Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Woman in White, Page 74

Wilkie Collins



  When I closed the last leaf of the Count's manuscript the half-hourduring which I had engaged to remain at Forest Road had expired.Monsieur Rubelle looked at his watch and bowed. I rose immediately,and left the agent in possession of the empty house. I never saw himagain--I never heard more of him or of his wife. Out of the dark bywaysof villainy and deceit they had crawled across our path--into the samebyways they crawled back secretly and were lost.

  In a quarter of an hour after leaving Forest Road I was at home again.

  But few words sufficed to tell Laura and Marian how my desperateventure had ended, and what the next event in our lives was likely tobe. I left all details to be described later in the day, and hastenedback to St. John's Wood, to see the person of whom Count Fosco hadordered the fly, when he went to meet Laura at the station.

  The address in my possession led me to some "livery stables," about aquarter of a mile distant from Forest Road. The proprietor proved tobe a civil and respectable man. When I explained that an importantfamily matter obliged me to ask him to refer to his books for thepurpose of ascertaining a date with which the record of his businesstransactions might supply me, he offered no objection to granting myrequest. The book was produced, and there, under the date of "July26th, 1850," the order was entered in these words--

  "Brougham to Count Fosco, 5 Forest Road. Two o'clock. (John Owen)."

  I found on inquiry that the name of "John Owen," attached to the entry,referred to the man who had been employed to drive the fly. He was thenat work in the stable-yard, and was sent for to see me at my request.

  "Do you remember driving a gentleman, in the month of July last, fromNumber Five Forest Road to the Waterloo Bridge station?" I asked.

  "Well, sir," said the man, "I can't exactly say I do."

  "Perhaps you remember the gentleman himself? Can you call to minddriving a foreigner last summer--a tall gentleman and remarkably fat?"The man's face brightened directly.

  "I remember him, sir! The fattest gentleman as ever I see, and theheaviest customer as ever I drove. Yes, yes--I call him to mind, sir!We DID go to the station, and it WAS from Forest Road. There was aparrot, or summat like it, screeching in the window. The gentleman wasin a mortal hurry about the lady's luggage, and he gave me a handsomepresent for looking sharp and getting the boxes."

  Getting the boxes! I recollected immediately that Laura's own accountof herself on her arrival in London described her luggage as beingcollected for her by some person whom Count Fosco brought with him tothe station. This was the man.

  "Did you see the lady?" I asked. "What did she look like? Was sheyoung or old?"

  "Well, sir, what with the hurry and the crowd of people pushing about,I can't rightly say what the lady looked like. I can't call nothing tomind about her that I know of excepting her name."

  "You remember her name?"

  "Yes, sir. Her name was Lady Glyde."

  "How do you come to remember that, when you have forgotten what shelooked like?"

  The man smiled, and shifted his feet in some little embarrassment.

  "Why, to tell you the truth, sir," he said, "I hadn't been long marriedat that time, and my wife's name, before she changed it for mine, wasthe same as the lady's--meaning the name of Glyde, sir. The ladymentioned it herself. 'Is your name on your boxes, ma'am?' says I.'Yes,' says she, 'my name is on my luggage--it is Lady Glyde.' 'Come!'I says to myself, 'I've a bad head for gentlefolks' names ingeneral--but THIS one comes like an old friend, at any rate.' I can'tsay nothing about the time, sir, it might be nigh on a year ago, or itmightn't. But I can swear to the stout gentleman, and swear to thelady's name."

  There was no need that he should remember the time--the date waspositively established by his master's order-book. I felt at once thatthe means were now in my power of striking down the whole conspiracy ata blow with the irresistible weapon of plain fact. Without a moment'shesitation, I took the proprietor of the livery stables aside and toldhim what the real importance was of the evidence of his order-book andthe evidence of his driver. An arrangement to compensate him for thetemporary loss of the man's services was easily made, and a copy of theentry in the book was taken by myself, and certified as true by themaster's own signature. I left the livery stables, having settled thatJohn Owen was to hold himself at my disposal for the next three days,or for a longer period if necessity required it.

  I now had in my possession all the papers that I wanted--the districtregistrar's own copy of the certificate of death, and Sir Percival'sdated letter to the Count, being safe in my pocket-book.

  With this written evidence about me, and with the coachman's answersfresh in my memory, I next turned my steps, for the first time sincethe beginning of all my inquiries, in the direction of Mr. Kyrle'soffice. One of my objects in paying him this second visit was,necessarily, to tell him what I had done. The other was to warn him ofmy resolution to take my wife to Limmeridge the next morning, and tohave her publicly received and recognised in her uncle's house. I leftit to Mr. Kyrle to decide under these circumstances, and in Mr.Gilmore's absence, whether he was or was not bound, as the familysolicitor, to be present on that occasion in the family interests.

