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The Woman in White, Page 69

Wilkie Collins


  The course of this narrative, steadily flowing on, bears me away fromthe morning-time of our married life, and carries me forward to the end.

  In a fortnight more we three were back in London, and the shadow wasstealing over us of the struggle to come.

  Marian and I were careful to keep Laura in ignorance of the cause thathad hurried us back--the necessity of making sure of the Count. It wasnow the beginning of May, and his term of occupation at the house inForest Road expired in June. If he renewed it (and I had reasons,shortly to be mentioned, for anticipating that he would), I might becertain of his not escaping me. But if by any chance he disappointedmy expectations and left the country, then I had no time to lose inarming myself to meet him as I best might.

  In the first fulness of my new happiness, there had been moments whenmy resolution faltered--moments when I was tempted to be safelycontent, now that the dearest aspiration of my life was fulfilled inthe possession of Laura's love. For the first time I thoughtfaint-heartedly of the greatness of the risk, of the adverse chancesarrayed against me, of the fair promise of our new life, and of theperil in which I might place the happiness which we had so hardlyearned. Yes! let me own it honestly. For a brief time I wandered, inthe sweet guiding of love, far from the purpose to which I had beentrue under sterner discipline and in darker days. Innocently Laura hadtempted me aside from the hard path--innocently she was destined tolead me back again.

  At times, dreams of the terrible past still disconnectedly recalled toher, in the mystery of sleep, the events of which her waking memory hadlost all trace. One night (barely two weeks after our marriage), whenI was watching her at rest, I saw the tears come slowly through herclosed eyelids, I heard the faint murmuring words escape her which toldme that her spirit was back again on the fatal journey from BlackwaterPark. That unconscious appeal, so touching and so awful in thesacredness of her sleep, ran through me like fire. The next day wasthe day we came back to London--the day when my resolution returned tome with tenfold strength.

  The first necessity was to know something of the man. Thus far, thetrue story of his life was an impenetrable mystery to me.

  I began with such scanty sources of information as were at my owndisposal. The important narrative written by Mr. Frederick Fairlie(which Marian had obtained by following the directions I had given toher in the winter) proved to be of no service to the special objectwith which I now looked at it. While reading it I reconsidered thedisclosure revealed to me by Mrs. Clements of the series of deceptionswhich had brought Anne Catherick to London, and which had there devotedher to the interests of the conspiracy. Here, again, the Count had notopenly committed himself--here, again, he was, to all practicalpurpose, out of my reach.

  I next returned to Marian's journal at Blackwater Park. At my requestshe read to me again a passage which referred to her past curiosityabout the Count, and to the few particulars which she had discoveredrelating to him.

  The passage to which I allude occurs in that part of her journal whichdelineates his character and his personal appearance. She describeshim as "not having crossed the frontiers of his native country foryears past"--as "anxious to know if any Italian gentlemen were settledin the nearest town to Blackwater Park"--as "receiving letters with allsorts of odd stamps on them, and one with a large official-looking sealon it." She is inclined to consider that his long absence from hisnative country may be accounted for by assuming that he is a politicalexile. But she is, on the other hand, unable to reconcile this ideawith the reception of the letter from abroad bearing "the largeofficial-looking seal"--letters from the Continent addressed topolitical exiles being usually the last to court attention from foreignpost-offices in that way.

  The considerations thus presented to me in the diary, joined to certainsurmises of my own that grew out of them, suggested a conclusion whichI wondered I had not arrived at before. I now said to myself--whatLaura had once said to Marian at Blackwater Park, what Madame Fosco hadoverheard by listening at the door--the Count is a spy!

  Laura had applied the word to him at hazard, in natural anger at hisproceedings towards herself. I applied it to him with the deliberateconviction that his vocation in life was the vocation of a spy. Onthis assumption, the reason for his extraordinary stay in England solong after the objects of the conspiracy had been gained, became, to mymind, quite intelligible.

  The year of which I am now writing was the year of the famous CrystalPalace Exhibition in Hyde Park. Foreigners in unusually large numbershad arrived already, and were still arriving in England. Men wereamong us by hundreds whom the ceaseless distrustfulness of theirgovernments had followed privately, by means of appointed agents, toour shores. My surmises did not for a moment class a man of theCount's abilities and social position with the ordinary rank and fileof foreign spies. I suspected him of holding a position of authority,of being entrusted by the government which he secretly served with theorganisation and management of agents specially employed in thiscountry, both men and women, and I believed Mrs. Rubelle, who had beenso opportunely found to act as nurse at Blackwater Park, to be, in allprobability, one of the number.

  Assuming that this idea of mine had a foundation in truth, the positionof the Count might prove to be more assailable than I had hithertoventured to hope. To whom could I apply to know something more of theman's history and of the man himself than I knew now?

  In this emergency it naturally occurred to my mind that a countryman ofhis own, on whom I could rely, might be the fittest person to help me.The first man whom I thought of under these circumstances was also theonly Italian with whom I was intimately acquainted--my quaint littlefriend, Professor Pesca.

  The professor has been so long absent from these pages that he has runsome risk of being forgotten altogether.

  It is the necessary law of such a story as mine that the personsconcerned in it only appear when the course of events takes themup--they come and go, not by favour of my personal partiality, but byright of their direct connection with the circumstances to be detailed.For this reason, not Pesca alone, but my mother and sister as well,have been left far in the background of the narrative. My visits tothe Hampstead cottage, my mother's belief in the denial of Laura'sidentity which the conspiracy had accomplished, my vain efforts toovercome the prejudice on her part and on my sister's to which, intheir jealous affection for me, they both continued to adhere, thepainful necessity which that prejudice imposed on me of concealing mymarriage from them till they had learnt to do justice to my wife--allthese little domestic occurrences have been left unrecorded becausethey were not essential to the main interest of the story. It isnothing that they added to my anxieties and embittered mydisappointments--the steady march of events has inexorably passed themby.

