Serial Installments of The Woman in White (1859-1860)
MISS HALCOMBE’S NARRATIVE CONTINUED.
JULY 1ST. — The confusion of their arrival has had time to subside. Two days have elapsed since the return of the travellers; and that interval has sufficed to put the new machinery of our lives at Blackwater Park in fair working order. I may now return to my journal, with some little chance of being able to continue the entries in it as collectedly as usual.
I think I must begin by putting down an odd remark, which has suggested itself to me since Laura came back.
When two members of a family, or two intimate friends, are separated, and one goes abroad and one remains at home, the return of the relative or friend who has been travelling, always seems to place the relative or friend who has been staying at home at a painful disadvantage, when the two first meet. The sudden encounter of the new thoughts and new habits eagerly gained in the one case, with the old thoughts and old habits passively preserved in the other, seems, at first, to part the sympathies of the most loving relatives and the fondest friends, and to set a sudden strangeness, unexpected by both and uncontrollable by both, between them on either side. After the first happiness of my meeting with Laura was over, after we had sat down together, hand in hand, to recover breath enough and calmness enough to talk, I felt this strangeness instantly, and I could see that she felt it too. It has partially worn away, now that we have fallen back into most of our old habits; and it will probably disappear before long. But it has certainly had an influence over the first impressions that I have formed of her, now that we are living together again— for which reason only I have thought fit to mention it here.
She has found me unaltered; but I have found her changed.
Changed in person, and, in one respect, changed in character. I cannot absolutely say that she is less beautiful than she used to be: I can only say that she is less beautiful to me. Others, who do not look at her with my eyes and my recollections, would probably think her improved. There is more colour, and more decision and roundness of outline in her face than there used to be; and her figure seems more firmly set, and more sure and easy in all its movements than it was in her maiden days. But I miss something when I look at her— something that once belonged to the happy, innocent life of Laura Fairlie, and that I cannot find in Lady Glyde. There was, in the old times, a freshness, a softness, an ever-varying and yet ever-remaining tenderness of beauty in her face, the charm of which it is not possible to express in words— or, as poor Hartright used often to say, in painting, either. This is gone. I thought I saw the faint reflexion of it, for a moment, when she turned pale under the agitation of our sudden meeting, on the evening of her return; but it has never reappeared since. None of her letters had prepared me for a personal change in her. On the contrary, they had led me to expect that her marriage had left her, in appearance at least, quite unaltered. Perhaps, I read her letters wrongly, in the past, and am now reading her face wrongly, in the present? No matter! Whether her beauty has gained, or whether it has lost, in the last six months, the separation, either way, has made her own dear self more precious to me than ever— and that is one good result of her marriage, at any rate!
The second change, the change that I have observed in her character, has not surprised me, because I was prepared for it, in this case, by the tone of her letters. Now that she is at home again, I find her just as unwilling to enter into any details on the subject of her married life, as I had previously found her, all through the time of our separation, when we could only communicate with each other by writing. At the first approach I made to the forbidden topic, she put her hand on my lips, with a look and gesture which touchingly, almost painfully, recalled to my memory the days of her girlhood and the happy bygone time when there were no secrets between us.