  I will say nothing of Mr. Kyrle's amazement, or of the terms in whichhe expressed his opinion of my conduct from the first stage of theinvestigation to the last. It is only necessary to mention that he atonce decided on accompanying us to Cumberland.

  We started the next morning by the early train. Laura, Marian, Mr.Kyrle, and myself in one carriage, and John Owen, with a clerk from Mr.Kyrle's office, occupying places in another. On reaching theLimmeridge station we went first to the farmhouse at Todd's Corner. Itwas my firm determination that Laura should not enter her uncle's housetill she appeared there publicly recognised as his niece. I leftMarian to settle the question of accommodation with Mrs. Todd, as soonas the good woman had recovered from the bewilderment of hearing whatour errand was in Cumberland, and I arranged with her husband that JohnOwen was to be committed to the ready hospitality of the farm-servants.These preliminaries completed, Mr. Kyrle and I set forth together forLimmeridge House.

  I cannot write at any length of our interview with Mr. Fairlie, for Icannot recall it to mind without feelings of impatience and contempt,which make the scene, even in remembrance only, utterly repulsive tome. I prefer to record simply that I carried my point. Mr. Fairlieattempted to treat us on his customary plan. We passed without noticehis polite insolence at the outset of the interview. We heard withoutsympathy the protestations with which he tried next to persuade us thatthe disclosure of the conspiracy had overwhelmed him. He absolutelywhined and whimpered at last like a fretful child. "How was he to knowthat his niece was alive when he was told that she was dead? He wouldwelcome dear Laura with pleasure, if we would only allow him time torecover. Did we think he looked as if he wanted hurrying into hisgrave? No. Then, why hurry him?" He reiterated these remonstrances atevery available opportunity, until I checked them once for all, byplacing him firmly between two inevitable alternatives. I gave him hischoice between doing his niece justice on my terms, or facing theconsequence of a public assertion of her existence in a court of law.Mr. Kyrle, to whom he turned for help, told him plainly that he mustdecide the question then and there. Characteristically choosing thealternative which promised soonest to release him from all personalanxiety, he announced with a sudden outburst of energy, that he was notstrong enough to bear any more bullying, and that we might do as wepleased.

  Mr. Kyrle and I at once went downstairs, and agreed upon a form ofletter which was to be sent round to the tenants who had attended thefalse funeral, summoning them, in Mr. Fairlie's name, to assemble inLimmeridge House on the next day but one. An order referring to thesame date was also written, directing a statuary in Carlisle to send aman to Limmeridge churchyard for the purpose of erasing aninscription--Mr. Kyrle, who had arranged to sleep in the house,underta
king that Mr. Fairlie should hear these letters read to him, andshould sign them with his own hand.

  I occupied the interval day at the farm in writing a plain narrative ofthe conspiracy, and in adding to it a statement of the practicalcontradiction which facts offered to the assertion of Laura's death.This I submitted to Mr. Kyrle before I read it the next day to theassembled tenants. We also arranged the form in which the evidenceshould be presented at the close of the reading. After these matterswere settled, Mr. Kyrle endeavoured to turn the conversation next toLaura's affairs. Knowing, and desiring to know nothing of thoseaffairs, and doubting whether he would approve, as a man of business,of my conduct in relation to my wife's life-interest in the legacy leftto Madame Fosco, I begged Mr. Kyrle to excuse me if I abstained fromdiscussing the subject. It was connected, as I could truly tell him,with those sorrows and troubles of the past which we never referred toamong ourselves, and which we instinctively shrank from discussing withothers.

  My last labour, as the evening approached, was to obtain "The Narrativeof the Tombstone," by taking a copy of the false inscription on thegrave before it was erased.

  The day came--the day when Laura once more entered the familiarbreakfast-room at Limmeridge House. All the persons assembled rosefrom their seats as Marian and I led her in. A perceptible shock ofsurprise, an audible murmur of interest ran through them, at the sightof her face. Mr. Fairlie was present (by my express stipulation), withMr. Kyrle by his side. His valet stood behind him with asmelling-bottle ready in one hand, and a white handkerchief, saturatedwith eau-de-Cologne, in the other.

  I opened the proceedings by publicly appealing to Mr. Fairlie to saywhether I appeared there with his authority and under his expresssanction. He extended an arm, on either side, to Mr. Kyrle and to hisvalet--was by them assisted to stand on his legs, and then expressedhimself in these terms: "Allow me to present Mr. Hartright. I am asgreat an invalid as ever, and he is so very obliging as to speak forme. The subject is dreadfully embarrassing. Please hear him, anddon't make a noise!" With those words he slowly sank back again intothe chair, and took refuge in his scented pocket-handkerchief.

