The Woman in White, Page 34Wilkie Collins
June 19th.--Once safely shut into my own room, I opened these pages,and prepared to go on with that part of the day's record which wasstill left to write.
For ten minutes or more I sat idle, with the pen in my hand, thinkingover the events of the last twelve hours. When I at last addressedmyself to my task, I found a difficulty in proceeding with it which Ihad never experienced before. In spite of my efforts to fix mythoughts on the matter in hand, they wandered away with the strangestpersistency in the one direction of Sir Percival and the Count, and allthe interest which I tried to concentrate on my journal centred insteadin that private interview between them which had been put off allthrough the day, and which was now to take place in the silence andsolitude of the night.
In this perverse state of my mind, the recollection of what had passedsince the morning would not come back to me, and there was no resourcebut to close my journal and to get away from it for a little while.
I opened the door which led from my bedroom into my sitting-room, andhaving passed through, pulled it to again, to prevent any accident incase of draught with the candle left on the dressing-table. Mysitting-room window was wide open, and I leaned out listlessly to lookat the night.
It was dark and quiet. Neither moon nor stars were visible. There wasa smell like rain in the still, heavy air, and I put my hand out ofwindow. No. The rain was only threatening, it had not come yet.
I remained leaning on the window-sill for nearly a quarter of an hour,looking out absently into the black darkness, and hearing nothing,except now and then the voices of the servants, or the distant sound ofa closing door, in the lower part of the house.
Just as I was turning away wearily from the window to go back to thebedroom and make a second attempt to complete the unfinished entry inmy journal, I smelt the odour of tobacco-smoke stealing towards me onthe heavy night air. The next moment I saw a tiny red spark advancingfrom the farther end of the house in the pitch darkness. I heard nofootsteps, and I could see nothing but the spark. It travelled alongin the night, passed the window at which I was standing, and stoppedopposite my bedroom window, inside which I had left the light burningon the dressing-table.
The spark remained stationary for a moment, then moved back again inthe direction from which it had advanced. As I followed its progress Isaw a second red spark, larger than the first, approaching from thedistance. The two met together in the darkness. Remembering whosmoked cigarettes and who smoked cigars, I inferred immediately thatthe Count had come out first to look and listen under my window, andthat Sir Percival had afterwards joined him. They must both have beenwalking on the lawn--or I should certainly have heard Sir Percival'sheavy footfall, though the Count's soft step might have escaped me,even on the gravel walk.
I waited quietly at the window, certain that they could neither of themsee me in the darkness of the room.
"What's the matter?" I heard Sir Percival say in a low voice. "Whydon't you come in and sit down?"
"I want to see the light out of that window," replied the Count softly.
"What harm does the light do?"
"It shows she is not in bed yet. She is sharp enough to suspectsomething, and bold enough to come downstairs and listen, if she canget the chance. Patience, Percival--patience."
"Humbug! You're always talking of patience."
"I shall talk of something else presently. My good friend, you are onthe edge of your domestic precipice, and if I let you give the womenone other chance, on my sacred word of honour they will push you overit!"
"What the devil do you mean?"
"We will come to our explanations, Percival, when the light is out ofthat window, and when I have had one little look at the rooms on eachside of the library, and a peep at the staircase as well."
They slowly moved away, and the rest of the conversation between them(which had been conducted throughout in the same low tones) ceased tobe audible. It was no matter. I had heard enough to determine me onjustifying the Count's opinion of my sharpness and my courage. Beforethe red sparks were out of sight in the darkness I had made up my mindthat there should be a listener when those two men sat down to theirtalk--and that the listener, in spite of all the Count's precautions tothe contrary, should be myself. I wanted but one motive to sanctionthe act to my own conscience, and to give me courage enough forperforming it--and that motive I had. Laura's honour, Laura'shappiness--Laura's life itself--might depend on my quick ears and myfaithful memory to-night.
