope that you have not thought it ofsufficient importance to be mentioned to the Count?"

  "I think it of no importance whatever," said Madame Fosco sharply andsuddenly. "But," she added, resuming her icy manner in a moment, "Ihave no secrets from my husband even in trifles. When he noticed justnow that I looked distressed, it was my painful duty to tell him why Iwas distressed, and I frankly acknowledge to you, Miss Halcombe, that IHAVE told him."

  I was prepared to hear it, and yet she turned me cold all over when shesaid those words.

  "Let me earnestly entreat you, Madame Fosco--let me earnestly entreatthe Count--to make some allowances for the sad position in which mysister is placed. She spoke while she was smarting under the insultand injustice inflicted on her by her husband, and she was not herselfwhen she said those rash words. May I hope that they will beconsiderately and generously forgiven?"

  "Most assuredly," said the Count's quiet voice behind me. He hadstolen on us with his noiseless tread and his book in his hand from thelibrary.

  "When Lady Glyde said those hasty words," he went on, "she did me aninjustice which I lament--and forgive. Let us never return to thesubject, Miss Halcombe; let us all comfortably combine to forget itfrom this moment."

  "You are very kind," I said, "you relieve me inexpressibly."

  I tried to continue, but his eyes were on me; his deadly smile thathides everything was set, hard, and unwavering on his broad, smoothface. My distrust of his unfathomable falseness, my sense of my owndegradation in stooping to conciliate his wife and himself, sodisturbed and confused me, that the next words failed on my lips, and Istood there in silence.

  "I beg you on my knees to say no more, Miss Halcombe--I am trulyshocked that you should have thought it necessary to say so much." Withthat polite speech he took my hand--oh, how I despise myself! oh, howlittle comfort there is even in knowing that I submitted to it forLaura's sake!--he took my hand and put it to his poisonous lips. Neverdid I know all my horror of him till then. That innocent familiarityturned my blood as if it had been the vilest insult that a man couldoffer me. Yet I hid my disgust from him--I tried to smile--I, who oncemercilessly despised deceit in other women, was as false as the worstof them, as false as the Judas whose lips had touched my hand.

  I could not have maintained my degrading self-control--it is all thatredeems me in my own estimation to know that I could not--if he hadstill continued to keep his eyes on my face. His wife's tigerishjealousy came to my rescue and forced his attention away from me themoment he possessed himself of my hand. Her cold blue eyes caughtlight, her dull white cheeks flushed into bright colour, she lookedyears younger than her age in an instant.

  "Count!" she said. "Your foreign forms of politeness are notunderstood by Englishwomen."

  "Pardon me, my angel! The best and dearest Englishwoman in the worldunderstands them." With those words he dropped my hand and quietlyraised his wife's hand to his lips in place of it.

  I ran back up the stairs to take refuge in my own room. If there hadbeen time to think, my thoughts, when I was alone again, would havecaused me bitter suffering. But there was no time to think. Happilyfor the preservation of my calmness and my courage there was time fornothing but action.

  The letters to the lawyer and to Mr. Fairlie were still to be written,and I sat down at once without a moment's hesitation to devote myselfto them.

  There was no multitude of resources to perplex me--there was absolutelyno one to depend on, in the first instance, but myself. Sir Percivalhad neither friends nor relatives in the neighbourhood whoseintercession I could attempt to employ. He was on the coldestterms--in some cases on the worst terms with the families of his ownrank and station who lived near him. We two women had neither fathernor brother to come to the house and take our parts. There was nochoice but to write those two doubtful letters, or to put Laura in thewrong and myself in the wrong, and to make all peaceable negotiation inthe future impossible by secretly escaping from Blackwater Park.Nothing but the most imminent personal peril could justify our takingthat second course. The letters must be tried first, and I wrote them.

  I said nothing to the lawyer about Anne Catherick, because (as I hadalready hinted to Laura) that topic was connected with a mystery whichwe could not yet explain, and which it would therefore be useless towrite about to a professional man. I left my correspondent toattribute Sir Percival's disgraceful conduct, if he pleased, to freshdisputes about money matters, and simply consulted him on thepossibility of taking legal proceedings for Laura's protection in theevent of her husband's refusal to allow her to leave Blackwater Parkfor a time and return with me to Limmeridge. I referred him to Mr.Fairlie for the details of this last arrangement--I assured him that Iwrote with Laura's authority--and I ended by entreating him to act inher name to the utmost extent of his power and with the least possibleloss of time.

