Serial Installments of The Woman in White (1859-1860)
PART THE THIRD. HARTRIGHT’S NARRATIVE. I.
FOUR months passed. April came—the month of Spring; the month of change.
The course of Time had flowed through the interval since the winter, peacefully and happily in our new home. I had turned my long leisure to good account; had largely increased my sources of employment; and had placed our means of subsistence on surer grounds. Freed from the suspense and the anxiety which had tried her so sorely, and hung over her so long, Marian’s spirits rallied; and her natural energy of character began to assert itself again, with something, if not all, of the freedom and the vigour of former times.
More pliable under change than her sister, Laura showed more plainly the progress made by the healing influences of her new life. The worn and wasted look which had prematurely aged her face, was fast leaving it; and the expression which had been the first of its charms in past days, was the first of its beauties that now returned. My closest observation of her detected but one serious result of the conspiracy which had once threatened her reason and her life. Her memory of events, from the period of her leaving Blackwater Park to the period of our meeting in the burial-ground of Limmeridge Church, was lost beyond all hope of recovery. At the slightest reference to that time, she changed and trembled still; her words became confused; her memory wandered and lost itself as helplessly as ever. Here, and here only, the traces of the past lay deep—too deep to be effaced.
In all else, she was now so far on the way to recovery, that, on her best and brightest days, she sometimes looked and spoke like the Laura of old times. The happy change wrought its natural result in us both. From their long slumber, on her side and on mine, those imperishable memories of our past life in Cumberland now awoke, which were one and all alike, the memories of our love.
Gradually and insensibly, our daily relations towards each other became constrained. The fond words which I had spoken to her so naturally in the days of her sorrow and her suffering, faltered strangely on my lips. In the time when my dread of losing her was most present to my mind, I had always kissed her when she left me at night and when she met me in the morning. The kiss seemed now to have dropped between us—to be lost out of our lives. Our hands began to tremble again when they met. We hardly ever looked long at one another out of Marian’s presence. The talk often flagged between us when we were alone. When I touched her by accident, I felt my heart beating fast, as it used to beat at Limmeridge House —I saw the lovely answering flush glowing again in her cheeks, as if we were back among the Cumberland Hills, in our past characters of master and pupil once more. She had long intervals of silence and thoughtfulness; and denied she had been thinking, when Marian asked her the question. I surprised myself, one day, neglecting my work, to dream over the little water-colour portrait of her which I had taken in the summer-house where we first met—just as I used to neglect Mr. Fairlie’s drawings, to dream over the same likeness, when it was newly finished in the bygone time. Changed as all the circumstances now were, our position towards each other in the golden days of our first companionship, seemed to be revived with the revival of our love. It was as if Time had drifted us back, on the wreck of our early hopes, to the old familiar shore!
To any other woman, I could have spoken the decisive words which I still hesitated to speak to her. The utter helplessness of her position; her friendless dependence on all the forbearing gentleness that I could show her; my fear of touching too soon some secret sensitiveness in her, which my instinct, as a man, might not have been fine enough to discover—these considerations, and others like them, kept me self- distrustfully silent. And yet, I knew that the restraint on both sides must be ended; that the relations in which we stood towards one another must be altered, in some settled manner, for the future; and that it rested with me, in the first instance, to recognise the necessity for a change.
The more I thought of our position, the harder the attempt to alter it appeared, while the domestic conditions on which we three had been living together since the winter, remained undisturbed. I cannot account for the capricious state of mind in which this feeling originated— but the idea nevertheless possessed me, that some previous change of place and circumstances, some sudden break in the quiet monotony of our lives, so managed as to vary the home aspect under which we had been accustomed to see each other, might prepare the way for me to speak, and might make it easier and less embarrassing for Laura and Marian to hear.
With this purpose in view, I said, one morning, that I thought we had all earned a little holiday and a change of scene. After some consideration, it was decided that we should go for a fortnight to the sea-side. On the next day, we left Fulham for a quiet town on the south coast. At that early season of the year, we were the only visitors in the place. The cliffs, the beach, and the walks inland, were all in the solitary condition which was most welcome to us. The air was mild; the prospects over hill and wood and down were beautifully varied by the shifting April light and shade; and the restless sea leapt under our windows, as if it felt like the land the glow and freshness of spring.
I owed it to Marian to consult her before I spoke to Laura, and to be guided afterwards by her advice.
On the third day from our arrival, I found a fit opportunity of speaking to her alone. The moment we looked at one another, her quick instinct detected the thought in my mind before I could give it expression. With her customary energy and directness, she spoke at once, and spoke first.
“You are thinking of that subject which was mentioned between us on the evening of your return from Hampshire,” she said. “I have been expecting you to allude to it, for some time past. There must be a change in our little household, Walter; we cannot go on much longer as we are now. I see it as plainly as you do—as plainly as Laura sees it, though she says nothing. How strangely the old times in Cumberland seem to have come back! You and I are together again; and the one subject of interest between us is Laura once more. I could almost fancy that this room is the summer-house at Limmeridge, and that those waves beyond us are beating on our sea-shore.”
“I was guided by your advice in those past days,” I said; “and now, Marian, with reliance tenfold greater, I will be guided by it again.”
She answered by pressing my hand. I saw that the generous, impulsive nature of the woman was deeply touched by my reference to the past. We sat together near the window; and, while I spoke and she listened, we looked at the glory of the sunlight shining on the majesty of the sea.
