Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Count Fosco
By William Wilkie Collins (1824–1889)
From ‘The Woman in White’

HE looks like a man who could tame anything. If he married a tigress instead of a woman, he would have tamed the tigress. If he had married me, I should have made his cigarettes as his wife does; I should have held my tongue when he looked at me as she holds hers.  1
  I am almost afraid to confess it even to these secret pages. The man has interested me, has attracted me, has forced me to like him. In two short days he has made his way straight into my favorable estimation; and how he has worked the miracle is more than I can tell.  2
  It absolutely startles me, now he is in my mind, to find how plainly I see him! how much more plainly than I see Sir Percival, or Mr. Fairlie, or Walter Hartright, or any other absent person of whom I think, with the one exception of Laura herself. I can hear his voice as if he was speaking at this moment. I know what his conversation was yesterday, as well as if I was hearing it now. How am I to describe him? There are peculiarities in his personal appearance, his habits, and his amusements, which I should blame in the boldest terms or ridicule in the most merciless manner, if I had seen them in another man. What is it that makes me unable to blame them or to ridicule them in him?  3
  For example, he is immensely fat. Before this time, I have always especially disliked corpulent humanity. I have always maintained that the popular notion of connecting excessive grossness of size and excessive good-humor as inseparable allies was equivalent to declaring either that no people but amiable people ever get fat, or that the accidental addition of so many pounds of flesh has a directly favorable influence over the disposition of the person on whose body they accumulate. I have invariably combated both these absurd assertions by quoting examples of fat people who were as mean, vicious, and cruel as the leanest and worst of their neighbors. I have asked whether Henry the Eighth was an amiable character? whether Pope Alexander the Sixth was a good man? whether Mr. Murderer and Mrs. Murderess Manning were not both unusually stout people? whether hired nurses, proverbially as cruel a set of women as are to be found in all England, were not, for the most part, also as fat a set of women as are to be found in all England?—and so on through dozens of other examples, modern and ancient, native and foreign, high and low. Holding these strong opinions on the subject with might and main, as I do at this moment, here nevertheless is Count Fosco, as fat as Henry the Eighth himself, established in my favor at one day’s notice, without let or hindrance from his own odious corpulence. Marvelous indeed!  4
  Is it his face that has recommended him?  5
  It may be his face. He is a most remarkable likeness, on a large scale, of the great Napoleon. His features have Napoleon’s magnificent regularity; his expression recalls the grandly calm immovable power of the Great Soldier’s face. This striking resemblance certainly impressed me, to begin with; but there is something in him besides the resemblance, which has impressed me more. I think the influence I am now trying to find is in his eyes. They are the most unfathomable gray eyes I ever saw; and they have at times a cold, clear, beautiful, irresistible glitter in them, which forces me to look at him, and yet causes me sensations, when I do look, which I would rather not feel. Other parts of his face and head have their strange peculiarities. His complexion, for instance, has a singular sallow-fairness, so much at variance with the dark-brown color of his hair that I suspect the hair of being a wig; and his face, closely shaven all over, is smoother and freer from all marks and wrinkles than mine, though (according to Sir Percival’s account of him) he is close on sixty years of age. But these are not the prominent personal characteristics which distinguish him, to my mind, from all the other men I have ever seen. The marked peculiarity which singles him out from the rank and file of humanity lies entirely, so far as I can tell at present, in the extraordinary expression and extraordinary power of his eyes.  6
  His manner, and his command of our language, may also have assisted him in some degree to establish himself in my good opinion. He has that quiet deference, that look of pleased attentive interest, in listening to a woman, and that secret gentleness in his voice in speaking to a woman, which say what we may, we can none of us resist. Here too his unusual command of the English language necessarily helps him. I had often heard of the extraordinary aptitude which many Italians show in mastering our strong hard Northern speech, but until I saw Count Fosco I had never supposed it possible that any foreigner could have spoken English as he speaks it. There are times when it is almost impossible to detect by his accent that he is not a countryman of our own; and as for fluency, there are very few born Englishmen who can talk with as few stoppages and repetitions as the Count. He may construct his sentences more or less in the foreign way; but I have never yet heard him use a wrong expression, or hesitate for a moment in his choice of words.  7
