Is it necessary to say what my first impression was when I looked at my visitor's card? Surely not! My sister having married a foreigner, there was 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 five shillings?'
Louis looked quite shocked. He surprised me inexpressibly by declaring that my sister's foreign husband was dressed superbly, and looked the picture of prosperity. Under these circumstances my first impression altered to a certain extent. I now took it for granted that the Count had matrimonial difficulties of his own to contend with, and that he had 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 was unable 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 an alarmingly large person that I quite trembled- I felt certain that he would shake the floor and knock down my art-treasures. He did neither the one nor the other. He was refreshingly dressed in summer costume -- his manner was delightfully self-possessed and quiet -- he had a charming smile. My first impression of him was highly favourable. It is not creditable to my penetration -- as the sequel will show -- to acknowledge this, but I am a naturally candid man, and I do acknowledge it notwithstanding.
`Allow me to present myself, Mr Fairlie,' he said. `I come from Blackwater Park, and I have the honour and the happiness of being Madame Fosco's husband. Let me take my first and last advantage of that circumstance by entreating you not to make a stranger of me. I beg 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 today,' said the Count.
`As usual,' I said. `I am nothing but a bundle of nerves dressed up to look like a man.'
`I have studied many subjects in my time,' remarked this sympathetic person. `Among others the inexhaustible subject of nerves. May I make a suggestion, at once the simplest and the most profound? Will you let me alter the light in your room?'
`Certainly -- if you will be so very kind as not to let any of it in on me.'
He walked to the window. Such a contrast to dear Marian! so extremely considerate in all his movements!
`Light,' he said, in that delightful confidential tone which is so soothing to an invalid, `is the first essential. Light stimulates. nourishes, preserves. You can no more do without it, Mr Fairlie, than if you were a flower. Observe. Here, where you sit, I close the shutters to compose you. There, where you do not sit, I draw up the blind and let in the invigorating sun. Admit the light into your room if you cannot bear it on yourself. Light, sir, is the grand decree of Providence. You accept Providence with your own restrictions. Accept light on the same terms.'
I thought this very convincing and attentive. He had taken me in up to that point about the light, he had certainly taken me in.
`You see me confused,' he said. returning to his place -- `on my word of honour, 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 you surrounded by these admirable objects of Art, without discovering that you are a man whose feelings are acutely impressionable, whose sympathies 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 acknowledgments instead. It did just as well, we both understood one another.
`Pray follow my train of thought,' continued the Count. `I sit here, a man of refined sympathies myself, in the presence of another man of refined sympathies also. I am conscious of a terrible necessity for lacerating those sympathies by referring to domestic events of a very melancholy kind. What is the inevitable consequence? I have done myself 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? I rather think it was.
`Is it absolutely necessary to refer to these unpleasant matters?' I inquired. `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 done since he had been in the room), and looked at me in an unpleasantly penetrating manner. My instincts told me that I had better close my eyes. 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 done nothing. I make it a rule in these distressing cases always to anticipate the worst- It breaks the blow by meeting it half-way, and so 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 came in, or had he turned very yellow in the last minute or two? I really can't say, and I can't ask Louis, because he was not in the room at the time.
`Anybody ill?' I repeated, observing that my national composure still appeared 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 degree prepared to hear this? Perhaps when you found that Miss Halcombe did not come here by herself, as you proposed, and did not write a second time, your affectionate anxiety may have made you fear that she was ill?'
I have no doubt my affectionate anxiety had led to that melancholy apprehension at some time or other, but at the moment my wretched memory entirely failed to remind me of the circumstance. However, I said yes, in justice to myself. I was much shocked. It was so very uncharacteristic of such a robust person as dear Marian to be ill, that I could only suppose she had met with an accident. A horse, or a false step on the stairs, or something of that sort.
`Is it serious?' I asked.
`Serious -- beyond a doubt,' he replied. `Dangerous -- I hope and trust not. Miss Halcombe unhappily exposed herself to be wetted through by a heavy rain. The cold that followed was of an aggravated kind, and it has now brought with it the worst consequences -- fever.'
When I heard the word fever, and when I remembered at the same moment that the unscrupulous person who was now addressing me had just come from 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 turn to infection -- but no such deplorable complication had taken place when I left Blackwater Park. I have felt the deepest interest in the case, Mr Fairlie -- I have endeavoured to assist the regular medical attendant in watching it -- accept my personal assurances of the uninfectious nature of the fever when I last saw it.'
