As I approached she heard me, and turned round.
I could neither move 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."
When I heard that astounding answer, all my thoughts were startled back on the instant to my parting with Lady Glyde. I can hardly say I reproached myself, but at that moment I think I would have given many a year's hard savings to have known four hours earlier what I knew now.
Mrs. Rubelle waited, quietly arranging her nosegay, as if she expected me to say something.
I could say nothing. I thought of Lady Glyde's worn-out energies and weakly health, and I trembled for the time when the shock of the discovery that I had made would fall on her. For a minute or more my fears for the poor ladies silenced me. At the end of that time Mrs. Rubelle looked up sideways from her flowers, and said, "Here is Sir Percival, ma'am, returned from his ride."
I saw him as soon as she did. He came towards us, slashing viciously at the flowers with his riding-whip. When he was near enough to see my face he stopped, struck at his boot with the whip, and burst out laughing, so harshly and so violently that the birds flew away, startled, from the tree by which he stood.
"Well, Mrs. Michelson," he said, "you have found it out at last, have you?"
I made no reply. He turned to Mrs. Rubelle.
"When did you show yourself in the garden?"
"I showed myself about half an hour ago, sir. You said I might take my liberty again as soon as Lady Glyde had gone away to London."
"Quite right. I don't blame you--I only asked the question." He waited a moment, and then addressed himself once more to me. "You can't believe it, can you?" he said mockingly. "Here! come along and see for yourself."
He led the way round to the front of the house. I followed him, and Mrs. Rubelle followed me. After passing through the iron gates he stopped, and pointed with his whip to the disused middle wing of the building.
"There!" he said. "Look up at the first floor. You know the old Elizabethan bedrooms? Miss Halcombe is snug and safe in one of the best of them at this moment. Take her in, Mrs. Rubelle (you have got your key?); take Mrs. Michelson in, and let her own eyes satisfy her that there is no deception this time."
The tone in which he spoke to me, and the minute or two that had passed since we left the garden, helped me to recover my spirits a little. What I might have done at this critical moment, if all my life had been passed in service, I cannot say. As it was, possessing the feelings, the principles, and the bringing up of a lady, I could not hesitate about the right course to pursue. My duty to myself, and my duty to Lady Glyde, alike forbade me to remain in the employment of a man who had shamefully deceived us both by a series of atrocious falsehoods.
"I must beg permission, Sir Percival, to speak a few words to you in private," I said. "Having done so, I shall be ready to proceed with this person to Miss Halcombe's room."
Mrs. Rubelle, whom I had indicated by a slight turn of my head, insolently sniffed at her nosegay and walked away, with great deliberation, towards the house door.
"Well," said Sir Percival sharply, "what is it now?"
"I wish to mention, sir, that I am desirous of resigning the situation I now hold at Blackwater Park." That was literally how I put it. I was resolved that the first words spoken in his presence should be words which expressed my intention to leave his service.
He eyed me with one of his blackest looks, and thrust his hands savagely into the pockets of his riding-coat.
"Why?" he said, "why, I should like to know?"
"It is not for me, Sir Percival, to express an opinion on what has taken place in this house. I desire to give no offence. I merely wish to say that I do not feel it consistent with my duty to Lady Glyde and to myself to remain any longer in your service."
"Is it consistent with your duty to me to stand there, casting suspicion on me to my face?" he broke out in his most violent manner. "I see what you're driving at. You have taken your own mean, underhand view of an innocent deception practised on Lady Glyde for her own good. It was essential to her health that she should have a change of air immediately, and you know as well as I do she would never have gone away if she had been told Miss Halcombe was still left here. She has been deceived in her own interests--and I don't care who knows it. Go, if you like--there are plenty of housekeepers as good as you to be had for the asking. Go when you please--but take care how you spread scandals about me and my affairs when you're out of my service. Tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, or it will be the worse for you! See Miss Halcombe for yourself--see if she hasn't been as well taken care of in one part of the house as in the other. Remember the doctor's own orders that Lady Glyde was to have a change of air at the earliest possible opportunity. Bear all that well in mind, and then say anything against me and my proceedings if you dare!"
He poured out these words fiercely, all in a breath, walking backwards and forwards, and striking about him in the air with his whip.
Nothing that he said or did shook my opinion of the disgraceful series of falsehoods that he had told in my presence the day before, or of the cruel deception by which he had separated Lady Glyde from her sister, and had sent her uselessly to London, when she was half distracted with anxiety on Miss Halcombe's account. I naturally kept these thoughts to myself, and said nothing more to irritate him; but I was not the less resolved to persist in my purpose. A soft answer turneth away wrath, and I suppressed my own feelings accordingly when it was my turn to reply.