“Whenever you and I are together, Marian,” she said, “we shall both be happier and easier with one another, if we accept my married life for what it is, and say and think as little about it as possible. I would tell you everything, darling, about myself,” she went on, nervously buckling and unbuckling the ribbon round my waist, “if my confidences could only end there. But they could not— they would lead me into confidences about my husband too; and now I am married, I think I had better avoid them, for his sake, and for your sake, and for mine.” I don’t say that they would distress you, or distress me— I wouldn’t have you think that for the world. But— I want to be so happy, now I have got you back again; and I want you to be so happy too—” She broke off abruptly, and looked round the room, my own sitting-room, in which we were talking. “Ah!” she cried, clapping her hands with a bright smile of recognition, “another old friend found already! Your bookcase, Marian — your dear-little-shabby-old-satin-wood bookcase how glad I am you brought it with you from Limmeridge! And your workbox, just as untidy as ever! And the horrid, heavy, man’s umbrella, that you always would walk out with when it rained! And, first and foremost of all, your own dear, dark, clever, gipsy-face, looking at me just as usual! It is so like home again to be here. How can we make it more like home still? I will put my father’s portrait in your room instead of in mine— and I will keep all my little treasures from Limmeridge here— and we will pass hours and hours every day with these four friendly walls round us. Oh, Marian!” she said, suddenly seating herself on a footstool at my knees, and looking up earnestly in my face, ” promise you will never marry, and leave me. It is selfish to say so, but you are so much better off as a single woman— unless— unless you are very fond of your husband— but you won’t be very fond of anybody but me, will you?” She stopped again; crossed my hands on my lap; and laid her face on them. “Have you been writing many letters, and receiving many letters, lately?” she asked, in low, suddenly-altered tones. I understood what the question meant; but I thought it my duty not to encourage her by meeting her half way. “Have you heard from him?” she went on, coaxing me to forgive the more direct appeal on which she now ventured, by kissing my hands, upon which her face still rested. “Is he well and happy, and getting on in his profession? Has he recovered himself— and forgotten me?”
She should not have asked those questions. She should have remembered her own resolution, on the morning when Sir Percival held her to her marriage engagement, and when she resigned the book of Hartright’s drawings into my hands for ever. But, ah me! where is the faultless human creature who can persevere in a good resolution, without sometimes failing and falling back? Where is the woman who has ever really torn from her heart the image that has been once fixed in it by a true love? Books tell us that such unearthly creatures have existed — but what does our own experience say in answer to books?
I made no attempt to remonstrate with her: perhaps, because I sincerely appreciated the fearless candour which let me see, what other women in her position might have had reasons for concealing even from their dearest friends — perhaps, because I felt, in my own heart and conscience, that, in her place I should have asked the same questions and had the same thoughts. All I could honestly do was to reply that I had not written to him or heard from him lately, and then to turn the conversation to less dangerous topics.
There had been much to sadden me in our interview— my first confidential interview with her since her return. The change which her marriage has produced in our relations towards each other, by placing a forbidden subject between us, for the first time in our lives; the melancholy conviction of the dearth of all warmth of feeling, of all close sympathy, between her husband and herself, which her own unwilling words now force on my mind; the distressing discovery that the influence of that ill-fated attachment still remains (no matter how innocently, how harmlessly) rooted as deeply as ever in her heart— all these are disclosures to sadden any woman who loves her as dearly, and feels for her as acutely, as I do. There is only one consolation to set against them— a consolation that ought to comfort me, and that does comfort me. All the graces and gentlenesses of her character; all the frank affection of her nature; all the sweet, simple, womanly charms which used to make her the darling and the delight of every one who approached her, have come back to me with herself. Of my other impressions I am sometimes a little inclined to doubt. Of this last, best, happiest of all impressions, I grow more and more certain, every hour in the day.
Let me turn, now, from her to her travelling companions. Her husband must engage my attention first. What have I observed in Sir Percival, since his return, to improve my opinion of him?
I can hardly say. Small vexations and annoyances seem to have beset him since he came back; and no man, under those circumstances, is ever presented at his best. He looks, as I think, thinner than he was when he left England. His wearisome cough and his comfortless restlessness have certainly increased. His manner— at least, his manner towards me— is much more abrupt than it used to be. He greeted me, on the evening of his return, with little or nothing of the ceremony and civility of former times— no polite speeches of welcome— no appearance of extraordinary gratification at seeing me nothing but a short shake of the hand, and a sharp “How-d’ye-do, Miss Halcombe glad to see you again. He seemed to accept me as one of the necessary fixtures of Blackwater Park; to be satisfied at finding me established in my proper place; and then to pass me over altogether.
Most men show something of their dispositions in their own houses, which they have concealed elsewhere; and Sir Percival has already displayed a mania for order and regularity, which is quite a new revelation of him, so far as my previous knowledge of his character is concerned. If I take a book from the library and leave it on the table, he follows me, and puts it back again. If I rise from a chair, and let it remain where I have been sitting, he carefully restores it to its proper place against the wall.
