He got up, put the cage on the table, and paused for a moment to count the mice in it. "One, two, three, four----Ha!" he cried, with a look of horror, "where, in the name of Heaven, is the fifth--the youngest, the whitest, the most amiable of all--my Benjamin of mice!"
Neither Laura nor I were in any favorable disposition to be amused. The Count's glib cynicism had revealed a new aspect of his nature from which we both recoiled. But it was impossible to resist the comical distress of so very large a man at the loss of so very small a mouse. We laughed in spite of ourselves; and when Madame Fosco rose to set the example of leaving the boat-house empty, so that her husband might search it to its remotest corners, we rose also to follow her out.
Before we had taken three steps, the Count's quick eye discovered the lost mouse under the seat that we had been occupying. He pulled aside the bench, took the little animal up in his hand, and then suddenly stopped, on his knees, looking intently at a particular place on the ground just beneath him.
When he rose to his feet again, his hand shook so that he could hardly put the mouse back in the cage, and his face was of a faint livid yellow hue all over.
"Percival!" he said, in a whisper. "Percival! come here."
Sir Percival had paid no attention to any of us for the last ten minutes. He had been entirely absorbed in writing figures on the sand, and then rubbing them out again with the point of his stick.
"What's the matter now?" he asked, lounging carelessly into the boat-house.
"Do you see nothing there?" said the Count, catching him nervously by the collar with one hand, and pointing with the other to the place near which he had found the mouse.
"I see plenty of dry sand," answered Sir Percival, "and a spot of dirt in the middle of it."
"Not dirt," whispered the Count, fastening the other hand suddenly on Sir Percival's collar, and shaking it in his agitation. "Blood."
Laura was near enough to hear the last word, softly as he whispered it. She turned to me with a look of terror.
"Nonsense, my dear," I said. "There is no need to be alarmed. It is only the blood of a poor little stray dog."
Everybody was astonished, and everybody's eyes were fixed on me inquiringly.
"How do you know that?" asked Sir Percival, speaking first.
"I found the dog here, dying, on the day when you all returned from abroad," I replied. "The poor creature had strayed into the plantation, and had been shot by your keeper."
"Whose dog was it?" inquired Sir Percival. "Not one of mine?"
"Did you try to save the poor thing?" asked Laura earnestly. "Surely you tried to save it, Marian?"
"Yes," I said, "the housekeeper and I both did our best--but the dog was mortally wounded, and he died under our hands."
"Whose dog was it?" persisted Sir Percival, repeating his question a little irritably. "One of mine?"
"No, not one of yours."
"Whose then? Did the housekeeper know?"
The housekeeper's report of Mrs. Catherick's desire to conceal her visit to Blackwater Park from Sir Percival's knowledge recurred to my memory the moment he put that last question, and I half doubted the discretion of answering it; but in my anxiety to quiet the general alarm, I had thoughtlessly advanced too far to draw back, except at the risk of exciting suspicion, which might only make matters worse. There was nothing for it but to answer at once, without reference to results.
"Yes," I said. "The housekeeper knew. She told me it was Mrs. Catherick's dog."
Sir Percival had hitherto remained at the inner end of the boat- house with Count Fosco, while I spoke to him from the door. But the instant Mrs. Catherick's name passed my lips he pushed by the Count roughly, and placed himself face to face with me under the open daylight.
"How came the housekeeper to know it was Mrs. Catherick's dog?" he asked, fixing his eyes on mine with a frowning interest and attention, which half angered, half startled me.
"She knew it," I said quietly, "because Mrs. Catherick brought the dog with her."
"Brought it with her? Where did she bring it with her?"
"To this house."
"What the devil did Mrs. Catherick want at this house?"
The manner in which he put the question was even more offensive than the language in which he expressed it. I marked my sense of his want of common politeness by silently turning away from him.
Just as I moved the Count's persuasive hand was laid on his shoulder, and the Count's mellifluous voice interposed to quiet him.
"My dear Percival!--gently--gently!"
Sir Percival looked round in his angriest manner. The Count only smiled and repeated the soothing application.
"Gently, my good friend--gently!"
Sir Percival hesitated, followed me a few steps, and, to my great surprise, offered me an apology.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Halcombe," he said. "I have been out of order lately, and I am afraid I am a little irritable. But I should like to know what Mrs. Catherick could possibly want here. When did she come? Was the housekeeper the only person who saw her?"
"The only person," I answered, "so far as I know."
The Count interposed again.
"In that case why not question the housekeeper?" he said. "Why not go, Percival, to the fountain-head of information at once?"
"Quite right!" said Sir Percival. "Of course the housekeeper is the first person to question. Excessively stupid of me not to see it myself." With those words he instantly left us to return to the house.
The motive of the Count's interference, which had puzzled me at first, betrayed itself when Sir Percival's back was turned. He had a host of questions to put to me about Mrs. Catherick, and the cause of her visit to Blackwater Park, which he could scarcely have asked in his friend's presence. I made my answers as short as I civilly could, for I had already determined to check the least approach to any exchanging of confidences between Count Fosco and myself. Laura, however, unconsciously helped him to extract all my information, by making inquiries herself, which left me no alternative but to reply to her, or to appear in the very unenviable and very false character of a depositary of Sir Percival's secrets. The end of it was, that, in about ten minutes' time, the Count knew as much as I know of Mrs. Catherick, and of the events which have so strangely connected us with her daughter, Anne, from the time when Cartright met with her to this day.