The next event that occurred was of so singular a nature that it might have caused me a feeling of superstitious surprise, if my mind had not been fortified by principle against any pagan weakness of that sort. The uneasy sense of something wrong in the family which had made me wish myself away from Blackwater Park, was actually followed, strange to say, by my departure from the house. It is true that my absence was for a temporary period only, but the coincidence was, in my opinion, not the less remarkable on that account.
My departure took place under the following circumstances --
A day or two after the servants all left I was again sent for to see Sir Percival. The undeserved slur which he had cast on my management of the household did not, I am happy to say, prevent me from returning good for evil to the best of my ability, by complying with his request as readily and respectfully as ever. It cost me a struggle with that fallen nature, which we all share in common, before I could suppress my feelings. Being accustomed to self-discipline, I accomplished the sacrifice. I found Sir Percival and Count Fosco sitting together again. On this occasion his lordship remained present at the interview, and assisted in the development of Sir Percival's views. The subject to which they now requested my attention related to the healthy change of air by which we all hoped that Miss Halcombe and Lady Glyde might soon be enabled to profit. Sir Percival mentioned that both the ladies would probably pass the autumn (by invitation of Frederick Fairlie, Esquire) at Limmeridge House, Cumberland. But before they went there, it was his opinion, confirmed by Count Fosco (who here took up the conversation and continued it to the end). that they would benefit by a short residence first in the genial climate of Torquay. The great object, therefore, was to engage lodgings at that place, affording all the comforts and advantages of which they stood in need, and the great difficulty was to find an experienced person capable of choosing the sort of residence which they wanted. In this emergency the Count begged to inquire, on Sir Percival's behalf, whether I would object to give the ladies the benefit of my assistance, by proceeding myself to Torquay in their interests. It was impossible for a person in my situation to meet any proposal, made in these terms, with a positive objection. I could only venture to represent the serious inconvenience of my leaving Blackwater Park in the extraordinary absence of all the indoor servants, with the one exception of Margaret Porcher. But Sir Percival and his lordship declared that they were both willing to put up with inconvenience for the sake of the invalids. I next respectfully suggested writing to an agent at Torquay, but I was met here by being reminded of the imprudence of taking lodgings without first seeing them. I was also informed that the Countess (who would otherwise have gone to Devonshire herself) could not, in Lady Glyde's present condition, leave her niece, and that Sir Percival and the Count had business to transact together which would oblige them to remain at Blackwater Park. In short, it was clearly shown me that if I did not undertake the errand, no one else could be trusted with it. Under these circumstances, I could only inform Sir Percival that my services were at the disposal of Miss Halcombe and Lady Glyde.
It was thereupon arranged that I should leave the next morning, that I should occupy one or two days in examining all the most convenient houses in Torquay, and that I should return with my report as soon as I conveniently could. A memorandum was written for me by his lordship, stating the requisites which the place I was sent to take must be found to possess, and a note of the pecuniary limit assigned to me was added by Sir Percival.
My own idea on reading over these instructions was, that no such residence as I saw described could be found at any watering-place in England, and that, even if it could by chance be discovered, it would certainly not be parted with for any period on such terms as I was permitted to offer. I hinted at these difficulties to both the gentlemen, but Sir Percival (who undertook to answer me) did not appear to feel them. It was not for me to dispute the question. I said no more, but I felt a very strong conviction that the business on which I was sent away was so beset by difficulties that my errand was almost hopeless at starting.
Before I left I took care to satisfy myself that Miss Halcombe was going on favourably.
There was a painful expression of anxiety in her face which made me fear that her mind, on first recovering itself, was not at ease. But she was certainly strengthening more rapidly than I could have ventured to anticipate, and she was able to send kind messages to Lady Glyde, saying that she was fast getting well, and entreating her ladyship not to exert herself again too soon. I left her in charge of Mrs Rubelle, who was still as quietly independent of every one else in the house as ever. When I knocked at Lady Glyde's door before going away, I was told that she was still sadly weak and depressed, my informant being the Countess, who was then keeping her company in her room. Sir Percival and the Count were walking on the road to the lodge as I was driven by in the chaise. I bowed to them and quitted the house, with not a living soul left in the servants' offices but Margaret Porcher.
