the woman in white-Page 39


  Is it necessary to say what my first impression was when I looked at myvisitor's card? Surely not! My sister having married a foreigner, therewas but one impression that any man in his senses could possibly feel.Of course the Count had come to borrow money of me.

  "Louis," I said, "do you think he would go away if you gave him fiveshillings?"

  Louis looked quite shocked. He surprised me inexpressibly by declaringthat my sister's foreign husband was dressed superbly, and looked thepicture of prosperity. Under these circumstances my first impressionaltered to a certain extent. I now took it for granted that the Counthad matrimonial difficulties of his own to contend with, and that hehad come, like the rest of the family, to cast them all on my shoulders.

  "Did he mention his business?" I asked.

  "Count Fosco said he had come here, sir, because Miss Halcombe wasunable to leave Blackwater Park."

  Fresh troubles, apparently. Not exactly his own, as I had supposed,but dear Marian's. Troubles, anyway. Oh dear!

  "Show him in," I said resignedly.

  The Count's first appearance really startled me. He was such analarmingly large person that I quite trembled. I felt certain that hewould shake the floor and knock down my art-treasures. He did neitherthe one nor the other. He was refreshingly dressed in summercostume--his manner was delightfully self-possessed and quiet--he had acharming smile. My first impression of him was highly favourable. Itis not creditable to my penetration--as the sequel will show--toacknowledge this, but I am a naturally candid man, and I DO acknowledgeit notwithstanding.

  "Allow me to present myself, Mr. Fairlie," he said. "I come fromBlackwater Park, and I have the honour and the happiness of beingMadame Fosco's husband. Let me take my first and last advantage ofthat circumstance by entreating you not to make a stranger of me. Ibeg you will not disturb yourself--I beg you will not move."

  "You are very good," I replied. "I wish I was strong enough to get up.Charmed to see you at Limmeridge. Please take a chair."

  "I am afraid you are suffering to-day," said the Count.

  "As usual," I said. "I am nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up tolook like a man."

  "I have studied many subjects in my time," remarked this sympatheticperson. "Among others the inexhaustible subject of nerves. May I makea suggestion, at once the simplest and the most profound? Will you letme alter the light in your room?"

  "Certainly--if you will be so very kind as not to let any of it in onme."

  He walked to the window. Such a contrast to dear Marian! so extremelyconsiderate in all his movements!

  "Light," he said, in that delightfully confidential tone which is sosoothing to an invalid, "is the first essential. Light stimulates,nourishes, preserves. You can no more do without it, Mr. Fairlie, thanif you were a flower. Observe. Here, where you sit, I close theshutters to compose you. There, where you do NOT sit, I draw up theblind and let in the invigorating sun. Admit the light into your roomif you cannot bear it on yourself. Light, sir, is the grand decree ofProvidence. You accept Providence with your own restrictions. Acceptlight on the same terms."

  I thought this very convincing and attentive. He had taken me in up tothat point about the light, he had certainly taken me in.

  "You see me confused," he said, returning to his place--"on my word ofhonour, Mr. Fairlie, you see me confused in your presence."

  "Shocked to hear it, I am sure. May I inquire why?"

  "Sir, can I enter this room (where you sit a sufferer), and see yousurrounded by these admirable objects of Art, without discovering thatyou are a man whose feelings are acutely impressionable, whosesympathies are perpetually alive? Tell me, can I do this?"

  If I had been strong enough to sit up in my chair I should, of course,have bowed. Not being strong enough, I smiled my acknowledgmentsinstead. It did just as well, we both understood one another.

  "Pray follow my train of thought," continued the Count. "I sit here, aman of refined sympathies myself, in the presence of another man ofrefined sympathies also. I am conscious of a terrible necessity forlacerating those sympathies by referring to domestic events of a verymelancholy kind. What is the inevitable consequence? I have donemyself the honour of pointing it out to you already. I sit confused."

  Was it at this point that I began to suspect he was going to bore me? Irather think it was.

  "Is it absolutely necessary to refer to these unpleasant matters?" Iinquired. "In our homely English phrase, Count Fosco, won't they keep?"

  The Count, with the most alarming solemnity, sighed and shook his head.

  "Must I really hear them?"

  He shrugged his shoulders (it was the first foreign thing he had donesince he had been in the room), and looked at me in an unpleasantlypenetrating manner. My instincts told me that I had better close myeyes. I obeyed my instincts.

  "Please break it gently," I pleaded. "Anybody dead?"