He picks up stray flower-blossoms from the carpet, and mutters to himself as discontentedly as if they were hot cinders burning holes in it; and he storms at the servants, if there is a crease in the tablecloth, or a knife missing from its place at the dinner-table, as fiercely as if they had personally insulted him.
I have already referred to the small annoyances which appear to have troubled him. since his return. Much of the alteration for the worse which I have noticed in him, may be due to these. I try to persuade myself that it is so, because I am anxious not to be disheartened already about the future. It is certainly trying to any man’s temper to be met by a vexation the moment he sets foot in his own house again, after a long absence; and this annoying circumstance did really happen to Sir Percival in my presence. On the evening of their arrival, the housekeeper followed me into the hall to receive her master and mistress and their guests. The instant he saw her, Sir Percival asked if any one had called lately. The housekeeper mentioned to him, in reply, what she had previously mentioned to me, the visit of the strange gentleman to make inquiries about the time of her master’s return. He asked immediately for the gentleman’s name. No name had been left. The gentleman’s business? No business had been mentioned. What was the gentleman like? The housekeeper tried to describe him; but failed to distinguish the nameless visitor by any personal peculiarity which her master could recognise. Sir Percival frowned, stamped angrily on the floor, and walked on into the house, taking no notice of anybody. Why he should have been so discomposed by a trifle I cannot say— but he was seriously discomposed, beyond all doubt.
Upon the whole, it will be best, perhaps, if I abstain from forming a decisive opinion of his manners, language, and conduct in his own house, until time has enabled him to shake off the anxieties, whatever they may be, which now evidently trouble his mind in secret. I will turn over to a new page; and my pen shall let Laura’s husband alone for the present.
The two guests— the Count and Countess Fosco— come next in my catalogue. I will dispose of the Countess first, so as to have done with the woman as soon as possible.
Laura was certainly not chargeable with any exaggeration, in writing me word that I should hardly recognise her aunt again, when we met. Never before have I beheld such a change produced in a woman by her marriage as has been produced in Madame Fosco. As Eleanor Fairlie (aged seven-and-thirty), she was always talking pretentious nonsense, and always worrying the unfortunate men with every small exaction which a vain and foolish woman can impose on long-suffering male humanity. As Madame Fosco (aged three-and-forty), she sits for hours together without saying a word, frozen up in the strangest manner in herself. The hideously ridiculous love-locks which used to hang on either side of her face, are now replaced by stiff little rows of very short curls, of the sort that one sees in old-fashioned wigs. A plain, matronly cap covers her head, and makes her look, for the first time in her life, since I remember her, like a decent woman. Nobody (putting her husband out of the question, of course) now sees in her, what everybody once saw— I mean the structure of the female skeleton, in the upper regions of the collar-bones and the shoulder-blades. Clad in quiet black or grey gowns, made high round the throat— dresses that she would have laughed at, or screamed at, as the whim of the moment inclined her, in her maiden days— she sits speechless in corners; her dry white hands (so dry that the pores of her skin look chalky) incessantly engaged, either in monotonous embroidery work, or in rolling up endless little cigarettes for the Count’s own particular smoking. On the few occasions, when her cold blue eyes are off her work, they are generally turned on her husband, with the look of mute submissive inquiry which we are all familiar with in the eyes of a faithful dog. The only approach to an inward thaw which I have yet detected under her outer covering of icy constraint, has betrayed itself, once or twice, in the form of a suppressed tigerish jealousy of any woman in the house (the maids included) to whom the Count speaks, or on whom he looks, with anything approaching to special interest or attention. Except in this one particular, she is always, morning, noon, and night, in-doors and out, fair weather or foul, as cold as a statue, and as impenetrable as the stone out of which it is cut. For the common purposes of society the extraordinary change thus produced in her, is, beyond all doubt, a change for the better, seeing that it has transformed her into a civil, silent, unobtrusive woman, who is never in the way. How far she is really reformed or deteriorated in her secret self, is another question. I have once or twice seen sudden changes of expression on her pinched lips, and heard sudden inflexions of tone in her calm voice, which have led me to suspect that her present state of suppression may have sealed up something dangerous in her nature, which used to evaporate harmlessly in the freedom of her former life. It is quite possible that I may be altogether wrong in this idea. My own impression, however, is, that I am right. Time will show.
