The woman in white, p.66
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       The Woman in White, p.66

           Wilkie Collins
 

  THE STORY CONTINUED BY WALTER HARTRIGHT

  I

  My first impulse, after reading Mrs. Catherick's extraordinarynarrative, was to destroy it. The hardened shameless depravity of thewhole composition, from beginning to end--the atrocious perversity ofmind which persistently associated me with a calamity for which I wasin no sense answerable, and with a death which I had risked my life intrying to avert--so disgusted me, that I was on the point of tearingthe letter, when a consideration suggested itself which warned me towait a little before I destroyed it.

  This consideration was entirely unconnected with Sir Percival. Theinformation communicated to me, so far as it concerned him, did littlemore than confirm the conclusions at which I had already arrived.

  He had committed his offence, as I had supposed him to have committedit, and the absence of all reference, on Mrs. Catherick's part, to theduplicate register at Knowlesbury, strengthened my previous convictionthat the existence of the book, and the risk of detection which itimplied, must have been necessarily unknown to Sir Percival. Myinterest in the question of the forgery was now at an end, and my onlyobject in keeping the letter was to make it of some future service inclearing up the last mystery that still remained to baffle me--theparentage of Anne Catherick on the father's side. There were one ortwo sentences dropped in her mother's narrative, which it might beuseful to refer to again, when matters of more immediate importanceallowed me leisure to search for the missing evidence. I did notdespair of still finding that evidence, and I had lost none of myanxiety to discover it, for I had lost none of my interest in tracingthe father of the poor creature who now lay at rest in Mrs. Fairlie'sgrave.

  Accordingly, I sealed up the letter and put it away carefully in mypocket-book, to be referred to again when the time came.

  The next day was my last in Hampshire. When I had appeared againbefore the magistrate at Knowlesbury, and when I had attended at theadjourned inquest, I should be free to return to London by theafternoon or the evening train.

  My first errand in the morning was, as usual, to the post-office. Theletter from Marian was there, but I thought when it was handed to methat it felt unusually light. I anxiously opened the envelope. Therewas nothing inside but a small strip of paper folded in two. The fewblotted hurriedly-written lines which were traced on it contained thesewords:

  "Come back as soon as you can. I have been obliged to move. Come toGower's Walk, Fulham (number five). I will be on the look-out for you.Don't be alarmed about us, we are both safe and well. But comeback.--Marian."

  The news which those lines contained--news which I instantly associatedwith some attempted treachery on the part of Count Fosco--fairlyoverwhelmed me. I stood breathless with the paper crumpled up in myhand. What had happened? What subtle wickedness had the Count plannedand executed in my absence? A night had passed since Marian's note waswritten--hours must elapse still before I could get back to them--somenew disaster might have happened already of which I was ignorant. Andhere, miles and miles away from them, here I must remain--held, doublyheld, at the disposal of the law!

  I hardly know to what forgetfulness of my obligations anxiety and alarmmight not have tempted me, but for the quieting influence of my faithin Marian. My absolute reliance on her was the one earthlyconsideration which helped me to restrain myself, and gave me courageto wait. The inquest was the first of the impediments in the way of myfreedom of action. I attended it at the appointed time, the legalformalities requiring my presence in the room, but as it turned out,not calling on me to repeat my evidence. This useless delay was a hardtrial, although I did my best to quiet my impatience by following thecourse of the proceedings as closely as I could.

  The London solicitor of the deceased (Mr. Merriman) was among thepersons present. But he was quite unable to assist the objects of theinquiry. He could only say that he was inexpressibly shocked andastonished, and that he could throw no light whatever on the mysteriouscircumstances of the case. At intervals during the adjournedinvestigation, he suggested questions which the Coroner put, but whichled to no results. After a patient inquiry, which lasted nearly threehours, and which exhausted every available source of information, thejury pronounced the customary verdict in cases of sudden death byaccident. They added to the formal decision a statement, that therehad been no evidence to show how the keys had been abstracted, how thefire had been caused, or what the purpose was for which the deceasedhad entered the vestry. This act closed the proceedings. The legalrepresentative of the dead man was left to provide for the necessitiesof the interment, and the witnesses were free to retire.

  Resolved not to lose a minute in getting to Knowlesbury, I paid my billat the hotel, and hired a fly to take me to the town. A gentleman whoheard me give the order, and who saw that I was going alone, informedme that he lived in the neighbourhood of Knowlesbury, and asked if Iwould have any objection to his getting home by sharing the fly withme. I accepted his proposal as a matter of course.

  Our conversation during the drive was naturally occupied by the oneabsorbing subject of local interest.

  My new acquaintance had some knowledge of the late Sir Percival'ssolicitor, and he and Mr. Merriman had been discussing the state of thedeceased gentleman's affairs and the succession to the property. SirPercival's embarrassments were so well known all over the county thathis solicitor could only make a virtue of necessity and plainlyacknowledge them. He had died without leaving a will, and he had nopersonal property to bequeath, even if he had made one, the wholefortune which he had derived from his wife having been swallowed up byhis creditors. The heir to the estate (Sir Percival having left noissue) was a son of Sir Felix Glyde's first cousin, an officer incommand of an East Indiaman. He would find his unexpected inheritancesadly encumbered, but the property would recover with time, and, if"the captain" was careful, he might be a rich man yet before he died.

  Absorbed as I was in the one idea of getting to London, thisinformation (which events proved to be perfectly correct) had aninterest of its own to attract my attention. I thought it justified mein keeping secret my discovery of Sir Percival's fraud. The heir,whose rights he had usurped, was the heir who would now have theestate. The income from it, for the last three-and-twenty years, whichshould properly have been his, and which the dead man had squandered tothe last farthing, was gone beyond recall. If I spoke, my speakingwould confer advantage on no one. If I kept the secret, my silenceconcealed the character of the man who had cheated Laura into marryinghim. For her sake, I wished to conceal it--for her sake, still, I tellthis story under feigned names.

  I parted with my chance companion at Knowlesbury, and went at once tothe town-hall. As I had anticipated, no one was present to prosecutethe case against me--the necessary formalities were observed, and I wasdischarged. On leaving the court a letter from Mr. Dawson was put intomy hand. It informed me that he was absent on professional duty, andit reiterated the offer I had already received from him of anyassistance which I might require at his hands. I wrote back, warmlyacknowledging my obligations to his kindness, and apologising for notexpressing my thanks personally, in consequence of my immediate recallon pressing business to town.

  Half an hour later I was speeding back to London by the express train.