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  • 26/11/1859-25/8/1860
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the charming society.”

“Be good enough to go on, Count,” said his wife, with a spiteful reference to myself. “Oblige me by answering Miss Halcombe.”

“Miss Halcombe is unanswerable,” replied the polite Italian; “that is to say, so far as she goes. Yes! I agree with her. John Bull does abhor the crimes of John Chinaman. He is the quickest old gentleman at finding out faults that are his neighbours’, and the slowest old gentleman at finding out the faults that are his own, who exists on the face of creation. Is he so very much better in this way than the people whom he condemns in their way? English Society, Miss Halcombe, is as often the accomplice as it is the enemy of crime. Yes! yes! Crime is in this country what crime is in other countries–a good friend to a man and to those about him as often as it is an enemy. A great rascal provides for his wife and family. The worse he is the more he makes them the objects for your sympathy. He often provides also for himself. A profligate spendthrift who is always borrowing money will get more from his friends than the rigidly honest man who only borrows of them once, under pressure of the direst want. In the one case the friends will not be at all surprised, and they will give. In the other case they will be very much surprised, and they will hesitate. Is the prison that Mr. Scoundrel lives in at the end of his career a more uncomfortable place than the workhouse that Mr. Honesty lives in at the end of his career? When John-Howard- Philanthropist wants to relieve misery he goes to find it in prisons, where crime is wretched–not in huts and hovels, where virtue is wretched too. Who is the English poet who has won the most universal sympathy–who makes the easiest of all subjects for pathetic writing and pathetic painting? That nice young person who began life with a forgery, and ended it by a suicide–your dear, romantic, interesting Chatterton. Which gets on best, do you think, of two poor starving dressmakers–the woman who resists temptation and is honest, or the woman who falls under temptation and steals? You all know that the stealing is the making of that second woman’s fortune–it advertises her from length to breadth of good-humoured, charitable England–and she is relieved, as the breaker of a commandment, when she would have been left to starve, as the keeper of it. Come here, my jolly little Mouse! Hey! presto! pass! I transform you, for the time being, into a respectable lady. Stop there, in the palm of my great big hand, my dear, and listen. You marry the poor man whom you love, Mouse, and one half your friends pity, and the other half blame you. And now, on the contrary, you sell yourself for gold to a man you don’t care for, and all your friends rejoice over you, and a minister of public worship sanctions the base horror of the vilest of all human bargains, and smiles and smirks afterwards at your table, if you are polite enough to ask him to breakfast. Hey! presto! pass! Be a mouse again, and squeak. If you continue to be a lady much longer, I shall have you telling me that Society abhors crime–and then, Mouse, I shall doubt if your own eyes and ears are really of any use to you. Ah! I am a bad man, Lady Glyde, am I not? I say what other people only think, and when all the rest of the world is in a conspiracy to accept the mask for the true face, mine is the rash hand that tears off the plump pasteboard, and shows the bare bones beneath. I will get up on my big elephant’s legs, before I do myself any more harm in your amiable estimations–I will get up and take a little airy walk of my own. Dear ladies, as your excellent Sheridan said, I go–and leave my character behind me.”

He got up, put the cage on the table, and paused for a moment to count the mice in it. “One, two, three, four—-Ha!” he cried, with a look of horror, “where, in the name of Heaven, is the fifth–the youngest, the whitest, the most amiable of all–my Benjamin of mice!”

Neither Laura nor I were in any favorable disposition to be amused. The Count’s glib cynicism had revealed a new aspect of his nature from which we both recoiled. But it was impossible to resist the comical distress of so very large a man at the loss of so very small a mouse. We laughed in spite of ourselves; and when Madame Fosco rose to set the example of leaving the boat-house empty, so that her husband might search it to its remotest corners, we rose also to follow her out.

Before we had taken three steps, the Count’s quick eye discovered the lost mouse under the seat that we had been occupying. He pulled aside the bench, took the little animal up in his hand, and then suddenly stopped, on his knees, looking intently at a particular place on the ground just beneath him.

When he rose to his feet again, his hand shook so that he could hardly put the mouse back in the cage, and his face was of a faint livid yellow hue all over.

“Percival!” he said, in a whisper. “Percival! come here.”

Sir Percival had paid no attention to any of us for the last ten minutes. He had been entirely absorbed in writing figures on the sand, and then rubbing them out again with the point of his stick.

“What’s the matter now?” he asked, lounging carelessly into the boat-house.

“Do you see nothing there?” said the Count, catching him nervously by the collar with one hand, and pointing with the other to the place near which he had found the mouse.

“I see plenty of dry sand,” answered Sir Percival, “and a spot of dirt in the middle of it.”

“Not dirt,” whispered the Count, fastening the other hand suddenly on Sir Percival’s collar, and shaking it in his agitation. “Blood.”

Laura was near enough to hear the last word, softly as he whispered it. She turned to me with a look of terror.

“Nonsense, my dear,” I said. “There is no need to be alarmed. It is only the blood of a poor little stray dog.”

Everybody was astonished, and everybody’s eyes were fixed on me inquiringly.

“How do you know that?” asked Sir Percival, speaking first.

“I found the dog here, dying, on the day when you all returned from abroad,” I replied. “The poor creature had strayed into the plantation, and had been shot by your keeper.”

“Whose dog was it?” inquired Sir Percival. “Not one of mine?”

“Did you try to save the poor thing?” asked Laura earnestly. “Surely you tried to save it, Marian?”

“Yes,” I said, “the housekeeper and I both did our best–but the dog was mortally wounded, and he died under our hands.”

“Whose dog was it?” persisted Sir Percival, repeating his question a little irritably. “One of mine?”

“No, not one of yours.”

“Whose then? Did the housekeeper know?”

The housekeeper’s report of Mrs. Catherick’s desire to conceal her visit to Blackwater Park from Sir Percival’s knowledge recurred to my memory the moment he put that last question, and I half doubted the discretion of answering it; but in my anxiety to quiet the general alarm, I had thoughtlessly advanced too far to draw back, except at the risk of exciting suspicion, which might only make matters worse. There was nothing for it but to answer at once, without reference to results.

“Yes,” I said. “The housekeeper knew. She told me it was Mrs. Catherick’s dog.”

Sir Percival had hitherto remained at the inner end of the boat- house with Count Fosco, while I spoke to him from the door. But the instant Mrs. Catherick’s name passed my lips he pushed by the Count roughly, and placed himself face to face with me under the open daylight.

“How came the housekeeper to know it was Mrs. Catherick’s dog?” he asked, fixing his eyes on mine with a frowning interest and attention, which half angered, half startled me.

“She knew it,” I said quietly, “because Mrs. Catherick brought the dog with her.”

“Brought it with her? Where did she bring it with her?”

“To this house.”

“What the devil did Mrs. Catherick want at this house?”

The manner in which he put the question was even more offensive than the language in which he expressed it. I marked my sense of his want of common politeness by silently turning away from him.

Just as I moved the Count’s persuasive hand was laid on his shoulder, and the Count’s mellifluous voice interposed to quiet him.

“My dear Percival!–gently–gently!”

Sir Percival looked round in his angriest manner. The Count only smiled and repeated the soothing application.

“Gently, my good friend–gently!”

Sir Percival hesitated, followed me a few steps, and, to my great surprise, offered me an apology.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Halcombe,” he said. “I have been out of order lately, and I am afraid I am a little irritable. But I should like to know what Mrs. Catherick could possibly want here. When did she come? Was the housekeeper the only person who saw her?”

“The only person,” I answered, “so far as I know.”

The Count interposed again.

“In that case why not question the housekeeper?” he said. “Why not go, Percival, to the fountain-head of information at once?”

“Quite right!” said Sir Percival. “Of course the housekeeper is the first person to question. Excessively stupid of me not to see it myself.” With those words he instantly left us to return to the house.

The motive of the Count’s interference, which had puzzled me at first, betrayed itself when Sir Percival’s back was turned. He had a host of questions to put to me about Mrs. Catherick, and the cause of her visit to Blackwater Park, which he could scarcely have asked in his friend’s presence. I made my answers as short as I civilly could, for I had already determined to check the least approach to any exchanging of confidences between Count Fosco and myself. Laura, however, unconsciously helped him to extract all my information, by making inquiries herself, which left me no alternative but to reply to her, or to appear in the very unenviable and very false character of a depositary of Sir Percival’s secrets. The end of it was, that, in about ten minutes’ time, the Count knew as much as I know of Mrs. Catherick, and of the events which have so strangely connected us with her daughter, Anne, from the time when Cartright met with her to this day.

The effect of my information on him was, in one respect, curious enough.

Intimately as he knows Sir Percival, and closely as he appears to be associated with Sir Percival’s private affairs in general, he is certainly as far as I am from knowing anything of the true story of Anne Catherick. The unsolved mystery in connection with this unhappy woman is now rendered doubly suspicious, in my eyes, by the absolute conviction which I feel, that the clue to it has been hidden by Sir Percival from the most intimate friend he has in the world. It was impossible to mistake the eager curiosity of the Count’s look and manner while he drank in greedily every word that fell from my lips. There are many kinds of curiosity, I know–but there is no misinterpreting the curiosity of blank surprise: if I ever saw it in my life I saw it in the Count’s face.

While the questions and answers were going on, we had all been strolling quietly back through the plantation. As soon as we reached the house the first object that we saw in front of it was Sir Percival’s dog-cart, with the horse put to and the groom waiting by it in his stable-jacket. If these unexpected appearances were to be trusted, the examination of the house- keeper had produced important results already.