  The letter to Mr. Fairlie occupied me next. I appealed to him on theterms which I had mentioned to Laura as
the most likely to make himbestir himself; I enclosed a copy of my letter to the lawyer to showhim how serious the case was, and I represented our removal toLimmeridge as the only compromise which would prevent the danger anddistress of Laura's present position from inevitably affecting heruncle as well as herself at no very distant time.

  When I had done, and had sealed and directed the two envelopes, I wentback with the letters to Laura's room, to show her that they werewritten.

  "Has anybody disturbed you?" I asked, when she opened the door to me.

  "Nobody has knocked," she replied. "But I heard some one in the outerroom."

  "Was it a man or a woman?"

  "A woman. I heard the rustling of her gown."

  "A rustling like silk?"

  "Yes, like silk."

  Madame Fosco had evidently been watching outside. The mischief shemight do by herself was little to be feared. But the mischief shemight do, as a willing instrument in her husband's hands, was tooformidable to be overlooked.

  "What became of the rustling of the gown when you no longer heard it inthe ante-room?" I inquired. "Did you hear it go past your wall, alongthe passage?"

  "Yes. I kept still and listened, and just heard it."

  "Which way did it go?"

  "Towards your room."

  I considered again. The sound had not caught my ears. But I was thendeeply absorbed in my letters, and I write with a heavy hand and aquill pen, scraping and scratching noisily over the paper. It was morelikely that Madame Fosco would hear the scraping of my pen than that Ishould hear the rustling of her dress. Another reason (if I had wantedone) for not trusting my letters to the post-bag in the hall.

  Laura saw me thinking. "More difficulties!" she said wearily; "moredifficulties and more dangers!"

  "No dangers," I replied. "Some little difficulty, perhaps. I amthinking of the safest way of putting my two letters into Fanny'shands."

  "You have really written them, then? Oh, Marian, run no risks--pray,pray run no risks!"

  "No, no--no fear. Let me see--what o'clock is it now?"

  It was a quarter to six. There would be time for me to get to thevillage inn, and to come back again before dinner. If I waited tillthe evening I might find no second opportunity of safely leaving thehouse.

  "Keep the key turned in the lock. Laura," I said, "and don't be afraidabout me. If you hear any inquiries made, call through the door, andsay that I am gone out for a walk."

  "When shall you be back?"

  "Before dinner, without fail. Courage, my love. By this time to-morrowyou will have a clear-headed, trustworthy man acting for yourgood. Mr. Gilmore's partner is our next best friend to Mr. Gilmorehimself."

  A moment's reflection, as soon as I was alone, convinced me that I hadbetter not appear in my walking-dress until I had first discovered whatwas going on in the lower part of the house. I had not ascertained yetwhether Sir Percival was indoors or out.

  The singing of the canaries in the library, and the smell oftobacco-smoke that came through the door, which was not closed, told meat once where the Count was. I looked over my shoulder as I passed thedoorway, and saw to my surprise that he was exhibiting the docility ofthe birds in his most engagingly polite manner to the housekeeper. Hemust have specially invited her to see them--for she would never havethought of going into the library of her own accord. The man'sslightest actions had a purpose of some kind at the bottom of every oneof them. What could be his purpose here?

  It was no time then to inquire into his motives. I looked about forMadame Fosco next, and found her following her favourite circle roundand round the fish-pond.

  I was a little doubtful how she would meet me, after the outbreak ofjealousy of which I had been the cause so short a time since. But herhusband had tamed her in the interval, and she now spoke to me with thesame civility as usual. My only object in addressing myself to her wasto ascertain if she knew what had become of Sir Percival. I contrivedto refer to him indirectly, and after a little fencing on either sideshe at last mentioned that he had gone out.

  "Which of the horses has he taken?" I asked carelessly.

  "None of them," she replied. "He went away two hours since on foot.As I understood it, his object was to make fresh inquiries about thewoman named Anne Catherick. He appears to be unreasonably anxiousabout tracing her. Do you happen to know if she is dangerously mad,Miss Halcombe?"

  "I do not, Countess."

  "Are you going in?"

  "Yes, I think so. I suppose it will soon be time to dress for dinner."

  We entered the house together. Madame Fosco strolled into the library,and closed the door. I went at once to fetch my hat and shawl. Everymoment was of importance, if I was to get to Fanny at the inn and beback before dinner.