Every. one must feel what I have felt myself since that time, almost suspicious. Let me, however, say again that it was impossible for me, in my dependent position, to act otherwise than I did.
The result of my errand at Torquay was exactly what I had fore-seen. No such lodgings as I was instructed to take could be found in the whole place, and the terms I was permitted to give were much too low for the purpose, even if I had been able to discover what I wanted. I accordingly returned to Blackwater Park, and informed Sir Percival, who met me at the door, that my journey had been taken in vain. He seemed too much occupied with some other subject to care about the failure of my errand, and his first words informed me that even in the short time of my absence another remarkable change had taken place in the house.
The Count and Countess Fosco had left Blackwater Park for their new residence in St John's Wood.
I was not made aware of the motive for this sudden departure -- I was only told that the Count had been very particular in leaving his kind compliments to me. When I ventured on asking Sir Percival whether Lady Glyde had any one to attend to her comforts in the absence of the Countess, he replied that she had Margaret Porcher to wait on her, and he added that a woman from the village had been sent for to do the work downstairs.
The answer really shocked me -- there was such a glaring impropriety in permitting an under-housemaid to fill the place of confidential attendant on Lady Glyde. I went upstairs at once, and met Margaret on the bedroom landing. Her services had not been required (naturally enough), her mistress having sufficiently recovered that morning to be able to leave her bed. I asked next after Miss Halcombe, but I was answered in a slouching, sulky way, which left me no wiser than I was before. I did not choose to repeat the question, and perhaps provoke an impertinent reply. It was in every respect more becoming to a person in my position to present myself immediately in Lady Glyde's room.
I found that her ladyship had certainly gained in health during the last few days. Although still sadly weak and nervous, she was able to get up without assistance, and to walk slowly about her room, feeling no worse effect from the exertion than a slight sensation of fatigue. She had been made a little anxious that morning about Miss Halcombe, through having received no news of her from any one. I thought this seemed to imply a blamable want of attention on the part of Mrs Rubelle, but I said nothing, and remained with Lady Glyde to assist her to dress. When she was ready we both left the room together to go to Miss Halcombe.
We were stopped in the passage by the appearance of Sir Percival. He looked as if he had been purposely waiting there to see us.
`Where are you going?' he said to Lady Glyde.
`To Marian's room,' she answered.
`It may spare you a disappointment,' remarked Sir Percival, `if I tell you at once that you will not find her there.'
`Not find her there!'
`No. She left the house yesterday morning with Fosco and his wife.'
Lady Glyde was not strong enough to bear the surprise of this extraordinary statement. She turned fearfully pale, and leaned back against the wall, looking at her husband in dead silence.
I was so astonished myself that I hardly knew what to say. I asked Sir Percival if he really meant that Miss Halcombe had left Blackwater Park.
`I certainly mean it,' he answered.
`In her state, Sir Percival! Without mentioning her intentions to Lady Glyde!'
Before he could reply her ladyship recovered herself a little and spoke.
`Impossible!' she cried out in a loud, frightened manner, taking a step or two forward from the wall. `Where was the doctor? where was Mr Dawson when Marian went away?'
`Mr Dawson wasn't wanted, and wasn't here,' said Sir Percival. `He left of his own accord, which is enough of itself to show that she was strong enough to travel. How you stare! If you don't believe she has gone, look for yourself. Open her room door, and all the other room doors if you like.'
She took him at his word, and I followed her. There was no one in Miss Halcombe's room but Margaret Porcher, who was busy setting it to rights. There was no one in the spare rooms or the dressing-rooms when we looked into them afterwards. Sir Percival still waited for us in the passage. As we were leaving the last room that we had examined Lady Glyde whispered, `Don't go, Mrs Michelson! don't leave me, for God's sake!' Before I could say anything in return she was out again in the passage, speaking to her husband.
`What does it mean, Sir Percival? I insist -- I beg and pray you will tell me what it means.'
`It means,' he answered, `that Miss Halcombe was strong enough yesterday morning to sit up and be dressed, and that she insisted on taking advantage of Fosco's going to London to go there too.'
`Yes -- on her way to Limmeridge.'
Lady Glyde turned and appealed to me.
`You saw Miss Halcombe last,' she said. `Tell me plainly, Mrs Michelson, did you think she looked fit to travel?'
`Not in my opinion, your ladyship.'