  "Dead!" cried the Count, with unnecessary foreign fierceness. "Mr.Fairlie, your national composure terrifies me. In the name of Heaven,what have I said or done to make you think me the messenger of death?"

  "Pray accept my apologies," I answered. "You have said and donenothing. I make it a rule in these distressing cases always toanticipate the worst. It breaks the blow by meeting it half-way, andso on. Inexpressibly relieved, I am sure, to hear that nobody is dead.Anybody ill?"

  I opened my eyes and looked at him. Was he very yellow when he camein, or had he turned very yellow in the last minute or two? I reallycan't say, and I can't ask Louis, because he was not in the room at thetime.

  "Anybody ill?" I repeated, observing that my national composure stillappeared to affect him.

  "That is part of my bad news, Mr. Fairlie. Yes. Somebody is ill."

  "Grieved, I am sure. Which of them is it?"

  "To my profound sorrow, Miss Halcombe. Perhaps you were in some degreeprepared to hear this? Perhaps when you found that Miss Halcombe didnot come here by herself, as you proposed, and did not write a secondtime, your affectionate anxiety may have made you fear that she wasill?"

  I have no doubt my affectionate anxiety had led to that melancholyapprehension at some time or other, but at the moment my wretchedmemory entirely failed to remind me of the circumstance. However, Isaid yes, in justice to myself. I was much shocked. It was so veryuncharacteristic of such a robust person as dear Marian to be ill, thatI could only suppose she had met with an accident. A horse, or a falsestep on the stairs, or something of that sort.

  "Is it serious?" I asked.

  "Serious--beyond a doubt," he replied. "Dangerous--I hope and trustnot. Miss Halcombe unhappily exposed herself to be wetted through by aheavy rain. The cold that followed was of an aggravated kind, and ithas now brought with it the worst consequence--fever."

  When I heard the word fever, and when I remembered at the same momentthat the unscrupulous person who was now addressing me had just comefrom Blackwater Park, I thought I should have fainted on the spot.

  "Good God!" I said. "Is it infectious?"

  "Not at present," he answered, with detestable composure. "It may turnto infection--but no such deplorable complication had taken place whenI left Blackwater Park. I have felt the deepest interest in the case,Mr. Fairlie--I have endeavoured to assist the regular medical attendantin watching it--accept my personal assurances of the uninfectiousnature of the fever when I last saw it."

  Accept his assurances! I never was farther from accepting anything inmy life. I would not have believed him on his oath. He was too yellowto be believed. He looked like a walking-West-Indian-epidemic. Hewas big enough to carry typhus by the ton, and to dye the very carpethe walked on with scarlet fever. In certain emergencies my mind isremarkably soon made up. I instantly determined to get rid of him.

  "You will kindly excuse an invalid," I said--"but long conferences ofany kind invariably upset me. May I beg to know exactly what theobject is to which I am indebted for the honour of your visit?" br />
  I fervently hoped that this remarkably broad hint would throw him offhis balance--confuse him--reduce him to polite apologies--in short, gethim out of the room. On the contrary, it only settled him in hischair. He became additionally solemn, and dignified, and confidential.He held up two of his horrid fingers and gave me another of hisunpleasantly penetrating looks. What was I to do? I was not strongenough to quarrel with him. Conceive my situation, if you please. Islanguage adequate to describe it? I think not.

  "The objects of my visit," he went on, quite irrepressibly, "arenumbered on my fingers. They are two. First, I come to bear mytestimony, with profound sorrow, to the lamentable disagreementsbetween Sir Percival and Lady Glyde. I am Sir Percival's oldestfriend--I am related to Lady Glyde by marriage--I am an eye-witness ofall that has happened at Blackwater Park. In those three capacities Ispeak with authority, with confidence, with honourable regret. Sir, Iinform you, as the head of Lady Glyde's family, that Miss Halcombe hasexaggerated nothing in the letter which she wrote to your address. Iaffirm that the remedy which that admirable lady has proposed is theonly remedy that will spare you the horrors of public scandal. Atemporary separation between husband and wife is the one peaceablesolution of this difficulty. Part them for the present, and when allcauses of irritation are removed, I, who have now the honour ofaddressing you--I will undertake to bring Sir Percival to reason. LadyGlyde is innocent, Lady Glyde is injured, but--follow my thoughthere!--she is, on that very account (I say it with shame), the causeof irritation while she remains under her husband's roof. No otherhouse can receive her with propriety but yours. I invite you to openit."

