The woman in white, p.67
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       The Woman in White, p.67

           Wilkie Collins
 

  II

  It was between nine and ten o'clock before I reached Fulham, and foundmy way to Gower's Walk.

  Both Laura and Marian came to the door to let me in. I think we hadhardly known how close the tie was which bound us three together, untilthe evening came which united us again. We met as if we had beenparted for months instead of for a few days only. Marian's face wassadly worn and anxious. I saw who had known all the danger and borneall the trouble in my absence the moment I looked at her. Laura'sbrighter looks and better spirits told me how carefully she had beenspared all knowledge of the dreadful death at Welmingham, and of thetrue reason of our change of abode.

  The stir of the removal seemed to have cheered and interested her. Sheonly spoke of it as a happy thought of Marian's to surprise me on myreturn with a change from the close, noisy street to the pleasantneighbourhood of trees and fields and the river. She was full ofprojects for the future--of the drawings she was to finish--of thepurchasers I had found in the country who were to buy them--of theshillings and sixpences she had saved, till her purse was so heavy thatshe proudly asked me to weigh it in my own hand. The change for thebetter which had been wrought in her during the few days of my absencewas a surprise to me for which I was quite unprepared--and for all theunspeakable happiness of seeing it, I was indebted to Marian's courageand to Marian's love.

  When Laura had left us, and when we could speak to one another withoutrestraint, I tried to give some expression to the gratitude and theadmiration which filled my heart. But the generous creature would notwait to hear me. That sublime self-forgetfulness of women, whichyields so much and asks so little, turned all her thoughts from herselfto me.

  "I had only a moment left before post-time," she said, "or I shouldhave written less abruptly. You look worn and weary, Walter. I amafraid my letter must have seriously alarmed you?"

  "Only at first," I replied. "My mind was quieted, Marian, by my trustin you. Was I right in attributing this sudden change of place to somethreatened annoyance on the part of Count Fosco?"

  "Perfectly right," she said. "I saw him yesterday, and worse thanthat, Walter--I spoke to him."

  "Spoke to him? Did he know where we lived? Did he come to the house?"

  "He did. To the house--but not upstairs. Laura never saw him--Laurasuspects nothing. I will tell you how it happened: the danger, Ibelieve and hope, is over now. Yesterday, I was in the sitting-room,at our old lodgings. Laura was drawing at the table, and I was walkingabout and setting things to rights. I passed the window, and as Ipassed it, looked out into the street. There, on the opposite side ofthe way, I saw the Count, with a man talking to him----"

  "Did he notice you at the window?"

  "No--at least, I thought not. I was too violently startled to be quitesure."

  "Who was the other man? A stranger?"

  "Not a stranger, Walter. As soon as I could draw my breath again, Irecognised him. He was the owner of the Lunatic Asylum."

  "Was the Count pointing out the house to him?"

  "No, they were talking together as if they had accidentally met in thestreet. I remained at the window looking at them from behind thecurtain. If I had turned round, and if Laura had seen my face at thatmoment----Thank God, she was absorbed over her drawing! They soonparted. The man from the Asylum went one way, and the Count the other.I began to hope they were in the street by chance, till I saw the Countcome back, stop opposite to us again, take out his card-case andpencil, write something, and then cross the road to the shop below us.I ran past Laura before she could see me, and said I had forgottensomething upstairs. As soon as I was out of the room I went down tothe first landing and waited--I was determined to stop him if he triedto come upstairs. He made no such attempt. The girl from the shopcame through the door into the passage, with his card in her hand--alarge gilt card with his name, and a coronet above it, and these linesunderneath in pencil: 'Dear lady' (yes! the villain could address me inthat way still)--'dear lady, one word, I implore you, on a matterserious to us both.' If one can think at all, in serious difficulties,one thinks quick. I felt directly that it might be a fatal mistake toleave myself and to leave you in the dark, where such a man as theCount was concerned. I felt that the doubt of what he might do, inyour absence, would be ten times more trying to me if I declined to seehim than if I consented. 'Ask the gentleman to wait in the shop,' Isaid. 'I will be with him in a moment.' I ran upstairs for my bonnet,being determined not to let him speak to me indoors. I knew his deepringing voice, and I was afraid Laura might hear it, even in the shop.In less than a minute I was down again in the passage, and had openedthe door into the street. He came round to meet me from the shop.There he was in deep mourning, with his smooth bow and his deadlysmile, and some idle boys and women near him, staring at his greatsize, his fine black clothes, and his large cane with the gold knob toit. All the horrible time at Blackwater came back to me the moment Iset eyes on him. All the old loathing crept and crawled through me,when he took off his hat with a flourish and spoke to me, as if we hadparted on the friendliest terms hardly a day since."