“Whatever comes of this confidence between us,” I said, “whether it ends happily or sorrowfully for me, Laura’s interests will still be the interests of my life. When we leave this place, on whatever terms we leave it, my determination to wrest from Count Fosco the confession which I failed to obtain from his accomplice, goes back with me to London, as certainly as I go back myself. Neither you nor I can tell how that man may turn on me, if I bring him to bay; we only know by his own words and actions, that he is capable of striking at me, through Laura, without a moment’s hesitation, or a moment’s remorse. In our present position, I have no claim on her, which society sanctions, which the law allows, to strengthen me in resisting him, and in protecting her.” This places me at a serious disadvantage. If I am to fight our cause with the Count, strong in the consciousness of Laura’s safety, I must fight it for my Wife. Do you agree to that, Marian, so far?”
“To every word of it,” she answered.
“I will not plead out of my own heart,” I went on; “I will not appeal to the love which has survived all changes and all shocks—I will rest my only vindication of myself for thinking of her and speaking of her as my wife, on what I have just said. If the chance of forcing a confession from the Count, is, as I believe it to be, the last chance left of publicly establishing the fact of Laura’s existence, the least selfish reason that I can advance for our marriage is recognised by us both. But I may be wrong in my conviction; other means of achieving our purpose may be in our power, which are less uncertain and less dangerous. I have searched anxiously, in my own mind, for those means— and I have not found them. Have you?”
“No. I have thought about it, too, and thought in vain.”
“In all likelihood,” I continued, ” the same questions have occurred to you, in considering this difficult subject, which, have occurred to me. Ought we to return with her to Limmeridge, now that she is like herself again, and trust to the recognition of her by the people of the village, or by the children at the school? Ought we to appeal to the practical test of her handwriting? Suppose we did so. Suppose the recognition of her obtained, and the identity of the handwriting established. Would success in both those cases do more than supply an excellent foundation for a trial in a court of law? Would the recognition and the handwriting prove her identity to Mr. Fairlie and take her back to Limmeridge House, against the evidence of her aunt, against the evidence of the medical certificate, against the fact of the funeral and the fact of the inscription on the tomb? No! We could only hope to succeed in throwing a serious doubt on the assertion of her death—a doubt which nothing short of a legal inquiry can settle. I will assume that we possess (what we have certainly not got) money enough to carry this inquiry on through all its stages. I will assume that Mr. Fairlie’s prejudices might be reasoned away; that the false testimony of the Count and his wife, and all the rest of the false testimony, might be confuted; that the recognition could not possibly be ascribed to a mistake between Laura and Anne Catherick, or the handwriting be declared by our enemies to be a clever fraud—all these are assumptions which, more or less, set plain probabilities at defiance, but let them pass—and let us ask ourselves what would be the first consequence of the first questions put to Laura herself on the subject of the conspiracy. We know only too well what the consequence would be—for we know that she has never recovered her memory of what happened to her in London. Examine her privately, or examine her publicly, she is utterly incapable of assisting the assertion of her own case. If you don’t see this, Marian, as plainly as I see it, we will go to Limmeridge and try the experiment, to-morrow.”
“I do see it, Walter. Even if we had the means of paying all the law expenses, even if we succeeded in the end, the delays would be unendurable; the perpetual suspense, after what we have suffered already, would be heart-breaking. You are right about the hopelessness of going to Limmeridge. I wish I could feel sure that you are right also in determining to try that last chance with the Count. Is it a chance at all?”
“Beyond a doubt, Yes. It is the chance of recovering the lost date of Laura’s journey to London. Without returning to the reasons I gave you some time since, I am still as firmly persuaded as ever, that there is a discrepancy between the date of that journey and the date on the certificate of death. There lies the weak point of the whole conspiracy—it crumbles to pieces if we attack it in that way; and the means of attacking it are in possession of the Count——”
“Not in his possession only!” Marian eagerly interposed. “Surely, Walter, we have both of us overlooked, in the strangest, manner, the letter which Laura wrote to Mrs. Vesey, and which Mrs. Michelson posted, from Blackwater Park? Even if there is no date to the letter (which is only too probable), the post-mark would help us.”
“I remembered the letter, Marian—though, in the press of other anxieties and other disappointments on my mind, I may have omitted to tell you about it, at the time. When I went to Mrs. Vesey’s to inquire if Laura had really slept there, and when I heard that she had never been near the house, I asked for her letter from Blackwater Park. The letter was given to me—but the envelope was lost. It had been thrown into the waste-paper basket, and long since destroyed.”
“Was there no date to the letter?”
“None. Not even the day of the week was mentioned. You can judge for yourself. I have the letter in my pocket-book, with the other papers which I always keep about me. Look. She only writes these few lines:— ‘Dearest Mrs. Vesey, I am in sad distress and anxiety, and I may come to your house tomorrow night and ask for a bed. I can’t tell you what is the matter in this letter—I write it in such fear of being found out that I can fix my mind on nothing. Pray be at home to see me. I will give you a thousand kisses, and tell you everything. Your affectionate Laura.’ What help is there in those lines? None. I say it again, the last means left of attacking the conspiracy by recovering the lost date are in the possession of the Count. If I succeed in wresting them from him, the object of your life and mine is fulfilled. If I fail, the wrong that Laura has suffered, will, in this world, never be redressed.”
“Do you fear failure, yourself, Walter?”