  When I crossed the hall again no one was there, and the singing of thebirds in the library had ceased. I could not stop to make any freshinvestigations. I could only assure myself that the way was clear, andthen leave the house with the two letters safe in my pocket.

  On my way to the village I prepared myself for the possibility ofmeeting Sir Percival. As long as I had him to deal with alone I feltcertain of not losing my presence of mind. Any woman who is sure ofher own wits is a match at any time for a man who is not sure of hisown temper. I had no such fear of Sir Percival as I had of the Count.Instead of fluttering, it had composed me, to hear of the errand onwhich he had gone out. While the tracing of Anne Catherick was thegreat anxiety that occupied him, Laura and I might hope for somecessation of any active persecution at his hands. For our sakes now,as well as for Anne's, I hoped and prayed fervently that she mightstill escape him.

  I walked on as briskly as the heat would let me till I reached thecross-road which led to the village, looking back from time to time tomake sure that I was not followed by any one.

  Nothing was behind me all the way but an empty country waggon. Thenoise made by the lumbering wheels annoyed me, and when I found thatthe waggon took the road to the village, as well as myself, I stoppedto let it go by and pass out of hearing. As I looked toward it, moreattentively than before, I thought I detected at intervals the feet ofa man walking close behind it, the carter being in front, by the sideof his horses. The part of the cross-road which I had just passed overwas so narrow that the waggon coming after me brushed the trees andthickets on either side, and I had to wait until it went by before Icould test the correctness of my impression. Apparently thatimpression was wrong, for when the waggon had passed me the road behindit was quite clear.

  I reached the inn without meeting Sir Percival, and without noticinganything more, and was glad to find that the landlady had receivedFanny with all possible kindness. The girl had a little parlour to sitin, away from the noise of the taproom, and a clean bedchamber at thetop of the house. She began crying again at the sight of me, and said,poor soul, truly enough, that it was dreadful to feel herself turnedout into the world as if she had committed some unpardonable fault,when no blame could be laid at her door by anybody--not even by hermaster, who had sent her away.

  "Try to make the best of it, Fanny," I said. "Your mistress and I willstand your friends, and will take care that your character shall notsuffer. Now, listen to me. I have very little time to spare, and I amgoing to put a great trust in your hands. I wish you to take care ofthese two letters. The one with the stamp on it you are to put intothe post when you reach London to-morrow. The other, directed to Mr.Fairlie, you are to deliver to him yourself as soon as you get home.Keep both the letters about you and give them up to no one. They areof the last importance to your mistress's interests."

  Fanny put the letters into the bosom of her dress. "There they shallstop, miss," she said, "till I have done what you tell me."

  "Mind you are at the station in good time to-morrow morning," Icontinued. "And when you see the housekeeper at Limmeridge give her mycompliments, and say that you are in my service until Lady Glyde isable to take you back. We may meet again so
oner than you think. Sokeep a good heart, and don't miss the seven o'clock train."

  "Thank you, miss--thank you kindly. It gives one courage to hear yourvoice again. Please to offer my duty to my lady, and say I left allthe things as tidy as I could in the time. Oh, dear! dear! who willdress her for dinner to-day? It really breaks my heart, miss, to thinkof it."

  When I got back to the house I had only a quarter of an hour to spareto put myself in order for dinner, and to say two words to Laura beforeI went downstairs.

  "The letters are in Fanny's hands," I whispered to her at the door."Do you mean to join us at dinner?"

  "Oh, no, no--not for the world."

  "Has anything happened? Has any one disturbed you?"

  "Yes--just now--Sir Percival----"

  "Did he come in?"

  "No, he frightened me by a thump on the door outside. I said, 'Who'sthere?' 'You know,' he answered. 'Will you alter your mind, and tellme the rest? You shall! Sooner or later I'll wring it out of you. Youknow where Anne Catherick is at this moment.' 'Indeed, indeed,' I said,'I don't.' 'You do!' he called back. 'I'll crush your obstinacy--mindthat!--I'll wring it out of you!' He went away with those words--wentaway, Marian, hardly five minutes ago."

  He had not found Anne! We were safe for that night--he had not foundher yet.

  "You are going downstairs, Marian? Come up again in the evening."

  "Yes, yes. Don't be uneasy if I am a little late--I must be carefulnot to give offence by leaving them too soon."