“A fine horse, my friend,” said the Count, addressing the groom with the most engaging familiarity of manner, “You are going to drive out?”

“I am not going, sir,” replied the man, looking at his stable- jacket, and evidently wondering whether the foreign gentleman took it for his livery. “My master drives himself.”

“Aha!” said the Count, “does he indeed? I wonder he gives himself the trouble when he has got you to drive for him. Is he going to fatigue that nice, shining, pretty horse by taking him very far to-day?”

“I don’t know, sir,” answered the man. “The horse is a mare, if you please, sir. She’s the highest-couraged thing we’ve got in the stables. Her name’s Brown Molly, sir, and she’ll go till she drops. Sir Percival usually takes Isaac of York for the short distances.”

“And your shining courageous Brown Molly for the long?”

“Logical inference, Miss Halcombe,” continued the Count, wheeling round briskly, and addressing me. “Sir Percival is going a long distance to-day.”

I made no reply. I had my own inferences to draw, from what I knew through the housekeeper and from what I saw before me, and I did not choose to share them with Count Fosco.

When Sir Percival was in Cumberland (I thought to myself), he walked away a long distance, on Anne’s account, to question the family at Todd’s Corner. Now he is in Hampshire, is he going to drive away a long distance, on Anne’s account again, to question Mrs. Catherick at Welmingham?

We all entered the house. As we crossed the hall Sir Percival came out from the library to meet us. He looked hurried and pale and anxious–but for all that, he was in his most polite mood when he spoke to us.

“I am sorry to say I am obliged to leave you,” he began–“a long drive–a matter that I can’t very well put off. I shall be back in good time to-morrow–but before I go I should like that little business-formality, which I spoke of this morning, to be settled. Laura, will you come into the library? It won’t take a minute–a mere formality. Countess, may I trouble you also? I want you and the Countess, Fosco, to be witnesses to a signature–nothing more. Come in at once and get it over.”

He held the library door open until they had passed in, followed them, and shut it softly.

I remained, for a moment afterwards, standing alone in the hall, with my heart beating fast and my mind misgiving me sadly. Then I went on to the staircase, and ascended slowly to my own room.

IV

June 17th.–Just as my hand was on the door of my room, I heard Sir Percival’s voice calling to me from below.

“I must beg you to come downstairs again,” he said. “It is Fosco’s fault, Miss Halcombe, not mine. He has started some nonsensical objection to his wife being one of the witnesses, and has obliged me to ask you to join us in the library.”

I entered the room immediately with Sir Percival. Laura was waiting by the writing-table, twisting and turning her garden hat uneasily in her hands. Madame Fosco sat near her, in an arm- chair, imperturbably admiring her husband, who stood by himself at the other end of the library, picking off the dead leaves from the flowers in the window.

The moment I appeared the Count advanced to meet me, and to offer his explanations.

“A thousand pardons, Miss Halcombe,” he said. “You know the character which is given to my countrymen by the English? We Italians are all wily and suspicious by nature, in the estimation of the good John Bull. Set me down, if you please, as being no better than the rest of my race. I am a wily Italian and a suspicious Italian. You have thought so yourself, dear lady, have you not? Well! it is part of my wiliness and part of my suspicion to object to Madame Fosco being a witness to Lady Glyde’s signature, when I am also a witness myself.”

“There is not the shadow of a reason for his objection,” interposed Sir Percival. “I have explained to him that the law of England allows Madame Fosco to witness a signature as well as her husband.”

“I admit it,” resumed the Count. “The law of England says, Yes, but the conscience of Fosco says, No.” He spread out his fat fingers on the bosom of his blouse, and bowed solemnly, as if he wished to introduce his conscience to us all, in the character of an illustrious addition to the society. “What this document which Lady Glyde is about to sign may be,” he continued, “I neither know nor desire to know. I only say this, circumstances may happen in the future which may oblige Percival, or his representatives, to appeal to the two witnesses, in which case it is certainly desirable that those witnesses should represent two opinions which are perfectly independent the one of the other. This cannot be if my wife signs as well as myself, because we have but one opinion between us, and that opinion is mine. I will not have it cast in my teeth, at some future day, that Madame Fosco acted under my coercion, and was, in plain fact, no witness at all. I speak in Percival’s interest, when I propose that my name shall appear (as the nearest friend of the husband), and your name, Miss Halcombe (as the nearest friend of the wife). I am a Jesuit, if you please to think so–a splitter of straws–a man of trifles and crochets and scruples–but you will humour me, I hope, in merciful consideration for my suspicious Italian character, and my uneasy Italian conscience.” He bowed again, stepped back a few paces, and withdrew his conscience from our society as politely as he had introduced it.

The Count’s scruples might have been honourable and reasonable enough, but there was something in his manner of expressing them which increased my unwillingness to be concerned in the business of the signature. No consideration of less importance than my consideration for Laura would have induced me to consent to be a witness at all. One look, however, at her anxious face decided me to risk anything rather than desert her.

“I will readily remain in the room,” I said. “And if I find no reason for starting any small scruples on my side, you may rely on me as a witness.”

Sir Percival looked at me sharply, as if he was about to say something. But at the same moment, Madame Fosco attracted his attention by rising from her chair. She had caught her husband’s eye, and had evidently received her orders to leave the room.

“You needn’t go,” said Sir Percival.

Madame Fosco looked for her orders again, got them again, said she would prefer leaving us to our business, and resolutely walked out. The Count lit a cigarette, went back to the flowers in the window, and puffed little jets of smoke at the leaves, in a state of the deepest anxiety about killing the insects.

Meanwhile Sir Percival unlocked a cupboard beneath one of the book-cases, and produced from it a piece of parchment, folded longwise, many times over. He placed it on the table, opened the last fold only, and kept his hand on the rest. The last fold displayed a strip of blank parchment with little wafers stuck on it at certain places. Every line of the writing was hidden in the part which he still held folded up under his hand. Laura and I looked at each other. Her face was pale, but it showed no indecision and no fear.

Sir Percival dipped a pen in ink, and handed it to his wife. “Sign your name there,” he said, pointing to the place. “You and Fosco are to sign afterwards, Miss Halcombe, opposite those two wafers. Come here, Fosco! witnessing a signature is not to be done by mooning out of window and smoking into the flowers.”

The Count threw away his cigarette, and joined us at the table, with his hands carelessly thrust into the scarlet belt of his blouse, and his eyes steadily fixed on Sir Percival’s face. Laura, who was on the other side of her husband, with the pen in her hand, looked at him too. He stood between them holding the folded parchment down firmly on the table, and glancing across at me, as I sat opposite to him, with such a sinister mixture of suspicion and embarrassment on his face that he looked more like a prisoner at the bar than a gentleman in his own house.

“Sign there,” he repeated, turning suddenly on Laura, and pointing once more to the place on the parchment.

“What is it I am to sign?” she asked quietly.

“I have no time to explain,” he answered. “The dog-cart is at the door, and I must go directly. Besides, if I had time, you wouldn’t understand. It is a purely formal document, full of legal technicalities, and all that sort of thing. Come! come! sign your name, and let us have done as soon as possible.”

“I ought surely to know what I am signing, Sir Percival, before I write my name?”

“Nonsense! What have women to do with business? I tell you again, you can’t understand it.”

“At any rate, let me try to understand it. Whenever Mr. Gilmore had any business for me to do, he always explained it first, and I always understood him.”

“I dare say he did. He was your servant, and was obliged to explain. I am your husband, and am NOT obliged. How much longer do you mean to keep me here? I tell you again, there is no time for reading anything–the dog-cart is waiting at the door. Once for all, will you sign or will you not?”

She still had the pen in her hand, but she made no approach to signing her name with it.

“If my signature pledges me to anything,” she said, “surely I have some claim to know what that pledge is?”

He lifted up the parchment, and struck it angrily on the table.

“Speak out!” he said. “You were always famous for telling the truth. Never mind Miss Halcombe, never mind Fosco–say, in plain terms, you distrust me.”

The Count took one of his hands out of his belt and laid it on Sir Percival’s shoulder. Sir Percival shook it off irritably. The Count put it on again with unruffled composure.

“Control your unfortunate temper, Percival,” he said “Lady Glyde is right.”

“Right!” cried Sir Percival. “A wife right in distrusting her husband!”

“It is unjust and cruel to accuse me of distrusting you,” said Laura. “Ask Marian if I am not justified in wanting to know what this writing requires of me before I sign it.”

“I won’t have any appeals made to Miss Halcombe,” retorted Sir Percival. “Miss Halcombe has nothing to do with the matter.”

I had not spoken hitherto, and I would much rather not have spoken now. But the expression of distress in Laura’s face when she turned it towards me, and the insolent injustice of her husband’s conduct, left me no other alternative than to give my opinion, for her sake, as soon as I was asked for it.

“Excuse me, Sir Percival,” I said–“but as one of the witnesses to the signature, I venture to think that I HAVE something to do with the matter. Laura’s objection seems to me a perfectly fair one, and speaking for myself only, I cannot assume the responsibility of witnessing her signature, unless she first understands what the writing is which you wish her to sign.”

“A cool declaration, upon my soul!” cried Sir Percival. “The next time you invite yourself to a man’s house, Miss Halcombe, I recommend you not to repay his hospitality by taking his wife’s side against him in a matter that doesn’t concern you.”