“I dare not anticipate success; and, for that very reason, Marian, I speak openly and plainly, as I have spoken now. In my heart and my conscience, I can say it—Laura’s hopes for the future are at their lowest ebb. I know that her fortune is gone; I know that the last chance of restoring her to her place in the world lies at the mercy of her worst enemy, of a man who is now absolutely unassailable, and who may remain unassailable to the end. With every worldly advantage gone from her; with all prospect of recovering her rank and station more than doubtful; with no clearer future before her than the future which her husband can provide—the poor drawing-master may harmlessly open his heart at last. In the days of her prosperity, Marian, I was only the teacher who guided her hand—I ask for it, in her adversity, as the hand of my wife!”
Marian’s eyes met mine affectionately—I could say no more. My heart was full, my lips were trembling. In spite of myself, I was in danger of appealing to her pity. I got up to leave the room. She rose at the same moment, laid her hand gently on my shoulder, and stopped me.
“Walter!” she said, ” I once parted you both, for your good and for hers. Wait here, my Brother!—wait, my dearest, best friend, till Laura comes, and tells you what I have done now!”
For the first time since the farewell morning at Limmeridge, she touched my forehead with her lips. A tear dropped on my face, as she kissed me. She turned quickly, pointed to the chair from which I had risen, and left the room.
I sat down alone at the window, to wait through the crisis of my life. My mind, in that breathless interval, felt like a total blank. I was conscious of nothing but a painful intensity of all familiar perceptions. The sun grew blinding bright; the white sea birds chasing each other far beyond me, seemed to be flitting before my face; the mellow murmur of the waves on the beach was like thunder in my ears.
The door opened; and Laura came in alone. So she had entered the breakfast-room at Limmeridge House, on the morning when we parted. Slowly and falteringly, in sorrow and in hesitation, she had once approached me. Now, she came with the haste of happiness in her feet, with the light of happiness radiant in her face. Of their own accord, those dear arms clasped themselves round me; of their own accord, the sweet lips came to meet mine. “My darling!” she whispered, “we may own we love each other, now!” Her head nestled with a tender contentedness on my bosom. “Oh,” she said, innocently, “I am so happy at last!”
Ten days later, we were happier still. We were married.
THE course of this narrative, steadily flowing on, bears me away from the morning-time of our married life, and carries me forward to the End.
In a fortnight more we three were back in London; and the shadow was stealing over us of the struggle to come.
Marian and I were careful to keep Laura in ignorance of the cause that had hurried us back —the necessity of making sure of the Count. It was now the beginning of May, and his term of occupation at the house in Forest-road expired in June. If he renewed it (and I had reasons, shortly to be mentioned, for anticipating that he would), I might be certain of his not escaping me. But, if by any chance he disappointed my expectations, and left the country— then, I had no time to lose in arming myself to meet him as I best might.
In the first fulness of my new happiness, there had been moments when my resolution faltered—moments, when I was tempted to be safely content, now that the dearest aspiration of my life was fulfilled in the possession of Laura’s love. For the first time, I thought faint-heartedly of the greatness of the risk; of the adverse chances arrayed against me; of the fair promise of our new lives, and of the peril in which I might place the happiness which we had so hardly earned. Yes! let me own it honestly. For a brief time, I wandered, in the sweet guiding of love, far from the purpose to which I had been true, under sterner discipline and in darker days. Innocently, Laura had tempted me aside from the hard path —innocently, she was destined to lead me back again. At times, dreams of the terrible past still disconnectedly recalled to her, in the mystery of sleep, the events of which her waking memory had lost all trace. One night (barely two weeks after our marriage), when I was watching her at rest, I saw the tears come slowly through her closed eyelids, I heard the faint murmuring words escape her which told me that her spirit was back again on the fatal journey from Blackwater Park. That unconscious appeal, so touching and so awful in the sacredness of her sleep, ran through me like fire. The next day was the day we came back to London—the day when my resolution returned to me with tenfold strength.
The first necessity was to know something of the man. Thus far, the true story of his life was an impenetrable mystery to me.
I began with such scanty sources of information as were at my own disposal. The important narrative written by Mr. Frederick Fairlie (which Marian had obtained by following the directions I had given to her in the winter) proved to be of no service to the special object with which I now looked at it. While reading it, I reconsidered the disclosure revealed to me by Mrs. Clements, of the series of deceptions which had brought Anne Catherick to London, and which had there devoted her to the interests of the conspiracy. Here, again, the Count had not openly committed himself; here again, he was, to all practical purpose, out of my reach.
I next returned to Marian’s journal at Blackwater Park. At my request she read to me again a passage which referred to her past curiosity about the Count, and to the few particulars which she had discovered relating to him.
The passage to which I allude occurs in that part of her journal which, delineates his character and his personal appearance. She describes him as “not having crossed the frontiers of his native country for years past”—as “anxious to know if any Italian gentlemen were settled in the nearest town to Blackwater Park”—as “receiving letters with all sorts of odd stamps on them, and one with a large, official-looking seal on it.” She is inclined to consider that his long absence from his native country may be accounted for by assuming that he is a political exile. But she is, on the other hand, unable to reconcile this idea with his reception of the letter from abroad, bearing ” the large official-looking seal”—letters from the Continent addressed to political exiles being usually the last to court attention from foreign post-offices in that way.