And the magician who has wrought this wonderful transformation— the foreign husband who has tamed this once wayward Englishwoman till her own relations hardly know her again— the Count himself? What of the Count?
This, in two words: He looks like a man who could tame anything. If he had married a tigress, instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress. If he had married me, I should have made his cigarettes as his wife does— I should have held my tongue when he looked at me, as she holds hers.
I am almost afraid to confess it, even to these secret pages. The man has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him. In two short days, he has made his way straight into my favourable estimation— and how he has worked the miracle, is more than I can tell.
It absolutely startles me, now he is in my mind, to find how plainly I see him!— how much more plainly than I see Sir Percival, or Mr. Fairlie, or Walter Hartright, or any other absent person of whom I think, with the one exception of Laura herself! I can hear his voice, as if he was speaking at this moment. I know what his conversation was yesterday, as well as if I was hearing it now. How am I to describe him? There are peculiarities in his personal appearance, his habits, and his amusements which I should blame in the boldest terms, or ridicule in the most merciless manner, if I had seen them in another man. What is it that makes me unable to blame them, or to ridicule them, in him?
For example, he is immensely fat. Before this time, I have always especially disliked corpulent humanity. I have always maintained that the popular notion of connecting excessive grossness of size and excessive good-humour as inseparable allies, was equivalent to declaring, either that no people but amiable people ever get fat, or that the accidental addition of so many pounds of flesh has a directly favourable influence over the disposition of the person on whose body they accumulate. I have invariably combated both these absurd assertions by quoting examples of fat people who were as mean, vicious, and cruel, as the leanest and the worst of their neighbours. I have asked whether Henry the Eighth was an amiable character? whether Pope Alexander the Sixth was a good man? Whether Mr. Murderer and Mrs. Murderess Manning were not both unusually stout people? Whether hired nurses, proverbially as cruel a set of women as are to be found in all England, were not, for the most part, also as fat a set of women as are to be found in all England?— and so on, through dozens of other examples, modern and ancient, native and foreign, high and low. Holding these strong opinions on the subject with might and main, as I do at this moment, here, nevertheless, is Count Fosco, as fat as Henry the Eighth himself, established in my favour, at one day’s notice, without let or hindrance from his own odious corpulence. Marvellous indeed!
Is it his face that has recommended him? It may be his face. He is a most remarkable likeness, on a large scale, of the Great Napoleon. His features have Napoleon’s magnificent regularity: his expression recals the grandly calm, immovable power of the Great Soldier’s face. This striking resemblance certainly impressed me, to begin with; but there is something in him besides the resemblance, which has impressed me more. I think the influence I am now trying to find!, is in his eyes. They are the most unfathomable grey eyes I ever saw; and they have at times a cold, clear, beautiful, irresistible glitter in them, which forces me to look at him, and yet causes me sensations, when I do look, which I would rather not feel. Other parts of his face and head have their strange peculiarities. His complexion, for instance, has a singular sallow-fairness, so much at variance with the dark brown colour of his hair, that I suspect the hair of being a wig; and his face, closely shaven all over, is smoother and freer from all marks and wrinkles than mine, though (according to Sir Percival’s account of him) he is close on sixty years of age. But these are not the prominent personal characteristics which dis- tinguish him, to my mind, from all the other men I have ever seen. The marked peculiarity which singles him out from the rank and file of humanity, lies entirely, so far as I can tell at present, in the extraordinary expression and extraordinary power of his eyes.
His manner, and his command of our language, may also have assisted him, in some degree, to establish himself in my good opinion. He has that quiet deference, that look of pleased, attentive interest, in listening to a woman, and that secret gentleness in his voice, in speaking to a woman, which, say what we may, we can none of us resist. Here, too, his unusual command of the English language necessarily helps him. I had often heard of the extraordinary aptitude which many Italians show in mastering our strong, hard Northern speech; but, until I saw Count Fosco, I had never supposed it possible that any foreigner could have spoken English as he speaks it. There are times when it is almost impossible to detect, by his accent, that he is not a countryman of our own; and, as for fluency, there are very few born Englishmen who can talk with as few stoppages and repetitions as the Count. He may construct his sentences, more or less, in the foreign way; but I have never yet heard him use a wrong expression, or hesitate for a moment in his choice of a word.