I started to my feet as suddenly as if he had struck me. If I had been a man, I would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But I was only a woman–and I loved his wife so dearly!

Thank God, that faithful love helped me, and I sat down again without saying a word. SHE knew what I had suffered and what I had suppressed. She ran round to me, with the tears streaming from her eyes. “Oh, Marian!” she whispered softly. “If my mother had been alive, she could have done no more for me!”

“Come back and sign!” cried Sir Percival from the other side of the table.

“Shall I?” she asked in my ear; “I will, if you tell me.”

“No,” I answered. “The right and the truth are with you–sign nothing, unless you have read it first.”

“Come back and sign!” he reiterated, in his loudest and angriest tones.

The Count, who had watched Laura and me with a close and silent attention, interposed for the second time.

“Percival!” he said. “I remember that I am in the presence of ladies. Be good enough, if you please, to remember it too.”

Sir Percival turned on him speechless with passion. The Count’s firm hand slowly tightened its grasp on his shoulder, and the Count’s steady voice quietly repeated, “Be good enough, if you please, to remember it too.”

They both looked at each other. Sir Percival slowly drew his shoulder from under the Count’s hand, slowly turned his face away from the Count’s eyes, doggedly looked down for a little while at the parchment on the table, and then spoke, with the sullen submission of a tamed animal, rather than the becoming resignation of a convinced man.

“I don’t want to offend anybody,” he said, “but my wife’s obstinacy is enough to try the patience of a saint. I have told her this is merely a formal document–and what more can she want? You may say what you please, but it is no part of a woman’s duty to set her husband at defiance. Once more, Lady Glyde, and for the last time, will you sign or will you not?”

Laura returned to his side of the table, and took up the pen again.

“I will sign with pleasure,” she said, “if you will only treat me as a responsible being. I care little what sacrifice is required of me, if it will affect no one else, and lead to no ill results–”

“Who talked of a sacrifice being required of You?” he broke in, with a half-suppressed return of his former violence.

“I only meant,” she resumed, “that I would refuse no concession which I could honourably make. If I have a scruple about signing my name to an engagement of which I know nothing, why should you visit it on me so severely? It is rather hard, I think, to treat Count Fosco’s scruples so much more indulgently than you have treated mine.”

This unfortunate, yet most natural, reference to the Count’s extraordinary power over her husband, indirect as it was, set Sir Percival’s smouldering temper on fire again in an instant.

“Scruples!” he repeated. “YOUR scruples! It is rather late in the day for you to be scrupulous. I should have thought you had got over all weakness of that sort, when you made a virtue of necessity by marrying me.”

The instant he spoke those words, Laura threw down the pen–looked at him with an expression in her eyes which, throughout all my experience of her, I had never seen in them before, and turned her back on him in dead silence.

This strong expression of the most open and the most bitter contempt was so entirely unlike herself, so utterly out of her character, that it silenced us all. There was something hidden, beyond a doubt, under the mere surface-brutality of the words which her husband had just addressed to her. There was some lurking insult beneath them, of which I was wholly ignorant, but which had left the mark of its profanation so plainly on her face that even a stranger might have seen it.

The Count, who was no stranger, saw it as distinctly as I did. When I left my chair to join Laura, I heard him whisper under his breath to Sir Percival, “You idiot!”

Laura walked before me to the door as I advanced, and at the same time her husband spoke to her once more.

“You positively refuse, then, to give me your signature?” he said, in the altered tone of a man who was conscious that he had let his own licence of language seriously injure him.

“After what you have just said to me,” she replied firmly, “I refuse my signature until I have read every line in that parchment from the first word to the last. Come away, Marian, we have remained here long enough.”

“One moment!” interposed the Count before Sir Percival could speak again–“one moment, Lady Glyde, I implore you!”

Laura would have left the room without noticing him, but I stopped her.

“Don’t make an enemy of the Count!” I whispered. “Whatever you do, don’t make an enemy of the Count!”

She yielded to me. I closed the door again, and we stood near it waiting. Sir Percival sat down at the table, with his elbow on the folded parchment, and his head resting on his clenched fist. The Count stood between us–master of the dreadful position in which we were placed, as he was master of everything else.

“Lady Glyde,” he said, with a gentleness which seemed to address itself to our forlorn situation instead of to ourselves, “pray pardon me if I venture to offer one suggestion, and pray believe that I speak out of my profound respect and my friendly regard for the mistress of this house.” He turned sharply towards Sir Percival. “Is it absolutely necessary,” he asked “that this thing here, under your elbow, should be signed to-day?”

“It is necessary to my plans and wishes,” returned the other sulkily. “But that consideration, as you may have noticed, has no influence with Lady Glyde.”

“Answer my plain question plainly. Can the business of the signature be put off till to-morrow–Yes or No?”

“Yes, if you will have it so.”

“Then what are you wasting your time for here? Let the signature wait till to-morrow–let it wait till you come back.”

Sir Percival looked up with a frown and an oath.

“You are taking a tone with me that I don’t like,” he said. “A tone I won’t bear from any man.”

“I am advising you for your good,” returned the Count, with a smile of quiet contempt. “Give yourself time–give Lady Glyde time. Have you forgotten that your dog-cart is waiting at the door? My tone surprises you–ha? I dare say it does–it is the tone of a man who can keep his temper. How many doses of good advice have I given you in my time? More than you can count. Have I ever been wrong? I defy you to quote me an instance of it. Go! take your drive. The matter of the signature can wait till to- morrow. Let it wait–and renew it when you come back.”

Sir Percival hesitated and looked at his watch. His anxiety about the secret journey which he was to take that day, revived by the Count’s words, was now evidently disputing possession of his mind with his anxiety to obtain Laura’s signature. He considered for a little while, and then got up from his chair.

“It is easy to argue me down,” he said, “when I have no time to answer you. I will take your advice, Fosco–not because I want it, or believe in it, but because I can’t stop here any longer.” He paused, and looked round darkly at his wife. “If you don’t give me your signature when I come back to-morrow!” The rest was lost in the noise of his opening the book-case cupboard again, and locking up the parchment once more. He took his hat and gloves off the table, and made for the door. Laura and I drew back to let him pass. “Remember to-morrow!” he said to his wife, and went out.

We waited to give him time to cross the hall and drive away. The Count approached us while we were standing near the door.

“You have just seen Percival at his worst, Miss Halcombe,” he said. “As his old friend, I am sorry for him and ashamed of him. As his old friend, I promise you that he shall not break out to- morrow in the same disgraceful manner in which he has broken out to-day.”

Laura had taken my arm while he was speaking and she pressed it significantly when he had done. It would have been a hard trial to any woman to stand by and see the office of apologist for her husband’s misconduct quietly assumed by his male friend in her own house–and it was a trial to HER. I thanked the Count civilly, and let her out. Yes! I thanked him: for I felt already, with a sense of inexpressible helplessness and humiliation, that it was either his interest or his caprice to make sure of my continuing to reside at Blackwater Park, and I knew after Sir Percival’s conduct to me, that without the support of the Count’s influence, I could not hope to remain there. His influence, the influence of all others that I dreaded most, was actually the one tie which now held me to Laura in the hour of her utmost need!

We heard the wheels of the dog-cart crashing on the gravel of the drive as we came into the hall. Sir Percival had started on his journey.

“Where is he going to, Marian?” Laura whispered. “Every fresh thing he does seems to terrify me about the future. Have you any suspicions?”

After what she had undergone that morning, I was unwilling to tell her my suspicions.

“How should I know his secrets?” I said evasively.

“I wonder if the housekeeper knows?” she persisted.

“Certainly not,” I replied. “She must be quite as ignorant as we are.”

Laura shook her head doubtfully.

“Did you not hear from the housekeeper that there was a report of Anne Catherick having been seen in this neighbourhood? Don’t you think he may have gone away to look for her?”

“I would rather compose myself, Laura, by not thinking about it at all, and after what has happened, you had better follow my example. Come into my room, and rest and quiet yourself a little.”

We sat down together close to the window, and let the fragrant summer air breathe over our faces.

“I am ashamed to look at you, Marian,” she said, “after what you submitted to downstairs, for my sake. Oh, my own love, I am almost heartbroken when I think of it! But I will try to make it up to you–I will indeed!”

“Hush! hush!” I replied; “don’t talk so. What is the trifling mortification of my pride compared to the dreadful sacrifice of your happiness?”

“You heard what he said to me?” she went on quickly and vehemently. “You heard the words–but you don’t know what they meant–you don’t know why I threw down the pen and turned my back on him.” She rose in sudden agitation, and walked about the room. “I have kept many things from your knowledge, Marian, for fear of distressing you, and making you unhappy at the outset of our new lives. You don’t know how he has used me. And yet you ought to know, for you saw how he used me to-day. You heard him sneer at my presuming to be scrupulous–you heard him say I had made a virtue of necessity in marrying him.” She sat down again, her face flushed deeply, and her hands twisted and twined together in her lap. “I can’t tell you about it now,” she said; “I shall burst out crying if I tell you now–later, Marian, when I am more sure of myself. My poor head aches, darling–aches, aches, aches. Where is your smelling-bottle? Let me talk to you about yourself. I wish I had given him my signature, for your sake. Shall I give it to him to-morrow? I would rather compromise myself than compromise you. After your taking my part against him, he will lay all the blame on you if I refuse again. What shall we do? Oh, for a friend to help us and advise us!–a friend we could really trust!”

