"I ought surely to know what I am signing, Sir Percival, before I write my name?"
"Nonsense! What have women to do with business? I tell you again, you can't understand it."
"At any rate, let me try to understand it. Whenever Mr. Gilmore had any business for me to do, he always explained it first, and I always understood him."
"I dare say he did. He was your servant, and was obliged to explain. I am your husband, and am NOT obliged. How much longer do you mean to keep me here? I tell you again, there is no time for reading anything--the dog-cart is waiting at the door. Once for all, will you sign or will you not?"
She still had the pen in her hand, but she made no approach to signing her name with it.
"If my signature pledges me to anything," she said, "surely I have some claim to know what that pledge is?"
He lifted up the parchment, and struck it angrily on the table.
"Speak out!" he said. "You were always famous for telling the truth. Never mind Miss Halcombe, never mind Fosco--say, in plain terms, you distrust me."
The Count took one of his hands out of his belt and laid it on Sir Percival's shoulder. Sir Percival shook it off irritably. The Count put it on again with unruffled composure.
"Control your unfortunate temper, Percival," he said "Lady Glyde is right."
"Right!" cried Sir Percival. "A wife right in distrusting her husband!"
"It is unjust and cruel to accuse me of distrusting you," said Laura. "Ask Marian if I am not justified in wanting to know what this writing requires of me before I sign it."
"I won't have any appeals made to Miss Halcombe," retorted Sir Percival. "Miss Halcombe has nothing to do with the matter."
I had not spoken hitherto, and I would much rather not have spoken now. But the expression of distress in Laura's face when she turned it towards me, and the insolent injustice of her husband's conduct, left me no other alternative than to give my opinion, for her sake, as soon as I was asked for it.
"Excuse me, Sir Percival," I said--"but as one of the witnesses to the signature, I venture to think that I HAVE something to do with the matter. Laura's objection seems to me a perfectly fair one, and speaking for myself only, I cannot assume the responsibility of witnessing her signature, unless she first understands what the writing is which you wish her to sign."
"A cool declaration, upon my soul!" cried Sir Percival. "The next time you invite yourself to a man's house, Miss Halcombe, I recommend you not to repay his hospitality by taking his wife's side against him in a matter that doesn't concern you."
I started to my feet as suddenly as if he had struck me. If I had been a man, I would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But I was only a woman--and I loved his wife so dearly!
Thank God, that faithful love helped me, and I sat down again without saying a word. SHE knew what I had suffered and what I had suppressed. She ran round to me, with the tears streaming from her eyes. "Oh, Marian!" she whispered softly. "If my mother had been alive, she could have done no more for me!"
"Come back and sign!" cried Sir Percival from the other side of the table.
"Shall I?" she asked in my ear; "I will, if you tell me."
"No," I answered. "The right and the truth are with you--sign nothing, unless you have read it first."
"Come back and sign!" he reiterated, in his loudest and angriest tones.
The Count, who had watched Laura and me with a close and silent attention, interposed for the second time.
"Percival!" he said. "I remember that I am in the presence of ladies. Be good enough, if you please, to remember it too."
Sir Percival turned on him speechless with passion. The Count's firm hand slowly tightened its grasp on his shoulder, and the Count's steady voice quietly repeated, "Be good enough, if you please, to remember it too."
They both looked at each other. Sir Percival slowly drew his shoulder from under the Count's hand, slowly turned his face away from the Count's eyes, doggedly looked down for a little while at the parchment on the table, and then spoke, with the sullen submission of a tamed animal, rather than the becoming resignation of a convinced man.
"I don't want to offend anybody," he said, "but my wife's obstinacy is enough to try the patience of a saint. I have told her this is merely a formal document--and what more can she want? You may say what you please, but it is no part of a woman's duty to set her husband at defiance. Once more, Lady Glyde, and for the last time, will you sign or will you not?"
Laura returned to his side of the table, and took up the pen again.
"I will sign with pleasure," she said, "if you will only treat me as a responsible being. I care little what sacrifice is required of me, if it will affect no one else, and lead to no ill results--"
"Who talked of a sacrifice being required of You?" he broke in, with a half-suppressed return of his former violence.
"I only meant," she resumed, "that I would refuse no concession which I could honourably make. If I have a scruple about signing my name to an engagement of which I know nothing, why should you visit it on me so severely? It is rather hard, I think, to treat Count Fosco's scruples so much more indulgently than you have treated mine."
This unfortunate, yet most natural, reference to the Count's extraordinary power over her husband, indirect as it was, set Sir Percival's smouldering temper on fire again in an instant.
"Scruples!" he repeated. "YOUR scruples! It is rather late in the day for you to be scrupulous. I should have thought you had got over all weakness of that sort, when you made a virtue of necessity by marrying me."
The instant he spoke those words, Laura threw down the pen--looked at him with an expression in her eyes which, throughout all my experience of her, I had never seen in them before, and turned her back on him in dead silence.