I had heard the Count say that he meant to examine the rooms on eachside of the library, and the staircase as well, before he entered onany explanation with Sir Percival. This expression of his intentionswas necessarily sufficient to inform me that the library was the roomin which he proposed that the conversation should take place. The onemoment of time which was long enough to bring me to that conclusion wasalso the moment which showed me a means of baffling hisprecautions--or, in other words, of hearing what he and Sir Percivalsaid to each other, without the risk of descending at all into thelower regions of the house.
In speaking of the rooms on the ground floor I have mentionedincidentally the verandah outside them, on which they all opened bymeans of French windows, extending from the cornice to the floor. Thetop of this verandah was flat, the rain-water being carried off from itby pipes into tanks which helped to supply the house. On the narrowleaden roof, which ran along past the bedrooms, and which was ratherless, I should think, than three feet below the sills of the window, arow of flower-pots was ranged, with wide intervals between eachpot--the whole being protected from falling in high winds by anornamental iron railing along the edge of the roof.
The plan which had now occurred to me was to get out at my sitting-roomwindow on to this roof, to creep along noiselessly till I reached thatpart of it which was immediately over the library window, and to crouchdown between the flower-pots, with my ear against the outer railing.If Sir Percival and the Count sat and smoked to-night, as I had seenthem sitting and smoking many nights before, with their chairs close atthe open window, and their feet stretched on the zinc garden seatswhich were placed under the verandah, every word they said to eachother above a whisper (and no long conversation, as we all know byexperience, can be carried on IN a whisper) must inevitably reach myears. If, on the other hand, they chose to-night to sit far backinside the room, then the chances were that I should hear little ornothing--and in that case, I must run the far more serious risk oftrying to outwit them downstairs.
Strongly as I was fortified in my resolution by the desperate nature ofour situation, I hoped most fervently that I might escape this lastemergency. My courage was only a woman's courage after all, and it wasvery near to failing me when I thought of trusting myself on the groundfloor, at the dead of night, within reach of Sir Percival and the Count.
I went softly back to my bedroom to try the safer experiment of theverandah roof first.
A complete change in my dress was imperatively necessary for manyreasons. I took off my silk gown to begin with, because the slightestnoise from it on that still night might have betrayed me. I nextremoved the white and cumbersome parts of my underclothing, andreplaced them by a petticoat of dark flannel. Over this I put my blacktravelling cloak, and pulled the hood on to my head. In my ordinaryevening costume I took up the room of three men at least. In mypresent dress, when it was held close about me, no man could havepassed through the narrowest spaces more easily than I. The littlebreadth left on the roof of the verandah, between the flower-pots onone side and the wall and the windows of the house on the other, madethis a serious consideration. If I knocked anything down, if I madethe least noise, who could say what the consequences might be?
I only waited to put the matches near the candle before I extinguishedit, and groped my way back into the sitting-room, I locked that door,as I had locked my bedroom door--then quietly got out of the window,and cautiously set my feet on the leaden roof of the verandah.
My two ro
oms were at the inner extremity of the new wing of the housein which we all lived, and I had five windows to pass before I couldreach the position it was necessary to take up immediately over thelibrary. The first window belonged to a spare room which was empty.The second and third windows belonged to Laura's room. The fourthwindow belonged to Sir Percival's room. The fifth belonged to theCountess's room. The others, by which it was not necessary for me topass, were the windows of the Count's dressing-room, of the bathroom,and of the second empty spare room.
No sound reached my ears--the black blinding darkness of the night wasall round me when I first stood on the verandah, except at that part ofit which Madame Fosco's window overlooked. There, at the very placeabove the library to which my course was directed--there I saw a gleamof light! The Countess was not yet in bed.
It was too late to draw back--it was no time to wait. I determined togo on at all hazards, and trust for security to my own caution and tothe darkness of the night. "For Laura's sake!" I thought to myself, asI took the first step forward on the roof, with one hand holding mycloak close round me, and the other groping against the wall of thehouse. It was better to brush close by the wall than to risk strikingmy feet against the flower-pots within a few inches of me, on the otherside.