All the smallest characteristics of this strange man have something strikingly original and perplexingly contradictory in them. Fat as he is, and old as he is, his movements are astonishingly light and easy. He is as noiseless in a room as any of us women; and, more than that, with all his look of unmistakable mental firmness and power, he is as nervously sensitive as the weakest of us. He starts at chance noises as inveterately as Laura herself. He winced and shuddered yesterday, when Sir Percival beat one of the spaniels, so that I felt ashamed of my own want of tenderness and sensibility by comparison with the Count.
The relation of this last incident reminds me of one of his most curious peculiarities, which I have not yet mentioned— his extraordinary fondness for pet animals. Some of these he has left on the Continent, but he has brought with him to this house a cockatoo, two canary-birds, and a whole family of white mice. He attends to all the necessities of these strange favourites himself, and he has taught the creatures to be surprisingly fond of him, and familiar with him. The cockatoo, a most vicious and treacherous bird towards every one else, absolutely seems to love him. When he lets it out of its cage, it hops on to his knee, and claws its way up his could only end there. But they could not — they would lead me into confidences about my husband, too; and, now I am married, I think I had better avoid them, for his sake, and for your
great big body, and rubs its top-knot against his sallow double chin in the most caressing manner imaginable. He has only to set the doors of the canaries’ cages open, and to call to them; and the pretty little cleverly trained creatures perch fearlessly on his hand, mount his fat out-stretched fingers one by one, when he tells them to “go up-stairs,” and sing together as if they would burst their throats with delight, when they get to the top finger. His white mice live in a little pagoda of gaily-painted wirework, designed and made by himself. They are almost as tame as the canaries, and they are perpetually let out, like the canaries. They crawl all over him, popping in and out of his waistcoat, and sitting in couples, white as snow, on his capa- cious shoulders. He seems to be even fonder of his mice than of his other pets, smiles at them, and kisses them, and calls them by all sorts of endearing names. If it be possible to suppose an Englishman with any taste for such childish interests and amusements as these, that Englishman would certainly feel rather ashamed of them, and would be anxious to apologise for them, in the company of grown-up people. But the Count, apparently, sees nothing ridiculous in the amazing contrast between his colossal self and his frail little pets. He would blandly kiss his white mice, and twitter to his canary-birds amid an assembly of English fox-hunters, and would only pity them as barbarians when they were all laughing their loudest at him.
It seems hardly credible, while I am writing it down, but it is certainly true, that this same man, who has all the fondness of an old maid for his cockatoo, and all the small dexterities of an organ-boy in managing his white mice, can talk, when anything happens to rouse him, with a daring independence of thought, a knowledge of books in every language, and an experience of society in half the capitals of Europe, which would make him the prominent personage of any assembly in the civilised world. This trainer of canary-birds, this architect of a pagoda for white mice, is (as Sir Percival himself has told me) one of the first experimental chemists living, and has discovered, among other wonderful inventions, a means of petrifying the body after death, so as to preserve it, as hard as marble, to the end of time. This fat, indolent, elderly man, whose nerves are so finely strung that he starts at chance noises, and winces when he sees a house-spaniel get a whipping, went into the stable-yard, on the morning after his arrival, and put his hand on the head of a chained bloodhound— a beast so savage that the very groom who feeds him keeps out of his reach. His wife and I were present, and I shall not soon forget the scene that followed short as it was.