  All the smallest characteristics of this strange man have something strikingly original and perplexingly contradictory in them. Fat as he is, and old as he is, his movements are astonishingly light and easy. He is as noiseless in a room as any of us women; and more than that, with all his look of unmistakable mental firmness and power, he is as nervously sensitive as the weakest of us. He starts at chance noises as inveterately as Laura herself. He winced and shuddered yesterday when Sir Percival beat one of the spaniels, so that I felt ashamed of my own want of tenderness and sensibility by comparison with the Count.  8
  The relation of this last incident reminds me of one of his most curious peculiarities, which I have not yet mentioned—his extraordinary fondness for pet animals.  9
  Some of these he has left on the Continent; but he has brought with him to this house a cockatoo, two canary-birds, and a whole family of white mice. He attends to all the necessities of these strange favorites himself, and he has taught the creatures to be surprisingly fond of him and familiar with him. The cockatoo, a most vicious and treacherous bird toward every one else, absolutely seems to love him. When he lets it out of its cage it hops on to his knee, and claws its way up his great big body, and rubs its topknot against his sallow double chin in the most caressing manner imaginable. He has only to set the doors of the canaries’ cage open, and to call them; and the pretty little cleverly trained creatures perch fearlessly on his hand, mount his fat outstretched fingers one by one when he tells them to “go up-stairs,” and sing together as if they would burst their throats with delight when they get to the top finger. His white mice live in a little pagoda of gayly painted wire-work, designed and made by himself. They are almost as tame as the canaries, and they are perpetually let out, like the canaries. They crawl all over him, popping in and out of his waistcoat, and sitting in couples, white as snow, on his capacious shoulders. He seems to be even fonder of his mice than of his other pets; smiles at them, and kisses them, and calls them all sorts of endearing names. If it be possible to suppose an Englishman with any taste for such childish interests and amusements as these, that Englishman would certainly feel rather ashamed of them, and would be anxious to apologize for them in the company of grown-up people. But the Count apparently sees nothing ridiculous in the amazing contrast between his colossal self and his frail little pets. He would blandly kiss his white mice and twitter to his canary-birds amidst an assembly of English fox-hunters, and would only pity them as barbarians when they were all laughing their loudest at him.  10
  It seems hardly credible while I am writing it down, but it is certainly true that this same man, who has all the fondness of an old maid for his cockatoo, and all the small dexterities of an organ-boy in managing his white mice, can talk, when anything happens to rouse him, with a daring independence of thought, a knowledge of books in every language, and an experience of society in half the capitals of Europe, which would make him the prominent personage of any assembly in the civilized world. This trainer of canary-birds, this architect of a pagoda for white mice, is (as Sir Percival himself has told me) one of the first experimental chemists living, and has discovered among other wonderful inventions a means of petrifying the body after death, so as to preserve it, as hard as marble, to the end of time. This fat, indolent, elderly man, whose nerves are so finely strung that he starts at chance noises, and winces when he sees a house spaniel get a whipping, went into the stable-yard the morning after his arrival, and put his hand on the head of a chained bloodhound—a beast so savage that the very groom who feeds him keeps out of his reach. His wife and I were present, and I shall not forget the scene that followed, short as it was.  11
  “Mind that dog, sir,” said the groom; “he flies at everybody!” “He does that, my friend,” replied the Count quietly, “because everybody is afraid of him. Let us see if he flies at me.” And he laid his plump yellow-white fingers, on which the canary-birds had been perching ten minutes before, upon the formidable brute’s head, and looked him straight in the eyes. “You big dogs are all cowards,” he said, addressing the animal contemptuously, with his face and the dog’s within an inch of each other. “You would kill a poor cat, you infernal coward. You would fly at a starving beggar, you infernal coward. Anything that you can surprise unawares—anything that is afraid of your big body, and your wicked white teeth, and your slobbering, bloodthirsty mouth, is the thing you like to fly at. You could throttle me at this moment, you mean miserable bully; and you daren’t so much as look me in the face, because I’m not afraid of you. Will you think better of it, and try your teeth in my fat neck? Bah! not you!” He turned away, laughing at the astonishment of the men in the yard; and the dog crept back meekly to his kennel. “Ah! my nice waistcoat!” he said pathetically. “I am sorry I came here. Some of that brute’s slobber has got on my pretty clean waistcoat.” Those words express another of his incomprehensible oddities. He is as fond of fine clothes as the veriest fool in existence, and has appeared in four magnificent waistcoats already—all of light garish colors and all immensely large, even for him—in the two days of his residence at Blackwater Park.  12