  For the same reason I have said nothing here of the consolation that Ifound in Pesca's brotherly affection for me, when I saw him again afterthe sudden cessation of my residence at Limmeridge House. I have notrecorded the fidelity with which my warm-hearted little friendfollowed me to the place of embarkation when I sailed for CentralAmerica, or the noisy transport of joy with which he received me whenwe next met in London. If I had felt justified in accepting the offersof service which he made to me on my return, he would have appearedagain long ere this. But, though I knew that his honour and hiscourage were to be implicitly relied on, I was not so sure that hisdiscretion was to be trusted, and, for that reason only, I followed thecourse of all my inquiries alone. It will now be sufficientlyunderstood that Pesca was not separated from all connection with me andmy interests, although he has hitherto been separated from allconnection with the progress of this narrative. He was as true and asready a friend of mine still as ever he had been in his life.

  Before I summoned Pesca to my assistance it was necessary to see formyself what sort of man I had to deal with. Up to this time I hadnever once set eyes on Count Fosco.

  Three days after my return with Laura and Marian to London, I set forthalone
for Forest Road, St. John's Wood, between ten and eleven o'clockin the morning. It was a fine day--I had some hours to spare--and Ithought it likely, if I waited a little for him, that the Count mightbe tempted out. I had no great reason to fear the chance of hisrecognising me in the daytime, for the only occasion when I had beenseen by him was the occasion on which he had followed me home at night.

  No one appeared at the windows in the front of the house. I walkeddown a turning which ran past the side of it, and looked over the lowgarden wall. One of the back windows on the lower floor was thrown upand a net was stretched across the opening. I saw nobody, but I heard,in the room, first a shrill whistling and singing of birds, then thedeep ringing voice which Marian's description had made familiar to me."Come out on my little finger, my pret-pret-pretties!" cried the voice."Come out and hop upstairs! One, two, three--and up! Three, two,one--and down! One, two, three--twit-twit-twit-tweet!" The Count wasexercising his canaries as he used to exercise them in Marian's time atBlackwater Park.

  I waited a little while, and the singing and the whistling ceased."Come, kiss me, my pretties!" said the deep voice. There was aresponsive twittering and chirping--a low, oily laugh--a silence of aminute or so, and then I heard the opening of the house door. I turnedand retraced my steps. The magnificent melody of the Prayer inRossini's Moses, sung in a sonorous bass voice, rose grandly throughthe suburban silence of the place. The front garden gate opened andclosed. The Count had come out.

  He crossed the road and walked towards the western boundary of theRegent's Park. I kept on my own side of the way, a little behind him,and walked in that direction also.

  Marian had prepared me for his high stature, his monstrous corpulence,and his ostentatious mourning garments, but not for the horriblefreshness and cheerfulness and vitality of the man. He carried hissixty years as if they had been fewer than forty. He sauntered along,wearing his hat a little on one side, with a light jaunty step,swinging his big stick, humming to himself, looking up from time totime at the houses and gardens on either side of him with superb,smiling patronage. If a stranger had been told that the wholeneighbourhood belonged to him, that stranger would not have beensurprised to hear it. He never looked back, he paid no apparentattention to me, no apparent attention to any one who passed him on hisown side of the road, except now and then, when he smiled and smirked,with an easy paternal good humour, at the nursery-maids and thechildren whom he met. In this way he led me on, till we reached acolony of shops outside the western terraces of the Park.

  Here he stopped at a pastrycook's, went in (probably to give an order),and came out again immediately with a tart in his hand. An Italian wasgrinding an organ before the shop, and a miserable little shrivelledmonkey was sitting on the instrument. The Count stopped, bit a piecefor himself out of the tart, and gravely handed the rest to the monkey."My poor little man!" he said, with grotesque tenderness, "you lookhungry. In the sacred name of humanity, I offer you some lunch!" Theorgan-grinder piteously put in his claim to a penny from the benevolentstranger. The Count shrugged his shoulders contemptuously, and passedon.

  We reached the streets and the better class of shops between the NewRoad and Oxford Street. The Count stopped again and entered a smalloptician's shop, with an inscription in the window announcing thatrepairs were neatly executed inside. He came out again with anopera-glass in his hand, walked a few paces on, and stopped to look ata bill of the opera placed outside a music-seller's shop. He read thebill attentively, considered a moment, and then hailed an empty cab asit passed him. "Opera Box-office," he said to the man, and was drivenaway.

  I crossed the road, and looked at the bill in my turn. The performanceannounced was Lucrezia Borgia, and it was to take place that evening.The opera-glass in the Count's hand, his careful reading of the bill,and his direction to the cabman, all suggested that he proposed makingone of the audience. I had the means of getting an admission formyself and a friend to the pit by applying to one of the scene-paintersattached to the theatre, with whom I had been well acquainted in pasttimes. There was a chance at least that the Count might be easilyvisible among the audience to me and to any one with me, and in thiscase I had the means of ascertaining whether Pesca knew his countrymanor not that very night.

  This consideration at once decided the disposal of my evening. Iprocured the tickets, leaving a note at the Professor's lodgings on theway. At a quarter to eight I called to take him with me to thetheatre. My little friend was in a state of the highest excitement,with a festive flower in his button-hole, and the largest opera-glass Iever saw hugged up under his arm.

  "Are you ready?" I asked.

  "Right-all-right," said Pesca.

  We started for the theatre.