The woman in white, p.56
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       The Woman in White, p.56

           Wilkie Collins
 

  The only signature to these lines was the initial letter F, surroundedby a circle of intricate flourishes. I threw the letter on the tablewith all the contempt that I felt for it.

  "He is trying to frighten you--a sure sign that he is frightenedhimself," I said.

  She was too genuine a woman to treat the letter as I treated it. Theinsolent familiarity of the language was too much for her self-control.As she looked at me across the table, her hands clenched themselves inher lap, and the old quick fiery temper flamed out again brightly inher cheeks and her eyes.

  "Walter!" she said, "if ever those two men are at your mercy, and ifyou are obliged to spare one of them, don't let it be the Count."

  "I will keep this letter, Marian, to help my memory when the timecomes."

  She looked at me attentively as I put the letter away in my pocket-book.

  "When the time comes?" she repeated. "Can you speak of the future asif you were certain of it?--certain after what you have heard in Mr.Kyrle's office, after what has happened to you to-day?"

  "I don't count the time from to-day, Marian. All I have done to-dayis to ask another man to act for me. I count from to-morrow----"

  "Why from to-morrow?"

  "Because to-morrow I mean to act for myself."

  "How?"

  "I shall go to Blackwater by the first train, and return, I hope, atnight."

  "To Blackwater!"

  "Yes. I have had time to think since I left Mr. Kyrle. His opinion onone point confirms my own. We must persist to the last in hunting downthe date of Laura's journey. The one weak point in the conspiracy, andprobably the one chance of proving that she is a living woman, centrein the discovery of that date."

  "You mean," said Marian, "the discovery that Laura did not leaveBlackwater Park till after the date of her death on the doctor'scertificate?"

  "Certainly."

  "What makes you think it might have been AFTER? Laura can tell usnothing of the time she was in London."

  "But the owner of the Asylum told you that she was received there onthe twenty-seventh of July. I doubt Count Fosco's ability to keep herin London, and to keep her insensible to all that was passing aroundher, more than one night. In that case, she must have started on thetwenty-sixth, and must have come to London one day after the date ofher own death on the doctor's certificate. If we can prove that date,we prove our case against Sir Percival and the Count."

  "Yes, yes--I see! But how is the proof to be obtained?"

  "Mrs. Michelson's narrative has suggested to me two ways of trying toobtain it. One of them is to question the doctor, Mr. Dawson, who mustknow when he resumed his attendance at Blackwater Park after Laura leftthe house. The other is to make inquiries at the inn to which SirPercival drove away by himself at night. We know that his departurefollowed Laura's after the lapse of a few hours, and we may get at thedate in that way. The attempt is at least worth making, and to-morrowI am determined it shall be made."

  "And suppose it fails--I look at the worst now, Walter; but I will lookat the best if disappointments come to try us--suppose no one can helpyou at Blackwater?"

  "There are two men who can help me, and shall help me in London--SirPercival and the Count. Innocent people may well forget the date--butTHEY are guilty, and THEY know it. If I fail everywhere else, I meanto force a confession out of one or both of them on my own terms."

  All the woman flushed up in Marian's face as I spoke.

  "Begin with the Count," she whispered eagerly. "For my sake, beginwith the Count."

  "We must begin, for Laura's sake, where there is the best chance ofsuccess," I replied.

  The colour faded from her face again, and she shook her head sadly.

  "Yes," she said, "you are right--it was mean and miserable of me to saythat. I try to be patient, Walter, and succeed better now than I didin happier times. But I have a little of my old temper still left, andit will get the better of me when I think of the Count!"

  "His turn will come," I said. "But, remember, there is no weak placein his life that we know of yet." I waited a little to let her recoverher self-possession, and then spoke the decisive words--

  "Marian! There is a weak place we both know of in Sir Percival'slife----"

  "You mean the Secret!"

