Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Woman in White, Page 53

Wilkie Collins


  No circumstance of the slightest importance happened on my way to theoffices of Messrs. Gilmore & Kyrle, in Chancery Lane.

  While my card was being taken in to Mr. Kyrle, a consideration occurredto me which I deeply regretted not having thought of before. Theinformation derived from Marian's diary made it a matter of certaintythat Count Fosco had opened her first letter from Blackwater Park toMr. Kyrle, and had, by means of his wife, intercepted the second. Hewas therefore well aware of the address of the office, and he wouldnaturally infer that if Marian wanted advice and assistance, afterLaura's escape from the Asylum, she would apply once more to theexperience of Mr. Kyrle. In this case the office in Chancery Lane wasthe very first place which he and Sir Percival would cause to bewatched, and if the same persons were chosen for the purpose who hadbeen employed to follow me, before my departure from England, the factof my return would in all probability be ascertained on that very day.I had thought, generally, of the chances of my being recognised in thestreets, but the special risk connected with the office had neveroccurred to me until the present moment. It was too late now to repairthis unfortunate error in judgment--too late to wish that I had madearrangements for meeting the lawyer in some place privately appointedbeforehand. I could only resolve to be cautious on leaving ChanceryLane, and not to go straight home again under any circumstanceswhatever.

  After waiting a few minutes I was shown into Mr. Kyrle's private room.He was a pale, thin, quiet, self-possessed man, with a very attentiveeye, a very low voice, and a very undemonstrative manner--not (as Ijudged) ready with his sympathy where strangers were concerned, and notat all easy to disturb in his professional composure. A better man formy purpose could hardly have been found. If he committed himself to adecision at all, and if the decision was favourable, the strength ofour case was as good as proved from that moment.

  "Before I enter on the business which brings me here," I said, "I oughtto warn you, Mr. Kyrle, that the shortest statement I can make of itmay occupy some little time."

  "My time is at Miss Halcombe's disposal," he replied. "Where anyinterests of hers are concerned, I represent my partner personally, aswell as professionally. It was his request that I should do so, whenhe ceased to take an active part in business."

  "May I inquire whether Mr. Gilmore is in England?"

  "He is not, he is living with his relatives in Germany. His health hasimproved, but the period of his return is still uncertain."

  While we were exchanging these few preliminary words, he had beensearching among the papers before him, and he now produced from them asealed letter. I thought he was about to hand the letter to me, but,apparently changing his mind, he placed it by itself on the table,settled himself in his chair, and silently waited to hear what I had tosay.

  Without wasting a moment in prefatory words of any sort, I entered onmy narrative, and put him in full possession of the events which havealready been related in these pages.

  Lawyer as he was to the very marrow of his bones, I startled him out ofhis professional composure. Expressions of incredulity and surprise,which he could not repress, interrupted me several times before I haddone. I persevered, however, to the end, and as soon as I reached it,boldly asked the one important question--

  "What is your opinion, Mr. Kyrle?"

  He was too cautious to commit himself to an answer without taking timeto recover his self-possession first.

  "Before I give my opinion," he said, "I must beg permission to clearthe ground by a few questions."

  He put the questions--sharp, suspicious, unbelieving questions, whichclearly showed me, as they proceeded, that he thought I was the victimof a delusion, and that he might even have doubted, but for myintroduction to him by Miss Halcombe, whether I was not attempting theperpetration of a cunningly-designed fraud.

  "Do you believe that I have spoken the truth, Mr. Kyrle?" I asked, whenhe had done examining me.

  "So far as your own convictions are concerned, I am certain you havespoken the truth," he replied. "I have the highest esteem for MissHalcombe, and I have therefore every reason to respect a gentlemanwhose mediation she trusts in a matter of this kind. I will even gofarther, if you like, and admit, for courtesy's sake and for argument'ssake, that the identity of Lady Glyde as a living person is a provedfact to Miss Halcombe and yourself. But you come to me for a legalopinion. As a lawyer, and as a lawyer only, it is my duty to tell you,Mr. Hartright, that you have not the shadow of a case."

  "You put it strongly, Mr. Kyrle."

