The woman in white, p.44
The Woman in White, p.44Wilkie Collins
The next event that occurred was of so singular a nature that it mighthave caused me a feeling of superstitious surprise, if my mind had notbeen fortified by principle against any pagan weakness of that sort.The uneasy sense of something wrong in the family which had made mewish myself away from Blackwater Park, was actually followed, strangeto say, by my departure from the house. It is true that my absence wasfor a temporary period only, but the coincidence was, in my opinion,not the less remarkable on that account.
My departure took place under the following circumstances--
A day or two after the servants all left I was again sent for to seeSir Percival. The undeserved slur which he had cast on my managementof the household did not, I am happy to say, prevent me from returninggood for evil to the best of my ability, by complying with his requestas readily and respectfully as ever. It cost me a struggle with thatfallen nature, which we all share in common, before I could suppress myfeelings. Being accustomed to self-discipline, I accomplished thesacrifice.
I found Sir Percival and Count Fosco sitting together again. On thisoccasion his lordship remained present at the interview, and assistedin the development of Sir Percival's views.
The subject to which they now requested my attention related to thehealthy change of air by which we all hoped that Miss Halcombe and LadyGlyde might soon be enabled to profit. Sir Percival mentioned thatboth the ladies would probably pass the autumn (by invitation ofFrederick Fairlie, Esquire) at Limmeridge House, Cumberland. Butbefore they went there, it was his opinion, confirmed by Count Fosco(who here took up the conversation and continued it to the end), thatthey would benefit by a short residence first in the genial climate ofTorquay. The great object, therefore, was to engage lodgings at thatplace, affording all the comforts and advantages of which they stood inneed, and the great difficulty was to find an experienced personcapable of choosing the sort of residence which they wanted. In thisemergency the Count begged to inquire, on Sir Percival's behalf,whether I would object to give the ladies the benefit of my assistance,by proceeding myself to Torquay in their interests.
It was impossible for a person in my situation to meet any proposal,made in these terms, with a positive objection.
I could only venture to represent the serious inconvenience of myleaving Blackwater Park in the extraordinary absence of all the indoorservants, with the one exception of Margaret Porcher. But Sir Percivaland his lordship declared that they were both willing to put up withinconvenience for the sake of the invalids. I next respectfullysuggested writing to an agent at Torquay, but I was met here by beingreminded of the imprudence of taking lodgings without first seeingthem. I was also informed that the Countess (who would otherwise havegone to Devonshire herself) could not, in Lady Glyde's presentcondition, leave her niece, and that Sir Percival and the Count hadbusiness to transact together which would oblige them to remain atBlackwater Park. In short, it was clearly shown me that if I did notundertake the errand, no one else could be trusted with it. Underthese circumstances, I could only inform Sir Percival that my serviceswere at the disposal of Miss Halcombe and Lady Glyde.
It was thereupon arranged that I should leave the next morning, that Ishould occupy one or two days in examining all the most convenienthouses in Torquay, and that I should return with my report as soon as Iconveniently could. A memorandum was written for me by his lordship,stating the requisites which the place I was sent to take must be foundto possess, and a note of the pecuniary limit assigned to me was addedby Sir Percival.
My own idea on reading over these instructions was, that no suchresidence as I saw described could be found at any watering-place inEngland, and that, even if it could by chance be discovered, it wouldcertainly not be parted with for any period on such terms as I waspermitted to offer. I hinted at these difficulties to both thegentlemen, but Sir Percival (who undertook to answer me) did not appearto feel them. It was not for me to dispute the question. I said nomore, but I felt a very strong conviction that the business on which Iwas sent away was so beset by difficulties that my errand was almosthopeless at starting.
Before I left I took care to satisfy myself that Miss Halcombe wasgoing on favourably.
There was a painful expression of anxiety in her face which made mefear that her mind, on first recovering itself, was not at ease. Butshe was certainly strengthening more rapidly than I could have venturedto anticipate, and she was able to send kind messages to Lady Glyde,saying that she was fast getting well, and entreating her ladyship notto exert herself again too soon. I left her in charge of Mrs. Rubelle,who was still as quietly independent of every one else in the house asever. When I knocked at Lady Glyde's door before going away, I wastold that she was still sadly weak and depressed, my informant beingthe Countess, who was then keeping her company in her room. SirPercival and the Count were walking on the road to the lodge as I wasdriven by in the chaise. I bowed to them and quitted the house, withnot a living soul left in the servants' offices but Margaret Porcher.
Every one must feel what I have felt myself since that time, that thesecircumstances were more than unusual--they were! almost suspicious.Let me, however, say again that it was impossible for me, in mydependent position, to act otherwise than I did.