Sir Percival, on his side, instantly turned and appealed to me also.
`Before you went away,' he said, `did you, or did you not, tell the nurse that Miss Halcombe looked much stronger and better?'
`I certainly made the remark, Sir Percival.'
He addressed her ladyship again the moment I offered that reply.
`Set one of Mrs Michelson's opinions fairly against the other,' he said, `and try to be reasonable about a perfectly plain matter. If she had not been well enough to be moved do you think we should any of us have risked letting her go? She has got three competent people to look after her -- Fosco and your aunt, and Mrs Rubelle, who went away with them expressly for that purpose. They took a whole carriage yesterday, and made a bed for her on the seat in case she felt tired. Today, Fosco and Mrs Rubelle go on with her themselves to Cumberland --'
`Why does Marian go to Limmeridge and leave me here by myself?' said her ladyship, interrupting Sir Percival.
`Because your uncle won't receive you till he has seen your sister first,' he replied. `Have you forgotten the letter he wrote to her at the beginning of her illness? It was shown to you, you read it yourself, and you ought to remember it.'
`I do remember it.'
`If you do, why should you be surPrised at her leaving you? You want to be back at Limmeridge, and she has gone there to get your uncle's leave for you on his own terms.'
Poor Lady Glyde's eyes filled with tears.
`Marian never left me before,' she said, `without bidding me good-bye.'
`She would have bid you good-bye this time,' returned Sir Percival, `if she had not been afraid of herself and of you. She knew you would try to stop her, she knew you would distress her by crying. Do you want to make any more objections? If you do, you must come downstairs and ask questions in the dining-room. These worries upset me. I want a glass of wine.'
He left us suddenly.
His manner all through this strange conversation had been very unlike what it usually was- He seemed to be almost as nervous and fluttered, every now and then, as his lady herself. I should never have supposed that his health had been so delicate, or his composure so easy to upset.
I tried to prevail on Lady Glyde to go back to her room, but it was useless. She stopped in the passage, with the look of a woman whose mind was panic-stricken.
`Something has happened to my sister!' she said.
`Remember, my lady, what surprising energy there is in Miss Halcombe,' I suggested. `She might well make an effort which other ladies in her situation would be unfit for. I hope and believe there is nothing wrong -- I do indeed.'
`I must follow Marian,' said her ladyship, with the same panic-stricken look. `I must go where she has gone, I must see that she is alive and well with my own eyes. Come! come down with me to Sir Percival.'
I hesitated, fearing that my presence might be considered an intrusion. I attempted to represent this to her ladyship, but she was deaf to me. She held my arm fast enough to force me to go downstairs with her, and she still clung to me with all the little strength she had at the moment when I opened the dining-room door.
Sir Percival was sitting at the table with a decanter of wine before him. He raised the glass to his lips as we went in and drained it at a draught. Seeing that he looked at me angrily when he put it down again, I attempted to make some apology for my
accidental presence in the room.
`Do you suppose there are any secrets going on here?' he broke out suddenly; `there are none -- there is nothing underhand, nothing kept from you or from any one.' After speaking those strange words loudly and sternly, he filled himself another glass of wine and asked Lady Glyde what she wanted of him.
`If my sister is St to travel I am fit to travel,' said her ladyship, with more firmness than she had yet shown. `I come to beg you will make allowances for my anxiety about Marian, and let me follow her at once by the afternoon train.'
`You must wait till tomorrow,' replied Sir Percival, `and then if you don't hear to the contrary you can go. I don't suppose you are at all likely to hear to the contrary, so I shall write to Fosco by tonight's post.'
He said those last words holding his glass up to the light, and looking at the wine in it instead of at Lady Glyde. Indeed he never once looked at her throughout the conversation. Such a singular want of good breeding in a gentleman of his rank impressed me, I own, very painfully.
`Why should you write to Count Fosco?' she asked, in extreme surprise.
`To tell him to expect you by the midday train,' said Sir Percival. `He will meet you at the station when you get to London, and take you on to sleep at your aunt's in St John's Wood.'
Lady Glyde's hand began to tremble violently round my arm -- why I could not imagine.
`There is no necessity for Count Fosco to meet me,' she said. `I would rather not stay in London to sleep.'