I passed the dark window of the spare room, trying the leaden roof ateach step with my foot before I risked resting my weight on it. Ipassed the dark windows of Laura's room ("God bless her and keep herto-night!"). I passed the dark window of Sir Percival's room. Then Iwaited a moment, knelt down with my hands to support me, and so creptto my position, under the protection of the low wall between the bottomof the lighted window and the verandah roof.
When I ventured to look up at the window itself I found that the top ofit only was open, and that the blind inside was drawn down. While I waslooking I saw the shadow of Madame Fosco pass across the white field ofthe blind--then pass slowly back again. Thus far she could not haveheard me, or the shadow would surely have stopped at the blind, even ifshe had wanted courage enough to open the window and look out?
I placed myself sideways against the railing of the verandah--firstascertaining, by touching them, the position of the flower-pots oneither side of me. There was room enough for me to sit between themand no more. The sweet-scented leaves of the flower on my left handjust brushed my cheek as I lightly rested my head against the railing.
The first sounds that reached me from below were caused by the openingor closing (most probably the latter) of three doors in succession--thedoors, no doubt, leading into the hall and into the rooms on each sideof the library, which the Count had pledged himself to examine. Thefirst object that I saw was the red spark again travelling out into thenight from under the verandah, moving away towards my window, waiting amoment, and then returning to the place from which it had set out.
"The devil take your restlessness! When do you mean to sit down?"growled Sir Percival's voice beneath me.
"Ouf! how hot it is!" said the Count, sighing and puffing wearily.
His exclamation was followed by the scraping of the garden chairs onthe tiled pavement under the verandah--the welcome sound which told methey were going to sit close at the window as usual. So far the chancewas mine. The clock in the turret struck the quarter to twelve as theysettled themselves in their chairs. I heard Madame Fosco through theopen window yawning, and saw her shadow pass once more across the whitefield of the blind.
Meanwhile, Sir Percival and the Count began talking together below, nowand then dropping their voices a little lower than usual, but neversinking them to a whisper. The strangeness and peril of my situation,the dread, which I could not master, of Madame Fosco's lighted window,made it difficult, almost impossible, for me, at first, to keep mypresence of mind, and to fix my attention solely on the conversationbeneath. For some minutes I could only succeed in gathering thegeneral substance of it. I understood the Count to say that the onewindow alight was his wife's, that the ground floor of the house wasquite clear, and that they might now speak to each other without fearof accidents. Sir Percival merely answered by upbraiding his friendwith having unjustifiably slighted his wishes and neglected hisinterests all through the day. The Count thereupon defended himself bydeclaring that he had been beset by certain troubles and anxietieswhich had absorbed all his attention, and that the only safe time tocome to an explanation was a time when they could feel certain of beingneither interrupted nor overheard. "We are at a serious crisis in ouraffairs, Percival," he said, "and if we are to decide on the future atall, we must decide secretly to-night."
That sentence of the Count's was the first which my attention was readyenough to master exactly as it was spoken. From this point, withcertain breaks and interruptions, my whole interest fixed breathlesslyon the conversation, and I followed it word for word.
"Crisis?" repeated Sir Percival. "It's a worse crisis than you thinkfor, I can tell you."
"So I should suppose, from your behaviour for the last day or two,"returned the other coolly. "But wait a little. Before we advance towhat I do NOT know, let us be quite certain of what I DO know. Let usfirst see if I am right about the time that is past, before I make anyproposal to you for the time that is to come."
"Stop till I get the brandy and water. Have some yourself."
"Thank you, Percival. The cold water with pleasure, a spoon, and thebasin of sugar. Eau sucree, my friend--nothing more."
"Sugar-and-water for a man of your age!--There! mix your sickly mess.You foreigners are all alike."