Accept his assurances! I never was farther from accepting anything in my life. I would not have believed him on his oath. He was too yellow to be believed. He looked like a walking-West-Indian-epidemic. He was big enough to carry typhus by the ton, and to dye the very carpet he walked on with scarlet fever. In certain emergencies my mind is remarkably soon made up. I instantly determined to get rid of him.
`You will kindly excuse an invalid,' I said -- `but long conferences of any kind invariably upset me. May I beg to know exactly what the object is to which I am indebted for the honour of your visit?'
I fervently hoped that this remarkably broad hint would throw him off his balance -- confuse him -- reduce him to polite apologies -- in short, get him out of the room. On the contrary, it only settled him in his chair. He became additionally solemn, and dignified, and confidential. He held up two of his horrid fingers and gave me another of his unpleasantly penetrating looks. What was I to do? I was not strong enough to quarrel with him. Conceive my situation, if you please. Is language adequate to describe it? I think not.
`The objects of my visit,' he went on, quite irrepressibly, `are numbered on my fingers. They are two. First, I come to bear my testimony, with profound sorrow, to the lamentable disagreements between Sir Percival and Lady Glyde. I am Sir Percival's oldest friend -- I am related to Lady Glyde by marriage -- I am an eye-witness of all that has happened at Blackwater Park. In those three capacities I speak with authority, with confidence, with honourable regret. Sir, I inform you, as the head of lady Glyde's family, that Miss Halcombe has exaggerated nothing in the letter which she wrote to your address. I affirm that the remedy which that admirable lady has proposed is the only remedy that will spare you the horrors of public scandal. A temporary separation between husband and wife is the one peaceable solution of this difficulty. Part them for the present, and when all causes of irritation are removed, I, who have now the honour of addressing you -- I will undertake to bring Sir Percival to reason. Lady Glyde is innocent, Lady Glyde is injured, but -- follow my thought here! -- she is, on that very account (I say it with shame), the cause of irritation while she remains under her husband's roof. No other house can receive her with propriety but yours. I invite you to open it.'
Cool. Here was a matrimonial hailstorm pouring in the South of England, and I was invited, by a man with fever in every fold of his coat, to come out from the North of England and take my share of the pelting. I tried to put the point forcibly. just as I have put it here- The Count deliberately lowered one of his horrid fingers, kept the other up, and went on -- rode over me, as it were, without even the common coachmanlike attention of crying `Hi!' before he knocked me down.
`Follow my thought once more, if you please,' he resumed. `My first object you have heard. My second object in coming to this house is to do what Miss Halcombe's illness has prevented her from doing for herself. My large experience is consulted on all difficult matters at Blackwater Park, and my friendly advice was requested on the interesting subject of your letter to Miss Halcombe- I understood at once -- for my sympathies are your sympathies -- why you wished to see her here before you pledged yourself to inviting Lady Glyde. You are most right, sir, in hesitating to receive the wife until you are quite certain that the husband will not exert his authority to reclaim her. I agree to that. I also agree that such delicate explanations as this difficulty involves are not explanations which can be properly disposed of by writing only. My presence here (to my own great inconvenience) is the proof that I speak sincerely. As for the explanations themselves, I -- Fosco -- I, who know Sir Percival much better than Miss Halcombe knows him, affirm to you, on my honour and my word, that he will not come near this house, or attempt to communicate with this house, while his wife is living in it. His affairs are embarrassed. Offer him his freedom by means of the absence of Lady Glyde. I promise you he will take his freedom, and go back to the Continent at the earliest 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 here to answer- Ask, Mr Fairlie -- oblige me by asking to your heart's content.
He had said so much already in spite of me, and he looked so dreadfully capable of saving a great deal more also in spite of me, that I declined his amiable invitation in pure self-defence.
`Many thanks. I replied. `I am sinking fast. In my state of health I must take things for granted. Allow me to do so on this occasion. We quite understand each other. Yes. Much obliged, I am sure, for your kind interference. If I ever get better, and ever have a second opportunity of improving our acquaintance --'
He got up. I thought he was going. No. More talk, more time for the development of infectious influences -- in my room, too -- remember that, in my room!