`You must. You can't take the whole journey to Cumberland in one day. You must rest a night in London -- and I don't choose you to go by yourself to an hotel. Fosco made the offer to your uncle to give you house-room on the way down, and your uncle has accepted. Here! here is a letter from him addressed to yourself. I ought to have sent it up this morning, but I forgot. Read it and see what Mr Fairlie himself says to you.'
Lady Glyde looked at the letter for a moment and then placed it in my hands.
`Read it,' she said faintly. `I don't know what is the matter with me. I can't read it myself.'
It was a note of only four lines -- so short and so careless that it quite struck me. If I remember correctly it contained no more than these words --
`Dearest Laura, Please come whenever you like. Break the journey by sleeping at your aunt's house. Grieved to hear of dear Marian's illness. Affectionately yours, Frederick Fairlie.'
`I would rather not go there -- I would rather not stay a night in London,' said her ladyship, breaking out eagerly with those words before I had quite done reading the note, short as it was. `Don't write to Count Fosco! Pray, pray don't write to him!'
Sir Percival filled another glass from the decanter so awkwardly that he upset it and spilt all the wine over the table. `My sight seems to be failing me,' he muttered to himself, in an odd, muffled voice. He slowly set the glass up again, refilled it, and drained it once more at a draught. I began to fear, from his look and manner, that the wine was getting into his head.
`Pray don't write to Count Fosco,' persisted Lady Glyde, more earnestly than ever.
`Why not, I should like to know?' cried Sir Percival, with a sudden burst of anger that startled us both. `Where can you stay more properly in London than at the place your uncle himself chooses for you -- at your aunt's house? Ask Mrs Michelson.
The arrangement proposed was so unquestionably the right and the proper one, that I could make no possible objection to it. Much as I sympathised with Lady Glyde in other respects, I could not sympathise with her in her unjust prejudices against Count Fosco. I never before met with any lady of her rank and station who was so lamentably narrow-minded on the subject of foreigners. Neither her uncle's note nor Sir Percival's increasing impatience seemed to have the least effect on her. She still objected to staying a night in London, she still implored her husband not to write to the Count.
`Drop it!' said Sir Percival, rudely turning his back on us. `If you haven't sense enough to know what is best for yourself other people must know for you. The arrangement is made, and there is an end of it. You are only wanted to do what Miss Halcombe has done before you --'
`Marian?' repeated her ladyship, in a bewildered manner; `Marian sleeping in Count Fosco's house!'
`Yes, in Count Fosco's house. She slept there last night to break the journey, and you are to follow her example, and do what your uncle tells you. You are to sleep at Fosco's tomorrow night, as your sister did, to break the journey. Don't throw too many obstacles in my way! don't make me repent of letting you go at all!'
He started to his feet, and suddenly walked out into the verandah through the open glass doors.
`Will your ladyship excuse me,' I whispered, `if I suggest that we had better not wait here till Sir Percival comes back? I am very much afraid he is over-excited with wine.'
She consented to leave the room in a weary, absent manner.
As soon as we were safe upstairs again, I did all I could to compose her ladyship's spirits. I reminded her that Mr Fairlie's letters to Miss Halcombe and to herself did certainly sanction, and even render necessary, sooner or later, the course that had been taken. She agreed to this, and even admitted, of her own accord, that both letters were strictly in character with her uncle's peculiar disposition -- but her fears about Miss Halcombe, and her unaccountable dread of sleeping at the Count's house in London, still remained unshaken in spite of every consideration that I could urge. I thought it my duty to protest against Lady Glyde's unfavourable opinion of his lordship, and I did so, with becoming forbearance and respect.
`Your ladyship will pardon my freedom,' I remarked, in conclusion, `but it is said, ``by their fruits ye shall know them.'' I am sure the Count's constant kindness and constant attention, from the very beginning of Miss Halcombe's illness, merit our best confidence and esteem. Even his lordship's serious misunderstanding with Mr Dawson was entirely attributable to his anxiety on Miss Halcombe's account.'
`What misunderstanding?' inquired her ladyship, with a look of sudden interest.
I related the unhappy circumstances under which Mr Dawson had withdrawn his attendance -- mentioning them all the more readily because I disapproved of Sir Percival's continuing to conceal what had happened (as he had done in my presence) from the knowledge of Lady Glyde.