  "I will try to put it plainly as well. The evidence of Lady Glyde'sdeath is, on the face of it, clear and satisfactory. There is heraunt's testimony to prove that she came to Count Fosco's house, thatshe fell ill, and that she died. There is the testimony of the medicalcertificate to prove the death, and to show that it took place undernatural circumstances. There is the fact of the funeral at Limmeridge,and there is the assertion of the inscription on the tomb. That is thecase you want to overthrow. What evidence have you to support thedeclaration on your side that the person who died and was buried wasnot Lady Glyde? Let us run through the main points of your statementand see what they are worth. Miss Halcombe goes to a certain privateAsylum, and there sees a certain female patient. It is known that awoman named Anne Catherick, and bearing an extraordinary personalresemblance to Lady Glyde, escaped from the Asylum; it is known thatthe person received there last July was received as Anne Catherickbrought back; it is known that the gentleman who brought her backwarned Mr. Fairlie that it was part of her insanity to be bent onpersonating his dead niece; and it is known that she did repeatedlydeclare herself in the Asylum (where no one believed her) to be LadyGlyde. These are all facts. What have you to set against them? MissHalcombe's recognition of the woman, which recognition after-eventsinvalidate or contradict. Does Miss Halcombe assert her supposedsister's identity to the owner of the Asylum, and take legal means forrescuing her? No, she secretly bribes a nurse to let her escape. Whenthe patient has been released in this doubtful manner, and is taken toMr. Fairlie, does he recognise her? Is he staggered for one instant inhis belief of his niece's death? No. Do the servants recognise her?No. Is she kept in the neighbourhood to assert her own identity, andto stand the test of further proceedings? No, she is privately taken toLondon. In the meantime you have recognised her also, but you are nota relative--you are not even an old friend of the family. The servantscontradict you, and Mr. Fairlie contradicts Miss Halcombe, and thesupposed Lady Glyde contradicts herself. She declares she passed thenight in London at a certain house. Your own evidence shows that shehas never been near that house, and your own admission is that hercondition of mind prevents you from producing her anywhere to submit toinvestigation, and to speak for herself. I pass over minor points ofevidence on both sides to save time, and I ask you, if this case wereto go now into a court of law--to go before a jury, bound to take factsas they reasonably appear--where are your proofs?"

  I was obliged to wait and collect myself before I could answer him. Itwas the first time the story of Laura and the story of Marian had beenpresented to me from a stranger's point of view--the first time theterrible obstacles that lay across our path had been made to showthemselves in their true character.

  "There can be no doubt," I said, "that the facts, as you have statedthem, appear to tell against us, but----"

  "But you think those facts can be explained away," interposed Mr.Kyrle. "Let me tell you the result of my experience on that point.When an English jury has to choose between a plain fact ON the surfaceand a long explanation UNDER the surface, it always takes the fact inpreference to the explanation. For example, Lady Glyde (I call thelady you represent by that name for argument's sake) declares she hasslept at a certain house, and it is proved that she has not slept atthat house. You explain this circumstance by entering into the stateof her mind, and deducing from it a metaphysical conclusion. I don'tsay the conclusion is wrong--I only say that the jury will take thefact
of her contradicting herself in preference to any reason for thecontradiction that you can offer."

  "But is it not possible," I urged, "by dint of patience and exertion,to discover additional evidence? Miss Halcombe and I have a few hundredpounds----"

  He looked at me with a half-suppressed pity, and shook his head.

  "Consider the subject, Mr. Hartright, from your own point of view," hesaid. "If you are right about Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco(which I don't admit, mind), every imaginable difficulty would bethrown in the way of your getting fresh evidence. Every obstacle oflitigation would be raised--every point in the case would besystematically contested--and by the time we had spent our thousandsinstead of our hundreds, the final result would, in all probability, beagainst us. Questions of identity, where instances of personalresemblance are concerned, are, in themselves, the hardest of allquestions to settle--the hardest, even when they are free from thecomplications which beset the case we are now discussing. I really seeno prospect of throwing any light whatever on this extraordinaryaffair. Even if the person buried in Limmeridge churchyard be not LadyGlyde, she was, in life, on your own showing, so like her, that weshould gain nothing, if we applied for the necessary authority to havethe body exhumed. In short, there is no case, Mr. Hartright--there isreally no case."

  I was determined to believe that there WAS a case, and in thatdetermination shifted my ground, and appealed to him once more.

  "Are there not other proofs that we might produce besides the proof ofidentity?" I asked.

  "Not as you are situated," he replied. "The simplest and surest of allproofs, the proof by comparison of dates, is, as I understand,altogether out of your reach. If you could show a discrepancy betweenthe date of the doctor's certificate and the date of Lady Glyde'sjourney to London, the matter would wear a totally different aspect,and I should be the first to say, Let us go on."

  "That date may yet be recovered, Mr. Kyrle."

  "On the day when it is recovered, Mr. Hartright, you will have a case.If you have any prospect, at this moment, of getting at it--tell me,and we shall see if I can advise you."

  I considered. The housekeeper could not help us--Laura could not helpus--Marian could not help us. In all probability, the only persons inexistence who knew the date were Sir Percival and the Count.

  "I can think of no means of ascertaining the date at present," I said,"because I can think of no persons who are sure to know it, but CountFosco and Sir Percival Glyde."

  Mr. Kyrle's calmly attentive face relaxed, for the first time, into asmile.

  "With your opinion of the conduct of those two gentlemen," he said,"you don't expect help in that quarter, I presume? If they havecombined to gain large sums of money by a conspiracy, they are notlikely to confess it, at any rate."