"Now listen, Percival. I will put our position plainly before you, asI understand it, and you shall say if I am right or wrong. You and Iboth came back to this house from the Continent with our affairs veryseriously embarrassed--"
"Cut it short! I wanted some thousands and you some hundreds, andwithout the money we were both in a fair way to go to the dogstogether. There's the situation. Make what you can of it. Go on."
"Well, Percival, in your own solid English words, you wanted somethousands and I wanted some hundreds, and the only way of getting themwas for you to raise the money for your own necessity (with a smallmargin beyond for my poor little hundreds) by the help of your wife.What did I tell you about your wife on our way to England?--and whatdid I tell you again when we had come here, and when I had seen formyself the sort of woman Miss Halcombe was?"
"How should I know? You talked nineteen to the dozen, I suppose, justas usual."
"I said this: Human ingenuity, my friend, has hitherto only discoveredtwo ways in which a man can manage a woman. One way is to knock herdown--a method largely adopted by the brutal lower orders of thepeople, but utterly abhorrent to the refined and educated classes abovethem. The other way (much longer, much more difficult, but in the endnot less certain) is never to accept a provocation at a woman's hands.It holds with animals, it holds with children, and it holds with women,who are nothing but children grown up. Quiet resolution is the onequality the animals, the children, and the women all fail in. If theycan once shake this superior quality in their master, they get thebetter of HIM. If they can never succeed in disturbing it, he gets thebetter of THEM. I said to you, Remember that plain truth when you wantyour wife to help you to the money. I said, Remember it doubly andtrebly in the presence of your wife's sister, Miss Halcombe. Have youremembered it? Not once in all the implications that have twistedthemselves about us in this house. Every provocation that your wifeand her sister could offer to you, you instantly accepted from them.Your mad temper lost the signature to the deed, lost the ready money,set Miss Halcombe writing to the lawyer for the first time."
"First time! Has she written again?"
"Yes, she has written again to-day."
A chair fell on the pavement of the verandah--fell with a crash, as ifit had been kicked down.
It was well for me that the Count's revelation roused Sir Percival'sanger as it did. On hearing that I had been once more discovered Istarted so that the railing against which I lea
ned cracked again. Hadhe followed me to the inn? Did he infer that I must have given myletters to Fanny when I told him I had none for the post-bag. Even ifit was so, how could he have examined the letters when they had gonestraight from my hand to the bosom of the girl's dress?
"Thank your lucky star," I heard the Count say next, "that you have mein the house to undo the harm as fast as you do it. Thank your luckystar that I said No when you were mad enough to talk of turning the keyto-day on Miss Halcombe, as you turned it in your mischievous folly onyour wife. Where are your eyes? Can you look at Miss Halcombe and notsee that she has the foresight and the resolution of a man? With thatwoman for my friend I would snap these fingers of mine at the world.With that woman for my enemy, I, with all my brains and experience--I,Fosco, cunning as the devil himself, as you have told me a hundredtimes--I walk, in your English phrase, upon egg-shells! And this grandcreature--I drink her health in my sugar-and-water--this grandcreature, who stands in the strength of her love and her courage, firmas a rock, between us two and that poor, flimsy, pretty blonde wife ofyours--this magnificent woman, whom I admire with all my soul, though Ioppose her in your interests and in mine, you drive to extremities asif she was no sharper and no bolder than the rest of her sex.Percival! Percival! you deserve to fail, and you HAVE failed."
There was a pause. I write the villain's words about myself because Imean to remember them--because I hope yet for the day when I may speakout once for all in his presence, and cast them back one by one in histeeth.
Sir Percival was the first to break the silence again.
"Yes, yes, bully and bluster as much as you like," he said sulkily;"the difficulty about the money is not the only difficulty. You wouldbe for taking strong measures with the women yourself--if you knew asmuch as I do."
"We will come to that second difficulty all in good time," rejoined theCount. "You may confuse yourself, Percival, as much as you please, butyou shall not confuse me. Let the question of the money be settledfirst. Have I convinced your obstinacy? have I shown you that yourtemper will not let you help yourself?--Or must I go back, and (as youput it in your dear straightforward English) bully and bluster a littlemore?"