The result of my errand at Torquay was exactly what I had foreseen. Nosuch lodgings as I was instructed to take could be found in the wholeplace, and the terms I was permitted to give were much too low for thepurpose, even if I had been able to discover what I wanted. Iaccordingly returned to Blackwater Park, and informed Sir Percival, whomet me at the door, that my journey had been taken in vain. He seemedtoo much occupied with some other subject to care about the failure ofmy errand, and his first words informed me that even in the short timeof my absence another remarkable change had taken place in the house.
The Count and Countess Fosco had left Blackwater Park for their newresidence in St. John's Wood.
I was not made aware of the motive for this sudden departure--I wasonly told that the Count had been very particular in leaving his kindcompliments to me. When I ventured on asking Sir Percival whether LadyGlyde had any one to attend to her comforts in the absence of theCountess, he replied that she had Margaret Porcher to wait on her, andhe added that a woman from the village had been sent for to do the workdownstairs.
The answer really shocked me--there was such a glaring impropriety inpermitting an under-housemaid to fill the place of confidentialattendant on Lady Glyde. I went upstairs at once, and met Margaret onthe bedroom landing. Her services had not been required (naturallyenough), her mistress having sufficiently recovered that morning to beable to leave her bed. I asked next after Miss Halcombe, but I wasanswered in a slouching, sulky way, which left me no wiser than I wasbefore.
I did not choose to repeat the question, and perhaps provoke animpertinent reply. It was in every respect more becoming to a personin my position to present myself immediately in Lady Glyde's room.
I found that her ladyship had certainly gained in health during thelast few days. Although still sadly weak and nervous, she was able toget up without assistance, and to walk slowly about her room, feelingno worse effect from the exertion than a slight sensation of fatigue.She had been made a little anxious that morning about Miss Halcombe,through having received no news of her from any one. I thought thisseemed to imply a blamable want of attention on the part of Mrs.Rubelle, but I said nothing, and remained with Lady Glyde to assist herto dress. When she was ready we both left the room together to go toMiss Halcombe.
We were stopped in the passage by the appearance of Sir Percival. Helooked as if he had been purposely waiting there to see us.
"Where are you going?" he said to Lady Glyde.
"To Marian's room," she answered.
"It may spare you a disappointment," remarked Sir Percival, "if I tellyou at once that you will not find her there."
"Not find her there!"
"No. She left the house yesterday morning with Fos
Lady Glyde was not strong enough to bear the surprise of thisextraordinary statement. She turned fearfully pale, and leaned backagainst the wall, looking at her husband in dead silence.
I was so astonished myself that I hardly knew what to say. I asked SirPercival if he really meant that Miss Halcombe had left Blackwater Park.
"I certainly mean it," he answered.
"In her state, Sir Percival! Without mentioning her intentions to LadyGlyde!"
Before he could reply her ladyship recovered herself a little and spoke.
"Impossible!" she cried out in a loud, frightened manner, taking a stepor two forward from the wall. "Where was the doctor? where was Mr.Dawson when Marian went away?"
"Mr. Dawson wasn't wanted, and wasn't here," said Sir Percival. "Heleft of his own accord, which is enough of itself to show that she wasstrong enough to travel. How you stare! If you don't believe she hasgone, look for yourself. Open her room door, and all the other roomdoors if you like."
She took him at his word, and I followed her. There was no one in MissHalcombe's room but Margaret Porcher, who was busy setting it torights. There was no one in the spare rooms or the dressing-roomswhen we looked into them afterwards. Sir Percival still waited for usin the passage. As we were leaving the last room that we had examinedLady Glyde whispered, "Don't go, Mrs. Michelson! don't leave me, forGod's sake!" Before I could say anything in return she was out again inthe passage, speaking to her husband.
"What does it mean, Sir Percival? I insist--I beg and pray you willtell me what it means."
"It means," he answered, "that Miss Halcombe was strong enoughyesterday morning to sit up and be dressed, and that she insisted ontaking advantage of Fosco's going to London to go there too."
"Yes--on her way to Limmeridge."
Lady Glyde turned and appealed to me.
"You saw Miss Halcombe last," she said. "Tell me plainly, Mrs.Michelson, did you think she looked fit to travel?"
"Not in MY opinion, your ladyship."
Sir Percival, on his side, instantly turned and appealed to me also.
"Before you went away," he said, "did you, or did you not, tell thenurse that Miss Halcombe looked much stronger and better?"
"I certainly made the remark, Sir Percival."
He addressed her ladyship again the moment I offered that reply.
"Set one of Mrs. Michelson's opinions fairly against the other," hesaid, "and try to be reasonable about a perfectly plain matter. If shehad not been well enough to be moved do you think we should any of ushave risked letting her go? She has got three competent people to lookafter her--Fosco and your aunt, and Mrs. Rubelle, who went away withthem expressly for that purpose. They took a whole carriage yesterday,and made a bed for her on the seat in case she felt tired. To-day,Fosco and Mrs. Rubelle go on with her themselves to Cumberland."