  "They may be forced to confess it, Mr. Kyrle."

  "By whom?"

  "By me."

  We both rose. He looked me attentively in the face with moreappearance of interest than he had shown yet. I could see that I hadperplexed him a little.

  "You are very determined," he said. "You have, no doubt, a personalmotive for proceeding, into which it is not my business to inquire. Ifa case can be produced in the future, I can only say, my bestassistance is at your service. At the same time I must warn you, asthe money question always enters into the law question, that I seelittle hope, even if you ultimately established the fact of LadyGlyde's being alive, of recovering her fortune. The foreigner wouldprobably leave the country before proceedings were commenced, and SirPercival's embarrassments are numerous enough and pressing enough totransfer almost any sum of money he may possess from himself to hiscreditors. You are of course aware----"

  I stopped him at that point.

  "Let me beg that we may not discuss Lady Glyde's affairs," I said. "Ihave never known anything about them in former times, and I knownothing of them now--except that her fortune is lost. You are right inassuming that I have personal motives for stirring in this matter. Iwish those motives to be always as disinterested as they are at thepresent moment----"

  He tried to interpose and explain. I was a little heated, I suppose,by feeling that he had doubted me, and I went on bluntly, withoutwaiting to hear him.

  "There shall be no money motive," I said, "no idea of personaladvantage in the service I mean to render to Lady Glyde. She has beencast out as a stranger from the house in which she was born--a liewhich records her death has been written on her mother's tomb--andthere are two men, alive and unpunished, who are responsible for it.That house shall open again to receive her in the presence of everysoul who followed the false funeral to the grave--that lie shall bepublicly erased from the tombstone by the authority of the head of thefamily, and those two men shall answer for their crime to ME, thoughthe justice that sits in tribunals is powerless to pursue them. I havegiven my life to that purpose, and, alone as I stand, if God spares me,I will accomplish it."

  He drew back towards his table, and said nothing. His face showedplainly that he thought my delusion had got the better of my reason,and that he considered it totally useless to give me any more advice.

  "We each keep our opinion, Mr. Kyrle," I said, "and we must wait tillthe events of the future decide between us. In the meantime, I am muchobliged to you for the attention you have given to my statement. Youhave shown me that the legal remedy lies, in every sense of the word,beyond our means. We cannot produce the law proof, and we are not richenough to pay the law expenses. It is something gained to know that."

  I bowed and walked to the door. He called me back and gave me theletter which I had seen him place on the table by itself at thebeginning of our interview.

  "This came by post a few days ago," he said. "Perhaps you will notmind delivering it? Pray tell Miss Halcombe, at the same time, that Isincerely regret being, thus far, unable to help her, except by advice,which will not be more welcome, I am afraid, to her than to you."

  I looked at the letter while he was speaking. It was addressed to"Miss Halcombe. Care of Messrs. Gilmore & Kyrle, Chancery Lane." Thehandwriting was quite unknown to me.

  On leaving the room I asked one last question.

  "Do you happen to know," I said, "if Sir Percival Glyde is still inParis?"

  "He has returned to London," replied Mr. Kyrle. "At least I heard sofrom his solicitor, whom I met yesterday."

  After that answer I went out.

  On leaving the office the first precaution to be observed was toabstain from attracting attention by stopping to look about me. Iwalked towards one of the quietest of the large squares on the north ofHolborn, then suddenly stopped and turned round at a place where a longstretch of pavement was left behind me.

  There were two men at the corner of the square who had stopped also,and who were standing talking together. After a moment's reflection Iturned back so as to pass them. One moved as I came near, and turnedthe corner leading from the square into the street. The other remainedstationary. I looked at him as I passed and instantly recognised oneof the men who had watched me before I left England.

  If I had been free to follow my own instincts, I should probably havebegun by speaking to the man, and have ended by knocking him down. ButI was bound to consider consequences. If I once placed myself publiclyin the wrong, I put the weapons at once into Sir Percival's hands.There was no choice but to oppose cunning by cunning. I turned intothe street down which the second man had disappeared, and passed him,waiting in a doorway. He was a stranger to me, and I was glad to makesure of his personal appearance in case of future annoyance. Havingdone this, I again walked northward till I reached the New Road. ThereI turned aside to the west (having the men behind me all the time), andwaited at a point where I knew myself to be at some distance from acab-stand, until a fast two-wheel cab, empty, should happen to pass me.One passed in a few minutes. I jumped in and told the man to driverapidly towards Hyde Park. There was no second fast cab for the spiesbehind me. I saw them dart across to the other
side of the road, tofollow me by running, until a cab or a cab-stand came in their way.But I had the start of them, and when I stopped the driver and got out,they were nowhere in sight. I crossed Hyde Park and made sure, on theopen ground, that I was free. When I at last turned my stepshomewards, it was not till many hours later--not till after dark.