Her ladyship started up, with every appearance of being additionally agitated and alarmed by what I had told her.
`Worse! worse than I thought!' she said, walking about the room, in a bewildered manner. `The Count knew Mr Dawson would never consent to Marian's taking a journey -- he purposely insulted the doctor to get him out of the house.'
`Oh, my lady! my lady!' I remonstrated.
`Mrs Michelson!' she went on vehemently, `no words that ever were spoken will persuade me that my sister is in that man's power and in that man's house with her own consent- My horror of him is such, that nothing Sir Percival could say, and no letters my uncle could write, would induce me, if I had only my own feelings to consult, to eat, drink, or sleep under his roof. But my misery of suspense about Marian gives me the courage to follow her anywhere, to follow her even into Count Fosco's house.'
I thought it right, at this point, to mention that Miss Halcombe had already gone on to Cumberland, according to Sir Percival's account of the matter.
`I am afraid to believe it!' answered her ladyship. `I am afraid she is still in that man's house. If I am wrong, if she has really gone to Limmeridge I am resolved I will not sleep tomorrow night under Count Fosco's roof. My dearest friend in the world, next to my sister, lives near London. You have heard me, you have heard Miss Halcombe, speak of Mrs Vesey? I mean to write, and propose to sleep at her house. I don't know how I shall get there -- I don't know how I shall avoid the Count -- but to that refuge I will escape in some way, if my sister has gone to Cumberland. All I ask of you to do, is to see yourself that my letter to Mrs Vesey goes to London tonight, as certainly as Sir Percival's letter goes to Count Fosco. I have reasons for not trusting the post-bag downstairs. Will you keep my secret, and help me in this? it is the last favour, perhaps, that I shall ever ask of you.'
I hesitated, I thought it all very strange, I almost feared that her ladyship's mind had been a little affected by recent anxiety and suffering. At my own risk, however, I ended by giving my consent. If the letter had been addressed to a stranger, or to any one but a lady so well known to me by report as Mrs Vesey, I might have refused. I thank God -- looking to what happened afterwards -- I thank God I never thwarted that wish, or any other, which Lady Glyde expressed to me, on the last day of her residence at Blackwater Park.
The letter was written and given into my hands. I myself put it into the post-box in the village that evening.
We saw nothing more of Sir Percival for the rest of the day.
I slept, by Lady Glyde's own desire, in the next room to hers, with the door open between us. There was something so strange and dreadful in the loneliness and emptiness of the house, that I was glad, on my side, to have a companion near me. Her ladyship sat up late, reading letters and burning them, and emptying her drawers and cabinets of little things she prized, as if she never expected to return to Blackwater Park. Her sleep was sadly disturbed when she at last went to bed -- she cried out in it several times, once so loud that she woke herself. Whatever her dreams were, she did not think fit to communicate them to me. Perhaps, in my situation, I had no right to expect that she should do so. It matters little now. I was sorry for her, I was indeed heartily sorry for her all the same.
The next day was fine and sunny. Sir Percival came up, after breakfast, to tell us that the chaise would be at the door at a quarter to twelve -- the train to London stopping at our station at twenty minutes after. He informed Lady Glyde that he was obliged to go out, but added that he hoped to be back before she left. If any unforeseen accident delayed him, I was to accompany her to the station, and to take special care that she was in time for the train. Sir Percival communicated these directions very hastily -- walking here and there about the room all the time. Her ladyship looked attentively after him wherever he went. He never once looked at her in return.
She only spoke when he had done, and then she stopped him as he approached the door, by holding out her hand.
`I shall see you no more,' she said. in a very marked manner. `This is our parting -- our parting, it may be for ever. Will you try to forgive me, Percival, as heartily as I forgive you?'
His face turned of an awful whiteness all over, and great beads of perspiration broke out on his bald forehead. `I shall come back,' he said, and made for the door, as hastily as if his wife's farewell words had frightened him out of the room.
I had never liked Sir Percival, but the manner in which he left Lady Glyde made me feel ashamed of having eaten his bread and lived in his service. I thought of saying a few comforting and Christian words to the poor lady, but there was something in her face, as she looked after her husband when the door closed on him, that made me alter my mind and keep silence
At the time named the chaise drew up at the gates. Her ladyship was right -- Sir Percival never came back. I waited for him till the last moment, and waited in vain.