  His tact and cleverness in small things are quite as noticeable as the singular inconsistencies in his character, and the childish triviality of his ordinary tastes and pursuits.  13
  I can see already that he means to live on excellent terms with all of us during the period of his sojourn in this place. He has evidently discovered that Laura secretly dislikes him (she confessed as much to me when I pressed her on the subject), but he has also found out that she is extravagantly fond of flowers. Whenever she wants a nosegay he has got one to give her, gathered and arranged by himself; and greatly to my amusement, he is always cunningly provided with a duplicate, composed of exactly the same flowers, grouped in exactly the same way, to appease his icily jealous wife, before she can so much as think herself aggrieved. His management of the Countess (in public) is a sight to see. He bows to her; he habitually addresses her as “my angel”; he carries his canaries to pay her little visits on his fingers, and to sing to her; he kisses her hand when she gives him his cigarettes; he presents her with sugar-plums in return, which he puts into her mouth playfully, from a box in his pocket. The rod of iron with which he rules her never appears in company—it is a private rod and is always kept up-stairs.  14
  His method of recommending himself to me is entirely different. He flatters my vanity by talking to me as seriously and sensibly as if I was a man. Yes! I can find him out when I am away from him; I know he flatters my vanity, when I think of him up here in my own room—and yet when I go down-stairs and get into his company again he will blind me again, and I shall be flattered again, just as if I had never found him out at all! He can manage me as he manages his wife and Laura, as he manages the bloodhound in the stable yard, as he manages Sir Percival himself every hour in the day. “My good Percival! how I like your rough English humor!”—“My good Percival! how I enjoy your solid English sense!” He puts the rudest remarks Sir Percival can make on his effeminate tastes and amusements quietly away from him in that manner—always calling the baronet by his Christian name; smiling at him with the calmest superiority; patting him on the shoulder; and bearing with him benignantly, as a good-humored father bears with a wayward son.  15
  The interest which I really cannot help feeling in this strangely original man has led me to question Sir Percival about his past life.  16
  Sir Percival either knows little, or will tell me little about it. He and the Count first met many years ago, at Rome, under the dangerous circumstances to which I have alluded elsewhere. Since that time they have been perpetually together, in London, in Paris, and in Vienna—but never in Italy again; the Count having, oddly enough, not crossed the frontiers of his native country for years past. Perhaps he has been made the victim of some political persecution? At all events, he seems to be patriotically anxious not to lose sight of any of his own countrymen who may happen to be in England. On the evening of his arrival, he asked how far we were from the nearest town, and whether we knew of any Italian gentlemen who might happen to be settled there. He is certainly in correspondence with people on the Continent, for his letters have all sorts of odd stamps on them; and I saw one for him this morning, waiting in his place at the breakfast-table, with a huge official-looking seal on it. Perhaps he is in correspondence with his government? And yet that is hardly to be reconciled, either, with my other idea that he may be a political exile.  17
  How much I seem to have written about Count Fosco! And what does it all amount to?—as poor dear Mr. Gilmore would ask in his impenetrable business-like way. I can only repeat that I do assuredly feel, even on this short acquaintance, a strange, half-willing, half-unwilling liking for the Count. He seems to have established over me the same sort of ascendency which he has evidently gained over Sir Percival. Free and even rude as he may occasionally be in his manner toward his fat friend, Sir Percival is nevertheless afraid, as I can plainly see, of giving any serious offense to the Count. I wonder whether I am afraid too? I certainly never saw a man, in all my experience, whom I should be so sorry to have for an enemy. Is this because I like him, or because I am afraid of him? Chi sa?—as Count Fosco might say in his own language. Who knows?  18

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