MY first conviction as soon as I found myself outside the house, was that no alternative was left me but to act at once on the information I had received--to make sure of the Count that night, or to risk the loss, if I only delayed till the morning, of Laura's last chance. I looked at my watch--it was ten o'clock.
Not the shadow of a doubt crossed my mind of the purpose for which the Count had left the theatre. His escape from us, that evening, was beyond all question the preliminary only to his escape from London. The mark of the Brotherhood was on his arm--I felt as certain of it as if he had shown me the brand; and the betrayal of the Brotherhood was on his conscience--I had seen it in his recognition of Pesca.
It was easy to understand why that recognition had not been mutual. A man of the Count's character would never risk the terrible consequences of turning spy without looking to his personal security quite as carefully as he looked to his golden reward. The shaven face, which I had pointed out at the Opera, might have been covered by a beard in Pesca's time--his dark brown hair might be a wig--his name was evidently a false one. The accident of time might have helped him as well--his immense corpulence might have come with his later years. There was every reason why Pesca should not have known him again--every reason also why he should have known Pesca, whose singular personal appearance made a marked man of him, go where he might.
I have said that I felt certain of the purpose in the Count's mind when he escaped us at the theatre. How could I doubt it, when I saw, with my own eyes, that he believed himself, in spite of the change in his appearance, to have been recognised by Pesca, and to be therefore in danger of his life? If I could get speech of him that night, if I could show him that I, too knew of the mortal peril in which he stood, what result would follow? Plainly this. One of us must be master of the situation--one of us must inevitably be at the mercy of the other.
I owed it to myself to consider the chances against me before I confronted them. I owed it to my wife to do all that lay in my power to lessen the risk.
The chances against me wanted no reckoning up--they were all merged in one. If the Count discovered, by my own avowal, that the direct way to his safety lay through my life, he was probably the last man in existence who would shrink from throwing me off my guard and taking that way, when he had me alone within his reach. The only means of defence against him on which I could at all rely to lessen the risk, presented themselves, after a little careful thinking, clearly enough. Before I made any personal acknowledgment of my discovery in his presence, I must place the discovery itself where it would be ready for instant use against him, and safe from any attempt at suppression on his part. If I laid the mine under his feet before I approached him, and if I left instructions with a third person to fire it on the expiration of a certain time, unless directions to the contrary were previously received under my own hand, or from my own lips--in that event the Count's security was absolutely dependent upon mine, and I might hold the vantage ground over him securely, even in his own house.
This idea occurred to me when I was close to the new lodgings which we had taken on returning from the sea-side. I went in without disturbing any one, by the help of my key. A light was in the hall, and I stole up with it to my workroom to make my preparations, and absolutely to commit myself to an interview with the Count, before either Laura or Marian could have the slightest suspicion of what I intended to do.
A letter addressed to Pesca represented the surest measure of precaution which it was now possible for me to take. I wrote as follows--
"The man whom I pointed out to you at the Opera is a member of the Brotherhood, and has been false to his trust. Put both these assertions to the test instantly. You know the name he goes by in England. His address is No. 5 Forest Road, St. John's Wood. On the love you once bore me, use the power entrusted to you without mercy and without delay against that man. I have risked all and lost all--and the forfeit of my failure has been paid with my life."
I signed and dated these lines, enclosed them in an envelope, and sealed it up. On the outside I wrote this direction: "Keep the enclosure unopened until nine o'clock to-morrow morning. If you do not hear from me, or see me, before that time, break the seal when the clock strikes, and read the contents." I added my initials, and protected the whole by enclosing it in a second sealed envelope, addressed to Pesca at his lodgings.
Nothing remained to be done after this but to find the means of sending my letter to its destination immediately. I should then have accomplished all that lay in my power. If anything happened to me in the Count's house, I had now provided for his answering it with his life.
That the means of preventing his escape, under any circumstances whatever, were at Pesca's disposal, if he chose to exert them, I did not for an instant doubt. The extraordinary anxiety which he had expressed to remain unenlightened as to the Count's identity-- or, in other words, to be left uncertain enough about facts to justify him to his own conscience in remaining passive--betrayed plainly that the means of exercising the terrible justice of the Brotherhood were ready to his hand, although, as a naturally humane man, he had shrunk from plainly saying as much in my presence. The deadly certainty with which the vengeance of foreign political societies can hunt down a traitor to the cause, hide himself where he may, had been too often exemplified, even in my superficial experience, to allow of any doubt. Considering the subject only as a reader of newspapers, cases recurred to my memory, both in London and in Paris, of foreigners found stabbed in the streets, whose assassins could never be traced--of bodies and parts of bodies thrown into the Thames and the Seine, by hands that could never be discovered--of deaths by secret violence which could only be accounted for in one way. I have disguised nothing relating to myself in these pages, and I do not disguise here that I believed I had written Count Fosco's death-warrant, if the fatal emergency happened which authorised Pesca to open my enclosure.