  Cool. Here was a matrimonial hailstorm pouring in the South ofEngland, and I was invited, by a man with fever in every fold of hiscoat, to come out from the North of England and take my share of thepelting. I tried to put the point forcibly, just as I have put ithere. The Count deliberately lowered one of his horrid fingers, keptthe other up, and went on--rode over me, as it were, without even thecommon coach-manlike attention of crying "Hi!" before he knocked medown.

  "Follow my thought once more, if you please," he resumed. "My firstobject you have heard. My second object in coming to this house is todo what Miss Halcombe's illness has prevented her from doing forherself. My large experience is consulted on all difficult matters atBlackwater Park, and my friendly advice was requested on theinteresting subject of your letter to Miss Halcombe. I understood atonce--for my sympathies are your sympathies--why you wished to see herhere before you pledged yourself to inviting Lady Glyde. You are mostright, sir, in hesitating to receive the wife until you are quitecertain that the husband will not exert his authority to reclaim her.I agree to that. I also agree that such delicate explanations as thisdifficulty involves are not explanations which can be properly disposedof by writing only. My presence here (to my own great inconvenience)is the proof that I speak sincerely. As for the explanationsthemselves, I--Fosco--I, who know Sir Percival much better than MissHalcombe knows him, affirm to you, on my honour and my word, that hewill not come near this house, or attempt to communicate with thishouse, while his wife is living in it. His affairs are embarrassed.Offer him his freedom by means of the absence of Lady Glyde. I promiseyou he will take his freedom, and go back to the Continent at theearliest moment when he can get away. Is this clear to you as crystal?Yes, it is. Have you questions to address to me? Be it so, I am hereto answer. Ask, Mr. Fairlie--oblige me by asking to your heart'scontent."

  He had said so much already in spite of me, and he looked so dreadfullycapable of saying a great deal more also in spite of me, that Ideclined his amiable invitation in pure self-defence.

  "Many thanks," I replied. "I am sinking fast. In my state of health Imust take things for granted. Allow me to do so on this occasion. Wequite understand each other. Yes. Much obliged, I am sure, for yourkind interference. If I ever get better, and ever have a secondopportunity of improving our acquaintance--"

  He got up. I thought he was going. No. More talk, more time for thedevelopment of infectious influences--in my room, too--remember that,in my room!

  "One moment yet," he said, "one moment before I take my leave. I askpermission at parting to impress on you an urgent necessity. It isthis, sir. You must not think of waiting till Miss Halcombe recoversbefore you receive Lady Glyde. Miss Halcombe has the attendance of thedoctor, of the housekeeper at Blackwater Park, and of an experiencednurse as well--three persons for whose capacity and devotion I answerwith my life. I tell you that. I tell you, also, that the anxiety andalarm of her sister's illness has already affected the health andspirits of Lady Glyde, and has made her totally unfit to be of use inthe sick-room. Her position with her husband grows more and moredeplorable and dangerous every day. If you leave her any longer atBlackwater Park, you do nothing whatever to hasten her sister'srecovery, and at the same time, you risk the public scandal, which youand I, and all of us, are bound in the sacred interests of the familyto avoid. With all my soul, I advise you to remove the seriousresponsibility of delay from your own shoulders by writing to LadyGlyde to come here at once. Do your affectionate, your honourable,your inevitable duty, and whatever happens in the future, no one canlay the blame on you. I speak from my large experience--I offer myfriendly advice. Is it accepted--Yes, or No?"

  I looked at him--merely looked at him--with my sense of his amazingassurance, and my dawning resolution to ring for Louis and have himshown out of the room expressed in every line of my face. It isperfectly incredible, but quite true, that my face did not appear toproduce the slightest impression on him. Born withoutnerves--evidently born without nerves.

