The woman in white, p.70
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       The Woman in White, p.70

           Wilkie Collins


  The last notes of the introduction to the opera were being played, andthe seats in the pit were all filled, when Pesca and I reached thetheatre.

  There was plenty of room, however, in the passage that ran round thepit--precisely the position best calculated to answer the purpose forwhich I was attending the performance. I went first to the barrierseparating us from the stalls, and looked for the Count in that part ofthe theatre. He was not there. Returning along the passage, on theleft-hand side from the stage, and looking about me attentively, Idiscovered him in the pit. He occupied an excellent place, some twelveor fourteen seats from the end of a bench, within three rows of thestalls. I placed myself exactly on a line with him. Pesca standing bymy side. The Professor was not yet aware of the purpose for which I hadbrought him to the theatre, and he was rather surprised that we did notmove nearer to the stage.

  The curtain rose, and the opera began.

  Throughout the whole of the first act we remained in our position--theCount, absorbed by the orchestra and the stage, never casting so muchas a chance glance at us. Not a note of Donizetti's delicious musicwas lost on him. There he sat, high above his neighbours, smiling, andnodding his great head enjoyingly from time to time. When the peoplenear him applauded the close of an air (as an English audience in suchcircumstances always WILL applaud), without the least consideration forthe orchestral movement which immediately followed it, he looked roundat them with an expression of compassionate remonstrance, and held upone hand with a gesture of polite entreaty. At the more refinedpassages of the singing, at the more delicate phases of the music,which passed unapplauded by others, his fat hands, adorned withperfectly-fitting black kid gloves, softly patted each other, in tokenof the cultivated appreciation of a musical man. At such times, hisoily murmur of approval, "Bravo! Bra-a-a-a!" hummed through thesilence, like the purring of a great cat. His immediate neighbours oneither side--hearty, ruddy-faced people from the country, baskingamazedly in the sunshine of fashionable London--seeing and hearing him,began to follow his lead. Many a burst of applause from the pit thatnight started from the soft, comfortable patting of the black-glovedhands. The man's voracious vanity devoured this implied tribute to hislocal and critical supremacy with an appearance of the highest relish.Smiles rippled continuously over his fat face. He looked about him, atthe pauses in the music, serenely satisfied with himself and hisfellow-creatures. "Yes! yes! these barbarous English people arelearning something from ME. Here, there, and everywhere, I--Fosco--aman influence that is felt, a man who sits supreme!" If ever face spoke,his face spoke then, and that was its language.

  The curtain fell on the first act, and the audience rose to look aboutthem. This was the time I had waited for--the time to try if Pescaknew him.

  He rose with the rest, and surveyed the occupants of the boxes grandlywith his opera-glass. At first his back was towards us, but he turnedround in time, to our side of the theatre, and looked at the boxesabove us, using his glass for a few minutes--then removing it, butstill continuing to look up. This was the moment I chose, when hisfull face was in view, for directing Pesca's attention to him.

  "Do you know that man?" I asked.

  "Which man, my friend?"

  "The tall, fat man, standing there, with his face towards us."

  Pesca raised himself on tiptoe, and looked at the Count.

  "No," said the Professor. "The big fat man is a stranger to me. Is hefamous? Why do you point him out?"

  "Because I have particular reasons for wishing to know something ofhim. He is a countryman of yours--his name is Count Fosco. Do youknow that name?"

  "Not I, Walter. Neither the name nor the man is known to me."

  "Are you quite sure you don't recognise him? Look again--lookcarefully. I will tell you why I am so anxious about it when we leavethe theatre. Stop! let me help you up here, where you can see himbetter."

  I helped the little man to perch himself on the edge of the raised daisupon which the pit-seats were all placed. His small stature was nohindrance to him--here he could see over the heads of the ladies whowere seated near the outermost part of the bench.

  A slim, light-haired man standing by us, whom I had not noticedbefore--a man with a scar on his left cheek--looked attentively atPesca as I helped him up, and then looked still more attentively,following the direction of Pesca's eyes, at the Count. Ourconversation might have reached his ears, and might, as it struck me,have roused his curiosity.

  Meanwhile, Pesca fixed his eyes earnestly on the broad, full, smilingface turned a little upward, exactly opposite to him.

  "No," he said, "I have never set my two eyes on that big fat man beforein all my life."

  As he spoke the Count looked downwards towards the boxes behind us onthe pit tier.

  The eyes of the two Italians met.

  The instant before I had been perfectly satisfied, from his ownreiterated assertion, that Pesca did not know the Count. The instantafterwards I was equally certain that the Count knew Pesca!