  "You remember what he said?"

  "I can't repeat it, Walter. You shall know directly what he said aboutyou---but I can't repeat what he said to me. It was worse than thepolite insolence of his letter. My hands tingled to strike him, as ifI had been a man! I only kept them quiet by tearing his card to piecesunder my shawl. Without saying a word on my side, I walked away fromthe house (for fear of Laura seeing us), and he followed, protestingsoftly all the way. In the first by-street I turned, and asked himwhat he wanted with me. He wanted two things. First, if I had noobjection, to express his sentiments. I declined to hear them.Secondly, to repeat the warning in his letter. I asked, what occasionthere was for repeating it. He bowed and smiled, and said he wouldexplain. The explanation exactly confirmed the fears I expressed beforeyou left us. I told you, if you remember, that Sir Percival would betoo headstrong to take his friend's advice where you were concerned,and that there was no danger to be dreaded from the Count till his owninterests were threatened, and he was roused into acting for himself?"

  "I recollect, Marian."

  "Well, so it has really turned out. The Count offered his advice, butit was refused. Sir Percival would only take counsel of his ownviolence, his own obstinacy, and his own hatred of you. The Count lethim have his way, first privately ascertaining, in case of his owninterests being threatened next, where we lived. You were followed,Walter, on returning here, after your first journey to Hampshire, bythe lawyer's men for some distance from the railway, and by the Counthimself to the door of the house. How he contrived to escape beingseen by you he did not tell me, but he found us out on that occasion,and in that way. Having made the discovery, he took no advantage of ittill the news reached him of Sir Percival's death, and then, as I toldyou, he acted for himself, because he believed you would next proceedagainst the dead man's partner in the conspiracy. He at once made hisarrangements to meet the owner of the Asylum in London, and to take himto the place where his runaway patient was hidden, believing that theresults, whichever way they ended, would be to involve you ininterminable legal disputes and difficulties, and to tie your hands forall purposes of offence, so far as he was concerned. That was hispurpose, on his own confession to me. The only consideration which madehim hesitate, at the last moment----"

  "Yes?"

  "It is hard to acknowledge it, Walter, and yet I must. I was the onlyconsideration. No words can say how degraded I feel in my ownestimation when I think of it, but the one weak point in that man'siron character is the horrible admiration he feels for me. I havetried, for the sake of my own self-respect, to disbelieve it as long asI could; but his looks, his actions, force on me the shamefulconviction of the truth. The eyes of that monster of wickednessmoistened while he was speaking to me--they did, Walter! He declaredthat at the moment of pointing out the house to the doctor, he thoughtof my misery if I was separated from Laura, of my respo
nsibility if Iwas called on to answer for effecting her escape, and he risked theworst that you could do to him, the second time, for my sake. All heasked was that I would remember the sacrifice, and restrain yourrashness, in my own interests--interests which he might never be ableto consult again. I made no such bargain with him--I would have diedfirst. But believe him or not, whether it is true or false that he sentthe doctor away with an excuse, one thing is certain, I saw the manleave him without so much as a glance at our window, or even at ourside of the way."

  "I believe it, Marian. The best men are not consistent in good--whyshould the worst men be consistent in evil? At the same time, I suspecthim of merely attempting to frighten you, by threatening what he cannotreally do. I doubt his power of annoying us, by means of the owner ofthe Asylum, now that Sir Percival is dead, and Mrs. Catherick is freefrom all control. But let me hear more. What did the Count say of me?"

  "He spoke last of you. His eyes brightened and hardened, and hismanner changed to what I remember it in past times--to that mixture ofpitiless resolution and mountebank mockery which makes it so impossibleto fathom him. 'Warn Mr. Hartright!' he said in his loftiest manner.'He has a man of brains to deal with, a man who snaps his big fingersat the laws and conventions of society, when he measures himself withME. If my lamented friend had taken my advice, the business of theinquest would have been with the body of Mr. Hartright. But mylamented friend was obstinate. See! I mourn his loss--inwardly in mysoul, outwardly on my hat. This trivial crape expresses sensibilitieswhich I summon Mr. Hartright to respect. They may be transformed toimmeasurable enmities if he ventures to disturb them. Let him becontent with what he has got--with what I leave unmolested, for yoursake, to him and to you. Say to him (with my compliments), if he stirsme, he has Fosco to deal with. In the English of the Popular Tongue, Iinform him--Fosco sticks at nothing. Dear lady, good morning.' Hiscold grey eyes settled on my face--he took off his hat solemnly--bowed,bare-headed--and left me."