The considerations thus presented to me in the diary, joined to certain surmises of my own that grew out of them, suggested a conclusion which I wondered I had not arrived at before. I now said to myself—what Laura had once said to Marian at Blackwater Park; what Madame Fosco had overheard by listening at the door— the Count is a Spy!
Laura had applied the word to him at hazard, in natural anger at his proceedings towards herself. I applied it to him, with the deliberate conviction that his vocation in life was the vocation of a Spy. On this assumption, the reason for his extraordinary stay in England, so long after the objects of the conspiracy had been gained, became, to my mind, quite intelligible.
The year of which I am now writing, was the year of the famous Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park. Foreigners, in unusually large numbers, had arrived already, and were still arriving, in England. Men were among us, by thousands, whom the ceaseless distrustfulness of their governments had followed privately, by means of appointed agents, to our shores. My surmises did not for a moment class a man of the Count’s abilities and social position with the ordinary rank and file of foreign spies. I suspected him of holding a position of authority, of being entrusted, by the government which he secretly served, with the organisation and management of agents specially employed in this country, both men and women; and I believed Mrs. Rubelle, who had been so opportunely found to act as nurse at Blackwater Park, to be, in all probability, one of the number.
Assuming that this idea of mine had a foundation in truth, the position of the Count might prove to be more assailable than I had hitherto ventured to hope. To whom could I apply to know something more of the man’s history, and of the man himself, than I knew now?
In this emergency, it naturally occurred to my mind that a countryman of his own, on whom I could rely, might be the fittest person to help me. The first man whom I thought of, under these circumstances, was also the only Italian with whom I was intimately acquainted —my quaint little friend, Professor Pesca.
The Professor has been so long absent from these pages, that he has run some risk of being forgotten altogether. It is the necessary law of such a story as mine, that the persons concerned in it only appear when the course of events takes them up—they come and go, not by favour of my personal partiality, but by right of their direct connexion with the circumstances to be detailed. For this reason, not Pesca only, but my mother and sister as well, have been left far in the background of the narrative. My visits to the Hampstead cottage; my mother’s lamentable belief in the denial of Laura’s identity which the conspiracy had accomplished; my vain efforts to overcome the prejudice, on her part and on my sister’s, to which, in their jealous affection for me, they both continued to adhere; the painful necessity which that prejudice imposed on me of concealing my marriage from them till they had learnt to do justice to my wife—all these little domestic occurrences have been left unrecorded, because they were not essential to the main interest of the story. It is nothing that they added to my anxieties and embittered my disappointments—the steady march of events has inexorably passed them by.
For the same reason, I have said nothing, here, of the consolation that I found in Pesca’s brotherly affection for me, when I saw him again after the sudden cessation of my residence at Limmeridge House. I have not recorded the fidelity with which my warm-hearted little friend followed me to the place of embarkation, when I sailed for Central America, or the noisy transport of joy with which he received me when we next met in London. If I had felt justified in accepting the offers of service which he made to me, on my return, he would have appeared again, long ere this. But, though I knew that his honour and his courage were to be implicitly relied on, I was not so sure that his discretion was to be trusted; and, for that reason only, I followed the course of all my inquiries alone. It will now be sufficiently understood that Pesca was not separated from all connexion with me and my interests, although he has hitherto been separated from all connexion with the progress of this narrative. He was as true and as ready a friend of mine still, as ever he had been in his life.
Before I summoned Pesca to my assistance, it was necessary to see for myself what sort of man I had to deal with. Up to this time, I had never once set eyes on Count Fosco.
Three days after my return with Laura and Marian to London, I set forth alone for Forest- road, St. John’s Wood, between ten and eleven o’clock in the morning. It was a fine day—I had some hours to spare—and I thought it likely, if I waited a little for him, that the Count might be tempted out. I had no great reason to fear the chance of his recognising me in the daytime, for the only occasion when I had been seen by him was the occasion on which he had followed me home at night.
No one appeared at the windows in the front of the house. I walked down a turning which ran past the side of it, and looked over the low garden wall. One of the back windows on the lower floor was thrown up, and a net was stretched across the opening. I saw nobody; but I heard, in the room, first a shrill whistling and singing of birds—then, the deep ringing voice which Marian’s description had made familiar to me. “Come out on my little finger, my pret-pret-pretties!” cried the voice. “Come out, and hop up-stairs! One, two, three—and up! Three, two, one—and down! One, two, three—twit-twit-twit-tweet!” The Count was exercising his canaries, as he used to exercise them in Marian’s time, at Blackwater Park.
I waited a little while, and the singing and the whistling ceased. “Come, kiss me, my pretties!” said the deep voice. There was a responsive twittering and chirping—a low, oily laugh—a silence of a minute or so—and then I heard the opening of the house door. I turned, and retraced my steps. The magnificent melody of the Prayer in Rossini’s “Moses,” sung in a sonorous bass voice, rose grandly through the suburban silence of the place. The front garden gate opened and closed. The Count had come out.
He crossed the road, and walked towards the western boundary of the Regent’s Park. I kept on my own side of the way, a little behind him, and walked in that direction also.
Marian had prepared me for his high stature, his monstrous corpulence, and his ostentatious mourning garments—but not for the horrible freshness and cheerfulness and vitality of the man. He carried his sixty years as if they had been fewer than forty. He sauntered along, wearing his hat a little on one side, with a light jaunty step; swinging his big stick; humming to himself; looking up, from time to time, at the houses and gardens on either side of him, with superb, smiling patronage. If a stranger had been told that the whole neighbourhood belonged to him, that stranger would not have been surprised to hear it. He never looked back: he paid no apparent attention to me, no apparent attention to any one who passed him on his own side of the road—except, now and then, when he smiled and smirked, with an easy, paternal good humour, at the nurserymaids and the children whom he met. In this way, he led me on, till we reached a colony of shops outside the western terraces of the Park.