"Pooh! It's easy enough to grumble at ME. Say what is to be done--that'sa little harder."
"Is it? Bah! This is what is to be done: You give up all direction inthe business from to-night--you leave it for the future in my handsonly. I am talking to a Practical British man--ha? Well, Practical,will that do for you?"
"What do you propose if I leave it all to you?"
"Answer me first. Is it to be in my hands or not?"
"Say it is in your hands--what then?"
"A few questions, Percival, to begin with. I must wait a little yet,to let circumstances guide me, and I must know, in every possible way,what those circumstances are likely to be. There is no time to lose.I have told you already that Miss Halcombe has written to the lawyerto-day for the second time."
"How did you find it out? What did she say?"
"If I told you, Percival, we should only come back at the end to wherewe are now. Enough that I have found it out--and the finding hascaused that trouble and anxiety which made me so inaccessible to youall through to-day. Now, to refresh my memory about your affairs--itis some time since I talked them over with you. The money has beenraised, in the absence of your wife's signature, by means of bills atthree months--raised at a cost that makes my poverty-stricken foreignhair stand on end to think of it! When the bills are due, is therereally and truly no earthly way of paying them but by the help of yourwife?"
"What! You have no money at the bankers?"
"A few hundreds, when I want as many thousands."
"Have you no other security to borrow upon?"
"Not a shred."
"What have you actually got with your wife at the present moment?"
"Nothing but the interest of her twenty thousand pounds--barely enoughto pay our daily expenses."
"What do you expect from your wife?"
"Three thousand a year when her uncle dies."
"A fine fortune, Percival. What sort of a man is this uncle? Old?"
"No--neither old nor young."
"A good-tempered, freely-living man? Married? No--I think my wifetold me, not married."
"Of course not. If he was married, and had a son, Lady Glyde would notbe next heir to the property. I'll tell you what he is. He's amaudlin, twaddling, selfish fool, and bores everybody who comes nearhim about the state of his health."
"Men of that sort, Percival, live long, and marry malevolently when youleast expect it. I don't give you much, my friend, for your chance ofthe three thousand a year. Is there nothing more that comes to youfrom your wife?"
"Absolutely nothing--except in case of her death."
"Aha! in the case of her death."
There was another pause. The Count moved from the verandah to thegravel walk outside. I knew that he had moved by his voice. "The rainhas come at last," I heard him say. It had come. The state of mycloak showed that it had been falling thickly for some little time.
The Count went back under the verandah--I heard the chair creak beneathhis weight as he sat down in it again.
"Well, Percival," he said, "and in the case of Lady Glyde's death, whatdo you get then?"
"If she leaves no children----"
"Which she is likely to do?"
"Which she is not in the least likely to do----"
"Why, then I get her twenty thousand pounds."
They were silent once more. As their voices ceased Madame Fosco'sshadow darkened the blind again. Instead of passing this time, itremained, for a moment, quite still. I saw her fingers steal round thecorner of the blind, and draw it on one side. The dim white outline ofher face, looking out straight over me, appeared behind the window. Ikept still, shrouded from head to foot in my black cloak. The rain,which was fast wetting me, dripped over the glass, blurred it, andprevented her from seeing anything. "More rain!" I heard her say toherself. She dropped the blind, and I breathed again freely.
The talk went on below me, the Count resuming it this time.
"Percival! do you care about your wife?"
"Fosco! that's rather a downright question."
"I am a downright man, and I repeat it."
"Why the devil do you look at me in that way?"
"You won't answer me? Well, then, let us say your wife dies before thesummer is out----"
"Drop it, Fosco!"
"Let us say your wife dies----"
"Drop it, I tell you!"
"In that case, you would gain twenty thousand pounds, and you wouldlose----"
"I should lose the chance of three thousand a year."
