"Do you know," I asked, "whether Lady Glyde has come in from her walk or not?"
My heart sank within me. "You don't mean an accident?" I said faintly.
"No, no--thank God, no accident. But my lady ran upstairs to her own room in tears, and Sir Percival has ordered me to give Fanny warning to leave in an hour's time."
Fanny was Laura's maid--a good affectionate girl who had been with her for years--the only person in the house whose fidelity and devotion we could both depend upon.
"Where is Fanny?" I inquired.
"In my room, Miss Halcombe. The young woman is quite overcome, and I told her to sit down and try to recover herself."
I went to Mrs. Michelson's room, and found Fanny in a corner, with her box by her side, crying bitterly.
She could give me no explanation whatever of her sudden dismissal. Sir Percival had ordered that she should have a month's wages, in place of a month's warning, and go. No reason had been assigned-- no objection had been made to her conduct. She had been forbidden to appeal to her mistress, forbidden even to see her for a moment to say good-bye. She was to go without explanations or farewells, and to go at once.
After soothing the poor girl by a few friendly words, I asked where she proposed to sleep that night. She replied that she thought of going to the little inn in the village, the landlady of which was a respectable woman, known to the servants at Blackwater Park. The next morning, by leaving early, she might get back to her friends in Cumberland without stopping in London, where she was a total stranger.
I felt directly that Fanny's departure offered us a safe means of communication with London and with Limmeridge House, of which it might be very important to avail ourselves. Accordingly, I told her that she might expect to hear from her mistress or from me in the course of the evening, and that she might depend on our both doing all that lay in our power to help her, under the trial of leaving us for the present. Those words said, I shook hands with her and went upstairs.
The door which led to Laura's room was the door of an ante-chamber opening on to the passage. When I tried it, it was bolted on the inside.
I knocked, and the door was opened by the same heavy, overgrown housemaid whose lumpish insensibility had tried my patience so severely on the day when I found the wounded dog.
I had, since that time, discovered that her name was Margaret Porcher, and that she was the most awkward, slatternly, and obstinate servant in the house.
On opening the door she instantly stepped out to the threshold, and stood grinning at me in stolid silence.
"Why do you stand there?" I said. "Don't you see that I want to come in?"
"Ah, but you mustn't come in," was the answer, with another and a broader grin still.
"How dare you talk to me in that way? Stand back instantly!"
She stretched out a great red hand and arm on each side of her, so as to bar the doorway, and slowly nodded her addle head at me.
"Master's orders," she said, and nodded again.
I had need of all my self-control to warn me against contesting the matter with HER, and to remind me that the next words I had to say must be addressed to her master. I turned my back on her, and instantly went downstairs to find him. My resolution to keep my temper under all the irritations that Sir Percival could offer was, by this time, as completely forgotten--I say so to my shame-- as if I had never made it. It did me good, after all I had suffered and suppressed in that house--it actually did me good to feel how angry I was.
The drawing-room and the breakfast-room were both empty. I went on to the library, and there I found Sir Percival, the Count, and Madame Fosco. They were all three standing up, close together, and Sir Percival had a little slip of paper in his hand. As I opened the door I heard the Count say to him, "No--a thousand times over, no."
I walked straight up to him, and looked him full in the face.
"Am I to understand, Sir Percival, that your wife's room is a prison, and that your housemaid is the gaoler who keeps it?" I asked.
"Yes, that is what you are to understand," he answered. "Take care my gaoler hasn't got double duty to do--take care your room is not a prison too."
"Take YOU care how you treat your wife, and how you threaten ME," I broke out in the heat of my anger. "There are laws in England to protect women from cruelty and outrage. If you hurt a hair of Laura's head, if you dare to interfere with my freedom, come what may, to those laws I will appeal."
Instead of answering me he turned round to the Count.
"What did I tell you?" he asked. "What do you say now?"
"What I said before," replied the Count--"No."
Even in the vehemence of my anger I felt his calm, cold, grey eyes on my face. They turned away from me as soon as he had spoken, and looked significantly at his wife. Madame Fosco immediately moved close to my side, and in that position addressed Sir Percival before either of us could speak again.
"Favour me with your attention for one moment," she said, in her clear icily-suppressed tones. "I have to thank you, Sir Percival, for your hospitality, and to decline taking advantage of it any longer. I remain in no house in which ladies are treated as your wife and Miss Halcombe have been treated here to-day!"
Sir Percival drew back a step, and stared at her in dead silence. The declaration he had just heard--a declaration which he well knew, as I well knew, Madame Fosco would not have ventured to make without her husband's permission--seemed to petrify him with surprise. The Count stood by, and looked at his wife with the most enthusiastic admiration.