Here, he stopped at a pastrycook’s, went in (probably to give an order), and came out again immediately with a tart in his hand. An Italian was grinding an organ before the shop, and a miserable little shrivelled monkey was sitting on the instrument. The Count stopped; bit a piece for himself out of the tart; and gravely handed the rest to the monkey. “My poor little man!” he said, with grotesque tenderness; “you look hungry. In the sacred name of humanity, I offer you some lunch!” The organ-grinder piteously put in his claim to a penny from the benevolent stranger. The Count shrugged his shoulders contemptuously—and passed on.
We reached the streets and the better class of shops, between the New-road and Oxford- street. The Count stopped again, and entered a small optician’s shop, with an inscription in the window, announcing that repairs were neatly executed inside. He came out again, with an opera-glass in his hand; walked a few paces on; and stopped to look at a bill of the Opera, placed outside a music-seller’s shop. He read the bill attentively, considered a moment, and then hailed an empty cab as it passed him. “Opera-box-office,” be said to the man—and was driven away.
I crossed the road, and looked at the bill in my turn. The performance announced was “Lucrezia Borgia,” and it was to take place that evening. The opera-glass in the Count’s hand, his careful reading of the bill, and his direction to the cabman, all suggested that he proposed making one of the audience. I had the means of getting an admission for myself and a friend, to the pit, by applying to one of the scene- painters attached to the theatre, with whom I had been well acquainted in past times. There was a chance, at least, that the Count might be easily visible among the audience, to me, and to any one with me; and, in this case, I had the means of ascertaining whether Pesca knew his countryman, or not, that very night.
This consideration at once decided the disposal of my evening. I procured the tickets, leaving a note at the Professor’s lodgings on the way. At a quarter to eight, I called to take him with me to the theatre. My little friend was in a state of the highest excitement, with a festive flower in his button-hole, and the largest opera-glass I ever saw hugged up under his arm.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
“Right-all-right,” said Pesca.
We started for the theatre.
THE last notes of the introduction to the opera were being played, and the seats in the pit were all filled, when Pesca and I reached the theatre.
There was plenty of room, however, in the passage that ran round the pit, which was precisely the position best calculated to answer the purpose for which I was attending the performance. I went first to the barrier separating us from the stalls; and looked for the Count in that part of the theatre. He was not there. Returning along the passage, on the left hand side from the stage, and looking about me attentively, I discovered him in the pit. He occupied an excellent place, some twelve or fourteen seats from the end of a bench, within three rows of the stalls. I placed myself exactly on a line with him; Pesca standing by my side. The Professor was not yet aware of the purpose for which I had brought him to the theatre, and he was rather surprised that we did not move nearer to the stage.
The curtain rose, and the opera began.
Throughout the whole of the first act, we remained in our position; the Count, absorbed by the orchestra and the stage, never casting so much as a chance glance at us. Not a note of Donizetti’s delicious music was lost on him. There he sat, high above his neighbours, smiling, and nodding his great head enjoyingly, from time to time. When the people near him applauded the close of an air (as an English audience in such circumstances always will applaud), without the least consideration for the orchestral movement which immediately followed it, he looked round at them with an expression of compassionate remonstrance, and held up one hand with a gesture of polite entreaty. At the more refined passages of the singing, at the more delicate phrases of the music, which passed unapplauded by others, his fat hands adorned with perfectly-fitting black kid gloves, softly patted each other, in token of the cultivated appreciation of a musical man. At such times, his oily murmur of approval, ” Bravo! Bra-a-a-a!” hummed through the silence, like the purring of a great cat. His immediate neighbours on either side—hearty, ruddy-faced people from the country, basking amazedly in the sunshine of fashionable London—seeing and hearing him, began to follow his lead. Many a burst of applause from the pit, that night, started from the soft, comfortable patting of the black-gloved hands. The man’s voracious vanity devoured this implied tribute to his local and critical supremacy, with an appearance of the highest relish. Smiles rippled continuously over his fat face. He looked about him, at the pauses in the music, serenely satisfied with himself and his fellow- creatures. “Yes! yes! these barbarous English people are learning something from ME. Here, there, and everywhere, I—Fosco—am an Influence that is felt, a Man who sits supreme!” If ever face spoke, his face spoke then—and that was its language.
The curtain fell on the first act; and the audience rose to look about them. This was the time I had waited for—the time to try if Pesca knew him.
He rose with the rest, and surveyed the occupants of the boxes grandly with his opera-glass. At first, his back was towards us; but he turned round, in time, to our side of the theatre, and looked at the boxes above us; using his glass for a few minutes—then removing it, but still continuing to look up. This was the moment I chose, when his full face was in view, for directing Pesca’s attention to him.
“Do you know that man?” I asked.
“Which man, my friend?”
“The tall, fat man, standing there, with his face towards us.”
Pesca raised himself on tiptoe, and looked at the Count.
“No,” said the Professor. “The big fat man is a stranger to me. Is he famous? Why do you point him out?”