"Why does Marian go to Limmeridge and leave me here by myself?" saidher ladyship, interrupting Sir Percival.
"Because your uncle won't receive you till he has seen your sisterfirst," he replied. "Have you forgotten the letter he wrote to her atthe beginning of her illness? It was shown to you, you read ityourself, and you ought to remember it."
"I do remember it."
"If you do, why should you be surprised at her leaving you? You want tobe back at Limmeridge, and she has gone there to get your uncle's leavefor you on his own terms."
Poor Lady Glyde's eyes filled with tears.
"Marian never left me before," she said, "without bidding me good-bye."
"She would have bid you good-bye this time," returned Sir Percival, "ifshe had not been afraid of herself and of you. She knew you would tryto stop her, she knew you would distress her by crying. Do you want tomake any more objections? If you do, you must come downstairs and askquestions in the dining-room. These worries upset me. I want a glassof wine."
He left us suddenly.
His manner all through this strange conversation had been very unlikewhat it usually was. He seemed to be almost as nervous and fluttered,every now and then, as his lady herself. I should never have supposedthat his health had been so delicate, or his composure so easy to upset.
I tried to prevail on Lady Glyde to go back to her room, but it wasuseless. She stopped in the passage, with the look of a woman whosemind was panic-stricken.
"Something has happened to my sister!" she said.
"Remember, my lady, what surprising energy there is in Miss Halcombe,"I suggested. "She might well make an effort which other ladies in hersituation would be unfit for. I hope and believe there is nothingwrong--I do indeed."
"I must follow Marian," said her ladyship, with the same panic-strickenlook. "I must go where she has gone, I must see that she isalive and well with my own eyes. Come! come down with me to SirPercival."
I hesitated, fearing that my presence might be considered an intrusion.I attempted to represent this to her ladyship, but she was deaf to me.She held my arm fast enough to force me to go downstairs with her, andshe still clung to me with all the little strength she had at themoment when I opened the dining-room door.
Sir Percival was sitting at the table with a decanter of wine beforehim. He raised the glass to his lips as we went in and drained it at adraught. Seeing that he looked at me angrily when he put it downagain, I attempted to make some apology for my accidental presence inthe room.
"Do you suppose there are any secrets going on here?" he broke outsuddenly; "there are none--there is nothing underhand, nothing keptfrom you or from any one." After speaking those strange words loudlyand sternly, he filled himself another glass of wine and asked LadyGlyde what she wanted of him.
"If my sister is fit to travel I am fit to travel" said her ladyship,with more firmness than she had yet shown. "I come to beg you willmake allowances for my anxiety about Marian, and let me follow her atonce by the afternoon train."
"You must wait till to-morrow," replied Sir Percival, "and then if youdon't hear to the contrary you can go. I don't suppose you are at alllikely to hear to the contrary, so I shall write to Fosco by to-night'spost."
He said those last words holding his glass up to the light, and lookingat the wine in it instead of at Lady Glyde. Indeed he never oncelooked at her throughout the conversation. Such a singular want ofgood breeding in a gentleman of his rank impressed me, I own, verypainfully.
"Why should you write to Count Fosco?" she asked, in extreme surprise.
"To tell him to expect you by the midday train," said Sir Percival."He will meet you at the station when you get to London, and take youon to sleep at your aunt's in St. John's Wood."
Lady Glyde's hand began to tremble violently round my arm--why I couldnot imagine.
"There is no necessity for Count Fosco to meet me," she said. "I wouldrather not stay in London to sleep."
"You must. You can't take the whole journey to Cumberland in one day.You must rest a night in London--and I don't choose you to go byyourself to an hotel. Fosco made the offer to your uncle to give youhouse-room on the way down, and your uncle has accepted it. Here! hereis a letter from him addressed to yourself. I ought to have sent it upthis morning, but I forgot. Read it and see what Mr. Fairlie himselfsays to you."
Lady Glyde looked at the letter for a moment and then placed it in myhands.
"Read it," she said faintly. "I don't know what is the matter with me.I can't read it myself."
It was a note of only four lines--so short and so careless that itquite struck me. If I remember correctly it contained no more thanthese words--
"Dearest Laura, Please come whenever you like. Break the journey bysleeping at your aunt's house. Grieved to hear of dear Marian'sillness. Affectionately yours, Frederick Fairlie."
"I would rather not go there--I would rather not stay a night inLondon," said her ladyship, breaking out eagerly with those wordsbefore I had quite done reading the note, short as it was. "Don'twrite to Count Fosco!
