"No, she was the best-behaved patient they had--and, like fools, they trusted her. She's just mad enough to be shut up, and just sane enough to ruin me when she's at large--if you understand that?"
"Anne Catherick is in this neighbourhood, and in communication with Lady Glyde--there's the danger, plain enough. Who can read the letter she hid in the sand, and not see that my wife is in possession of the Secret, deny it as she may?"
"One moment, Percival. If Lady Glyde does know the Secret, she must know also that it is a compromising secret for you. As your wife, surely it is her interest to keep it?"
"Is it? I'm coming to that. It might be her interest if she cared two straws about me. But I happen to be an encumbrance in the way of another man. She was in love with him before she married me-- she's in love with him now--an infernal vagabond of a drawing- master, named Hartright."
"My dear friend! what is there extraordinary in that? They are all in love with some other man. Who gets the first of a woman's heart? In all my experience I have never yet met with the man who was Number One. Number Two, sometimes. Number Three, Four, Five, often. Number One, never! He exists, of course--but I have not met with him."
"Wait! I haven't done yet. Who do you think helped Anne Catherick to get the start, when the people from the mad-house were after her? Hartright. Who do you think saw her again in Cumberland? Hartright. Both times he spoke to her alone. Stop! don't interrupt me. The scoundrel's as sweet on my wife as she is on him. He knows the Secret, and she knows the Secret. Once let them both get together again, and it's her interest and his interest to turn their information against me."
"Gently, Percival--gently! Are you insensible to the virtue of Lady Glyde?"
"That for the virtue of Lady Glyde! I believe in nothing about her but her money. Don't you see how the case stands? She might be harmless enough by herself; but if she and that vagabond Hartright----"
"Yes, yes, I see. Where is Mr. Hartright?"
"Out of the country. If he means to keep a whole skin on his bones, I recommend him not to come back in a hurry."
"Are you sure he is out of the country?"
"Certain. I had him watched from the time he left Cumberland to the time he sailed. Oh, I've been careful, I can tell you! Anne Catherick lived with some people at a farmhouse near Limmeridge. I went there myself, after she had given me the slip, and made sure that they knew nothing. I gave her mother a form of letter to write to Miss Halcombe, exonerating me from any bad motive in putting her under restraint. I've spent, I'm afraid to say how much, in trying to trace her, and in spite of it all, she turns up here and escapes me on my own property! How do I know who else may see her, who else may speak to her? That prying scoundrel, Hartright, may come back without my knowing it, and may make use of her to-morrow----"
"Not he, Percival! While I am on the spot, and while that woman is in the neighbourhood, I will answer for our laying hands on her before Mr. Hartright--even if he does come back. I see! yes, yes, I see! The finding of Anne Catherick is the first necessity--make your mind easy about the rest. Your wife is here, under your thumb--Miss Halcombe is inseparable from her, and is, therefore, under your thumb also--and Mr. Hartright is out of the country. This invisible Anne of yours is all we have to think of for the present. You have made your inquiries?"
"Yes. I have been to her mother, I have ransacked the village-- and all to no purpose."
"Is her mother to be depended on?"
"She has told your secret once."
"She won't tell it again."
"Why not? Are her own interests concerned in keeping it, as well as yours?"
"I am glad to hear it, Percival, for your sake. Don't be discouraged, my friend. Our money matters, as I told you, leave me plenty of time to turn round in, and I may search for Anne Catherick to-morrow to better purpose than you. One last question before we go to bed."
"What is it?"
"It is this. When I went to the boat-house to tell Lady Glyde that the little difficulty of her signature was put off, accident took me there in time to see a strange woman parting in a very suspicious manner from your wife. But accident did not bring me near enough to see this same woman's face plainly. I must know how to recognise our invisible Anne. What is she like?"
"Like? Come! I'll tell you in two words. She's a sickly likeness of my wife."
The chair creaked, and the pillar shook once more. The Count was on his feet again--this time in astonishment.
"What!!!" he exclaimed eagerly.
"Fancy my wife, after a bad illness, with a touch of something wrong in her head--and there is Anne Catherick for you," answered Sir Percival.
"Are they related to each other?"
"Not a bit of it."
"And yet so like?"
"Yes, so like. What are you laughing about?"
There was no answer, and no sound of any kind. The Count was laughing in his smooth silent internal way.
"What are you laughing about?" reiterated Sir Percival.
"Perhaps at my own fancies, my good friend. Allow me my Italian humour--do I not come of the illustrious nation which invented the exhibition of Punch? Well, well, well, I shall know Anne Catherick when I see her--and so enough for to-night. Make your mind easy, Percival. Sleep, my son, the sleep of the just, and see what I will do for you when daylight comes to help us both. I have my projects and my plans here in my big head. You shall pay those bills and find Anne Catherick--my sacred word of honour on it, but you shall! Am I a friend to be treasured in the best corner of your heart, or am I not? Am I worth those loans of money which you so delicately reminded me of a little while since? Whatever you do, never wound me in my sentiments any more. Recognise them, Percival! imitate them, Percival! I forgive you again--I shake hands again. Good-night!"
Not another word was spoken. I heard the Count close the library door. I heard Sir Percival barring up the window-shutters. It had been raining, raining all the time. I was cramped by my position and chilled to the bones. When I first tried to move, the effort was so painful to me that I was obliged to desist. I tried a second time, and succeeded in rising to my knees on the wet roof.
As I crept to the wall, and raised myself against it, I looked back, and saw the window of the Count's dressing-room gleam into light. My sinking courage flickered up in me again, and kept my eyes fixed on his window, as I stole my way back, step by step, past the wall of the house.
The clock struck the quarter after one, when I laid my hands on the window-sill of my own room. I had seen nothing and heard nothing which could lead me to suppose that my retreat had been discovered.