  Knew him, and--more surprising still--FEARED him as well! There was nomistaking the change that passed over the villain's face. The leadenhue that altered his yellow complexion in a moment, the sudden rigidityof all his features, the furtive scrutiny of his cold grey eyes, themotionless stillness of him from head to foot told their own tale. Amortal dread had mastered him body and soul--and his own recognition ofPesca was the cause of it!

  The slim man with the scar on his cheek was still close by us. He hadapparently drawn his inference from the effect produced on the Count bythe sight of Pesca as I had drawn mine. He was a mild, gentlemanlikeman, looking like a foreigner, and his interest in our proceedings wasnot expressed in anything approaching to an offensive manner.

  For my own part I was so startled by the change in the Count's face, soastounded at the entirely unexpected turn which events had taken, thatI knew neither what to say or do next. Pesca roused me by steppingback to his former place at my side and speaking first.

  "How the fat man stares!" he exclaimed. "Is it at ME? Am I famous? Howcan he know me when I don't know him?"

  I kept my eye still on the Count. I saw him move for the first timewhen Pesca moved, so as not to lose sight of the little man in thelower position in which he now stood. I was curious to see what wouldhappen if Pesca's attention under these circumstances was withdrawnfrom him, and I accordingly asked the Professor if he recognised any ofhis pupils that evening among the ladies in the boxes. Pescaimmediately raised the large opera-glass to his eyes, and moved itslowly all round the upper part of the theatre, searching for hispupils with the most conscientious scrutiny.

  The moment he showed himself to be thus engaged the Count turned round,slipped past the persons who occupied seats on the farther side of himfrom where we stood, and disappeared in the middle passage down thecentre of the pit. I caught Pesca by the arm, and to his inexpressibleastonishment, hurried him round with me to the back of the pit tointercept the Count before he could get to the door. Somewhat to mysurprise, the slim man hastened out before us, avoiding a stoppagecaused by some people on our side of the pit leaving their places, bywhich Pesca and myself were delayed. When we reached the lobby theCount had disappeared, and the foreigner with the scar was gone too.

  "Come home," I said; "come home, Pesca to your lodgings. I must speakto you in private--I must speak directly."

  "My-soul-bless-my-soul!" cried the Professor, in a state of theextremest bewilderment. "What on earth is the matter?"

  I walked on rapidly without answering. The circumstances under whichthe Count had left the theatre suggested to me that his extraordinaryanxiety to escape Pesca might carry him to further extremities still.He might escape me, too, by leaving London. I doubted the future if Iallowed him so much as a day's freedom to act as he pleased. And Idoubted that foreign stranger, who had got the start of us, and whom Isuspected of intentionally following him out.

  With this double distrust in my mind
, I was not long in making Pescaunderstand what I wanted. As soon as we two were alone in his room, Iincreased his confusion and amazement a hundredfold by telling him whatmy purpose was as plainly and unreservedly as I have acknowledged ithere.

  "My friend, what can I do?" cried the Professor, piteously appealing tome with both hands. "Deuce-what-the-deuce! how can I help you, Walter,when I don't know the man?"

  "HE knows YOU--he is afraid of you--he has left the theatre to escapeyou. Pesca! there must be a reason for this. Look back into your ownlife before you came to England. You left Italy, as you have told meyourself, for political reasons. You have never mentioned thosereasons to me, and I don't inquire into them now. I only ask you toconsult your own recollections, and to say if they suggest no pastcause for the terror which the first sight of you produced in that man."

  To my unutterable surprise, these words, harmless as they appeared toME, produced the same astounding effect on Pesca which the sight ofPesca had produced on the Count. The rosy face of my little friendwhitened in an instant, and he drew back from me slowly, trembling fromhead to foot.

  "Walter!" he said. "You don't know what you ask."

  He spoke in a whisper--he looked at me as if I had suddenly revealed tohim some hidden danger to both of us. In less than one minute of timehe was so altered from the easy, lively, quaint little man of all mypast experience, that if I had met him in the street, changed as I sawhim now, I should most certainly not have known him again.

  "Forgive me, if I have unintentionally pained and shocked you," Ireplied. "Remember the cruel wrong my wife has suffered at CountFosco's hands. Remember that the wrong can never be redressed, unlessthe means are in my power of forcing him to do her justice. I spoke inHER interests, Pesca--I ask you again to forgive me--I can say no more."

  I rose to go. He stopped me before I reached the door.

  "Wait," he said. "You have shaken me from head to foot. You don'tknow how I left my country, and why I left my country. Let me composemyself, let me think, if I can."

  I returned to my chair. He walked up and down the room, talking tohimself incoherently in his own language. After several turnsbackwards and forwards, he suddenly came up to me, and laid his littlehands with a strange tenderness and solemnity on my breast.

  "On your heart and soul, Walter," he said, "is there no other way toget to that man but the chance-way through ME?"