"The REMOTE chance, Percival--the remote chance only. And you wantmoney, at once. In your position the gain is certain--the lossdoubtful."
"Speak for yourself as well as for me. Some of the money I want hasbeen borrowed for you. And if you come to gain, my wife's death wouldbe ten thousand pounds in your wife's pocket. Sharp as you are, youseem to have conveniently forgotten Madame Fosco's legacy. Don't lookat me in that way! I won't have it! What with your looks and yourquestions, upon my soul, you make my flesh creep!"
"Your flesh? Does flesh mean conscience in English? I speak of yourwife's death as I speak of a possibility. Why not? The respectablelawyers who scribble-scrabble your deeds and your wills look the deathsof living people in the face. Do lawyers make your flesh creep? Whyshould I? It is my business to-night to clear up your position beyondthe possibility of mistake, and I have now done it. Here is yourposition. If your wife lives, you pay those bills with her signature tothe parchment. If your wife dies, you pay them with her death."
As he spoke the light in Madame Fosco's room was extinguished, and thewhole second floor of
the house was now sunk in darkness.
"Talk! talk!" grumbled Sir Percival. "One would think, to hear you,that my wife's signature to the deed was got already."
"You have left the matter in my hands," retorted the Count, "and I havemore than two months before me to turn round in. Say no more about it,if you please, for the present. When the bills are due, you will seefor yourself if my 'talk! talk!' is worth something, or if it is not.And now, Percival, having done with the money matters for to-night, Ican place my attention at your disposal, if you wish to consult me onthat second difficulty which has mixed itself up with our littleembarrassments, and which has so altered you for the worse, that Ihardly know you again. Speak, my friend--and pardon me if I shock yourfiery national tastes by mixing myself a second glass ofsugar-and-water."
"It's very well to say speak," replied Sir Percival, in a far morequiet and more polite tone than he had yet adopted, "but it's not soeasy to know how to begin."
"Shall I help you?" suggested the Count. "Shall I give this privatedifficulty of yours a name? What if I call it--Anne Catherick?"
"Look here, Fosco, you and I have known each other for a long time, andif you have helped me out of one or two scrapes before this, I havedone the best I could to help you in return, as far as money would go.We have made as many friendly sacrifices, on both sides, as men could,but we have had our secrets from each other, of course--haven't we?"
"You have had a secret from me, Percival. There is a skeleton in yourcupboard here at Blackwater Park that has peeped out in these last fewdays at other people besides yourself."
"Well, suppose it has. If it doesn't concern you, you needn't becurious about it, need you?"
"Do I look curious about it?"
"Yes, you do."
"So! so! my face speaks the truth, then? What an immense foundation ofgood there must be in the nature of a man who arrives at my age, andwhose face has not yet lost the habit of speaking the truth!--Come,Glyde! let us be candid one with the other. This secret of yours hassought me: I have not sought it. Let us say I am curious--do you askme, as your old friend, to respect your secret, and to leave it, oncefor all, in your own keeping?"
"Yes--that's just what I do ask."
"Then my curiosity is at an end. It dies in me from this moment."
"Do you really mean that?"
"What makes you doubt me?"
"I have had some experience, Fosco, of your roundabout ways, and I amnot so sure that you won't worm it out of me after all."
The chair below suddenly creaked again--I felt the trellis-work pillarunder me shake from top to bottom. The Count had started to his feet,and had struck it with his hand in indignation.
"Percival! Percival!" he cried passionately, "do you know me no betterthan that? Has all your experience shown you nothing of my characteryet? I am a man of the antique type! I am capable of the most exaltedacts of virtue--when I have the chance of performing them. It has beenthe misfortune of my life that I have had few chances. My conceptionof friendship is sublime! Is it my fault that your skeleton has peepedout at me? Why do I confess my curiosity? You poor superficialEnglishman, it is to magnify my own self-control. I could draw yoursecret out of you, if I liked, as I draw this finger out of the palm ofmy hand--you know I could! But you have appealed to my friendship, andthe duties of friendship are sacred to me. See! I trample my basecuriosity under my feet. My exalted sentiments lift me above it.Recognise them, Percival! imitate them, Percival! Shake hands--Iforgive you."