Sir Percival filled another glass from the decanter so awkwardly thathe upset it and spilt all the wine over the table. "My sight seems tobe failing me," he muttered to himself, in an odd, muffled voice. Heslowly set the glass up again, refilled it, and drained it once more ata draught. I began to fear, from his look and manner, that the winewas getting into his head.
"Pray don't write to Count Fosco," persisted Lady Glyde, more earnestlythan ever.
"Why not, I should like to know?" cried Sir Percival, with a suddenburst of anger that startled us both. "Where can you stay moreproperly in London than at the place your uncle himself chooses foryou--at your aunt's house? Ask Mrs. Michelson."
The arrangement proposed was so unquestionably the right and the properone, that I could make no possible objection to it. Much as Isympathised with Lady Glyde in other respects, I could not sympathisewith her in her unjust prejudices against Count Fosco. I never beforemet with any lady of her rank and station who was so lamentablynarrow-minded on the subject of foreigners. Neither her uncle's notenor Sir Percival's increasing impatience seemed to have the leasteffect on her. She still objected to staying a night in London, shestill implored her husband not to write to the Count.
"Drop it!" said Sir Percival, rudely turning his back on us. "If youhaven't sense enough to know what is best for yourself other peoplemust know it for you. The arrangement is made and there is an end ofit. You are only wanted to do what Miss Halcombe has done for you---"
"Marian?" repeated her Ladyship, in a bewildered manner; "Mariansleeping in Count Fosco's house!"
"Yes, in Count Fosco's house. She slept there last night to break thejourney, and you are to follow her example, and do what your uncletells you. You are to sleep at Fosco's to-morrow night, as your sisterdid, to break the journey. Don't throw too many obstacles in my way!don't make me repent of letting you go at all!"
He started to his feet, and suddenly walked out into the verandahthrough the open glass doors.
"Will your ladyship excuse me," I whispered, "if I suggest that we hadbetter not wait here till Sir Percival comes back? I am very muchafraid he is over-excited with wine."
She consented to leave the room in a weary, absent manner.
As soon as we were safe upstairs again, I did all I could to composeher ladyship's spirits. I reminded her that Mr. Fairlie's letters toMiss Halcombe and to herself did certainly sanction, and even rendernecessary, sooner or later, the course that had been taken. She agreedto this, and even admitted, of her own accord, that both letters werestrictly in character with her uncle's peculiar disposition--but herfears about Miss Halcombe, and her unaccountable dread of sleeping atthe Count's house in London, still remained unshaken in spite of everyconsideration that I could urge. I thought it my duty to protestagainst Lady Glyde's unfavourable opinion of his lordship, and I didso, with becoming forbearance and respect.
"Your ladyship will pardon my freedom," I remarked, in conclusion, "butit is said, 'by their fruits ye shall know them.' I am sure the Count'sconstant kindness and constant attention, from the very beginning ofMiss Halcombe's illness, merit our best confidence and esteem. Evenhis lordship's serious misunderstanding with Mr. Dawson was entirelyattributable to his anxiety on Miss Halcombe's account."
"What misunderstanding?" inquired her ladyship, with a look of suddeninterest.
I related the unhappy circumstances under which Mr. Dawson hadwithdrawn his attendance--mentioning them all the more readily becauseI disapproved of Sir Percival's continuing to conceal what had happened(as he had done in my presence) from the knowledge of Lady Glyde.
Her ladyship started up, with every appearance of being additionallyagitated and alarmed by what I had told her.
"Worse! worse than I thought!" she said, walking about the room, in abewildered manner. "The Count knew Mr. Dawson would never consent toMarian's taking a journey--he purposely insulted the doctor to get himout of the house."
"Oh, my lady! my lady!" I remonstrated.
"Mrs. Michelson!" she went on vehemently, "no words that ever werespoken will persuade me that my sister is in that man's power and inthat man's house with her own consent. My horror of him is such, thatnothing Sir Percival could say and no letters my uncle could write,would induce me, if I had only my own feelings to consult, to eat,drink, or sleep under his roof. But my misery of suspense about Mariangives me the courage to follow her anywhere, to follow her even intoCount Fosco's house."
I thought it right, at this point, to mention that Miss Halcombe hadalready gone on to Cumberland, according to Sir Percival's account ofthe matter.
"I am afraid to believe it!" answered her ladyship. "I am afraid sheis still in that man's house. If I am wrong, if she has really gone onto Limmeridge, I am resolved I will not sleep to-morrow night underCount Fosco's roof. My dearest friend in the world, next to my sister,lives near London. You have heard me, you have heard Miss Halcombe,speak of Mrs. Vesey? I mean to write, and propose to sleep at herhouse. I don't know how I shall get there--I don't know how I shallavoid the Count--but to that refuge I will escape in some way, if mysister has gone to Cumberland. All I ask of you to do, is to seeyourself that my letter to Mrs. Vesey goes to London to-night, ascertainly as Sir Percival's letter goes to Count Fosco. I have reasonsfor not trusting the post-bag downstairs. Will you keep my secret, andhelp me in this? it is the last favour, perhaps, that I shall ever askof you."