  The disclosure of the conspiracy followed, after I had offered mypreliminary explanation, first of all, in the fewest and the plainestwords. I was there present (I informed my hearers) to declare, first,that my wife, then sitting by me, was the daughter of the late Mr.Philip Fairlie; secondly, to prove by positive facts, that the funeralwhich they had attended in Limmeridge churchyard was the funeral ofanother woman; thirdly, to give them a plain account of how it had allhappened. Without further preface, I at once read the narrative of theconspiracy, describing it in clear outline, and dwelling only upon thepecuniary motive for it, in order to avoid complicating my statement byunnecessary reference to Sir Percival's secret. This done, I remindedmy audience of the date on the inscription in the churchyard (the25th), and confirmed its correctness by producing the certificate ofdeath. I then read them Sir Percival's letter of the 25th, announcinghis wife's intended journey from Hampshire to London on the 26th. Inext showed that she had taken that journey, by the personal testimonyof the driver of the fly, and I proved that she had performed it on theappointed day, by the order-book at the livery stables. Marian thenadded her own statement of the meeting between Laura and herself at themad-house, and of her sister's escape. After which I closed theproceedings by informing the persons present of Sir Percival's deathand of my marriage.

  Mr. Kyrle rose when I resumed my seat, and declared, as the legaladviser of the family, that my case was proved by the plainest evidencehe had ever heard in his life. As he spoke those words, I put my armround Laura, and raised her so that she was plainly visible to everyone in the room. "Are you all of the same opinion?" I asked, advancingtowards them a few steps, and pointing to my wife.

  The effect of the question was electrical. Far down at the lower endof the room one of the oldest tenants on the estate started to hisfeet, and led the rest with him in an instant. I see the man now, withhis honest brown face and his iron-grey hair, mounted on thewindow-seat, waving his heavy riding-whip over his head, and leadingthe cheers. "There she is, alive and hearty--God bless her! Gi' ittongue, lads! Gi' it tongue!" The shout that answered him, reiteratedagain and again, was the sweetest music I ever heard. The labourers inthe village and the boys from the school, assembled on the lawn, caughtup the cheering and echoed it back on us. The farmers' wives clusteredround Laura, and struggled which should be first to shake hands withher, and to implore her, with the tears pouring over their own cheeks,to bear up bravely and not to cry. She was so completely overwhelmed,that I was obliged to take her from them, and carry her to the door.There I gave her into Marian's care--Marian, who had never failed usyet, whose courageous self-control did not fail us now. Left by myselfat the door, I invited all the persons present (after thanking them inLaura's name and mine) to follow me to the churchyard, and see thefalse inscription struck off the tombstone with their own eyes.

  They all left the house, and all joined the throng of villagerscollected round the grave, where the statuary's man was waiting for us.In a breathless silence, the first sharp stroke of the steel sounded onthe marble. Not a voice was heard--not a soul moved, till those threewords, "Laura, Lady Glyde," had vanished from sight. Then there was agreat heave of relief among the crowd, as if they felt that the lastfetters of the conspiracy had been struck off Laura herself, and theassembly slowly withdrew. It was late in the day before the wholeinscription was erased. One line only was afterwards engraved in itsplace: "Anne Catherick, July 25th, 1850."

  I returned to Limmeridge House early enough in the evening to takeleave of Mr. Kyrle. He and his clerk, and the driver of the fly, wentback to London by the night train. On their departure an insolentmessage was delivered to me from Mr. Fairlie--who had been carried fromthe room in a shattered condition, when the first outbreak of cheeringanswered my appeal to the tenantry. The message conveyed to us "Mr.Fairlie's best congratulations," and requested to know whether "wecontemplated stopping in the house." I sent back word that the onlyobject for which we had entered his doors was accomplished--that Icontemplated stopping in no man's house but my own--and that Mr.Fairlie need not entertain the slightest apprehension of ever seeing usor hearing from us again. We went back to our friends at the farm torest that night, and the next morning--escorted to the station, withthe heartiest enthusiasm and good will, by the whole village and by allthe farmers in the neighbourhood--we returned to London.

  As our view of the Cumberland hills faded in the distance, I thought ofthe first disheartening circumstances under which the long strugglethat was now past and over had been pursued. It was strange to lookback and to see, now, that the poverty which had denied us all hope ofassistance had been the indirect means of our success, by forcing me toact for myself. If we had been rich enough to find legal help, whatwould have been the result? The gain (on Mr. Kyrle's own showing) wouldhave been more than doubtful--the loss, judging by the plain test ofevents as they had really happened, certain. The law would never haveobtained me my interview with Mrs. Catherick. The law would never havemade Pesca the means of forcing a confession from the Count.