  The dinner-bell rang and I hastened away.

  Sir Percival took Madame Fosco into the dining-room, and the Count gaveme his arm. He was hot and flushed, and was not dressed with hiscustomary care and completeness. Had he, too, been out before dinner,and been late in getting back? or was he only suffering from the heat alittle more severely than usual?

  However this might be, he was unquestionably troubled by some secretannoyance or anxiety, which, with all his powers of deception, he wasnot able entirely to conceal. Through the whole of dinner he wasalmost as silent as Sir Percival himself, and he, every now and then,looked at his wife with an expression of furtive uneasiness which wasquite new in my experience of him. The one social obligation which heseemed to be self-possessed enough to perform as carefully as ever wasthe obligation of being persistently civil and attentive to me. Whatvile object he has in view I cannot still discover, but be the designwhat it may, invariable politeness towards myself, invariable humilitytowards Laura, and invariable suppression (at any cost) of SirPercival's clumsy violence, have been the means he has resolutely andimpenetrably used to get to his end ever since he set foot in thishouse. I suspected it when he first interfered in our favour, on theday when the deed was produced in the library, and I feel certain of itnow.

  When Madame Fosco and I rose to leave the table, the Count rose also toaccompany us back to the drawing-room.

  "What are you going away for?" asked Sir Percival--"I mean YOU, Fosco."

  "I am going away because I have had dinner enough, and wine enough,"answered the Count. "Be so kind, Percival, as to make allowances formy foreign habit of going out with the ladies, as well as coming inwith them."

  "Nonsense! Another glass of claret won't hurt you. Sit down again likean Englishman. I want half an hour's quiet talk with you over ourwine."

  "A quiet talk, Percival, with all my heart, but not now, and not overthe wine. Later in the evening, if you please--later in the evening."

  "Civil!" said Sir Percival savagely. "Civil behaviour, upon my soul,to a man in his own house!"

  I had more than once seen him look at the Count uneasily duringdinner-time, and had observed that the Count carefully abstained fromlooking at him in return. This circumstance, coupled with the host'sanxiety for a little quiet talk over the wine, and the guest'sobstinate resolution not to sit down again at the table, revived in mymemory the request which Sir Percival had vainly addressed to hisfriend earlier in the day to come out of the library and speak to him.The Count had deferred granting that private interview, when it wasfirst asked for in the afternoon, and had again deferred granting it,when it was a second time asked for at the dinner-table. Whatever thecoming subject of discussion between them might be, it was clearly animportant subject in Sir Percival's estimation--and perhaps (judgingfrom his evident reluctance to approach it) a dangerous subject aswell, in the estimation of the Count.

  These considerations occurred to me while we were passing from thedining-room to the drawing-room. Sir Percival's angry commentary onhis friend's desertion of him had not produced the slightest effect.The Count obstinately accompanied us to the tea-table--waited a minuteor two in the room--went out into the hall--and returned with thepost-bag in his hands. It was then eight o'clock--the hour at whichthe letters were always despatched from Blackwater Park.

  "Have you any letter for the post, Miss Halcombe?" he asked,approaching me with the bag.

  I saw Madame Fosco, who was making the tea, pause, with the sugar-tongsin her hand, to listen for my answer.

  "No, Count, thank you. No letters to-day."

  He gave the bag to the servant, who was then in the room; sat down atthe piano, and played the air of the lively Neapolitan street-song,"La mia Carolina," twice over. His wife, who was usually the mostdeliberate of women in all her movements, made the tea as quickly as Icould have made it myself--finished her own cup in two minutes, andquietly glided out of the room.

  I rose to follow her example--partly because I suspected her ofattempting some treachery upstairs with Laura, partly because I wasresolved not to remain alone in the same room with her husband.

  Before I could get to the door the Count stopped me, by a request for acup of tea. I gave him the cup of tea, and tried a second time to getaway. He stopped me again--this time by going back to the piano, andsuddenly appealing to me on a musical question in which he declaredthat the honour of his country was concerned.

