"Your flesh? Does flesh mean conscience in English? I speak of your wife's death as I speak of a possibility. Why not? The respectable lawyers who scribble-scrabble your deeds and your wills look the deaths of living people in the face. Do lawyers make your flesh creep? Why should I? It is my business to-night to clear up your position beyond the possibility of mistake, and I have now done it. Here is your position. If your wife lives, you pay those bills with her signature to the parchment. If your wife dies, you pay them with her death."
As he spoke the light in Madame Fosco's room was extinguished, and the whole second floor of the house was now sunk in darkness.
"Talk! talk!" grumbled Sir Percival. "One would think, to hear you, that my wife's signature to the deed was got already."
"You have left the matter in my hands," retorted the Count, "and I have more than two months before me to turn round in. Say no more about it, if you please, for the present. When the bills are due, you will see for yourself if my 'talk! talk!' is worth something, or if it is not. And now, Percival, having done with the money matters for to-night, I can place my attention at your disposal, if you wish to consult me on that second difficulty which has mixed itself up with our little embarrassments, and which has so altered you for the worse, that I hardly know you again. Speak, my friend--and pardon me if I shock your fiery national tastes by mixing myself a second glass of sugar-and-water."
"It's very well to say speak," replied Sir Percival, in a far more quiet and more polite tone than he had yet adopted, "but it's not so easy to know how to begin."
"Look here, Fosco, you and I have known each other for a long time, and if you have helped me out of one or two scrapes before this, I have done the best I could to help you in return, as far as money would go. We have made as many friendly sacrifices, on both sides, as men could, but we have had our secrets from each other, of course--haven't we?"
"You have had a secret from me, Percival. There is a skeleton in your cupboard here at Blackwater Park that has peeped out in these last few days at other people besides yourself."
"Well, suppose it has. If it doesn't concern you, you needn't be curious about it, need you?"
"Do I look curious about it?"
"Yes, you do."
"So! so! my face speaks the truth, then? What an immense foundation of good there must be in the nature of a man who arrives at my age, and whose face has not yet lost the habit of speaking the truth!--Come, Glyde! let us be candid one with the other. This secret of yours has sought me: I have not sought it. Let us say I am curious--do you ask me, as your old friend, to respect your secret, and to leave it, once for all, in your own keeping?"
"Yes--that's just what I do ask."
"Then my curiosity is at an end. It dies in me from this moment."
"Do you really mean that?"
"What makes you doubt me?"
"I have had some experience, Fosco, of your roundabout ways, and I am not so sure that you won't worm it out of me after all."
The chair below suddenly creaked again--I felt the trellis-work pillar under me shake from top to bottom. The Count had started to his feet, and had struck it with his hand in indignation.
"Percival! Percival!" he cried passionately, "do you know me no better than that? Has all your experience shown you nothing of my character yet? I am a man of the antique type! I am capable of the most exalted acts of virtue--when I have the chance of performing them. It has been the misfortune of my life that I have had few chances. My conception of friendship is sublime! Is it my fault that your skeleton has peeped out at me? Why do I confess my curiosity? You poor superficial Englishman, it is to magnify my own self-control. I could draw your secret out of you, if I liked, as I draw this finger out of the palm of my hand--you know I could! But you have appealed to my friendship, and the duties of friendship are sacred to me. See! I trample my base curiosity under my feet. My exalted sentiments lift me above it. Recognise them, Percival! imitate them, Percival! Shake hands--I forgive you."
His voice faltered over the last words--faltered, as if he were actually shedding tears!
Sir Percival confusedly attempted to excuse himself, but the Count was too magnanimous to listen to him.
"No!" he said. "When my friend has wounded me, I can pardon him without apologies. Tell me, in plain words, do you want my help?"
"Yes, badly enough."
"And you can ask for it without compromising yourself?"
"I can try, at any rate."
"Well, this is how it stands:--I told you to-day that I had done my best to find Anne Catherick, and failed."
"Yes, you did."
"Fosco! I'm a lost man if I DON'T find her."
"Ha! Is it so serious as that?"
A little stream of light travelled out under the verandah, and fell over the gravel-walk. The Count had taken the lamp from the inner part of the room to see his friend clearly by the light of it.
"Yes!" he said. "Your face speaks the truth this time. Serious, indeed--as serious as the money matters themselves."
"More serious. As true as I sit here, more serious!"
The light disappeared again and the talk went on.
"I showed you the letter to my wife that Anne Catherick hid in the sand," Sir Percival continued. "There's no boasting in that letter, Fosco--she DOES know the Secret."
"Say as little as possible, Percival, in my presence, of the Secret. Does she know it from you?"
"No, from her mother."
"Two women in possession of your private mind--bad, bad, bad, my friend! One question here, before we go any farther. The motive of your shutting up the daughter in the asylum is now plain enough to me, but the manner of her escape is not quite so clear. Do you suspect the people in charge of her of closing their eyes purposely, at the instance of some enemy who could afford to make it worth their while?"