"One last word of affectionate warning, of paternal caution, and I tear myself from the charm of addressing you--I close these fervent lines.
"Advance no farther than you have gone already, compromise no serious interests, threaten nobody. Do not, I implore you, force me into action--ME, the Man of Action--when it is the cherished object of my ambition to be passive, to restrict the vast reach of my energies and my combinations for your sake. If you have rash friends, moderate their deplorable ardour. If Mr. Hartright returns to England, hold no communication with him. I walk on a path of my own, and Percival follows at my heels. On the day when Mr. Hartright crosses that path, he is a lost man."
The only signature to these lines was the initial letter F, surrounded by a circle of intricate flourishes. I threw the letter on the table with all the contempt that I felt for it.
"He is trying to frighten you--a sure sign that he is frightened himself," I said.
She was too genuine a woman to treat the letter as I treated it. The insolent familiarity of the language was too much for her self-control. As she looked at me across the table, her hands clenched themselves in her lap, and the old quick fiery temper flamed out again brightly in her cheeks and her eyes.
"Walter!" she said, "if ever those two men are at your mercy, and if you are obliged to spare one of them, don't let it be the Count."
"I will keep this letter, Marian, to help my memory when the time comes."
She looked at me attentively as I put the letter away in my pocket-book.
"When the time comes?" she repeated. "Can you speak of the future as if you were certain of it?--certain after what you have heard in Mr. Kyrle's office, after what has happened to you to-day?"
"I don't count the time from to-day, Marian. All I have done to- day is to ask another man to act for me. I count from to-morrow----"
"Why from to-morrow?"
"Because to-morrow I mean to act for myself."
"I shall go to Blackwater by the first train, and return, I hope, at night."
"Yes. I have had time to think since I left Mr. Kyrle. His opinion on one point confirms my own. We must persist to the last in hunting down the date of Laura's journey. The one weak point in the conspiracy, and probably the one chance of proving that she is a living woman, centre in the discovery of that date."
"You mean," said Marian, "the discovery that Laura did not leave Blackwater Park till after the date of her death on the doctor's certificate?"
"What makes you think it might have been AFTER? Laura can tell us nothing of the time she was in London."
"But the owner of the Asylum told you that she was received there on the twenty-seventh of July. I doubt Count Fosco's ability to keep her in London, and to keep her insensible to all that was passing around her, more than one night. In that case, she must have started on the twenty-sixth, and must have come to London one day after the date of her own death on the doctor's certificate. If we can prove that date, we prove our case against Sir Percival and the Count."
"Yes, yes--I see! But how is the proof to be obtained?"
"Mrs. Michelson's narrative has suggested to me two ways of trying to obtain it. One of them is to question the doctor, Mr. Dawson, who must know when he resumed his attendance at Blackwater Park after Laura left the house. The other is to make inquiries at the inn to which Sir Percival drove away by himself at night. We know that his departure followed Laura's after the lapse of a few hours, and we may get at the date in that way. The attempt is at least worth making, and to-morrow I am determined it shall be made."
"And suppose it fails--I look at the worst now, Walter; but I will look at the best if disappointments come to try us--suppose no one can help you at Blackwater?"
"There are two men who can help me, and shall help me in London-- Sir Percival and the Count. Innocent people may well forget the date--but THEY are guilty, and THEY know it. If I fail everywhere else, I mean to force a confession out of one or both of them on my own terms."
All the woman flushed up in Marian's face as I spoke.
"Begin with the Count," she whispered eagerly. "For my sake, begin with the Count."
"We must begin, for Laura's sake, where there is the best chance of success," I replied.
The colour faded from her face again, and she shook her head sadly.
"Yes," she said, "you are right--it was mean and miserable of me to say that. I try to be patient, Walter, and succeed better now than I did in happier times. But I have a little of my old temper still left, and it will get the better of me when I think of the Count!"
"His turn will come," I said. "But, remember, there is no weak place in his life that we know of yet." I waited a little to let her recover her self-possession, and then spoke the decisive words--
"Marian! There is a weak place we both know of in Sir Percival's life----"
"You mean the Secret!"
"Yes: the Secret. It is our only sure hold on him. I can force him from his position of security, I can drag him and his villainy into the face of day, by no other means. Whatever the Count may have done, Sir Percival has consented to the conspiracy against Laura from another motive besides the motive of gain. You heard him tell the Count that he believed his wife knew enough to ruin him? You heard him say that he was a lost man if the secret of Anne Catherick was known?"
"Yes! yes! I did."
"Well, Marian, when our other resources have failed us, I mean to know the Secret. My old superstition clings to me, even yet. I say again the woman in white is a living influence in our three lives. The End is appointed--the End is drawing us on--and Anne Catherick, dead in her grave, points the way to it still!"