  "Without returning? without saying more last words?"

  "He turned at the corner of the street, and waved his hand, and thenstruck it theatrically on his breast. I lost sight of him after that.He disappeared in the opposite direction to our house, and I ran backto Laura. Before I was indoors again, I had made up my mind that wemust go. The house (especially in your absence) was a place of dangerinstead of a place of safety, now that the Count had discovered it. IfI could have felt certain of your return, I should have risked waitingtill you came back. But I was certain of nothing, and I acted at onceon my own impulse. You had spoken, before leaving us, of moving into aquieter neighbourhood and purer air, for the sake of Laura's health. Ihad only to remind her of that, and to suggest surprising you andsaving you trouble by managing the move in your absence, to make herquite as anxious for the change as I was. She helped me to pack upyour things, and she has arranged them all for you in your newworking-room here."

  "What made you think of coming to this place?"

  "My ignorance of other localities in the neighbourhood of London. Ifelt the necessity of getting as far away as possible from our oldlodgings, and I knew something of Fulham, because I had once been atschool there. I despatched a messenger with a note, on the chance thatthe school might still be in existence. It was in existence--thedaughters of my old mistress were carrying it on for her, and theyengaged this place from the instructions I had sent. It was justpost-time when the messenger returned to me with the address of thehouse. We moved after dark--we came here quite unobserved. Have Idone right, Walter? Have I justified your trust in me?"

  I answered her warmly and gratefully, as I really felt. But theanxious look still remained on her face while I was speaking, and thefirst question she asked, when I had done, related to Count Fosco.

  I saw that she was thinking of him now with a changed mind. No freshoutbreak of anger against him, no new appeal to me to hasten the day ofreckoning escaped her. Her conviction that the man's hatefuladmiration of herself was really sincere, seemed to have increased ahundredfold her distrust of his unfathomable cunning, her inborn dreadof the wicked energy and vigilance of all his faculties. Her voicefell low, her manner was hesitating, her eyes searched into mine withan eager fear when she asked me what I thought of his message, and whatI meant to do next after hearing it.

  "Not many weeks have passed, Marian," I answered, "since my interviewwith Mr. Kyrle. When he and I parted, the last words I said to himabout Laura were these: 'Her uncle's house shall open to receive her,in the presence of every soul who followed the false funeral to thegrave; the lie that records her death shall be publicly erased from thetombstone by the authority of the head of the family, and the two menwho have wronged her shall answer for their crime to ME, though thejustice that sits in tribunals is powerless to pursue them.' One ofthose men is beyond mortal reach. The other remains, and my resolutionremains."

  Her eyes lit up--her colour rose. She said nothing, but I saw all hersympathies gathering to mine in her face.

  "I don't disguise from myself, or from you," I went on, "that theprospect before us is more than doubtful. The risks we have runalready are, it may be, trifles compared with the risks that threatenus in the future, but the venture shall be tried, Marian, for all that.I am not rash enough to measure myself against such a man as the Countbefore I am well prepared for him. I have learnt patience--I can waitmy time. Let him believe that his message has produced its effect--lethim know nothing of us, and hear nothing of us--let us give him fulltime to feel secure--his own boastful nature, unless I seriouslymistake him, will hasten that result. This is one reason for waiting,but there is another more important still. My position, Marian,towards you and towards Laura ought to be a stronger one than it is nowbefore I try our last chance."

  She leaned near to me, with a look of surprise.

  "How can it be stronger?" she asked.

  "I will tell you," I replied, "when the time comes. It has not comeyet--it may never come at all. I may be silent about it to Laura forever--I must be silent now, even to YOU, till I see for myself that Ican harmlessly and honourably speak. Let us leave that subject. Thereis another which has more pressing claims on our attention. You havekept Laura, mercifully kept her, in ignorance of her husband'sdeath----"

  "Oh, Walter, surely it must be long yet before we tell her of it?"

  "No, Marian. Better that you should reveal it to her now, than thataccident, which no one can guard against, should reveal it to her atsome future time. Spare her all the details--break it to her verytenderly, but tell her that he is dead."

  "You have a reason, Walter, for wishing her to know of her husband'sdeath besides the reason you have just mentioned?"

  "I have."

  "A reason connected with that subject which must not be mentionedbetween us yet?--which may never be mentioned to Laura at all?"

  She dwelt on the last words meaningly. When I answered her in theaffirmative, I dwelt on them too.