`One moment vet.' he said. `one moment before I take my leave. I ask permission at parting to impress on you an urgent necessity. It is this, sir. You must not think of waiting till Miss Halcombe recovers before you receive Lady Glyde. Miss Halcombe has the attendance of the doctor, of the housekeeper at Blackwater Park, and of an experienced nurse as well -- three persons for whose capacity and devotion I answer with my life. I tell you that. I tell you, also, that the anxiety and alarm of her sister's illness has already affected the health and spirits of Lady Glyde, and has made her totally unfit to be of use in the sickroom. Her position with her husband grows more and more deplorable and dangerous every day. If you leave her any longer at Blackwater Park, you do nothing whatever to hasten her sister's recovery, and at the same time, you risk the public scandal. which you and I, and all of us, are bound in the sacred interests of the family to avoid. With all my soul, I advise you to remove the serious responsibility of delay from your own shoulders by writing to Lady Glyde to come here at once. Do your affectionate, your honourable, your inevitable duty, and whatever happens in the future, no one can lay the blame on you. I speak from my large experience -- I offer my friendly advice. Is it accepted -- Yes, or No?'
I looked at him -- merely looked at him -- with my sense of his amazing assurance, and my dawning resolution to ring for Louis and have him shown out of the room expressed in every line of my face. It is perfectly incredible, but quite true, that my face did not appear to produce the slightest impression on him. Born without nerves -- 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 your thoughts! -- you object that Lady Glyde is not in health and not in spirits to take the long journey, from Hampshire to this place, by herself. Her own maid is removed from her, as you know, and of other servants fit to travel with her, from one end of England to another, there are none at Blackwater Park. You object, again, that she cannot comfortably stop and rest in London, on her way here, because she cannot comfortably go alone to a public hotel where she is a total stranger. In one breath, I grant both objections -- in another breath, I remove them. Follow me, if you please, for the last time. It was my intention, when I returned to England with Sir Percival, to settle myself in the neighbourhood of London. That purpose has just been happily accomplished. I have taken, for six months, a little furnished house in the quarter called St John's Wood. Be so obliging as to keep this fact in your mind, and observe the programme I now propose. Lady Glyde travels to London (a short journey) -- I myself meet her at the station -- I take her to rest and sleep at my house, which is also the house of her aunt -- when she is restored I escort her to the station again -- she travels to this place, and her own maid (who is now under your roof) receives her at the carriage-door. Here is comfort consulted -- here are the interests of propriety consulted -- here is your own duty -- duty of hospitality, sympathy, protection, to an unhappy lady in need of all three -- smoothed and made easy, from the beginning to the end. I cordially invite you, sir, to second my efforts in the sacred interests of the family- I seriously advise you to write, by my hands, offering the hospitality of your house (and heart), and the hospitality of my house (and heart), to that injured and unfortunate lady whose cause I plead today.'
He waved his horrid hand at me -- he struck his infectious breast -- he addressed 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 also high time to send for Louis, and adopt the precaution of fumigating the room.
In this trying emergency an idea occurred to me -- an inestimable idea which, so to speak, killed two intrusive birds with one stone. I determined to get rid of the Count's tiresome eloquence, and of Lady Glyde's tiresome troubles, by complying with this odious foreigner's request, and writing the letter at once. There was not the least danger of the invitation being accepted, for there was not the least chance that Laura would consent to leave Blackwater Park while Marian was lying there ill. How this charmingly convenient obstacle could have escaped the officious penetration of the Count, it was impossible to conceive -- but it had escaped him. My dread that he might yet discover it, if I allowed him any more time to think, stimulated me to such an amazing degree, that I struggled into a sitting position -- seized, really seized, the writing materials by my side, and produced the letter as rapidly as if I had been a common clerk in an office. `Dearest Laura, Please come, whenever you like. Break the journey by sleeping in London at your aunt's house. Grieved to hear of dear Marian's illness. Ever affectionately yours.' I handed these lines, 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 rest and lunch downstairs? Love to all, and sympathy, and so on. Good morning.'
He made another speech -- the man was absolutely inexhaustible. I closed my eyes -- I endeavoured to hear as little as possible. In spite of my endeavours I was obliged to hear a great deal. My sister's endless husband congratulated himself, and congratulated me, on the result of our interview -- he mentioned a great deal more about his sympathies and mine -- he deplored my miserable health -- he offered to write me a prescription -- he impressed on me the necessity of not forgetting what he had said about the importance of light -- he accepted my obliging invitation to rest and lunch -- he recommended me to expect Lady Glyde in two or three days' time -- he begged my permission to look forward to our next meeting, instead of paining himself and paining me, by saying farewell -- he added a great deal more, which, I rejoice to think, I did not attend to at the time, and do not remember now. I heard his sympathetic voice travelling away from me by degrees -- but, large as he was, I never heard him. He had the negative merit of being absolutely noiseless. 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 of silence -- and he was gone.