  "Yes: the Secret. It is our only sure hold on him. I can force himfrom his position of security, I can drag him and his villainy into theface of day, by no other means. Whatever the Count may have done, SirPercival has consented to the conspiracy against Laura from anothermotive besides the motive of gain. You heard him tell the Count thathe believed his wife knew enough to ruin him? You heard him say that hewas a lost man if the secret of Anne Catherick was known?"

  "Yes! yes! I did."

  "Well, Marian, when our other resources have failed us, I mean to knowthe Secret. My old superstition clings to me, even yet. I say againthe woman in white is a living influence in our three lives. The Endis appointed--the End is drawing us on--and Anne Catherick, dead in hergrave, points the way to it still!"

  V

  The story of my first inquiries in Hampshire is soon told.

  My early departure from London enabled me to reach Mr. Dawson's housein the forenoon. Our interview, so far as the object of my visit wasconcerned, led to no satisfactory result.

  Mr. Dawson's books certainly showed when he had resumed his attendanceon Miss Halcombe at Blackwater Park, but it was not possible tocalculate back from this date with any exactness, without such helpfrom Mrs. Michelson as I knew she was unable to afford. She could notsay from memory (who, in similar cases, ever can?) how many days hadelapsed between the renewal of the doctor's attendance on his patientand the previous departure of Lady Glyde. She was almost certain ofhaving mentioned the circumstance of the departure to Miss Halcombe, onthe day after it happened--but then she was no more able to fix thedate of the day on which this disclosure took place, than to fix thedate of the day before, when Lady Glyde had left for London. Neithercould she calculate, with any nearer approach to exactness, the timethat had passed from the departure of her mistress, to the period whenthe undated letter from Madame Fosco arrived. Lastly, as if tocomplete the series of difficulties, the doctor himself, having beenill at the time, had omitted to make his usual entry of the day of theweek and month when the gardener from Blackwater Park had called on himto deliver Mrs. Michelson's message.

  Hopeless of obtaining assistance from Mr. Dawson, I resolved to trynext if I could establish the date of Sir Percival's arrival atKnowlesbury.

  It seemed like a fatality! When I reached Knowlesbury the inn was shutup, and bills were posted on the walls. The speculation had been a badone, as I was informed, ever since the time of the railway. The newhotel at the station had gradually absorbed the business, and the oldinn (which we knew to be the inn at which Sir Percival had put up), hadbeen closed about two months since. The proprietor had left the townwith all his goods and chattels, and where he had gone I could notpositively ascertain from any one. The four people of whom I inquiredgave me four different accounts of his plans and projects when he leftKnowlesbury.

  There were still some hours to spare before the last train left forLondon, and I drove back again in a fly from the Knowlesbury station toBlackwater Park, with the purpose of questioning the gardener and theperson who kept the lodge. If they, too, proved unable to assist me,my resources for the present were at an end, and I might return to town.

  I dismissed the fly a mile distant from the park, and getting mydirections from the driver, proceeded by myself to the house.

  As I turned into the lane from the high-road, I saw a man, with acarpet-bag, walking before me rapidly on the way to the lodge. He wasa little man, dressed in shabby black, and wearing a remarkably largehat. I set him down (as well as it was possible to judge) for alawyer's clerk, and stopped at once to widen the distance between us.He had not heard me, and he walked on out of sight, without lookingback. When I passed through the gates myself, a
little whileafterwards, he was not visible--he had evidently gone on to the house.

  There were two women in the lodge. One of them was old, the other Iknew at once, by Marian's description of her, to be Margaret Porcher.

  I asked first if Sir Percival was at the Park, and receiving a reply inthe negative, inquired next when he had left it. Neither of the womencould tell me more than that he had gone away in the summer. I couldextract nothing from Margaret Porcher but vacant smiles and shakings ofthe head. The old woman was a little more intelligent, and I managedto lead her into speaking of the manner of Sir Percival's departure,and of the alarm that it caused her. She remembered her master callingher out of bed, and remembered his frightening her by swearing--but thedate at which the occurrence happened was, as she honestlyacknowledged, "quite beyond her."