  Her face grew pale. For a while she looked at me with a sad,hesitating interest. An unaccustomed tenderness trembled in her darkeyes and softened her firm lips, as she glanced aside at the emptychair in which the dear companion of all our joys and sorrows had beensitting.

  "I think I understand," she said. "I think I owe it to her and to you,Walter, to tell her of her husband's death."

  She sighed, and held my hand fast for a moment--then dropped itabruptly, and left the room. On the next day Laura knew that his deathhad released her, and that the error and the calamity of her life layburied in his tomb.

  His name was mentioned among us no more. Thenceforward, we shrank fromthe slightest approach to the subject of his death, and in the samescrupulous manner, Marian and I avoided all further reference to thatother subject, which, by her consent and mine, was not to be mentionedbetween us yet. It was not the less present in our minds--it wasrather kept alive in them by the restraint which we had imposed onourselves. We both watched Laura more anxiously than ever
, sometimeswaiting and hoping, sometimes waiting and fearing, till the time came.

  By degrees we returned to our accustomed way of life. I resumed thedaily work, which had been suspended during my absence in Hampshire.Our new lodgings cost us more than the smaller and less convenientrooms which we had left, and the claim thus implied on my increasedexertions was strengthened by the doubtfulness of our future prospects.Emergencies might yet happen which would exhaust our little fund at thebanker's, and the work of my hands might be, ultimately, all we had tolook to for support. More permanent and more lucrative employment thanhad yet been offered to me was a necessity of our position--a necessityfor which I now diligently set myself to provide.

  It must not be supposed that the interval of rest and seclusion ofwhich I am now writing, entirely suspended, on my part, all pursuit ofthe one absorbing purpose with which my thoughts and actions areassociated in these pages. That purpose was, for months and monthsyet, never to relax its claims on me. The slow ripening of it stillleft me a measure of precaution to take, an obligation of gratitude toperform, and a doubtful question to solve.

  The measure of precaution related, necessarily, to the Count. It wasof the last importance to ascertain, if possible, whether his planscommitted him to remaining in England--or, in other words, to remainingwithin my reach. I contrived to set this doubt at rest by very simplemeans. His address in St. John's Wood being known to me, I inquired inthe neighbourhood, and having found out the agent who had the disposalof the furnished house in which he lived, I asked if number five,Forest Road, was likely to be let within a reasonable time. The replywas in the negative. I was informed that the foreign gentleman thenresiding in the house had renewed his term of occupation for anothersix months, and would remain in possession until the end of June in thefollowing year. We were then at the beginning of December only. I leftthe agent with my mind relieved from all present fear of the Count'sescaping me.

  The obligation I had to perform took me once more into the presence ofMrs. Clements. I had promised to return, and to confide to her thoseparticulars relating to the death and burial of Anne Catherick which Ihad been obliged to withhold at our first interview. Changed ascircumstances now were, there was no hindrance to my trusting the goodwoman with as much of the story of the conspiracy as it was necessaryto tell. I had every reason that sympathy and friendly feeling couldsuggest to urge on me the speedy performance of my promise, and I didconscientiously and carefully perform it. There is no need to burdenthese pages with any statement of what passed at the interview. Itwill be more to the purpose to say, that the interview itselfnecessarily brought to my mind the one doubtful question stillremaining to be solved--the question of Anne Catherick's parentage onthe father's side.

  A multitude of small considerations in connection with thissubject--trifling enough in themselves, but strikingly important whenmassed together--had latterly led my mind to a conclusion which Iresolved to verify. I obtained Marian's permission to write to MajorDonthorne, of Varneck Hall (where Mrs. Catherick had lived in servicefor some years previous to her marriage), to ask him certain questions.I made the inquiries in Marian's name, and described them as relatingto matters of personal history in her family, which might explain andexcuse my application. When I wrote the letter I had no certainknowledge that Major Donthorne was still alive--I despatched it on thechance that he might be living, and able and willing to reply.

  After a lapse of two days proof came, in the shape of a letter, thatthe Major was living, and that he was ready to help us.

  The idea in my mind when I wrote to him, and the nature of my inquirieswill be easily inferred from his reply. His letter answered myquestions by communicating these important facts--

  In the first place, "the late Sir Percival Glyde, of Blackwater Park,"had never set foot in Varneck Hall. The deceased gentleman was a totalstranger to Major Donthorne, and to all his family.