  "There is no other way," I answered.

  He left me again, opened the door of the room and looked out cautiouslyinto the passage, closed it once more, and came back.

  "You won your right over me, Walter," he said, "on the day when yousaved my life. It was yours from that moment, when you pleased to takeit. Take it now. Yes! I mean what I say. My next words, as true asthe good God is above us, will put my life into your hands."

  The trembling earnestness with which he uttered this extraordinarywarning, carried with it, to my mind, the conviction that he spoke thetruth.

  "Mind this!" he went on, shaking his hands at me in the vehemence ofhis agitation. "I hold no thread, in my own mind, between that manFosco, and the past time which I call back to me for your sake. If youfind the thread, keep it to yourself--tell me nothing--on my knees Ibeg and pray, let me be ignorant, let me be innocent, let me be blindto all the future as I am now!"

  He said a few words more, hesitatingly and disconnectedly, then stoppedagain.

  I saw that the effort of expressing himself in English, on an occasiontoo serious to permit him the use of the quaint turns and phrases ofhis ordinary vocabulary, was painfully increasing the difficulty he hadfelt from the first in speaking to me at all. Having learnt to read andunderstand his native language (though not to speak it), in the earlierdays of our intimate companionship, I now suggested to him that heshould express himself in Italian, while I used English in putting anyquestions which might be necessary to my enlightenment. He acceptedthe proposal. In his smooth-flowing language, spoken with a vehementagitation which betrayed itself in the perpetual working of hisfeatures, in the wildness and the suddenness of his foreigngesticulations, but never in the raising of his voice, I now heard thewords which armed me to meet the last struggle, that is left for thisstory to record.[3]

  [3] It is only right to mention here, that I repeat Pesco's statementto me with the careful suppressions and alterations which the seriousnature of the subject and my own sense of duty to my friend demand. Myfirst and last concealments from the reader are those which cautionrenders absolutely necessary in this portion of the narrative.

  "You know nothing of my motive for leaving Italy," he began, "exceptthat it was for political reasons. If I had been driven to thiscountry by the persecution of my government, I should not have keptthose reasons a secret from you or from any one. I have concealed thembecause no government authority has pronounced the sentence of myexile. You have heard, Walter, of the political societies that arehidden in every great city on the continent of Europe? To one of thosesocieties I belonged in Italy--and belong still in England. When Icame to this country, I came by the direction of my chief. I wasover-zealous in my younger time--I ran the risk of compromising myselfand others. For those reasons I was ordered to emigrate to England andto wait. I emigrated--I have waited--I wait still. To-morrow I may becalled away--ten years hence I may be called away. It is all one tome--I am here, I support myself by teaching, and I wait. I violate nooath (you shall hear why presently) in making my confidence complete bytelling you the name of the society to which I belong. All I do is toput my life in your hands. If what I say to you now is ever known byothers to have passed my lips, as certainly as we two sit here, I am adead man."

  He whispered the next words in my ear. I keep the secret which he thuscommunicated. The society to which he belonged will be sufficientlyindividualised for the purpose of these pages, if I call it "TheBrotherhood," on the few occasions when any reference to the subjectwill be needed in this place.

  "The object of the Brotherhood," Pesca went on, "is, briefly, theobject of other political societies of the same sort--the destructionof tyranny and the assertion of the rights of the people. Theprinciples of the Brotherhood are two. So long as a man's life isuseful, or even harmless only, he has the right to enjoy it. But, ifhis life inflicts injury on the well-being of his fellow-men, from thatmoment he forfeits the right, and it is not only no crime, but apositive merit, to deprive him of it. It is not for me to say in whatfrightful circumstances of oppression and suffering this society tookits rise. It is not for you to say--you Englishmen, who have conqueredyour freedom so long ago, that you have conveniently forgotten whatblood you shed, and what extremities you proceeded to in theconquering--it is not for you to say how far the worst of allexasperations may, or may not, carry the maddened men of an enslavednation. The iron that has entered into our souls has gone too deep foryou to find it. Leave the refugee alone! Laugh at him, distrust him,open your eyes in wonder at that secret self which smoulders in him,sometimes under the everyday respectability and tranquillity of a manlike me--sometimes under the grinding poverty, the fierce squalor, ofmen less lucky, less pliable, less patient than I am--but judge usnot! In the time of your first Charles you might have done usjustice--the long luxury of your own freedom has made you incapable ofdoing us justice now."

  All the deepest feelings of his nature seemed to force themselves tothe surface in those words--all his heart was poured out to me for thefirst time in our lives--but still his voice never rose, still hisdread of the terrible revelation he was making to me never left him.