“Because I have particular reasons for wishing to know something of him. He is a countryman of yours; his name is Count Fosco. Do you know that name?”
“Not I, Walter. Neither the name nor the man is known to me.”
“Are you quite sure you don’t recognise him? Look again; look carefully. I will tell you why I am so anxious about it, when we leave the theatre. Stop! let me help you up here, where you can see him better.”
I helped the little man to perch himself on the edge of the raised dais upon which the pit-seats were all placed. Here, his small stature was no hindrance to him; here, he could see over the heads of the ladies who were seated near the outermost part of the bench. A slim, light-haired man, standing by us, whom I had not noticed before— a man with a scar on his left cheek—looked attentively at Pesca as I helped him up, and then looked still more attentively, following the direction of Pesca’s eyes, at the Count. Our converation might have reached his ears, and might, as it struck me, have roused his curiosity.
Meanwhile, Pesca fixed his eyes earnestly on the broad, full, smiling face, turned a little upward, exactly opposite to him.
“No,” he said; “I have never set my two eyes on that big fat man before, in all my life.”
As he spoke, the Count looked downwards towards the boxes behind us on the pit tier.
The eyes of the two Italians met.
The instant before, I had been perfectly satisfied, from his own reiterated assertion, that Pesca did not know the Count. The instant afterwards, I was equally certain that the Count knew Pesca!
Knew him; and—more surprising still— feared him as well! There was no mistaking the change that passed over the villain’s face. The leaden hue that altered his yellow complexion in a moment, the sudden rigidity of all his features, the furtive scrutiny of his cold grey eyes, the motionless stillness of him from head to foot, told their own tale. A mortal dread had mastered him, body and soul—and his own recognition of Pesca was the cause of it!
The slim man, with the scar on his cheek, was still close by us. He had apparently drawn his inference from the effect produced on the Count by the sight of Pesca, as I had drawn mine. He was a mild gentlemanlike man, looking like a foreigner; and his interest in our proceedings was not expressed in anything approaching to an offensive manner.
For my own part, I was so startled by the change in the Count’s face, so astounded at the entirely unexpected turn which events had taken, that I knew neither what to say or do next. Pesca roused me by stepping back to his former place at my side, and speaking first.
“How the fat man stares!” he exclaimed. “Is it at me? Am I famous? How can he know me, when I don’t know him?”
I kept my eye still on the Count. I saw him move for the first time when Pesca moved, so as not to lose sight of the little man, in the lower position in which he now stood. I was curious to see what would happen, if Pesca’s attention, under these circumstances, was withdrawn from him; and I accordingly asked the Professor if he recognised any of his pupils, that evening, among the ladies in the boxes. Pesca immediately raised the large opera glass to his eyes, and moved it slowly all round the upper part of the theatre, searching for his pupils with the most conscientious scrutiny.
The moment he showed himself to be thus engaged, the Count turned round; slipped past the persons who occupied seats on the further side of him from where we stood; and disappeared in the middle passage down the centre of the pit. I caught Pesca by the arm; and, to his inexpressible astonishment, hurried him round with me to the back of the pit, to intercept the Count before he could get to the door. Somewhat to my surprise, the slim man hastened out before us, avoiding a stoppage caused by some people on our side of the pit leaving their places, by which Pesca and myself were delayed. When we reached the lobby the Count had disappeared—and the foreigner with the scar was gone too.
“Come home,” I said; “come home, Pesca, to your lodgings. I must speak to you in private —I must speak directly.”
“My-soul-bless-my-soul!” cried the Professor, in a state of the extremest bewilderment. “What on earth is the matter?”
I walked on rapidly, without answering. The circumstances under which the Count had left the theatre suggested to me that his extraordinary anxiety to escape Pesca might carry him to further extremities still. He might escape me, too, by leaving London. I doubted the future, if I allowed him so much as a day’s freedom to act as he pleased. And I doubted that foreign stranger who had got the start of us, and whom I suspected of intentionally following him out.
With this double distrust in my mind, I was not long in making Pesca understand what I wanted. As soon as we two were alone in his room, I increased his confusion and amazement a hundredfold by telling him what my purpose was, as plainly and unreservedly as I have acknowledged it here.
“My friend, what can I do?” cried the Professor, piteously appealing to me with both hands. “Deuce-what-the-deuce! how can I help you, Walter, when I don’t know the man?”
“He knows you—he is afraid of you—he has left the theatre to escape you. Pesca! there must be a reason for this. Look back into your own life, before you came to England. You left Italy, as you have told me yourself, for political reasons. You have never mentioned those reasons to me; and I don’t inquire into them, now. I only ask you to consult your own recollections, and to say if they suggest no past cause for the terror which the first sight of you produced in that man.” To my unutterable surprise, these words, harmless as they appeared to me, produced the same astounding effect on Pesca which the sight of Pesca had produced on the Count. The rosy face of my little friend whitened in an instant; and he drew back from me slowly, trembling from head to foot.
“Walter!” he said. “You don’t know what you ask.”
He spoke in a whisper—he looked at me as if I had suddenly revealed to him some hidden danger to both of us. In less than one minute of time, he was so altered from the easy, lively, quaint little man of all my past experience, that if I had met him in the street, changed as I saw him now, I should most certainly not have known him again.
“Forgive me, if I have unintentionally pained and shocked you,” I replied. “Remember the cruel wrong my wife has suffered at Count Fosco’s hands. Remember that the wrong can never be redressed, unless the means are in my power of forcing him to do her justice. I spoke in her interests, Pesca—I ask you again to forgive me—I can say no more.”