She sighed bitterly. I saw in her face that she was thinking of Hartright–saw it the more plainly because her last words set me thinking of him too. In six months only from her marriage we wanted the faithful service he had offered to us in his farewell words. How little I once thought that we should ever want it at all!

“We must do what we can to help ourselves,” I said. “Let us try to talk it over calmly, Laura–let us do all in our power to decide for the best.”

Putting what she knew of her husband’s embarrassments and what I had heard of his conversation with the lawyer together, we arrived necessarily at the conclusion that the parchment in the library had been drawn up for the purpose of borrowing money, and that Laura’s signature was absolutely necessary to fit it for the attainment of Sir Percival’s object.

The second question, concerning the nature of the legal contract by which the money was to be obtained, and the degree of personal responsibility to which Laura might subject herself if she signed it in the dark, involved considerations which lay far beyond any knowledge and experience that either of us possessed. My own convictions led me to believe that the hidden contents of the parchment concealed a transaction of the meanest and the most fraudulent kind.

I had not formed this conclusion in consequence of Sir Percival’s refusal to show the writing or to explain it, for that refusal might well have proceeded from his obstinate disposition and his domineering temper alone. My sole motive for distrusting his honesty sprang from the change which I had observed in his language and his manners at Blackwater Park, a change which convinced me that he had been acting a part throughout the whole period of his probation at Limmeridge House. His elaborate delicacy, his ceremonious politeness which harmonised so agreeably with Mr. Gilmore’s old-fashioned notions, his modesty with Laura, his candour with me, his moderation with Mr. Fairlie–all these were the artifices of a mean, cunning, and brutal man, who had dropped his disguise when his practised duplicity had gained its end, and had openly shown himself in the library on that very day. I say nothing of the grief which this discovery caused me on Laura’s account, for it is not to be expressed by any words of mine. I only refer to it at all, because it decided me to oppose her signing the parchment, whatever the consequences might be, unless she was first made acquainted with the contents.

Under these circumstances, the one chance for us when to-morrow came was to be provided with an objection to giving the signature, which might rest on sufficiently firm commercial or legal grounds to shake Sir Percival’s resolution, and to make him suspect that we two women understood the laws and obligations of business as well as himself.

After some pondering, I determined to write to the only honest man within reach whom we could trust to help us discreetly in our forlorn situation. That man was Mr. Gilmore’s partner, Mr. Kyrle, who conducted the business now that our old friend had been obliged to withdraw from it, and to leave London on account of his health. I explained to Laura that I had Mr. Gilmore’s own authority for placing implicit confidence in his partner’s integrity, discretion, and accurate knowledge of all her affairs, and with her full approval I sat down at once to write the letter, I began by stating our position to Mr. Kyrle exactly as it was, and then asked for his advice in return, expressed in plain, downright terms which he could comprehend without any danger of misinterpretations and mistakes. My letter was as short as I could possibly make it, and was, I hope, unencumbered by needless apologies and needless details.

Just as I was about to put the address on the envelope an obstacle was discovered by Laura, which in the effort and preoccupation of writing had escaped my mind altogether.

“How are we to get the answer in time?” she asked. “Your letter will not be delivered in London before to-morrow morning, and the post will not bring the reply here till the morning after.”

The only way of overcoming this difficulty was to have the answer brought to us from the lawyer’s office by a special messenger. I wrote a postscript to that effect, begging that the messenger might be despatched with the reply by the eleven o’clock morning train, which would bring him to our station at twenty minutes past one, and so enable him to reach Blackwater Park by two o’clock at the latest. He was to be directed to ask for me, to answer no questions addressed to him by any one else, and to deliver his letter into no hands but mine.

“In case Sir Percival should come back to-morrow before two o’clock,” I said to Laura, “the wisest plan for you to adopt is to be out in the grounds all the morning with your book or your work, and not to appear at the house till the messenger has had time to arrive with the letter. I will wait here for him all the morning, to guard against any misadventures or mistakes. By following this arrangement I hope and believe we shall avoid being taken by surprise. Let us go down to the drawing-room now. We may excite suspicion if we remain shut up together too long.”

“Suspicion?” she repeated. “Whose suspicion can we excite, now that Sir Percival has left the house? Do you mean Count Fosco?”

“Perhaps I do, Laura.”

“You are beginning to dislike him as much as I do, Marian.”

“No, not to dislike him. Dislike is always more or less associated with contempt–I can see nothing in the Count to despise.”

“You are not afraid of him, are you?”

“Perhaps I am–a little.”

“Afraid of him, after his interference in our favour to-day!”

“Yes. I am more afraid of his interference than I am of Sir Percival’s violence. Remember what I said to you in the library. Whatever you do, Laura, don’t make an enemy of the Count!”

We went downstairs. Laura entered the drawing-room, while I proceeded across the hall, with my letter in my hand, to put it into the post-bag, which hung against the wall opposite to me.

The house door was open, and as I crossed past it, I saw Count Fosco and his wife standing talking together on the steps outside, with their faces turned towards me.

The Countess came into the hall rather hastily, and asked if I had leisure enough for five minutes’ private conversation. Feeling a little surprised by such an appeal from such a person, I put my letter into the bag, and replied that I was quite at her disposal. She took my arm with unaccustomed friendliness and familiarity, and instead of leading me into an empty room, drew me out with her to the belt of turf which surrounded the large fish-pond.

As we passed the Count on the steps he bowed and smiled, and then went at once into the house, pushing the hall door to after him, but not actually closing it.

The Countess walked me gently round the fish-pond. I expected to be made the depositary of some extraordinary confidence, and I was astonished to find that Madame Fosco’s communication for my private ear was nothing more than a polite assurance of her sympathy for me, after what had happened in the library. Her husband had told her of all that had passed, and of the insolent manner in which Sir Percival had spoken to me. This information had so shocked and distressed her, on my account and on Laura’s, that she had made up her mind, if anything of the sort happened again, to mark her sense of Sir Percival’s outrageous conduct by leaving the house. The Count had approved of her idea, and she now hoped that I approved of it too.

I thought this a very strange proceeding on the part of such a remarkably reserved woman as Madame Fosco, especially after the interchange of sharp speeches which had passed between us during the conversation in the boat-house on that very morning. However, it was my plain duty to meet a polite and friendly advance on the part of one of my elders with a polite and friendly reply. I answered the Countess accordingly in her own tone, and then, thinking we had said all that was necessary on either side, made an attempt to get back to the house.

But Madame Fosco seemed resolved not to part with me, and to my unspeakable amazement, resolved also to talk. Hitherto the most silent of women, she now persecuted me with fluent conventionalities on the subject of married life, on the subject of Sir Percival and Laura, on the subject of her own happiness, on the subject of the late Mr. Fairlie’s conduct to her in the matter of her legacy, and on half a dozen other subjects besides, until she had detained me walking round and round the fish-pond for more than half an hour, and had quite wearied me out. Whether she discovered this or not, I cannot say, but she stopped as abruptly as she had begun–looked towards the house door, resumed her icy manner in a moment, and dropped my arm of her own accord before I could think of an excuse for accomplishing my own release from her.

As I pushed open the door and entered the hall, I found myself suddenly face to face with the Count again. He was just putting a letter into the post-bag.

After he had dropped it in and had closed the bag, he asked me where I had left Madame Fosco. I told him, and he went out at the hall door immediately to join his wife. His manner when he spoke to me was so unusually quiet and subdued that I turned and looked after him, wondering if he were ill or out of spirits.

Why my next proceeding was to go straight up to the post-bag and take out my own letter and look at it again, with a vague distrust on me, and why the looking at it for the second time instantly suggested the idea to my mind of sealing the envelope for its greater security–are mysteries which are either too deep or too shallow for me to fathom. Women, as everybody knows, constantly act on impulses which they cannot explain even to themselves, and I can only suppose that one of those impulses was the hidden cause of my unaccountable conduct on this occasion.

Whatever influence animated me, I found cause to congratulate myself on having obeyed it as soon as I prepared to seal the letter in my own room. I had originally closed the envelope in the usual way by moistening the adhesive point and pressing it on the paper beneath, and when I now tried it with my finger, after a lapse of full three-quarters of an hour, the envelope opened on the instant, without sticking or tearing. Perhaps I had fastened it insufficiently? Perhaps there might have been some defect in the adhesive gum?

Or, perhaps—-No! it is quite revolting enough to feel that third conjecture stirring in my mind. I would rather not see it confronting me in plain black and white.

I almost dread to-morrow–so much depends on my discretion and self-control. There are two precautions, at all events, which I am sure not to forget. I must be careful to keep up friendly appearances with the Count, and I must be well on my guard when the messenger from the office comes here with the answer to my letter.

V

June 17th.–When the dinner hour brought us together again, Count Fosco was in his usual excellent spirits. He exerted himself to interest and amuse us, as if he was determined to efface from our memories all recollection of what had passed in the library that afternoon. Lively descriptions of his adventures in travelling, amusing anecdotes of remarkable people whom he had met with abroad, quaint comparisons between the social customs of various nations, illustrated by examples drawn from men and women indiscriminately all over Europe, humorous confessions of the innocent follies of his own early life, when he ruled the fashions of a second-rate Italian town, and wrote preposterous romances on the French model for a second-rate Italian newspaper–all flowed in succession so easily and so gaily from his lips, and all addressed our various curiosities and various interests so directly and so delicately, that Laura and I listened to him with as much attention and, inconsistent as it may seem, with as much admiration also, as Madame Fosco herself. Women can resist a man’s love, a man’s fame, a man’s personal appearance, and a man’s money, but they cannot resist a man’s tongue when he knows how to talk to them.