I hesitated, I thought it all very strange, I almost feared that herladyship's mind had been a little affected by recent anxiety andsuffering. At my own risk, however, I ended by giving my consent. Ifthe letter had been addressed to a stranger, or to any one but a ladyso well known to me by report as Mrs. Vesey, I might have refused. Ithank God--looking to what happened afterwards--I thank God I neverthwarted that wish, or any other, which Lady Glyde expressed to me, onthe last day of her residence at Blackwater Park.
The letter was written and given into my hands. I myself put it intothe post-box in the village that evening.
We saw nothing more of Sir Percival for the rest of the day.
I slept, by Lady Glyde's own desire, in the next room to hers, with thedoor open between us. There was something so strange and dreadful inthe loneliness and emptiness of the house, that I was glad, on my side,to have a companion near me. Her ladyship sat up late, reading lettersand burning them, and emptying her drawers and cabinets of littlethings she prized, as if she never expected to return to BlackwaterPark. Her sleep was sadly disturbed when she at last went to bed--shecried out in it several times, once so loud that she woke herself.Whatever her dreams were, she did not think fit to communicate them tome. Perhaps, in my situation, I had no right to expect that she shoulddo so. It matters little now. I was sorry for her, I was indeedheartily sorry for her all the same.
The next day was fine and sunny. Sir Percival came up, afterbreakfast, to tell us that the chaise would be at the door at a quarterto twelve--the train to London stopping at our station at twentyminutes after. He informed Lady Glyde that he was obliged to go out,but added that he hoped to be back before she left. If any unforeseenaccident delayed him, I was to accompany her to the station, and totake special care that she was in time for the train. Sir Percivalcommunicated these directions very hastily--walking here and thereabout the room all the time. Her ladyship looked attentively after himwherever he went. He never once looked at her in return.
She only spoke when he had done, and then she stopped him as heapproached the door, by holding out her hand.
"I shall see you no more," she said, in a very marked manner. "This isour parting--our parting, it may be for ever. Will you try to forgiveme, Percival, as heartily as I forgive YOU?"
His face turned of an awful whiteness all over, and great beads ofperspiration broke out on his bald forehead. "I shall come back," hesaid, and made for the door, as hastily as if his wife's farewell wordshad frightened him out of the room.
At the time named the chaise drew up at the gates. Her ladyship wasright--Sir Percival never came back. I waited for him till the lastmoment, and waited in vain.
No positive responsibility lay on my shoulders, and yet I did not feeleasy in my mind. "It is of your own free will," I said, as the chaisedrove through the lodge-gates, "that your ladyship goes to London?"
"I will go anywhere," she answered, "to end the dreadful suspense thatI am suffering at this moment."
She had made me feel almost as anxious and as uncertain about MissHalcombe as she felt herself. I presumed to ask her to write me aline, if all went well in London. She answered, "Most willingly, Mrs.Michelson."
"We all have our crosses to bear, my lady," I said, seeing her silentand thoughtful, after she had promised to write.
She made no reply--she seemed to be too much wrapped up in her ownthoughts to attend to me.
"I fear your ladyship rested badly last night," I remarked, afterwaiting a little.
"Yes," she said, "I was terribly disturbed by dreams."
"Indeed, my lady?" I thought she was going to tell me her dreams, butno, when she spoke next it was only to ask a question.
"You posted the letter to Mrs. Vesey with your own hands?"
"Yes, my lady."
"Did Sir Percival say, yesterday, that Count Fosco was to meet me atthe terminus in London?"
"He did, my lady."
She sighed heavily when I answered that last question, and said no more.
We arrived at the station, with hardly two minutes to spare. Thegardener (who had driven us) managed about the luggage, while I tookthe ticket. The whistle of the train was sounding when I joined herladyship on the platform. She looked very strangely, and pressed herhand over her heart, as if some sudden pain or fright had overcome herat that moment.
"I wish you were going with me!" she said, catching eagerly at my armwhen I gave her the ticket.
If there had been time, if I had felt the day before as I felt then, Iwould have made my arrangements to accompany her, even though the doingso had obliged me to give Sir Percival warning on the spot. As it was,her wishes, expressed at the last moment only, were expressed too latefor me to comply with them. She seemed to understand this herselfbefore I could explain it, and did not repeat her desire to have me fora travelling companion. The train drew up at the platform. She gavethe gardener a present for his children, and took my hand, in hersimple hearty manner, before she got into the carriage.