  "You hesitate?" he said. "Mr. Fairlie! I understand that hesitation.You object--see, sir, how my sympathies look straight down into yourthoughts!--you object that Lady Glyde is not in health and not inspirits to take the long journey, from Hampshire to this place, byherself. Her own maid is removed from her, as you know, and of otherservants fit to travel with her, from one end of England to another,there are none at Blackwater Park. You object, again, that she cannotcomfortably stop and rest in London, on her way here, because shecannot comfortably go alone to a public hotel where she is a totalstranger. In one breath, I grant both objections--in another breath, Iremove them. Follow me, if you please, for the last time. It was myintention, when I returned to England with Sir Percival, to settlemyself in the neighbourhood of London. That purpose has just beenhappily accomplished. I have taken, for six months, a little furnishedhouse in the quarter called St. John's Wood. Be so obliging as to keepthis fact in your mind, and observe the programme I now propose. LadyGlyde travels to London (a short journey)--I myself meet her at thestation--I take her to rest and sleep at my house, which is also thehouse of her aunt--when she is restored I escort her to the stationagain--she travels to this place, and her own maid (who is now underyour roof) receives her at the carriage-door. Here is comfortconsulted--here are the interests of propriety consulted--here is yourown duty--duty of hospitality, sympathy, protection, to an unhappy ladyin need of all three--smoothed and made easy, from the beginning tothe end. I cordially invite you, sir, to second my efforts in thesacred interests of the family. I seriously advise you to write, by myhands, offering the hospitality of your house (and heart), and thehospitality of my house (and heart), to that injured and unfortunatelady whose cause I plead to-day."

  He waved his horrid hand at me--he struck his infectious breast--headdressed me oratorically, as if I was laid up in the House of Commons.It was high time to take a desperate course of some sort. It was alsohigh time to send for Louis, and adopt the precaution of fumigating theroom.

  In this trying emergency an idea occurred to me--an inestimable ideawhich, so to speak, killed two intrusive birds with one stone. Idetermined to get rid of the Count's tiresome eloquence, and of LadyGlyde's tiresome troubles, by complying with this odious foreigner'srequest, and writing the letter at once. There was not the leastdanger of the invitation be
ing accepted, for there was not the leastchance that Laura would consent to leave Blackwater Park while Marianwas lying there ill. How this charmingly convenient obstacle couldhave escaped the officious penetration of the Count, it was impossibleto conceive--but it HAD escaped him. My dread that he might yetdiscover it, if I allowed him any more time to think, stimulated me tosuch an amazing degree, that I struggled into a sittingposition--seized, really seized, the writing materials by my side, andproduced the letter as rapidly as if I had been a common clerk in anoffice. "Dearest Laura, Please come, whenever you like. Break thejourney by sleeping in London at your aunt's house. Grieved to hear ofdear Marian's illness. Ever affectionately yours." I handed theselines, at arm's length, to the Count--I sank back in my chair--I said,"Excuse me--I am entirely prostrated--I can do no more. Will you restand lunch downstairs? Love to all, and sympathy, and so on.Good-morning."

  He made another speech--the man was absolutely inexhaustible. I closedmy eyes--I endeavoured to hear as little as possible. In spite of myendeavours I was obliged to hear a great deal. My sister's endlesshusband congratulated himself, and congratulated me, on the result ofour interview--he mentioned a great deal more about his sympathies andmine--he deplored my miserable health--he offered to write me aprescription--he impressed on me the necessity of not forgetting whathe had said about the importance of light--he accepted my obliginginvitation to rest and lunch--he recommended me to expect Lady Glyde intwo or three days' time--he begged my permission to look forward to ournext meeting, instead of paining himself and paining me, by sayingfarewell--he added a great deal more, which, I rejoice to think, I didnot attend to at the time, and do not remember now. I heard hissympathetic voice travelling away from me by degrees--but, large as hewas, I never heard him. He had the negative merit of being absolutelynoiseless. I don't know when he opened the door, or when he shut it.I ventured to make use of my eyes again, after an interval ofsilence--and he was gone.

  I rang for Louis, and retired to my bathroom. Tepid water,strengthened with aromatic vinegar, for myself, and copious fumigationfor my study, were the obvious precautions to take, and of course Iadopted them. I rejoice to say they proved successful. I enjoyed mycustomary siesta. I awoke moist and cool.

  My first inquiries were for the Count. Had we really got rid of him?Yes--he had gone away by the afternoon train. Had he lunched, and ifso, upon what? Entirely upon fruit-tart and cream. What a man! What adigestion!

  Am I expected to say anything more? I believe not. I believe I havereached the limits assigned to me. The shocking circumstances whichhappened at a later period did not, I am thankful to say, happen in mypresence. I do beg and entreat that nobody will be so very unfeelingas to lay any part of the blame of those circumstances on me. I dideverything for the best. I am not answerable for a deplorable calamity,which it was quite impossible to foresee. I am shattered by it--I havesuffered under it, as nobody else has suffered. My servant, Louis (whois really attached to me in his unintelligent way), thinks I shallnever get over it. He sees me dictating at this moment, with myhandkerchief to my eyes. I wish to mention, in justice to myself, thatit was not my fault, and that I am quite exhausted and heartbroken.Need I say more?