No positive responsibility lay on my shoulders, and yet I did not feel easy in my mind. `It is of your own free will,' I said, as the chaise drove through the lodge-gates, `that your ladyship goes to London?'
`I will go anywhere,' she answered, `to end the dreadful suspense that I am suffering at this moment.'
She had made me feel almost as anxious and as uncertain about Miss Halcombe as she felt herself. I presumed to ask her to write me a line, if all went well in London. She answered, `Most willingly, Mrs Michelson.'
`We all have our crosses to bear, my lady,' I said, seeing her silent and thoughtful, after she had promised to write.
She made no reply -- she seemed to be too much wrapped up in her own thoughts to attend to me.
`I fear your ladyship rested badly last night,' I remarked, after waiting a little.
`Yes,' she said, I was terribly disturbed by dreams.'
`Indeed, my lady?' I thought she was going to tell me her dreams, but no, when she spoke next it was only to ask a question.
`You posted the letter to Mrs Vesey with your own hands?'
`Yes, my Lady.'
`Did Sir Percival say, yesterday, that Count Fosco was to meet me at the terminus in London?'
`He did, my lady.'
She sighed heavily when I answered that last question, and said no more.
We arrived at the station, with hardly two minutes to spare. The gardener (who had driven us) managed about the luggage, while I took the ticket. The whistle of the train was sounding when I joined her ladyship on the platform. She looked very strangely, and pressed her hand over her heart, as if some sudden pain or fright had overcome her at that moment.
`I wish you were going with me!' she said, catching eagerly at my arm when I gave her the ticket.
If there had been time, if I had felt the day before as I felt then, I would have made my arrangements to accompany her, even though the doing so had obliged me to give Sir Percival warning on the spot. As it was, her wishes, expressed at the last moment only, were expressed too late for me to comply with them. She seemed to understand this herself before I could explain it, and did not repeat her desire to have me for a travelling companion. The train drew up at the platform. She gave the gardener a present for his children, and took my hand, in her simple hearty manner, before she got into the carriage.
`You have been very kind to me and to my sister,' she said -- `kind when we were both friendless. I shall remember you gratefully, as long as I live to remember any one. Good-bye -- and God bless you!'
She spoke those words with a tone and a look which brought the tears into my eyes -- she spoke them as if she was bidding me farewell for ever.
`Good-bye, my lady,' I said, putting her into the carriage, and trying to cheer her; `good-bye, for the present only; good-bye, with my best and kindest wishes for happier times.'
She shook her head, and shuddered as she settled herself in the carriage. The guard closed the door. `Do you believe in dreams?' she whispered to me at the window. `My dreams, last night, were dreams I have never had before. The terror of them is hanging over me still.' The whistle sounded before I could answer, and the train moved. Her pale quiet face looked at me for the last time -- looked sorrowfully and solemnly from the window. She waved her hand, and I saw her no more.
Towards five o'clock on the afternoon of that same day, having a little time to myself in the midst of the household duties which now pressed upon me, I sat down alone in my own room, to try and compose my mind with the volume of my husband's Sermons. For the first time in my life I found my attention wandering over those pious and cheering words. Concluding that Lady Glyde's departure must have disturbed me far more seriously than I had myself supposed, I put the book aside, and went out to take a turn in the garden. Sir Percival had not yet returned, to my knowledge, so I could feel no hesitation about showing myself in the grounds.
On turning the corner of the house, and gaining a view of the garden, I was startled by seeing a stranger walking in it. The stranger was a woman -- she was lounging along the path with her hack to me. and was gathering the flowers.
As I approached she heard me, and turned round.
My blood curdled in my veins. The strange woman in the garden was Mrs Rubelle!
I could neither more nor speak. She came up to me, as composedly as ever, with her flowers in her hand.
`What is the matter, ma'am?' she said quietly.
`You here!' I gasped out. `Not gone to London! Not gone to Cumberland!'
Mrs Rubelle smelt at her flowers with a smile of malicious pity.
`Certainly not,' she said. `I have never left Blackwater Park.'
I summoned breath enough and courage enough for another question.
`Where is Miss Halcombe?'
Mrs Rubelle fairly laughed at me this time, and replied in these words --
`Miss Halcombe, ma'am, has not left Blackwater Park either.'