I rose to go. He stopped me before I reached the door.
“Wait,” he said. “You have shaken me from head to foot. You don’t know how I left my country, and why I left my country. Let me compose myself—let me think, if I can.”
I returned to my chair. He walked up and down the room, talking to himself incoherently in his own language. After several turns backwards and forwards, he suddenly came up to me, and laid his little hands with a strange tenderness and solemnity on my breast.
“On your heart and soul, Walter,” he said, “is there no other way to get to that man but the chance-way through me?”
“There is no other way,” I answered.
He left me again; opened the door of the room and looked out cautiously into the passage; closed it once more; and came back.
“You won your right over me, Walter,” he said, ” on the day when you saved my life. It was yours from that moment, when you pleased to take it. Take it now. Yes! I mean what I say. My next words, as true as the good God is above us, will put my life into your hands.”
The trembling earnestness with which he uttered this extraordinary warning, carried with it to my mind the conviction that he spoke the truth.
“Mind this!” he went on, shaking his hands at me in the vehemence of his agitation. “I hold no thread, in my own mind, between that man, Fosco, and the past time which I call back to me, for your sake. If you find the thread, keep it to yourself—tell me nothing—on my knees, I beg and pray, let me be ignorant, let me be innocent, let me be blind to all the future, as I am now!”
He said a few words more, hesitatingly and disconnectedly—then stopped again.
I saw that the effort of expressing himself in English, on an occasion too serious to permit him the use of the quaint turns and phrases of his ordinary vocabulary, was painfully increasing the difficulty he had felt from the first in speaking to me at all. Having learnt to read and understand his native language (though not to speak it), in the earlier days of our intimate companionship, I now suggested to him that he should express himself in Italian, while I used English in putting any questions which might be necessary to my enlightenment. He accepted the proposal. In his own smooth-flowing language—spoken with a vehement agitation which betrayed itself in the perpetual working of his features, in the wildness and the suddenness of his foreign gesticulations, but never in the raising of his voice—I now heard the words which armed me to meet the last struggle that is left for this story to record.*
* It is only right to mention, here, that I repeat Pesca’s statement to me, with the careful suppressions and alterations which the serious nature of the subject and my own sense of duty to my friend demand. My first and last concealments from the reader are those which caution renders absolutely necessary in this portion of the narrative.
“You know nothing of my motive for leaving Italy,” he began, “except that it was for political reasons. If I had been driven to this country by the persecution of my government, I should not have kept those reasons a secret from you or from any one. I have concealed them because no government authority has pronounced the sentence of my exile. You have heard, Walter, of the political Societies that are hidden in every great city on the continent of Europe? To one of those Societies I belonged in Italy— and belong still, in England. When I came to this country, I came by the direction of my Chief. I was over-zealous, in my younger time; I ran the risk of compromising myself and others. For those reasons, I was ordered to emigrate to England, and to wait. I emigrated—I have waited—I wait, still. To-morrow, I may be called away: ten years hence, I may be called away. It is all one to me—I am here, I support myself by teaching, and I wait. I violate no oath (you shall hear why presently) in making my confidence complete by telling you the name of the Society to which I belong. All I do is to put my life in your hands. If what I say to you now is ever known by others to have passed my lips, as certainly as we two sit here, I am a dead man.”
He whispered the next words in my ear. I keep the secret which he thus communicated. The Society to which he belonged, will be sufficiently individualised for the purpose of these pages, if I call it “The Brotherhood,” on the few occasions when any reference to the subject will be needed in this place.
“The object of the Brotherhood,” Pesca went on, “is, briefly, the object of other political societies of the same sort—the destruction of tyranny, and the assertion of the rights of the people. The principles of the Brotherhood are two. So long as a man’s life is useful, or even harmless only, he has the right to enjoy it. But, if his life inflicts injury on the well-being of his fellow-men, from that moment he forfeits the right, and it is not only no crime but a positive merit to deprive him of it. It is not for me to say in what, frightful circumstances of oppression and suffering this Society took its rise. It is not for you to say—you Englishmen, who have conquered your freedom so long ago, that you have conveniently forgotten what blood you shed, and what extremities you proceeded to in the conquering— it is not for you to say how far the worst of all exasperations may, or may not, carry the maddened men of an enslaved nation. The iron that has entered into our souls has gone too deep for you to find it. Leave the refugee alone! Laugh at him, distrust him, open your eyes in wonder at that secret self which smoulders in him, sometimes under the every-day respectability and tranquillity of a man like me; sometimes under the grinding poverty, the fierce squalor, of men less lucky, less pliable, less patient than I am—but judge us not! In the time of your first Charles you might have done us justice; the long luxury of your own freedom has made you incapable of doing us justice now.”
All the deepest feelings of his nature seemed to force themselves to the surface in those words; all his heart was poured out to me, for the first time in our lives—but still, his voice never rose; still his dread of the terrible revelation he was making to me, never left him.