"You have been very kind to me and to my sister," she said--"kind whenwe were both friendless. I shall remember you gratefully, as long as Ilive to remember any one. Good-bye--and God bless you!"
She spoke those words with a tone and a look which brought the tearsinto my eyes--she spoke them as if she was bidding me farewell for ever.
"Good-bye, my lady," I said, putting her into the carriage, and tryingto cheer her; "good-bye, for the present only; good-bye, with my bestand kindest wishes for happier times."
She shook her head, and shuddered as she settled herself in thecarriage. The guard closed the door. "Do you believe in dreams?" shewhispered to me at the window. "My dreams, last night, were dreams Ihave never had before. The terror of them is hanging over me still."The whistle sounded before I could answer, and the train moved. Herpale quiet face looked at me for the last time--looked sorrowfully andsolemnly from the window. She waved her hand, and I saw her no more.
Towards five o'clock on the afternoon of that same day, having a littletime to myself in the midst of the household duties which now pressedupon me, I sat down alone in my own room, to try and compose my mindwith the volume of my husband's Sermons. For the first time in my lifeI found my attention wandering over those pious and cheering words.Concluding that Lady Glyde's departure must have disturbed me far moreseriously than I had myself supposed, I put the book aside, and wentout to take a turn in the garden. Sir Percival had not yet returned,to my knowledge, so I could feel no hesitation about showing myself inthe grounds.
On turning the corner of the house, and gaining a view of the garden, Iwas startled by seeing a stranger walking in it. The stranger was awoman--she was lounging along the path with her back to me, and wasgathering the flowers.
As I approached she heard me, and turned round.
My blood curdled in my veins. The strange woman in the garden was Mrs.Rubelle!
I could neither move nor speak. She came up to me, as composedly asever, with her flowers in her hand.
"What is the matter, ma'am?" she said quietly.
"You here!" I gasped out. "Not gone to London! Not gone to Cumberland!"
Mrs. Rubelle smelt at her flowers with a smile of malicious pity.
"Certainly not," she said. "I have never left Blackwater Park."
I summoned breath enough and courage enough for another question.
"Where is Miss Halcombe?"
Mrs. Rubelle fairly laughed at me this time, and replied in thesewords--
"Miss Halcombe, ma'am, has not left Blackwater Park either."
When I heard that astounding answer, all my thoughts were startled backon the instant to my parting with Lady Glyde. I can hardly say Ireproached myself, but at that moment I think I would have given many ayear's hard savings to have known four hours earlier what I knew now.
Mrs. Rubelle waited, quietly arranging her nosegay, as if she expectedme to say something.
I could say nothing. I thought of Lady Glyde's worn-out energies andweakly health, and I trembled for the time when the shock of thediscovery that I had made would fall on her. For a minute or more myfears for the poor ladies silenced me. At the end of that time Mrs.Rubelle looked up sideways from her flowers, and said, "Here is SirPercival, ma'am, returned from his ride."
I saw him as soon as she did. He came towards us, slashing viciouslyat the flowers with his riding-whip. When he was near enough to see myface he stopped, struck at his boot with the whip, and burst outlaughing, so harshly and so violently that the birds flew away,startled, from the tree by which he stood.
"Well, Mrs. Michelson," he said, "you have found it out at last, haveyou?"
I made no reply. He turned to Mrs. Rubelle.
"When did you show yourself in the garden?"
"I showed myself about half an hour ago, sir. You said I might take myliberty again as soon as Lady Glyde had gone away to London."
"Quite right. I don't blame you--I only asked the question." He waiteda moment, and then addressed himself once more to me. "You can'tbelieve it, can you?" he said mockingly. "Here! come along and see foryourself."
He led the way round to the front of the house. I followed him, andMrs. Rubelle followed me. After passing through the iron gates hestopped, and pointed with his whip to the disused middle wing of thebuilding.
"There!" he said. "Look up at the first floor. You know the oldElizabethan bedrooms? Miss Halcombe is snug and safe in one of the bestof them at this moment. Take her in, Mrs. Rubelle (you have got yourkey?); take Mrs. Michelson in, and let her own eyes satisfy her thatthere is no deception this time."
The tone in which he spoke to me, and the minute or two that had passedsince we left the garden, helped me to recover my spirits a little.What I might have done at this critical moment, if all my life had beenpassed in service, I cannot say. As it was, possessing the feelings,the principles, and the bringing up of a lady, I could not hesitateabout the right course to pursue. My duty to myself, and my duty toLady Glyde, alike forbade me to remain in the employment of a man whohad shamefully deceived us both by a series of atrocious falsehoods.
"I must beg permission, Sir Percival, to speak a few word
Mrs. Rubelle, whom I had indicated by a slight turn of my head,insolently sniffed at her nosegay and walked away, with greatdeliberation, towards the house door.