After dinner, while the favourable impression which he had produced on us was still vivid in our minds, the Count modestly withdrew to read in the library.

Laura proposed a stroll in the grounds to enjoy the close of the long evening. It was necessary in common politeness to ask Madame Fosco to join us, but this time she had apparently received her orders beforehand, and she begged we would kindly excuse her. “The Count will probably want a fresh supply of cigarettes,” she remarked by way of apology, “and nobody can make them to his satisfaction but myself.” Her cold blue eyes almost warmed as she spoke the words–she looked actually proud of being the officiating medium through which her lord and master composed himself with tobacco-smoke!

Laura and I went out together alone.

It was a misty, heavy evening. There was a sense of blight in the air; the flowers were drooping in the garden, and the ground was parched and dewless. The western heaven, as we saw it over the quiet trees, was of a pale yellow hue, and the sun was setting faintly in a haze. Coming rain seemed near–it would fall probably with the fall of night.

“Which way shall we go?” I asked

“Towards the lake, Marian, if you like,” she answered.

“You seem unaccountably fond, Laura, of that dismal lake.”

“No, not of the lake but of the scenery about it. The sand and heath and the fir-trees are the only objects I can discover, in all this large place, to remind me of Limmeridge. But we will walk in some other direction if you prefer it.”

“I have no favourite walks at Blackwater Park, my love. One is the same as another to me. Let us go to the lake–we may find it cooler in the open space than we find it here.”

We walked through the shadowy plantation in silence. The heaviness in the evening air oppressed us both, and when we reached the boat-house we were glad to sit down and rest inside.

A white fog hung low over the lake. The dense brown line of the trees on the opposite bank appeared above it, like a dwarf forest floating in the sky. The sandy ground, shelving downward from where we sat, was lost mysteriously in the outward layers of the fog. The silence was horrible. No rustling of the leaves–no bird’s note in the wood–no cry of water-fowl from the pools of the hidden lake. Even the croaking of the frogs had ceased to- night.

“It is very desolate and gloomy,” said Laura. “But we can be more alone here than anywhere else.”

She spoke quietly and looked at the wilderness of sand and mist with steady, thoughtful eyes. I could see that her mind was too much occupied to feel the dreary impressions from without which had fastened themselves already on mine.

“I promised, Marian, to tell you the truth about my married life, instead of leaving you any longer to guess it for yourself,” she began. “That secret is the first I have ever had from you, love, and I am determined it shall be the last. I was silent, as you know, for your sake–and perhaps a little for my own sake as well. It is very hard for a woman to confess that the man to whom she has given her whole life is the man of all others who cares least for the gift. If you were married yourself, Marian–and especially if you were happily married–you would feel for me as no single woman CAN feel, however kind and true she may be.”

What answer could I make? I could only take her hand and look at her with my whole heart as well as my eyes would let me.

“How often,” she went on, “I have heard you laughing over what you used to call your ‘poverty!’ how often you have made me mock- speeches of congratulation on my wealth! Oh, Marian, never laugh again. Thank God for your poverty–it has made you your own mistress, and has saved you from the lot that has fallen on ME.”

A sad beginning on the lips of a young wife!–sad in its quiet plain-spoken truth. The few days we had all passed together at Blackwater Park had been many enough to show me–to show any one– what her husband had married her for.

“You shall not be distressed,” she said, “by hearing how soon my disappointments and my trials began–or even by knowing what they were. It is bad enough to have them on my memory. If I tell you how he received the first and last attempt at remonstrance that I ever made, you will know how he has always treated me, as well as if I had described it in so many words. It was one day at Rome when we had ridden out together to the tomb of Cecilia Metella. The sky was calm and lovely, and the grand old ruin looked beautiful, and the remembrance that a husband’s love had raised it in the old time to a wife’s memory, made me feel more tenderly and more anxiously towards my husband than I had ever felt yet. ‘Would you build such a tomb for ME, Percival?’ I asked him. ‘You said you loved me dearly before we were married, and yet, since that time—-‘ I could get no farther. Marian! he was not even looking at me! I pulled down my veil, thinking it best not to let him see that the tears were in my eyes. I fancied he had not paid any attention to me, but he had. He said, ‘Come away,’ and laughed to himself as he helped me on to my horse. He mounted his own horse and laughed again as we rode away. ‘If I do build you a tomb,’ he said, ‘it will be done with your own money. I wonder whether Cecilia Metella had a fortune and paid for hers.’ I made no reply–how could I, when I was crying behind my veil?’ Ah, you light-complexioned women are all sulky,’ he said. ‘What do you want? compliments and soft speeches? Well! I’m in a good humour this morning. Consider the compliments paid and the speeches said.’ Men little know when they say hard things to us how well we remember them, and how much harm they do us. It would have been better for me if I had gone on crying, but his contempt dried up my tears and hardened my heart. From that time, Marian, I never checked myself again in thinking of Walter Hartright. I let the memory of those happy days, when we were so fond of each other in secret, come back and comfort me. What else had I to look to for consolation? If we had been together you would have helped me to better things. I know it was wrong, darling, but tell me if I was wrong without any excuse.”

I was obliged to turn my face from her. “Don’t ask me!” I said. “Have I suffered as you have suffered? What right have I to decide?”

“I used to think of him,” she pursued, dropping her voice and moving closer to me, “I used to think of him when Percival left me alone at night to go among the Opera people. I used to fancy what I might have been if it had pleased God to bless me with poverty, and if I had been his wife. I used to see myself in my neat cheap gown, sitting at home and waiting for him while he was earning our bread–sitting at home and working for him and loving him all the better because I had to work for him–seeing him come in tired and taking off his hat and coat for him, and, Marian, pleasing him with little dishes at dinner that I had learnt to make for his sake. Oh! I hope he is never lonely enough and sad enough to think of me and see me as I have thought of HIM and see HIM!”

As she said those melancholy words, all the lost tenderness returned to her voice, and all the lost beauty trembled back into her face. Her eyes rested as lovingly on the blighted, solitary, ill-omened view before us, as if they saw the friendly hills of Cumberland in the dim and threatening sky.

“Don’t speak of Walter any more,” I said, as soon as I could control myself. “Oh, Laura, spare us both the wretchedness of talking of him now!”

She roused herself, and looked at me tenderly.

“I would rather be silent about him for ever,” she answered, “than cause you a moment’s pain.”

“It is in your interests,” I pleaded; “it is for your sake that I speak. If your husband heard you—-”

“It would not surprise him if he did hear me.”

She made that strange reply with a weary calmness and coldness. The change in her manner, when she gave the answer, startled me almost as much as the answer itself.

“Not surprise him!” I repeated. “Laura! remember what you are saying–you frighten me!”

“It is true,” she said; “it is what I wanted to tell you to-day, when we were talking in your room. My only secret when I opened my heart to him at Limmeridge was a harmless secret, Marian–you said so yourself. The name was all I kept from him, and he has discovered it.”

I heard her, but I could say nothing. Her last words had killed the little hope that still lived in me.

“It happened at Rome,” she went on, as wearily calm and cold as ever. “We were at a little party given to the English by some friends of Sir Percival’s–Mr. and Mrs. Markland. Mrs. Markland had the reputation of sketching very beautifully, and some of the guests prevailed on her to show us her drawings. We all admired them, but something I said attracted her attention particularly to me. ‘Surely you draw yourself?’ she asked. ‘I used to draw a little once,’ I answered, ‘but I have given it up.’ ‘If you have once drawn,’ she said, ‘you may take to it again one of these days, and if you do, I wish you would let me recommend you a master.’ I said nothing–you know why, Marian–and tried to change the conversation. But Mrs. Markland persisted. ‘I have had all sorts of teachers,’ she went on, ‘but the best of all, the most intelligent and the most attentive, was a Mr. Hartright. If you ever take up your drawing again, do try him as a master. He is a young man–modest and gentlemanlike–I am sure you will like him . ‘Think of those words being spoken to me publicly, in the presence of strangers–strangers who had been invited to meet the bride and bridegroom! I did all I could to control myself–I said nothing, and looked down close at the drawings. When I ventured to raise my head again, my eyes and my husband’s eyes met, and I knew, by his look, that my face had betrayed me. ‘We will see about Mr. Hartright,’ he said, looking at me all the time, ‘when we get back to England. I agree with you, Mrs. Markland–I think Lady Glyde is sure to like him.’ He laid an emphasis on the last words which made my cheeks burn, and set my heart beating as if it would stifle me. Nothing more was said. We came away early. He was silent in the carriage driving back to the hotel. He helped me out, and followed me upstairs as usual. But the moment we were in the drawing-room, he locked the door, pushed me down into a chair, and stood over me with his hands on my shoulders. ‘Ever since that morning when you made your audacious confession to me at Limmeridge,’ he said, ‘I have wanted to find out the man, and I found him in your face to-night. Your drawing-master was the man, and his name is Hartright. You shall repent it, and he shall repent it, to the last hour of your lives. Now go to bed and dream of him if you like, with the marks of my horsewhip on his shoulders.’ Whenever he is angry with me now he refers to what I acknowledged to him in your presence with a sneer or a threat. I have no power to prevent him from putting his own horrible construction on the confidence I placed in him. I have no influence to make him believe me, or to keep him silent. You looked surprised to-day when you heard him tell me that I had made a virtue of necessity in marrying him. You will not be surprised again when you hear him repeat it, the next time he is out of temper—-Oh, Marian! don’t! don’t! you hurt me!”