“So far,” he resumed, “you think the Society like other Societies. Its object (in your English opinion) is anarchy and revolution. It takes the life of a bad King or a bad Minister, as if the one and the other were dangerous wild beasts to be shot at the first opportunity. I grant you this. But the laws of the Brotherhood are the laws of no other political society on the face of the earth. The members are not known to one another. There is a President in Italy; there are Presidents abroad. Each of these has his Secretary. The Presidents and the Secretaries know the members; but the members, among themselves, are all strangers, until their Chiefs see fit, in the political necessity of the time, or in the private necessity of the society, to make them known to each other. With such a safeguard as this, there is no oath among us on admittance. We are identified with the Brotherhood by a secret mark, which we all bear, which lasts while our lives last. We are told to go about our ordinary business, and to report ourselves to the President, or the Secretary, four times a year, in the event of our services being required. We are warned, if we betray the Brotherhood, or if we injure it by serving other interests, that we die by the principles of the Brotherhood—die by the hand of a stranger who may be sent from the other end of the world to strike the blow—or by the hand of our own bosom-friend, who may have been a member unknown, to us through all the years of our intimacy. Sometimes, the death is delayed; sometimes, it follows close on the treachery. It is our first business to know how to wait—our second business to know how to obey when the word is spoken. Some of us may wait our lives through, and may not be wanted. Some of us may be called to the work, or to the preparation for the work, the very day of our admission. I myself—the little, easy, cheerful man you know, who, of his own accord, would hardly lift up his handkerchief to strike down the fly that buzzes about his face—I, in my younger time, under provocation so dreadful that I will not tell you of it, entered the Brotherhood by an impulse, as I might have killed myself by an impulse. I must remain in it, now—it has got me, whatever I may think of it in my better circumstances and my cooler manhood, to my dying day. While I was still in Italy, I was chosen Secretary; and all the members of that time, who were brought face to face with my President, were brought face to face also with me.”
I began to understand him; I saw the end towards which his extraordinary disclosure was now tending. He waited a moment, watching me earnestly—watching, till he had evidently guessed what was passing in my mind, before he resumed.
“You have drawn your own conclusion already,” he said. “I see it in your face. Tell me nothing; keep me out of the secret of your thoughts. Let me make my one last sacrifice of myself, for your sake—and then have done with this subject, never to return to it again.”
He signed to me not to answer him—rose— removed his coat—and rolled up the shirt-sleeve on his left arm.
“I promised you that this confidence should be complete,” he whispered, speaking close at my ear, with his eyes looking watchfully at the door. “Whatever comes of it, you shall not reproach me with having hidden anything from you which it was necessary to your interests to know. I have said that the Brotherhood identifies its members by a mark that lasts for life. See the place, and the mark on it, for yourself.”
He raised his bare arm, and showed me, high on the upper part of it and on the inner side, a brand deeply burnt in the flesh and stained of a bright blood-red colour. I abstain from describing the device which the brand represented. It will be sufficient to say that it was circular in form, and so small that it would have been completely covered by a shilling coin.
“A man who has this mark, branded in this place,” he said, covering his arm again, “is a member of the Brotherhood. A man who has been false to the Brotherhood is discovered, sooner or later, by the Chiefs who know him— Presidents or Secretaries, as the case may be. And a man discovered by the Chiefs is dead. No human laws can protect him. Remember what you have seen and heard; draw what conclusions you like; act as you please. But, in the name of God, whatever you discover, whatever you do, tell me nothing! Let me remain free from a responsibility which it horrifies me to think of—which I know, in my conscience, is not my responsibility, now. For the last time, I say it—on my honour as a gentleman, on my oath as a Christian, if the man you pointed out at the Opera knows me, he is so altered, or so disguised, that I do not know him. I am ignorant of his proceedings or his purposes in England—I never saw him, I never heard his name, to my knowledge, before to-night. I say no more. Leave me a little, Walter: I am overpowered by what has happened; I am shaken by what I have said. Let me try to be like myself again, when we meet next.”
He dropped into a chair; and, turning away from me, hid his face in his hands. I gently opened the door, so as not to disturb him— and spoke my few parting words in low tones, which he might hear or not, as he pleased.
“I will keep the memory of to-night in my heart of hearts,” I said. “You shall never repent the trust you have reposed in me. May I come to you to-morrow? May I come as early as nine o’clock?”
“Yes, Walter,” he replied; looking up at me kindly, and speaking in English once more, as if his one anxiety, now, was to get back to our former relations towards each other. “Come to my little bit of breakfast, before I go my ways among the pupils that I teach.”
“Good night, Pesca.”
“Good night, my friend.”
Collins, Wilkie. “Part the Third. Hartright’s Narrative,” The Woman in White, All The Year Round, Vol. 3, No. 38, 11 Aug 1860, pp. 409-418. Dickens Journals Online.
- The 1860 volume replaces "passed" with "elapsed" (V. 3 p. 245). ↵
- The 1860 volume says simply: "I saw that she was deeply touched by my reference to the past" (V. 3 p. 249). ↵
- The portion of text between "Not in his possession only!" and "If I succeed in wresting them from him" does not appear in the 1860 volume edition (V. 3 p. 253). ↵
- The 1860 volume replaces "our new lives" with "our new life" (V. 3 p. 256). ↵
- In the 1868 volume, she is unable to reconcile the idea with the reception of the letter from abroad (V. 3 p. 258). ↵
- The 1860 volume replaces "thousands" with "hundreds" (V. 3 p. 259). ↵
- In the 1860 volume, it is "not Pesca alone." In the following sentence, Collins also omits the word "lamentable" (V. 3 p. 260). ↵
- In the 1860 volume edition, Pesca says "I have never heard the name he goes by" (V. 3 p. 289). ↵