"Well," said Sir Percival sharply, "what is it now?"
"I wish to mention, sir, that I am desirous of resigning the situationI now hold at Blackwater Park." That was literally how I put it. Iwas resolved that the first words spoken in his presence should bewords which expressed my intention to leave his service.
He eyed me with one of his blackest looks, and thrust his handssavagely into the pockets of his riding-coat.
"Why?" he said, "why, I should like to know?"
"It is not for me, Sir Percival, to express an opinion on what hastaken place in this house. I desire to give no offence. I merely wishto say that I do not feel it consistent with my duty to Lady Glyde andto myself to remain any longer in your service."
"Is it consistent with your duty to me to stand there, castingsuspicion on me to my face?" he broke out in his most violent manner."I see what you're driving at. You have taken your own mean, underhandview of an innocent deception practised on Lady Glyde for her own good.It was essential to her health that she should have a change of airimmediately, and you know as well as I do she would never have goneaway if she had been told Miss Halcombe was still left here. She hasbeen deceived in her own interests--and I don't care who knows it. Go,if you like--there are plenty of housekeepers as good as you to be hadfor the asking. Go when you please--but take care how you spreadscandals about me and my affairs when you're out of my service. Tellthe truth, and nothing but the truth, or it will be the worse for you!See Miss Halcombe for yourself--see if she hasn't been as well takencare of in one part of the house as in the other. Remember thedoctor's own orders that Lady Glyde was to have a change of air at theearliest possible opportunity. Bear all that well in mind, and thensay anything against me and my proceedings if you dare!"
He poured out these words fiercely, all in a breath, walking backwardsand forwards, and striking about him in the air with his whip.
Nothing that he said or did shook my opinion of the disgraceful seriesof falsehoods that he had told in my presence the day before, or of thecruel deception by which he had separated Lady Glyde from her sister,and had sent her uselessly to London, when she was half distracted withanxiety on Miss Halcombe's account. I naturally kept these thoughts tomyself, and said nothing more to irritate him; but I was not the lessresolved to persist in my purpose. A soft answer turneth away wrath,and I suppressed my own feelings accordingly when it was my turn toreply.
"While I am in your service, Sir Percival," I said, "I hope I know myduty well enough not to inquire into your motives. When I am out ofyour service, I hope I know my own place well enough not to speak ofmatters which don't concern me--"
"When do you want to go?" he asked, interrupting me without ceremony."Don't suppose I am anxious to keep you--don't suppose I care aboutyour leaving the house. I am perfectly fair and open in this matter,from first to last. When do you want to go?"
"I should wish to leave at your earliest convenience, Sir Percival."
"My convenience has nothing to do with it. I shall be out of the housefor good and all to-morrow morning, and I can settle your accountsto-night. If you want to study anybody's convenience, it had better beMiss Halcombe's. Mrs. Rubelle's time is up to-day, and she has reasonsfor wishing to be in London to-night. If you go at once, Miss Halcombewon't have a soul left here to look after her."
I hope it is unnecessary for me to say that I was quite incapable ofdeserting Miss Halcombe in such an emergency as had now befallen LadyGlyde and herself. After first distinctly ascertaining from SirPercival that Mrs. Rubelle was certain to leave at once if I took herplace, and after also obtaining permission to arrange for Mr. Dawson'sresuming his attendance on his patient, I willingly consented to remainat Blackwater Park until Miss Halcombe no longer required my services.It was settled that I should give Sir Percival's solicitor a week'snotice before I left, and that he was to undertake the necessaryarrangements for appointing my successor. The matter was discussed invery few words. At its conclusion Sir Percival abruptly turned on hisheel, and left me free to join Mrs. Rubelle. That singular foreignperson had been sitting composedly on the door-step all this time,waiting till I could follow her to Miss Halcombe's room.
I had hardly walked half-way towards the house when Sir Percival, whohad withdrawn in the opposite direction, suddenly stopped and called meback.
"Why are you leaving my service?" he asked.
The question was so extraordinary, after what had just passed betweenus, that I hardly knew what to say in answer to it.
"Mind! I don't know why you are going," he went on. "You must give areason for leaving me, I suppose, when you get another situation. Whatreason? The breaking up of the family? Is that it?"
"There can be no positive objection, Sir Percival, to that reason----"
"Very well! That's all I want to know. If people apply for yourcharacter, that's your reason, stated by yourself. You go inconsequence of the breaking up of the family."
He turned away again before I could say another word, and walked outrapidly into the grounds. His manner was as strange as his language.I acknowledge he alarmed me.
Even the patience of Mrs. Rubelle was getting exhausted, when I joinedher at the house door.