“Mind that dog, sir,” said the groom; “he flies at everybody!” “He does that, my friend,” replied the Count, quietly, “because everybody is afraid of him. Let us see if he flies at me.” And he laid his plump, yellow-white fingers, on which the canary-birds had been perching ten minutes before, upon the formidable brute’s head; and looked him straight in the eyes. “You big dogs are all cowards,” he said, addressing the animal contemptuously, with his face and the dog’s within an inch of each other. “You would kill a poor cat, you infernal coward. You would fly at a starving beggar, you infernal coward. Anything that you can surprise unawares — anything that is afraid of your big body, and your wicked white teeth, and your slobbering, bloodthirsty mouth, is the thing you like to fly at. You could throttle me at this moment, you mean, miserable bully; and you daren’t so much as look me in the face, because I’m not afraid of you. Will you think better of it, and try your teeth in my fat neck? Bah! not you!” He turned away, laughing at the astonishment of the men in the yard; and the dog crept back meekly to his kennel. “Ah! my nice waistcoat!” he said, pathetically. ” I am sorry I came here. Some of that brute’s slobber has got on my pretty clean waistcoat.” Those words express another of his incomprehensible oddities. He is as fond of fine clothes as the veriest fool in existence; and has appeared in four magnificent waistcoats, already— all of light garish colours, and all immensely large even for him in the two days of his residence at Blackwater Park.
His tact and cleverness in small things are quite as noticeable as the singular inconsistencies in his character, and the childish triviality of his ordinary tastes and pursuits.
I can see already that he means to live on excellent terms with all of us, during the period of his sojourn in this place. He has evidently discovered that Laura secretly dislikes him (she confessed as much to me, when I pressed her on the subject)— but he has also found out that she is extravagantly fond of flowers. Whenever she wants a nosegay, he has got one to give her, gathered and arranged by himself; and, greatly to my amusement, he is always cunningly provided with a duplicate, composed of exactly the same flowers, grouped in exactly the same way, to appease his icily jealous wife, before she can so much as think herself aggrieved. His management of the Countess (in public) is a sight to see. He bows to her; he habitually addresses her as “my angel;” he carries his canaries to pay her little visits on his fingers, and to sing to her; he kisses her hand, when she gives him his cigarettes; he presents her with sugar-plums, in return, which he puts into her mouth playfully, from a box in his pocket. The rod of iron with which he rules her never appears in company— it is a private rod, and is always kept up-stairs.
His method of recommending himself to me, is entirely different. He has discovered (Heaven only knows how) that ready-made sentiment is thrown away on my blunt, matter-of-fact nature. And he flatters my vanity, by talking to me as seriously and sensibly as if I was a man. Yes! I can find him out when I am away from him; I know he flatters my vanity, when I think of him up here, in my own room— and yet, when I go down stairs, and get into his company again, he will blind me again, and I shall be flattered again, just as if I had never found him out at all! He can manage me, as he manages his wife and Laura, as he managed the bloodhound in the stable-yard, as he manages Sir Percival himself, every hour in the day. ” My good Percival! how I like your rough English humour!”— “My good Percival! how I enjoy your solid English sense!” He puts the rudest remarks Sir Percival can make on his effeminate tastes and amusements, quietly away from him in that manner— always calling the baronet by his Christian name; smiling at him with the calmest superiority; patting him on the shoulder; and bearing with him benignantly, as a good-humoured father bears with a wayward son.
The interest which I really cannot help feeling in this strangely original man, has led me to question Sir Percival about his past life. Sir Percival either knows little, or will tell me little, about it. He and the Count first met, many years ago, at Rome, under the dangerous circumstances to which I have alluded elsewhere. Since that time, they have been perpetually together in London, in Paris, and in Vienna— but never in Italy again; the Count having, oddly enough, not crossed the frontiers of his native country for years past. Perhaps, he has been made the victim of some political persecution? At all events, he seems to be patriotically anxious not to lose sight of any of his own countrymen who may happen to be in England. On the evening of his arrival, he asked how far we were from the nearest town, and whether we knew of any Italian gentlemen who might happen to be settled there. He is certainly in correspondence with people on the Continent, for his letters have all sorts of odd stamps on them; and I saw one for him, this morning, waiting in his place at the breakfast-table, with a huge official-looking seal on it. Perhaps he is in correspondence with his government? And yet, that is hardly to be reconciled, either, with my other idea that he may be a political exile.