His voice faltered over the last words--faltered, as if he wereactually shedding tears!
Sir Percival confusedly attempted to excuse himself, but the Count wastoo magnanimous to listen to him.
"No!" he said. "When my friend has wounded me, I can pardon himwithout apologies. Tell me, in plain words, do you want my help?"
"Yes, badly enough."
"And you can ask for it without compromising yourself?"
"I can try, at any rate."
"Well, this is how it stands:--I told you to-day that I had done mybest to find Anne Catherick, and failed."
"Yes, you did."
"Fosco! I'm a lost man if I DON'T find her."
"Ha! Is it so serious as that?"
A little stream of light travelled out under the verandah, and fellover the gravel-walk. The Count had taken the lamp from the inner partof the room to see his friend clearly by the light of it.
"Yes!" he said. "Your face speaks the truth this time. Serious,indeed--as serious as the money matters themselves."
"More serious. As true as I sit here, more serious!"
The light disappeared again and the talk went on.
"I showed you the letter to my wife that Anne Catherick hid in thesand," Sir Percival continued. "There's no boasting in that letter,Fosco--she DOES know the Secret."
"Say as little as possible, Percival, in my presence, of the Secret.Does she know it from you?"
"No, from her mother."
"Two women in possession of your private mind--bad, bad, bad, myfriend! One question here, before we go any farther. The motive ofyour shutting up the daughter in the asylum is now plain enough to me,but the manner of her escape is not quite so clear. Do you suspect thepeople in charge of her of closing their eyes purposely, at theinstance of some enemy who could afford to make it worth their while?"
"No, she was the best-behaved patient they had--and, like fools, theytrusted her. She's just mad enough to be shut up, and just sane enoughto ruin me when she's at large--if you understand that?"
"I do understand it. Now, Percival, come at once to the point, andthen I shall know what to do. Where is the danger of your position atthe present moment?"
"Anne Catherick is in this neighbourhood, and in communication withLady Glyde--there's the danger, plain enough. Who can read the lettershe hid in the sand, and not see that my wife is in possession of theSecret, deny it as she may?"
"One moment, Percival. If Lady Glyde does know the Secret, she mustknow also that it is a compromising secret for you. As your wife,surely it is her interest to keep it?"
"Is it? I'm coming to that. It might be her interest if she cared twostraws about me. But I happen to be an encumbrance in the way ofanother man. She was in love with him before she married me--she's inlove with him now--an infernal vagabond of a drawing-master, namedHartright."
"My dear friend! what is there extraordinary in that? They are all inlove with some other man. Who gets the first of a woman's heart? Inall my experience I have never yet met with the man who was Number One.Number Two, sometimes. Number Three, Four, Five, often. Number One,never! He exists, of course--but I have not met with him."
"Wait! I haven't done yet. Who do you think helped Anne Catherick toget the start, when the people from the mad-house were after her?Hartright. Who do you think saw her again in Cumberland? Hartright.Both times he spoke to her alone. Stop! don't interrupt me. Thescoundrel's as sweet on my wife as she is on him. He knows the Secret,and she knows the Secret. Once let them both get together again, andit's her interest and his interest to turn their information againstme."
"Gently, Percival--gently! Are you insensible to the virtue of LadyGlyde?"
"That for the virtue of Lady Glyde! I believe in nothing about her buther money. Don't you see how the case stands? She might be harmlessenough by herself; but if she and that vagabond Hartright----"
"Yes, yes, I see. Where is Mr. Hartright?"
"Out of the country. If he means to keep a whole skin on his bones, Irecommend him not to come back in a hurry."
"Are you sure he is out of the country?"