I rang for Louis, and retired to my bathroom. Tepid water, strengthened with aromatic vinegar, for myself, and copious fumigation for my study, were the obvious precautions to take, and of course I adopted them. I rejoice to say they proved successful. I enjoyed my customary 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 if so, upon what? Entirely upon fruit-tart and cream. What a man! What a digestion!
Am I expected to say anything more? I believe not. I believe I have reached the limits assigned to me. The shocking circumstances which happened at a later period did not, I am thankful to say, happen in my presence. I do beg and entreat that nobody will be so very unfeeling as to lay any part of the blame of those circumstances on me. I did everything for the best. I am not answerable for a deplorable calamity, which it was quite impossible to foresee. I am shattered by it -- I have suffered under it, as nobody else has suffered. My servant, Louis (who is really attached to me in his unintelligent way), thinks I shall never get over it. He sees me dictating at this moment, with my handkerchief to my eyes. I wish to mention, in justice to myself, that it was not my fault, and that I am quite exhausted and heartbroken. Need I say more?THE STORY CONTINUED BY ELIZA MICHELSON (Housekeeper at Blackwater Park)
I AM asked to state plainly what I know of the progress of Miss Halcombe's illness and of the circumstances under which Lady Glyde left Blackwater Park for London.
The reason given for making this demand on me is, that my testimony is wanted in the interests of truth. As the widow of a clergyman of the Church of England (reduced by misfortune to the necessity of accepting a situation), I have been taught to place the claims of truth above all other considerations. I therefore comply with a request which I might otherwise. through reluctance to connect myself with distressing family affairs, have hesitated to grant.
I made no memorandum at the time, and I cannot therefore be sure to a day of the date, but I believe I am correct in stating that Miss Halcombe's serious illness began during the last fortnight or ten days in June. The breakfast hour was late at Blackwater Park -- sometimes as late as ten, never earlier than half-past nine. On the morning to which I am now referring, Miss Halcombe (who was usually the first to come down) did not make her appearance at the table. After the family had waited a quarter of an hour, the upper housemaid was sent to see after her, and came running out of the room dreadfully frightened. I met the servant on the stairs, and went at once to Miss Halcombe to see what was the matter. The poor lady was incapable of telling me. She was walking about her room with a pen in her hand, quite lightheaded, in a state of burning fever.
Lady Glyde (being no longer in Sir Percival's service, I may, without impropriety, mention my former mistress by her name, instead of calling her my lady) was the first to come in from her own bedroom. She was so dreadfully alarmed and distressed that she was quite useless. The Count Fosco, and his lady, who came upstairs immediately afterwards, were both most serviceable and kind. Her ladyship assisted me to get Miss Halcombe to her bed. His lordship the Count remained in the sitting-room, and having sent for my medicine-chest, made a mixture for Miss Halcombe, and a cooling lotion to be applied to her head, so as to lose no time before the doctor came. We applied the lotion, but we could not get her to take the mixture. Sir Percival undertook to send for the doctor. He despatched a groom, on horseback, for the nearest medical man, Mr Dawson, of Oak Lodge.
Mr Dawson arrived in less than an hour's time. He was a respectable elderly man, well known all round the country, and we were much alarmed when we found that he considered the case to be a very serious one.
His lordship the Count affably entered into conversation with Mr Dawson, and gave his opinions with a judicious freedom. Mr Dawson, not over-courteously, inquired if his lordship's advice was the advice of a doctor, and being informed that it was the advice of one who had studied medicine unprofessionally, replied that he was not accustomed to consult with amateur physicians. The Count, with truly Christian meekness of temper, smiled and left the room. Before he went out he told me that he might be found, in case he was wanted in the course of the day, at the boat-house on the banks of the lake. Why he should have gone there, I cannot say. But he did go, remaining away the whole day till seven o'clock, which was dinner-time. Perhaps he wished to set the example of keeping the house as quiet as possible. It was entirely in his character to do so. He was a most considerate nobleman.
Miss Halcombe passed a very bad night, the fever coming and going, and getting worse towards the morning instead of better. No nurse fit to wait on her being at hand in the neighbourhood, her ladyship the Countess and myself undertook the duty, relieving each other. Lady Glyde, most unwisely, insisted on sitting up with us. She was much too nervous and too delicate in health to bear the anxiety of Miss Halcombe's illness calmly. She only did herself harm, without being of the least real assistance. A more gentle and affectionate lady never lived -- but she cried, and she was frightened, two weaknesses which made her entirely unfit to be present in a sick-room.
Sir Percival and the Count came in the morning to make their inquiries.