I had caught her in my arms, and the sting and torment of my remorse had closed them round her like a vice. Yes! my remorse. The white despair of Walter’s face, when my cruel words struck him to the heart in the summer-house at Limmeridge, rose before me in mute, unendurable reproach. My hand had pointed the way which led the man my sister loved, step by step, far from his country and his friends. Between those two young hearts I had stood, to sunder them for ever, the one from the other, and his life and her life lay wasted before me alike in witness of the deed. I had done this, and done it for Sir Percival Glyde.

For Sir Percival Glyde.

I heard her speaking, and I knew by the tone of her voice that she was comforting me–I, who deserved nothing but the reproach of her silence! How long it was before I mastered the absorbing misery of my own thoughts, I cannot tell. I was first conscious that she was kissing me, and then my eyes seemed to wake on a sudden to their sense of outward things, and I knew that I was looking mechanically straight before me at the prospect of the lake.

“It is late,” I heard her whisper. “It will be dark in the plantation.” She shook my arm and repeated, “Marian! it will be dark in the plantation.”

“Give me a minute longer,” I said–“a minute, to get better in.”

I was afraid to trust myself to look at her yet, and I kept my eyes fixed on the view.

It WAS late. The dense brown line of trees in the sky had faded in the gathering darkness to the faint resemblance of a long wreath of smoke. The mist over the lake below had stealthily enlarged, and advanced on us. The silence was as breathless as ever, but the horror of it had gone, and the solemn mystery of its stillness was all that remained.

“We are far from the house,” she whispered. “Let us go back.”

She stopped suddenly, and turned her face from me towards the entrance of the boat-house.

“Marian!” she said, trembling violently. “Do you see nothing? Look!”

“Where?”

“Down there, below us.”

She pointed. My eyes followed her hand, and I saw it too.

A living figure was moving over the waste of heath in the distance. It crossed our range of view from the boat-house, and passed darkly along the outer edge of the mist. It stopped far off, in front of us–waited–and passed on; moving slowly, with the white cloud of mist behind it and above it–slowly, slowly, till it glided by the edge of the boat-house, and we saw it no more.

We were both unnerved by what had passed between us that evening. Some minutes elapsed before Laura would venture into the plantation, and before I could make up my mind to lead her back to the house.

“Was it a man or a woman?” she asked in a whisper, as we moved at last into the dark dampness of the outer air.

“I am not certain.”

“Which do you think?”

“It looked like a woman.”

“I was afraid it was a man in a long cloak.”

“It may be a man. In this dim light it is not possible to be certain.”

“Wait, Marian! I’m frightened–I don’t see the path. Suppose the figure should follow us?”

“Not at all likely, Laura. There is really nothing to be alarmed about. The shores of the lake are not far from the village, and they are free to any one to walk on by day or night. It is only wonderful we have seen no living creature there before.”

We were now in the plantation. It was very dark–so dark, that we found some difficulty in keeping the path. I gave Laura my arm, and we walked as fast as we could on our way back.

Before we were half-way through she stopped, and forced me to stop with her. She was listening.

“Hush,” she whispered. “I hear something behind us.”

“Dead leaves,” I said to cheer her, “or a twig blown off the trees.”

“It is summer time, Marian, and there is not a breath of wind. Listen!”

I heard the sound too–a sound like a light footstep following us.

“No matter who it is, or what it is,” I said, “let us walk on. In another minute, if there is anything to alarm us, we shall be near enough to the house to be heard.”

We went on quickly–so quickly, that Laura was breathless by the time we were nearly through the plantation, and within sight of the lighted windows.

I waited a moment to give her breathing-time. Just as we were about to proceed she stopped me again, and signed to me with her hand to listen once more. We both heard distinctly a long, heavy sigh behind us, in the black depths of the trees.

“Who’s there?” I called out.

There was no answer.

“Who’s there?” I repeated.

An instant of silence followed, and then we heard the light fall of the footsteps again, fainter and fainter–sinking away into the darkness–sinking, sinking, sinking–till they were lost in the silence.

We hurried out from the trees to the open lawn beyond crossed it rapidly, and without another word passing between us, reached the house.

In the light of the hall-lamp Laura looked at me, with white cheeks and startled eyes.

“I am half dead with fear,” she said. “Who could it have been?”

“We will try to guess to-morrow,” I replied. “In the meantime say nothing to any one of what we have heard and seen.

“Why not?”

“Because silence is safe, and we have need of safety in this house.”

I sent Laura upstairs immediately, waited a minute to take off my hat and put my hair smooth, and then went at once to make my first investigations in the library, on pretence of searching for a book.

There sat the Count, filling out the largest easy-chair in the house, smoking and reading calmly, with his feet on an ottoman, his cravat across his knees, and his shirt collar wide open. And there sat Madame Fosco, like a quiet child, on a stool by his side, making cigarettes. Neither husband nor wife could, by any possibility, have been out late that evening, and have just got back to the house in a hurry. I felt that my object in visiting the library was answered the moment I set eyes on them.

Count Fosco rose in polite confusion and tied his cravat on when I entered the room.

“Pray don’t let me disturb you,” I said. “I have only come here to get a book.”

“All unfortunate men of my size suffer from the heat,” said the Count, refreshing himself gravely with a large green fan. “I wish I could change places with my excellent wife. She is as cool at this moment as a fish in the pond outside.”

The Countess allowed herself to thaw under the influence of her husband’s quaint comparison. “I am never warm, Miss Halcombe,” she remarked, with the modest air of a woman who was confessing to one of her own merits.

“Have you and Lady Glyde been out this evening?” asked the Count, while I was taking a book from the shelves to preserve appearances.

“Yes, we went out to get a little air.”

“May I ask in what direction?”

“In the direction of the lake–as far as the boat-house.”

“Aha? As far as the boat-house?”

Under other circumstances I might have resented his curiosity. But to-night I hailed it as another proof that neither he nor his wife were connected with the mysterious appearance at the lake.

“No more adventures, I suppose, this evening?” he went on . “No more discoveries, like your discovery of the wounded dog?”

He fixed his unfathomable grey eyes on me, with that cold, clear, irresistible glitter in them which always forces me to look at him, and always makes me uneasy while I do look. An unutterable suspicion that his mind is prying into mine overcomes me at these times, and it overcame me now.

“No,” I said shortly; “no adventures–no discoveries.”

I tried to look away from him and leave the room. Strange as it seems, I hardly think I should have succeeded in the attempt if Madame Fosco had not helped me by causing him to move and look away first.

“Count, you are keeping Miss Halcombe standing,” she said.

The moment he turned round to get me a chair, I seized my opportunity–thanked him–made my excuses–and slipped out.

An hour later, when Laura’s maid happened to be in her mistress’s room, I took occasion to refer to the closeness of the night, with a view to ascertaining next how the servants had been passing their time.

“Have you been suffering much from the heat downstairs?” I asked.

“No, miss,” said the girl, “we have not felt it to speak of.”

“You have been out in the woods then, I suppose?”

“Some of us thought of going, miss. But cook said she should take her chair into the cool court-yard, outside the kitchen door, and on second thoughts, all the rest of us took our chairs out there too.”

The housekeeper was now the only person who remained to be accounted for.

“Is Mrs. Michelson gone to bed yet?” I inquired.

“I should think not, miss,” said the girl, smiling. “Mrs. Michelson is more likely to be getting up just now than going to bed.”

“Why? What do you mean? Has Mrs. Michelson been taking to her bed in the daytime?”

“No, miss, not exactly, but the next thing to it. She’s been asleep all the evening on the sofa in her own room.”

Putting together what I observed for myself in the library, and what I have just heard from Laura’s maid, one conclusion seems inevitable. The figure we saw at the lake was not the figure of Madame Fosco, of her husband, or of any of the servants. The footsteps we heard behind us were not the footsteps of any one belonging to the house.

Who could it have been?

It seems useless to inquire. I cannot even decide whether the figure was a man’s or a woman’s. I can only say that I think it was a woman’s,

VI

June 18th.–The misery of self-reproach which I suffered yesterday evening, on hearing what Laura told me in the boat-house, returned in the loneliness of the night, and kept me waking and wretched for hours.

I lighted my candle at last, and searched through my old journals to see what my share in the fatal error of her marriage had really been, and what I might have once done to save her from it. The result soothed me a little for it showed that, however blindly and ignorantly I acted, I acted for the best. Crying generally does me harm; but it was not so last night–I think it relieved me. I rose this morning with a settled resolution and a quiet mind. Nothing Sir Percival can say or do shall ever irritate me again, or make me forget for one moment that I am staying here in defiance of mortifications, insults, and threats, for Laura’s service and for Laura’s sake.

The speculations in which we might have indulged this morning, on the subject of the figure at the lake and the foot-steps in the plantation, have been all suspended by a trifling accident which has caused Laura great regret. She has lost the little brooch I gave her for a keepsake on the day before her marriage. As she wore it when we went out yesterday evening we can only suppose that it must have dropped from her dress, either in the boat-house or on our way back. The servants have been sent to search, and have returned unsuccessful. And now Laura herself has gone to look for it. Whether she finds it or not the loss will help to excuse her absence from the house. if Sir Percival returns before the letter from Mr. Gilmore’s partner is placed in my hands.