  In the second place, "the late Mr. Philip Fairlie, of LimmeridgeHouse," had been, in his younger days, the intimate friend and constantguest of Major Donthorne. Having refreshed his memory by looking backto old letters and other papers, the Major was in a position to saypositively that Mr. Philip Fairlie was staying at Varneck Hall in themonth of August, eighteen hundred and twenty-six, and that he remainedthere for the shooting during the month of September and part ofOctober following. He then left, to the best of the Major's belief,for Scotland, and did not return to Varneck Hall till after a lapse oftime, when he reappeared in the character of a newly-married man.

  Taken by itself, this statement was, perhaps, of little positive value,but taken in connection with certain facts, every one of which eitherMarian or I knew to be true, it suggested one plain conclusion thatwas, to our minds, irresistible.

  Knowing, now, that Mr. Philip Fairlie had been at Varneck Hall in theautumn of eighteen hundred and twenty-six, and that Mrs. Catherick hadbeen living there in service at the same time, we knew also--first,that Anne had been born in June, eighteen hundred and twenty-seven;secondly, that she had always presented an extraordinary personalresemblance to Laura; and, thirdly, that Laura herself was strikinglylike her father. Mr. Philip Fairlie had been one of the notoriouslyhandsome men of his time. In disposition entirely unlike his brotherFrederick, he was the spoilt darling of society, especially of thewomen--an easy, light-hearted, impulsive, affectionate man--generous toa fault--constitutionally lax in his principles, and notoriouslythoughtless of moral obligations where women were concerned. Such werethe facts we knew--such was the character of the man. Surely the plaininference that follows needs no pointing out?

  Read by the new light which had now broken upon me, even Mrs.Catherick's letter, in despite of herself, rendered its mite ofassistance towards strengthening the conclusion at which I had arrived.She had described Mrs. Fairlie (in writing to me) as "plain-looking,"and as having "entrapped the handsomest man in England into marryingher." Both assertions were gratuitously made, and both were false.Jealous dislike (which, in such a woman as Mrs. Catherick, wouldexpress itself in petty malice rather than not express itself at all)appeared to me to be the only assignable cause for the peculiarinsolence of her reference to Mrs. Fairlie, under circumstances whichdid not necessitate any reference at all.

  The mention here of Mrs. Fairlie's name naturally suggests one otherquestion. Did she ever suspect whose child the little girl brought toher at Limmeridge might be?

  Marian's testimony was positive on this point. Mrs. Fairlie's letterto her husband, which had been read to me in former days--the letterdescribing Anne's resemblance to Laura, and acknowledging heraffectionate interest in the little stranger--had been written, beyondall question, in perfect innocence of heart. It even seemed doubtful,on consideration, whether Mr. Philip Fairlie himself had been nearerthan his wife to any suspicion of the truth. The disgracefullydeceitful circumstances under which Mrs. Catherick had married, thepurpose of concealment which the marriage was intended to answer, mightwell keep her silent for caution's sake, perhaps for her own pride'ssake also, even assuming that she had the means, in his absence, ofcommunicating with the father of her unborn child.

  As this surmise floated through my mind, there rose on my memory theremembrance of the Scripture denunciation which we have all thought ofin our time with wonder and with awe: "The sins of the fathers shall bevisited on the children." But for the fatal resemblance between the twodaughters of one father, the conspiracy of which Anne had been theinnocent instrument and Laura the innocent victim could never have beenplanned. With what unerring and terrible directness the long chain ofcircumstances led down from the thoughtless wrong committed by thefather to the heartless injury inflicted on the child!

  These thoughts came to me, and others with them, which drew my mindaway to the little Cumberland churchyard where Anne Catherick now layburied. I thought of the bygone days when I had met her by Mrs.Fairlie's grave, and met her for the last time. I thought of her poorhelpless hands beating on the tombstone, and her we
ary, yearning words,murmured to the dead remains of her protectress and her friend: "Oh, ifI could die, and be hidden and at rest with YOU!" Little more than ayear had passed since she breathed that wish; and how inscrutably, howawfully, it had been fulfilled! The words she had spoken to Laura bythe shores of the lake, the very words had now come true. "Oh, if Icould only be buried with your mother! If I could only wake at her sidewhen the angel's trumpet sounds and the graves give up their dead atthe resurrection!" Through what mortal crime and horror, through whatdarkest windings of the way down to death--the lost creature hadwandered in God's leading to the last home that, living, she neverhoped to reach! In that sacred rest I leave her--in that dreadcompanionship let her remain undisturbed.

  So the ghostly figure which has haunted these pages, as it haunted mylife, goes down into the impenetrable gloom. Like a shadow she firstcame to me in the loneliness of the night. Like a shadow she passesaway in the loneliness of the dead.