  I vainly pleaded my own total ignorance of music, and total want oftaste in that direction. He only appealed to me again with a vehemencewhich set all further protest on my part at defiance. "The English andthe Germans (he indignantly declared) were always reviling the Italiansfor their inability to cultivate the higher kinds of music. We wereperpetually talking of our Oratorios, and they were perpetually talkingof their Symphonies. Did we forget and did they forget his immortalfriend and countryman, Rossini? What was Moses in Egypt but a sublimeoratorio, which was acted on the stage instead of being coldly sung ina concert-room? What was the overture to Guillaume Tell but a symphonyunder another name? Had I heard Moses in Egypt? Would I listen to this,and this, and this, and say if anything more sublimely sacred and grandhad ever been composed by mortal man?"--And without waiting for a wordof assent or dissent on my part, looking me hard in the face all thetime, he began thundering on the piano, and singing to it with loud andlofty enthusiasm--only interrupting himself, at intervals, to announceto me fiercely the titles of the different pieces of music: "Chorus ofEgyptians in the Plague of Darkness, Miss Halcombe!"--"Recitativo ofMoses with the tables of the Law."--"Prayer of Israelites, at thepassage of the Red Sea. Aha! Aha! Is that sacred? is that sublime?"The piano trembled under his powerful hands, and the teacups on thetable rattled, as his big bass voice thundered out the notes, and hisheavy foot beat time on the floor.

  There was something horrible--something fierce and devilish--in theoutburst of his delight at his own singing and playing, and in thetriumph with which he watched its effect upon me as I shrank nearer andnearer to the door. I was released at last, not by my own efforts, butby Sir Percival's interposition. He opened the dining-room door, andcalled out angrily to know what "that infernal noise" meant. The Countinstantly got up from the piano. "Ah! if Percival is coming," he said,"harmony and melody are both at an end. The Muse of Music, MissHalcombe, deserts us in dismay, and I, the fat old minstrel, exhale therest of my enthusiasm in the open air!" He stalked out into theverandah, put his hands in his pockets,
and resumed the Recitativo ofMoses, sotto voce, in the garden.

  I heard Sir Percival call after him from the dining-room window. But hetook no notice--he seemed determined not to hear. That long-deferredquiet talk between them was still to be put off, was still to wait forthe Count's absolute will and pleasure.

  He had detained me in the drawing-room nearly half an hour from thetime when his wife left us. Where had she been, and what had she beendoing in that interval?

  I went upstairs to ascertain, but I made no discoveries, and when Iquestioned Laura, I found that she had not heard anything. Nobody haddisturbed her, no faint rustling of the silk dress had been audible,either in the ante-room or in the passage.

  It was then twenty minutes to nine. After going to my room to get myjournal, I returned, and sat with Laura, sometimes writing, sometimesstopping to talk with her. Nobody came near us, and nothing happened.We remained together till ten o'clock. I then rose, said my lastcheering words, and wished her good-night. She locked her door againafter we had arranged that I should come in and see her the first thingin the morning.

  I had a few sentences more to add to my diary before going to bedmyself, and as I went down again to the drawing-room after leavingLaura for the last time that weary day, I resolved merely to showmyself there, to make my excuses, and then to retire an hour earlierthan usual for the night.

  Sir Percival, and the Count and his wife, were sitting together. SirPercival was yawning in an easy-chair, the Count was reading, MadameFosco was fanning herself. Strange to say, HER face was flushed now.She, who never suffered from the heat, was most undoubtedly sufferingfrom it to-night.

  "I am afraid, Countess, you are not quite so well as usual?" I said.

  "The very remark I was about to make to you," she replied. "You arelooking pale, my dear."

  My dear! It was the first time she had ever addressed me with thatfamiliarity! There was an insolent smile too on her face when she saidthe words.

  "I am suffering from one of my bad headaches," I answered coldly.

  "Ah, indeed? Want of exercise, I suppose? A walk before dinner wouldhave been just the thing for you." She referred to the "walk" with astrange emphasis. Had she seen me go out? No matter if she had. Theletters were safe now in Fanny's hands.

  "Come and have a smoke, Fosco," said Sir Percival, rising, with anotheruneasy look at his friend.

  "With pleasure, Percival, when the ladies have gone to bed," repliedthe Count.

  "Excuse me, Countess, if I set you the example of retiring," I said."The only remedy for such a headache as mine is going to bed."

  I took my leave. There was the same insolent smile on the woman's facewhen I shook hands with her. Sir Percival paid no attention to me. Hewas looking impatiently at Madame Fosco, who showed no signs of leavingthe room with me. The Count smiled to himself behind his book. Therewas yet another delay to that quiet talk with Sir Percival--and theCountess was the impediment this time.