One o’clock has just struck. I am considering whether I had better wait here for the arrival of the messenger from London, or slip away quietly, and watch for him outside the lodge gate.

My suspicion of everybody and everything in this house inclines me to think that the second plan may be the best. The Count is safe in the breakfast-room. I heard him, through the door, as I ran upstairs ten minutes since, exercising his canary-birds at their tricks:–“Come out on my little finger, my pret-pret-pretties! Come out, and hop upstairs! One, two, three–and up! Three, two, one–and down! One, two, three–twit-twit-twit-tweet!” The birds burst into their usual ecstasy of singing, and the Count chirruped and whistled at them in return, as if he was a bird himself. My room door is open, and I can hear the shrill singing and whistling at this very moment. If I am really to slip out without being observed, now is my time.

FOUR O’CLOCK. The three hours that have passed since I made my last entry have turned the whole march of events at Blackwater Park in a new direction. Whether for good or for evil, I cannot and dare not decide.

Let me get back first to the place at which I left off, or I shall lose myself in the confusion of my own thoughts.

I went out, as I had proposed, to meet the messenger with my letter from London at the lodge gate. On the stairs I saw no one. In the hall I heard the Count still exercising his birds. But on crossing the quadrangle outside, I passed Madame Fosco, walking by herself in her favourite circle, round and round the great fish- pond. I at once slackened my pace, so as to avoid all appearance of being in a hurry, and even went the length, for caution’s sake, of inquiring if she thought of going out before lunch. She smiled at me in the friendliest manner–said she preferred remaining near the house, nodded pleasantly, and re-entered the hall. I looked back, and saw that she had closed the door before I had opened the wicket by the side of the carriage gates.

In less than a quarter of an hour I reached the lodge.

The lane outside took a sudden turn to the left, ran on straight for a hundred yards or so, and then took another sharp turn to the right to join the high-road. Between these two turns, hidden from the lodge on one side, and from the way to the station on the other, I waited, walking backwards and forwards. High hedges were on either side of me, and for twenty minutes, by my watch, I neither saw nor heard anything. At the end of that time the sound of a carriage caught my ear, and I was met, as I advanced towards the second turning, by a fly from the railway. I made a sign to the driver to stop. As he obeyed me a respectable-looking man put his head out of the window to see what was the matter.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, “but am I right in supposing that you are going to Blackwater Park?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“With a letter for any one?”

“With a letter for Miss Halcombe, ma’am.”

“You may give me the letter. I am Miss Halcombe.”

The man touched his hat, got out of the fly immediately, and gave me the letter.

I opened it at once and read these lines. I copy them here, thinking it best to destroy the original for caution’s sake.

“DEAR MADAM,–Your letter received this morning has caused me very great anxiety. I will reply to it as briefly and plainly as possible.

“My careful consideration of the statement made by yourself, and my knowledge of Lady Glyde’s position, as defined in the settlement, lead me, I regret to say, to the conclusion that a loan of the trust money to Sir Percival (or, in other words, a loan of some portion of the twenty thousand pounds of Lady Glyde’s fortune) is in contemplation, and that she is made a party to the deed, in order to secure her approval of a flagrant breach of trust, and to have her signature produced against her if she should complain hereafter. It is impossible, on any other supposition, to account, situated as she is, for her execution to a deed of any kind being wanted at all.

“In the event of Lady Glyde’s signing such a document, as I am compelled to suppose the deed in question to be, her trustees would be at liberty to advance money to Sir Percival out of her twenty thousand pounds. If the amount so lent should not he paid back, and if Lady Glyde should have children, their fortune will then be diminished by the sum, large or small, so advanced. In plainer terms still, the transaction, for anything that Lady Glyde knows to the contrary, may be a fraud upon her unborn children.

“Under these serious circumstances, I would recommend Lady Glyde to assign as a reason for withholding her signature, that she wishes the deed to be first submitted to myself, as her family solicitor (in the absence of my partner, Mr. Gilmore). No reasonable objection can be made to taking this course–for, if the transaction is an honourable one, there will necessarily be no difficulty in my giving my approval.

“Sincerely assuring you of my readiness to afford any additional help or advice that may be wanted, I beg to remain, Madam, your faithful servant,

WILLIAM KYRLE.

I read this kind and sensible letter very thankfully. It supplied Laura with a reason for objecting to the signature which was unanswerable, and which we could both of us understand. The messenger waited near me while I was reading to receive his directions when I had done,

“Will you be good enough to say that I understand the letter, and that I am very much obliged?” I said. “There is no other reply necessary at present.”

Exactly at the moment when I was speaking those words, holding the letter open in my hand, Count Fosco turned the corner of the lane from the high-road, and stood before me as if he had sprung up out of the earth.

The suddenness of his appearance, in the very last place under heaven in which I should have expected to see him, took me completely by surprise. The messenger wished me good-morning, and got into the fly again. I could not say a word to him–I was not even able to return his bow. The conviction that I was discovered–and by that man, of all others–absolutely petrified me.

“Are you going back to the house, Miss Halcombe?” he inquired, without showing the least surprise on his side, and without even looking after the fly, which drove off while he was speaking to me.

I collected myself sufficiently to make a sign in the affirmative.

“I am going back too,” he said. “Pray allow me the pleasure of accompanying you. Will you take my arm? You look surprised at seeing me!”

I took his arm. The first of my scattered senses that came back was the sense that warned me to sacrifice anything rather than make an enemy of him.

“You look surprised at seeing me!” he repeated in his quietly pertinacious way.

“I thought, Count, I heard you with your birds in the breakfast- room,” I answered, as quietly and firmly as I could.

“Surely. But my little feathered children, dear lady, are only too like other children. They have their days of perversity, and this morning was one of them. My wife came in as I was putting them back in their cage, and said she had left you going out alone for a walk. You told her so, did you not?”

“Certainly.”

“Well, Miss Halcombe, the pleasure of accompanying you was too great a temptation for me to resist. At my age there is no harm in confessing so much as that, is there? I seized my hat, and set off to offer myself as your escort. Even so fat an old man as Fosco is surely better than no escort at all? I took the wrong path–I came back in despair, and here I am, arrived (may I say it?) at the height of my wishes.”

He talked on in this complimentary strain with a fluency which left me no exertion to make beyond the effort of maintaining my composure. He never referred in the most distant manner to what he had seen in the lane, or to the letter which I still had in my hand. This ominous discretion helped to convince me that he must have surprised, by the most dishonourable means, the secret of my application in Laura’s interest to the lawyer; and that, having now assured himself of the private manner in which I had received the answer, he had discovered enough to suit his purposes, and was only bent on trying to quiet the suspicions which he knew he must have aroused in my mind. I was wise enough, under these circumstances, not to attempt to deceive him by plausible explanations, and woman enough, notwithstanding my dread of him, to feel as if my hand was tainted by resting on his arm.

On the drive in front of the house we met the dog-cart being taken round to the stables. Sir Percival had just returned. He came out to meet us at the house-door. Whatever other results his journey might have had, it had not ended in softening his savage temper.

“Oh! here are two of you come back,” he said, with a lowering face. “What is the meaning of the house being deserted in this way? Where is Lady Glyde?”

I told him of the loss of the brooch, and said that Laura had gone into the plantation to look for it.

“Brooch or no brooch,” he growled sulkily, “I recommend her not to forget her appointment in the library this afternoon. I shall expect to see her in half an hour.”

I took my hand from the Count’s arm, and slowly ascended the steps. He honoured me with one of his magnificent bows, and then addressed himself gaily to the scowling master of the house.

“Tell me, Percival,” he said, “have you had a pleasant drive? And has your pretty shining Brown Molly come back at all tired?”

“Brown Molly be hanged–and the drive too! I want my lunch.”

“And I want five minutes’ talk with you, Percival, first,” returned the Count. “Five minutes’ talk, my friend, here on the grass.”

“What about?”

“About business that very much concerns you.”

I lingered long enough in passing through the hall-door to hear this question and answer, and to see Sir Percival thrust his hands into his pockets in sullen hesitation.

“If you want to badger me with any more of your infernal scruples,” he said, “I for one won’t hear them. I want my lunch.”

“Come out here and speak to me,” repeated the Count, still perfectly uninfluenced by the rudest speech that his friend could make to him.

Sir Percival descended the steps. The Count took him by the arm, and walked him away gently. The “business,” I was sure, referred to the question of the signature. They were speaking of Laura and of me beyond a doubt. I felt heart-sick and faint with anxiety. It might be of the last importance to both of us to know what they were saying to each other at that moment, and not one word of it could by any possibility reach my ears.

I walked about the house, from room to room, with the lawyer’s letter in my bosom (I was afraid by this time even to trust it under lock and key), till the oppression of my suspense half maddened me. There were no signs of Laura’s return, and I thought of going out to look for her. But my strength was so exhausted by the trials and anxieties of the morning that the heat of the day quite overpowered me, and after an attempt to get to the door I was obliged to return to the drawing-room and lie down on the nearest sofa to recover.

I was just composing myself when the door opened softly and the Count looked in.

“A thousand pardons, Miss Halcombe,” he said; “I only venture to disturb you because I am the bearer of good news. Percival–who is capricious in everything, as you know–has seen fit to alter his mind at the last moment, and the business of the signature is put off for the present. A great relief to all of us, Miss Halcombe, as I see with pleasure in your face. Pray present my best respects and felicitations, when you mention this pleasant change of circumstances to Lady Glyde.”