How much I seem to have written about Count Fosco! And what does it all amount to?— as poor, dear Mr. Gilmore would ask, in his impenetrable business-like way. I can only repeat that I do assuredly feel, even on this short acquaintance, a strange, half-willing, half-unwilling liking for the Count. He seems to have established over me the same sort of ascendancy which he has evidently gained over Sir Percival. Free, and even rude, as he may occasionally be in his manner towards his fat friend, Sir Percival is nevertheless afraid, as I can plainly see, of giving any serious offence to the Count. I wonder whether I am afraid, too? I certainly never saw a man, in all my experience, whom I should be so sorry to have for an enemy. Is this because I like him, or because I am afraid of him? Chi sa?— as Count Fosco might say in his own language. Who knows?
2nd.— Something to chronicle, to-day, besides my own ideas and impressions. A visitor has arrived— quite unknown to Laura and to me; and, apparently, quite unexpected by Sir Percival.
We were all at lunch, in the room with the new French windows that open into the verandah; and the Count (who devours pastry as I have never yet seen it devoured by any human beings but girls at boarding-schools) had just amused us by asking gravely for his fourth tart — when the servant entered, to announce the visitor.
“Mr. Merriman has just come, Sir Percival, and wishes to see you immediately.”
Sir Percival started, and looked at the man, with an expression of angry alarm.
“Mr. Merriman?” he repeated, as if he thought his own ears must have deceived him.
“Yes, Sir Percival: Mr. Merriman, from London.”
“Where is he?”
“In the library, Sir Percival.”
He left the table the instant the last answer was given; and hurried out of the room without saying a word to any of us.
“Who is Mr. Merriman?” asked Laura, appealing to me.
“I have not the least idea,” was all I could say in reply.
The Count had finished his fourth tart, and had gone to a side-table to look after his vicious cockatoo. He turned round to us, with the bird perched on his shoulder.
“Mr. Merriman is Sir Percival’s solicitor,” he said, quietly.
Sir Percival’s solicitor. It was a perfectly straightforward answer to Laura’s question; and yet, under the circumstances, it was not satisfactory. If Mr. Merriman had been specially sent for by his client, there would have been nothing very wonderful in his leaving town to obey the summons. But when a lawyer travels from London to Hampshire, without being sent for, and when his arrival at a gentleman’s house seriously startles the gentleman himself, it may be safely taken for granted that the legal visitor is the bearer of some very important and very unexpected news— news which may be either very good or very bad, but which cannot, in either case, be of the common, every-day kind.
Laura and I sat silent at the table, for a quarter of an hour or more, wondering uneasily what had happened, and waiting for the chance of Sir Percival’s speedy return. There were no signs of his return; and we rose to leave the room. The Count, attentive as usual, advanced from the corner in which he had been feeding his cockatoo, with the bird still perched on his shoulder, and opened the door for us. Laura and Madame Fosco went out first. Just as I was on the point of following them, he made a sign with his hand, and spoke to me, before I passed him, in the oddest manner.
“Yes,” he said; quietly answering the unexpressed idea at that moment in my mind, as if I had plainly confided it to him in so many words— “yes, Miss Halcombe; something has happened.”
I was on the point of answering, “I never said so.” But the vicious cockatoo ruffled his clipped wings, and gave a screech that set all my nerves on edge in an instant, and made me only too glad to get out of the room.
I joined Laura at the foot of the stairs. The thought in her mind was the same as the thought in mine, which Count Fosco had surprised — and, when she spoke, her words were almost the echo of his. She, too, said to me, secretly, that she was afraid something had happened.
Collins, Wilkie. “Miss Halcombe’s Narrative Continued,” The Woman in White, All The Year Round, Vol. 2, No. 43, 18 Feb 1860, pp. 381-387. Dickens Journals Online.
- The September 8, 1860 London Review article about The Woman in White calls attention to this sentence as part of a series of excerpts used to illustrate Wilkie Collins's style and characterization. ↵
- In the volume edition of this novel, Collins left out the sentence "And your workbox, just as untidy as ever!" (V. 2 p. 29). ↵
- The volume edition removes a "that" in this sentence: "of the sort one sees..." (V. 2 p. 35). ↵
- The 1860 volume edition removes "He has discovered (Heaven only knows how) that ready-made sentiment is thrown away on my blunt, matter-of-fact nature." In the volume, , the line simply reads "His method of recommending himself, to me is entirely different. He flatters my vanity..." (V. 2 p. 45). ↵