  "So far," he resumed, "you think the society like other societies. Itsobject (in your English opinion) is anarchy and revolution. It takesthe life of a bad king or a bad minister, as if the one and the otherwere dangerous wild beasts to be shot at the first opportunity. Igrant you this. But the laws of the Brotherhood are the laws of noother political society on the face of the earth. The members are notknown to one another. There is a president in Ital
y; there arepresidents abroad. Each of these has his secretary. The presidentsand the secretaries know the members, but the members, amongthemselves, are all strangers, until their chiefs see fit, in thepolitical necessity of the time, or in the private necessity of thesociety, to make them known to each other. With such a safeguard asthis there is no oath among us on admittance. We are identified withthe Brotherhood by a secret mark, which we all bear, which lasts whileour lives last. We are told to go about our ordinary business, and toreport ourselves to the president, or the secretary, four times a year,in the event of our services being required. We are warned, if webetray the Brotherhood, or if we injure it by serving other interests,that we die by the principles of the Brotherhood--die by the hand of astranger who may be sent from the other end of the world to strike theblow--or by the hand of our own bosom-friend, who may have been amember unknown to us through all the years of our intimacy. Sometimesthe death is delayed--sometimes it follows close on the treachery. Itis our first business to know how to wait--our second business to knowhow to obey when the word is spoken. Some of us may wait our livesthrough, and may not be wanted. Some of us may be called to the work,or to the preparation for the work, the very day of our admission. Imyself--the little, easy, cheerful man you know, who, of his ownaccord, would hardly lift up his handkerchief to strike down the flythat buzzes about his face--I, in my younger time, under provocation sodreadful that I will not tell you of it, entered the Brotherhood by animpulse, as I might have killed myself by an impulse. I must remain init now--it has got me, whatever I may think of it in my bettercircumstances and my cooler manhood, to my dying day. While I wasstill in Italy I was chosen secretary, and all the members of thattime, who were brought face to face with my president, were broughtface to face also with me."

  I began to understand him--I saw the end towards which hisextraordinary disclosure was now tending. He waited a moment, watchingme earnestly--watching till he had evidently guessed what was passingin my mind before he resumed.

  "You have drawn your own conclusion already," he said. "I see it inyour face. Tell me nothing--keep me out of the secret of yourthoughts. Let me make my one last sacrifice of myself, for your sake,and then have done with this subject, never to return to it again."

  He signed to me not to answer him--rose--removed his coat--and rolledup the shirt-sleeve on his left arm.

  "I promised you that this confidence should be complete," he whispered,speaking close at my ear, with his eyes looking watchfully at the door."Whatever comes of it you shall not reproach me with having hiddenanything from you which it was necessary to your interests to know. Ihave said that the Brotherhood identifies its members by a mark thatlasts for life. See the place, and the mark on it for yourself."

  He raised his bare arm, and showed me, high on the upper part of it andin the inner side, a brand deeply burnt in the flesh and stained of abright blood-red colour. I abstain from describing the device whichthe brand represented. It will be sufficient to say that it wascircular in form, and so small that it would have been completelycovered by a shilling coin.

  "A man who has this mark, branded in this place," he said, covering hisarm again, "is a member of the Brotherhood. A man who has been falseto the Brotherhood is discovered sooner or later by the chiefs who knowhim--presidents or secretaries, as the case may be. And a mandiscovered by the chiefs is dead. NO HUMAN LAWS CAN PROTECT HIM.Remember what you have seen and heard--draw what conclusions YOUlike--act as you please. But, in the name of God, whatever youdiscover, whatever you do, tell me nothing! Let me remain free from aresponsibility which it horrifies me to think of--which I know, in myconscience, is not my responsibility now. For the last time I sayit--on my honour as a gentleman, on my oath as a Christian, if the manyou pointed out at the Opera knows ME, he is so altered, or sodisguised, that I do not know him. I am ignorant of his proceedings orhis purposes in England. I never saw him, I never heard the name hegoes by, to my knowledge, before to-night. I say no more. Leave me alittle, Walter. I am overpowered by what has happened--I am shaken bywhat I have said. Let me try to be like myself again when we meetnext."

  He dropped into a chair, and turning away from me, hid his face in hishands. I gently opened the door so as not to disturb him, and spoke myfew parting words in low tones, which he might hear or not, as hepleased.

  "I will keep the memory of to-night in my heart of hearts," I said."You shall never repent the trust you have reposed in me. May I come toyou to-morrow? May I come as early as nine o'clock?"

  "Yes, Walter," he replied, looking up at me kindly, and speaking inEnglish once more, as if his one anxiety now was to get back to ourformer relations towards each other. "Come to my little bit ofbreakfast before I go my ways among the pupils that I teach."

  "Good-night, Pesca."

  "Good-night, my friend."