He left me before I had recovered my astonishment. There could be no doubt that this extraordinary alteration of purpose in the matter of the signature was due to his influence, and that his discovery of my application to London yesterday, and of my having received an answer to it to-day, had offered him the means of interfering with certain success.

I felt these impressions, but my mind seemed to share the exhaustion of my body, and I was in no condition to dwell on them with any useful reference to the doubtful present or the threatening future. I tried a second time to run out and find Laura, but my head was giddy and my knees trembled under me. There was no choice but to give it up again and return to the sofa, sorely against my will.

The quiet in the house, and the low murmuring hum of summer insects outside the open window, soothed me. My eyes closed of themselves, and I passed gradually into a strange condition, which was not waking–for I knew nothing of what was going on about me, and not sleeping–for I was conscious of my own repose. In this state my fevered mind broke loose from me, while my weary body was at rest, and in a trance, or day-dream of my fancy–I know not what to call it–I saw Walter Hartright. I had not thought of him since I rose that morning–Laura had not said one word to me either directly or indirectly referring to him–and yet I saw him now as plainly as if the past time had returned, and we were both together again at Limmeridge House.

He appeared to me as one among many other men, none of whose faces I could plainly discern. They were all lying on the steps of an immense ruined temple. Colossal tropical trees–with rank creepers twining endlessly about their trunks, and hideous stone idols glimmering and grinning at intervals behind leaves and stalks and branches–surrounded the temple and shut out the sky, and threw a dismal shadow over the forlorn band of men on the steps. White exhalations twisted and curled up stealthily from the ground, approached the men in wreaths like smoke, touched them, and stretched them out dead, one by one, in the places where they lay. An agony of pity and fear for Walter loosened my tongue, and I implored him to escape. “Come back, come back!” I said. “Remember your promise to HER and to ME. Come back to us before the Pestilence reaches you and lays you dead like the rest!”

He looked at me with an unearthly quiet in his face. “Wait,” he said, “I shall come back. The night when I met the lost Woman on the highway was the night which set my life apart to be the instrument of a Design that is yet unseen. Here, lost in the wilderness, or there, welcomed back in the land of my birth, I am still walking on the dark road which leads me, and you, and the sister of your love and mine, to the unknown Retribution and the inevitable End. Wait and look. The Pestilence which touches the rest will pass ME.”

I saw him again. He was still in the forest, and the numbers of his lost companions had dwindled to very few. The temple was gone, and the idols were gone–and in their place the figures of dark, dwarfish men lurked murderously among the trees, with bows in their hands, and arrows fitted to the string. Once more I feared for Walter, and cried out to warn him. Once more he turned to me, with the immovable quiet in his face.

“Another step,” he said, “on the dark road. Wait and look. The arrows that strike the rest will spare me.”

I saw him for the third time in a wrecked ship, stranded on a wild, sandy shore. The overloaded boats were making away from him for the land, and he alone was left to sink with the ship. I cried to him to hail the hindmost boat, and to make a last effort for his life. The quiet face looked at me in return, and the unmoved voice gave me back the changeless reply. “Another step on the journey. Wait and look. The Sea which drowns the rest will spare me.”

I saw him for the last time. He was kneeling by a tomb of white marble, and the shadow of a veiled woman rose out of the grave beneath and waited by his side. The unearthly quiet of his face had changed to an unearthly sorrow. But the terrible certainty of his words remained the same. “Darker and darker,” he said; “farther and farther yet. Death takes the good, the beautiful, and the young–and spares me. The Pestilence that wastes, the Arrow that strikes, the Sea that drowns, the Grave that closes over Love and Hope, are steps of my journey, and take me nearer and nearer to the End.”

My heart sank under a dread beyond words, under a grief beyond tears. The darkness closed round the pilgrim at the marble tomb– closed round the veiled woman from the grave–closed round the dreamer who looked on them. I saw and heard no more.

I was aroused by a hand laid on my shoulder. It was Laura’s.

She had dropped on her knees by the side of the sofa. Her face was flushed and agitated, and her eyes met mine in a wild bewildered manner. I started the instant I saw her.

“What has happened?” I asked. “What has frightened you?”

She looked round at the half-open door, put her lips close to my ear, and answered in a whisper–

“Marian!–the figure at the lake–the footsteps last night–I’ve just seen her! I’ve just spoken to her!”

“Who, for Heaven’s sake?”

“Anne Catherick.”

I was so startled by the disturbance in Laura’s face and manner, and so dismayed by the first waking impressions of my dream, that I was not fit to bear the revelation which burst upon me when that name passed her lips. I could only stand rooted to the floor, looking at her in breathless silence.

She was too much absorbed by what had happened to notice the effect which her reply had produced on me. “I have seen Anne Catherick! I have spoken to Anne Catherick!” she repeated as if I had not heard her. “Oh, Marian, I have such things to tell you! Come away–we may be interrupted here–come at once into my room.”

With those eager words she caught me by the hand, and led me through the library, to the end room on the ground floor, which had been fitted up for her own especial use. No third person, except her maid, could have any excuse for surprising us here. She pushed me in before her, locked the door, and drew the chintz curtains that hung over the inside.

The strange, stunned feeling which had taken possession of me still remained. But a growing conviction that the complications which had long threatened to gather about her, and to gather about me, had suddenly closed fast round us both, was now beginning to penetrate my mind. I could not express it in words–I could hardly even realise it dimly in my own thoughts. “Anne Catherick!” I whispered to myself, with useless, helpless reiteration–“Anne Catherick!”

Laura drew me to the nearest seat, an ottoman in the middle of the room. “Look!” she said, “look here!”–and pointed to the bosom of her dress.

I saw, for the first time, that the lost brooch was pinned in its place again. There was something real in the sight of it, something real in the touching of it afterwards, which seemed to steady the whirl and confusion in my thoughts, and to help me to compose myself.

“Where did you find your brooch?” The first words I could say to her were the words which put that trivial question at that important moment.

“SHE found it, Marian.”

“Where?”

“On the floor of the boat-house. Oh, how shall I begin–how shall I tell you about it! She talked to me so strangely–she looked so fearfully ill–she left me so suddenly!”

Her voice rose as the tumult of her recollections pressed upon her mind. The inveterate distrust which weighs, night and day, on my spirits in this house, instantly roused me to warn her–just as the sight of the brooch had roused me to question her, the moment before.

“Speak low,” I said. “The window is open, and the garden path runs beneath it. Begin at the beginning, Laura. Tell me, word for word, what passed between that woman and you.”

“Shall I close the window?”

“No, only speak low–only remember that Anne Catherick is a dangerous subject under your husband’s roof. Where did you first see her?”

“At the boat-house, Marian. I went out, as you know, to find my brooch, and I walked along the path through the plantation, looking down on the ground carefully at every step. In that way I got on, after a long time, to the boat-house, and as soon as I was inside it, I went on my knees to hunt over the floor. I was still searching with my back to the doorway, when I heard a soft, strange voice behind me say, ‘Miss Fairlie.'”

“Miss Fairlie!”

“Yes, my old name–the dear, familiar name that I thought I had parted from for ever. I started up–not frightened, the voice was too kind and gentle to frighten anybody–but very much surprised. There, looking at me from the doorway, stood a woman, whose face I never remembered to have seen before–”

“How was she dressed?”

“She had a neat, pretty white gown on, and over it a poor worn thin dark shawl. Her bonnet was of brown straw, as poor and worn as the shawl. I was struck by the difference between her gown and the rest of her dress, and she saw that I noticed it. ‘Don’t look at my bonnet and shawl,’ she said, speaking in a quick, breathless, sudden way; ‘if I mustn’t wear white, I don’t care what I wear. Look at my gown as much as you please–I’m not ashamed of that.’ Very strange, was it not? Before I could say anything to soothe her, she held out one of her hands, and I saw my brooch in it. I was so pleased and so grateful, that I went quite close to her to say what I really felt. ‘Are you thankful enough to do me one little kindness?’ she asked. ‘Yes, indeed,’ I answered, ‘any kindness in my power I shall be glad to show you.’ ‘Then let me pin your brooch on for you, now I have found it.’ Her request was so unexpected, Marian, and she made it with such extraordinary eagerness, that I drew back a step or two, not well knowing what to do. ‘Ah!’ she said, ‘your mother would have let me pin on the brooch.’ There was something in her voice and her look, as well as in her mentioning my mother in that reproachful manner, which made me ashamed of my distrust. I took her hand with the brooch in it, and put it up gently on the bosom of my dress. ‘You knew my mother?’ I said. ‘Was it very long ago? have I ever seen you before?’ Her hands were busy fastening the brooch: she stopped and pressed them against my breast. ‘You don’t remember a fine spring day at Limmeridge,’ she said, ‘and your mother walking down the path that led to the school, with a little girl on each side of her? I have had nothing else to think of since, and I remember it. You were one of the little girls, and I was the other. Pretty, clever Miss Fairlie, and poor dazed Anne Catherick were nearer to each other then than they are now!'”

“Did you remember her, Laura, when she told you her name?”

“Yes, I remembered your asking me about Anne Catherick at Limmeridge, and your saying that she had once been considered like me.”

“What reminded you of that, Laura?”

“SHE reminded me. While I was looking at her, while she was very close to me, it came over my mind suddenly that we were like each other! Her face was pale and thin and weary–but the sight of it startled me, as if it had been the sight of my own face in the