"Certain. I had him watched from the time he left Cumberland to thetime he sailed. Oh, I've been careful, I can tell you! Anne Cathericklived with some people at a farmhouse near Limmeridge. I went theremyself, after she had given me the slip, and made sure that they knewnothing. I gave her mother a form of letter to write to Miss Halcombe,exonerating me
from any bad motive in putting her under restraint.I've spent, I'm afraid to say how much, in trying to trace her, and inspite of it all, she turns up here and escapes me on my own property!How do I know who else may see her, who else may speak to her? Thatprying scoundrel, Hartright, may come back without my knowing it, andmay make use of her to-morrow----"
"Not he, Percival! While I am on the spot, and while that woman is inthe neighbourhood, I will answer for our laying hands on her before Mr.Hartright--even if he does come back. I see! yes, yes, I see! Thefinding of Anne Catherick is the first necessity--make your mind easyabout the rest. Your wife is here, under your thumb--Miss Halcombe isinseparable from her, and is, therefore, under your thumb also--and Mr.Hartright is out of the country. This invisible Anne of yours is all wehave to think of for the present. You have made your inquiries?"
"Yes. I have been to her mother, I have ransacked the village--andall to no purpose."
"Is her mother to be depended on?"
"She has told your secret once."
"She won't tell it again."
"Why not? Are her own interests concerned in keeping it, as well asyours?"
"I am glad to hear it, Percival, for your sake. Don't be discouraged,my friend. Our money matters, as I told you, leave me plenty of timeto turn round in, and I may search for Anne Catherick to-morrow tobetter purpose than you. One last question before we go to bed."
"What is it?"
"It is this. When I went to the boat-house to tell Lady Glyde that thelittle difficulty of her signature was put off, accident took me therein time to see a strange woman parting in a very suspicious manner fromyour wife. But accident did not bring me near enough to see this samewoman's face plainly. I must know how to recognise our invisible Anne.What is she like?"
"Like? Come! I'll tell you in two words. She's a sickly likeness of mywife."
The chair creaked, and the pillar shook once more. The Count was onhis feet again--this time in astonishment.
"What!!!" he exclaimed eagerly.
"Fancy my wife, after a bad illness, with a touch of something wrong inher head--and there is Anne Catherick for you," answered Sir Percival.
"Are they related to each other?"
"Not a bit of it."
"And yet so like?"
"Yes, so like. What are you laughing about?"
There was no answer, and no sound of any kind. The Count was laughingin his smooth silent internal way.
"What are you laughing about?" reiterated Sir Percival.
"Perhaps at my own fancies, my good friend. Allow me my Italianhumour--do I not come of the illustrious nation which invented theexhibition of Punch? Well, well, well, I shall know Anne Catherick whenI see her--and so enough for to-night. Make your mind easy, Percival.Sleep, my son, the sleep of the just, and see what I will do for youwhen daylight comes to help us both. I have my projects and my planshere in my big head. You shall pay those bills and find AnneCatherick--my sacred word of honour on it, but you shall! Am I a friendto be treasured in the best corner of your heart, or am I not? Am Iworth those loans of money which you so delicately reminded me of alittle while since? Whatever you do, never wound me in my sentimentsany more. Recognise them, Percival! imitate them, Percival! I forgiveyou again--I shake hands again. Good-night!"
Not another word was spoken. I heard the Count close the library door.I heard Sir Percival barring up the window-shutters. It had beenraining, raining all the time. I was cramped by my position andchilled to the bones. When I first tried to move, the effort was sopainful to me that I was obliged to desist. I tried a second time, andsucceeded in rising to my knees on the wet roof.
As I crept to the wall, and raised myself against it, I looked back,and saw the window of the Count's dressing-room gleam into light. Mysinking courage flickered up in me again, and kept my eyes fixed on hiswindow, as I stole my way back, step by step, past the wall of thehouse.
The clock struck the quarter after one, when I laid my hands on thewindow-sill of my own room. I had seen nothing and heard nothing whichcould lead me to suppose that my retreat had been discovered.