Sir Percival (from distress. I presume, at his lady's affliction. and at Hiss Halcombe's illness) appeared much confused and unsettled in his mind. His lordship testified, on the contrary, a becoming composure and interest. He had his straw hat in one hand, and his book in the other, and he mentioned to Sir Percival in my hearing that he would go out again and study at the lake. `Let us keep the house quiet,' he said. `Let us not smoke indoors, my friend, now Miss Halcombe is ill. You go your way, and I will go mine. When I study I like to be alone. Good morning, Mrs Michelson.'
Sir Percival was not civil enough -- perhaps I ought in justice to say, not composed enough -- to take leave of me with the same Polite attention. The only person in the house, indeed, who treated me, at that time or at any other, on the footing of a lady in distressed circumstances, was the Count. He had the manners of a true nobleman -- he was considerate towards every one. Even the young person (Fanny by name) who attended on Lady Glyde was not beneath his notice. When she was sent away by Sir Percival, his lordship (showing me his sweet little birds at the time) was most kindly anxious to know what had become of her, where she was to go the day she left Blackwater Park, and so on. It is in such little delicate attentions that the advantages of aristocratic birth always show themselves. I make no apology for introducing these particulars -- they are brought forward in justice to his lordship, whose character, I have reason to know, is viewed rather harshly in certain quarters. A nobleman who can respect a lady in distressed circumstances, and can take a fatherly interest in the fortunes of an humble servant girl, shows principles and feelings of too high an order to be lightly called in question. I advance no opinions -- I offer facts only. My endeavour through life is to judge not that I be not judged. One of my beloved husband's finest sermons was on that text. I read it constantly -- in my own copy of the edition printed by subscription, in the first days of my widowhood -- and at every fresh perusal I derive an increase of spiritual benefit and edification.
There was no improvement in Miss Halcombe, and the second night was even worse than the first. Mr Dawson was constant in his attendance. The practical duties of nursing were still divided between the Countess and myself, Lady Glyde persisting in sitting up with us, though we both entreated her to take some rest. `My place is by Marian's bedside,' was her only answer. `Whether I am ill, or well, nothing will induce me to lose sight of her.'
Towards midday I went downstairs to attend to some of my regular duties. An hour afterwards, on my way back to the sickroom, I saw the Count (who had gone out again early, for the third time) entering the hall, to all appearance in the highest good spirits. Sir Percival, at the same moment, put his head out of the library door, and addressed his noble friend, with extreme eagerness, in these words --
`Have you found her?'
His lordship's large face became dimpled all over with placid smiles, but he made no reply in words. At the same time Sir Percival turned his head, observed that I was approaching the stairs, and looked at me in the most rudely angry manner possible
`Come in here and tell me about it,' he said to the Count. `Whenever there are women in a house they're always sure to be going up or down stairs.'
`My dear Percival,' observed his lordship kindly, `Mrs Michelson has duties. Pray recognise her admirable performance of them as sincerely as I do! How is the sufferer, Mrs Michelson?'
`No better, my lord, I regret to say.'
`Sad -- most sad!' remarked the Count. `You look fatigued, Mrs Michelson. It is certainly time you and my wife had some help in nursing. I think I may be the means of offering you that help. Circumstances have happened which will oblige Madame Fosco to travel to London either tomorrow or the day after. She will go away in the morning and return at night, and she will bring back with her, to relieve you, a nurse of excellent conduct and capacity, who is now disengaged. The woman is known to my wife as a person to be trusted. Before she comes here say nothing about her, if you please, to the doctor, because he will look with an evil eye on any nurse of my providing. When she appears in this house she will speak for herself, and Mr Dawson will be obliged to acknowledge that there is no excuse for not employing her. Lady Glyde will say the same. Pray present my best respects and sympathies to Lady Glyde.'
I expressed my grateful acknowledgments for his lordship's kind consideration. Sir Percival cut them short by calling to his noble friend (using, regret to say, a profane expression) to come into the library, and not to keep him waiting there any longer.
I proceeded upstairs. We are poor erring creatures, and however well established a woman's principles may be she cannot always keep on her guard against the temptation to exercise an idle curiosity. I am ashamed to say that an idle curiosity, on this occasion, got the better of my principles, and made me unduly inquisitive about the question which Sir Percival had addressed to his noble friend at the library door. Who was the Count expected to find in the course of his studious morning rambles at Blackwater Park? A woman, it was to be presumed, from the terms of Sir Percival's inquiry. I did not suspect the Count of any impropriety -- I knew his moral character too well. The only question I asked myself was -- Had he found her?