  On leaving the lodge I saw the gardener at work not far off. When Ifirst addressed him, he looked at me rather distrustfully, but on myusing Mrs. Michelson's name, with a civil reference to himself, heentered into conversation readily enough. There is no need to describewhat passed between us--it ended, as all my other attempts to discoverthe date had ended. The gardener knew that his master had driven away,at night, "some time in July, the last fortnight or the last ten daysin the month"--and knew no more.

  While we were speaking together I saw the man in black, with the largehat, come out from the house, and stand at some little distanceobserving us.

  Certain suspicions of his errand at Blackwater Park had already crossedmy mind. They were now increased by the gardener's inability (orunwillingness) to tell me who the man was, and I determined to clearthe way before me, if possible, by speaking to him. The plainestquestion I could put as a stranger would be to inquire if the house wasallowed to be shown to visitors. I walked up to the man at once, andaccosted him in those words.

  His look and manner unmistakably betrayed that he knew who I was, andthat he wanted to irritate me into quarrelling with him. His reply wasinsolent enough to have answered the purpose, if I had been lessdetermined to control myself. As it was, I met him with the mostresolute politeness, apologised for my involuntary intrusion (which hecalled a "trespass,") and left the grounds. It was exactly as Isuspected. The recognition of me when I left Mr. Kyrle's office hadbeen evidently communicated to Sir Percival Glyde, and the man in blackhad been sent to the Park in anticipation of my making inquiries at thehouse or in the neighbourhood. If I had given him the least chance oflodging any sort of legal complaint against me, the interference of thelocal magistrate would no doubt have been turned to account as a clogon my proceedings, and a means of separating me from Marian and Laurafor some days at least.

  I was prepared to be watched on the way from Blackwater Park to thestation, exactly as I had been watched in London the day before. But Icould not discover at the time, whether I was really followed on thisoccasion or not. The man in black might have had means of tracking meat his disposal of which I was not aware, but I certainly saw nothingof him, in his own person, either on the way to the station, orafterwards on my arrival at the London terminus in the evening. Ireached home on foot, taking the precaution, before I approached ourown door, of walking round by the loneliest street in theneighbourhood, and there stopping and looking back more than once overthe open space behind me. I had first learnt to use this stratagemagainst suspected treachery in the wilds of Central America--and now Iwas practising it again, with the same purpose and with even greatercaution, in the heart of civilised London!

  Nothing had happened to alarm Marian during my absence. She askedeagerly what success I had met with. When I told her she could notconceal her surprise at the indifference with which I spoke of thefailure of my investigations thus far.

  The truth was, that the ill-success of my inquiries had in no sensedaunted me. I had pursued them as a matter of duty, and I had expectednothing from them. In the state of my mind at that time, it was almosta relief to me to know that the struggle was now narrowed to a trial ofstrength between myself and Sir Percival Glyde. The vindictive motivehad mingled itself all along with my other and better motives, and Iconfess it was a satisfaction to me to feel that the surest way, theonly way left, of serving Laura's cause, was to fasten my hold firmlyon the villain who had married her.

  While I acknowledge that I was not strong enough to keep my motivesabove the reach of this instinct of revenge, I can honestly saysomething in my own favour on the other side. No base speculation onthe future relations of Laura and myself, and on the private andpersonal concessions which I might force from Sir Percival if I oncehad him at my mercy, ever entered my mind. I never said to myself, "IfI do succeed, it shall be one result of my success that I put it out ofher husband's power to take her from me again." I could not look at herand think of the future with such thoughts as those. The sad sight ofthe change in her from her former self, made the one interest of mylove an interest of tenderness and compassion which her father or herbrother might have felt, and which I felt, God knows, in my inmostheart. All my hopes looked no farther on now than to the day of herrecovery. There, till she was strong again and happy again--there, tillshe could look at me as she had once looked, and speak to me as she hadonce spoken--the future of my happiest thoughts and my dearest wishesended.

  These words are written under no prompting of idle self-contemplation.Passages in this narrative are soon to come which will set the minds ofothers in judgment on my conduct. It is right that the best and theworst of me should be fairly balanced before that time.