"At last!" she said, with a shrug of her lean foreign shoulders. Sheled the way into the inhabited side of the house, ascended the stairs,and opened with her key the door at the end of the passage, whichcommunicated with the old Elizabethan rooms--a door never previouslyused, in my time, at Blackwater Park. The rooms themselves I knewwell, having entered them myself on various occasions from the otherside of the house. Mrs. Rubelle stopped at the third door along theold gallery, handed me the key of it, with the key of the door ofcommunication, and told me I should find Miss Halcombe in that room.Before I went in I thought it desirable to make her understand that herattendance had ceased. Accordingly, I told her in plain words that thecharge of the sick lady henceforth devolved entirely on myself.
"I am glad to hear it, ma'am," said Mrs. Rubelle. "I want to go verymuch."
"Do you leave to-day?" I asked, to make sure of her.
"Now that you have taken charge, ma'am, I leave in half an hour's time.Sir Percival has kindly placed at my disposition the gardener, and thechaise, whenever I want them. I shall want them in half an hour's timeto go to the station. I am packed up in anticipation already. I wishyou good-day, ma'am."
She dropped a brisk curtsey, and walked back along the gallery, humminga little tune, and keeping time to it cheerfully with the nosegay inher hand. I am sincerely thankful to say that was the last I saw ofMrs. Rubelle.
When I went into the room Miss Halcombe was asleep. I looked at heranxiously, as she lay in the dismal, high, old-fashioned bed. She wascertainly not in any respect altered for the worse since I had seen herlast. She had not been neglected, I am bound to admit, in any way thatI could perceive. The room was dreary, and dusty, and dark, but thewindow (looking on a solitary court-yard at the back of the house) wasopened to let in the fresh air, and all that could be done to make theplace comfortable had been done. The whole cruelty of Sir Percival'sdeception had fallen on poor Lady Glyde. The only ill-usage whicheither he or Mrs. Rubelle had inflicted on Miss Halcombe consisted, sofar as I could see, in the first offence of hiding her away.
I stole back, leaving the sick lady still peacefully asleep, to givethe gardener instructions about bringing the doctor. I begged the man,after he had taken Mrs. Rubelle to the station, to drive round by Mr.Dawson's, and leave a message in my name, asking him to call and seeme. I knew he would come on my account, and I knew he would remainwhen he found Count Fosco had left the house.
In due course of time the gardener returned, and said that he haddriven r
Having delivered his message the gardener was about to withdraw, but Istopped him to request that he would come back before dark, and sit upthat night, in one of the empty bedrooms, so as to be within call incase I wanted him. He understood readily enough my unwillingness to beleft alone all night in the most desolate part of that desolate house,and we arranged that he should come in between eight and nine.
He came punctually, and I found cause to be thankful that I had adoptedthe precaution of calling him in. Before midnight Sir Percival'sstrange temper broke out in the most violent and most alarming manner,and if the gardener had not been on the spot to pacify him on theinstant, I am afraid to think what might have happened.
Almost all the afternoon and evening he had been walking about thehouse and grounds in an unsettled, excitable manner, having, in allprobability, as I thought, taken an excessive quantity of wine at hissolitary dinner. However that may be, I heard his voice calling loudlyand angrily in the new wing of the house, as I was taking a turnbackwards and forwards along the gallery the last thing at night. Thegardener immediately ran down to him, and I closed the door ofcommunication, to keep the alarm, if possible, from reaching MissHalcombe's ears. It was full half an hour before the gardener cameback. He declared that his master was quite out of his senses--notthrough the excitement of drink, as I had supposed, but through a kindof panic or frenzy of mind, for which it was impossible to account. Hehad found Sir Percival walking backwards and forwards by himself in thehall, swearing, with every appearance of the most violent passion, thathe would not stop another minute alone in such a dungeon as his ownhouse, and that he would take the first stage of his journeyimmediately in the middle of the night. The gardener, on approachinghim, had been hunted out, with oaths and threats, to get the horse andchaise ready instantly. In a quarter of an hour Sir Percival hadjoined him in the yard, had jumped into the chaise, and, lashing thehorse into a gallop, had driven himself away, with his face as pale asashes in the moonlight. The gardener had heard him shouting andcursing at the lodge-keeper to get up and open the gate--had heard thewheels roll furiously on again in the still night, when the gate wasunlocked--and knew no more.
The next day, or a day or two after, I forget which, the chaise wasbrought back from Knowlesbury, our nearest town, by the ostler at theold inn. Sir Percival had stopped there, and had afterwards left bythe train--for what destination the man could not tell. I neverreceived any further information, either from himself or from any oneelse, of Sir Percival's proceedings, and I am not even aware, at thismoment, whether he is in England or out of it. He and I have not metsince he drove away like an escaped criminal from his own house, and itis my fervent hope and prayer that we may never meet again.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins / Romance & Love have rating 5.2 out of 5 / Based on104 votes