those rash words. May I hope that they will be considerately and generously forgiven?"
"Most assuredly," said the Count's quiet voice, behind me. He had stolen on us, with his noiseless tread, and his book in his hand, from the library.
"When Lady Glyde said those hasty words," he went on, "she did me an injustice, which I lament—and forgive. Let us never return to the subject, Miss Halcombe; let us all comfortably combine to forget it, from this moment."
"You are very kind," I said, "you relieve me inexpressibly——"
I tried to continue—but his eyes were on me; his deadly smile that hides everything, was set, hard and unwavering, on his broad, smooth face. My distrust of his unfathomable falseness, my sense of my own degradation in stooping to conciliate his wife and himself, so disturbed and confused me, that the next words failed on my lips, and I stood there in silence.
"I beg you on my knees to say no more, Miss Halcombe—I am truly shocked that you should have thought it necessary to say so much." With that polite speech he took my hand—oh, how I despise myself! oh, how little comfort there is even in knowing that I submitted to it for Laura's sake!—he took my hand and put it to his poisonous lips. Never did I know all my horror of him till then. That innocent familiarity turned my blood, as if it had been the vilest insult that a man could offer me. Yet I hid my disgust from him—I tried to smile—I, who once mercilessly despised deceit in other women, was as false as the worst of them, as false as the Judas whose lips had touched my hand.
I could not have maintained my degrading self-control—it is all that redeems me in my own estimation to know that I could not—if he had still continued to keep his eyes on my face. His wife's tigerish jealousy came to my rescue and forced his attention away from me, the moment he possessed himself of my hand. Her cold blue eyes caught light; her dull white cheeks flushed into bright colour; she looked years younger than her age in an instant.
"Count!" she said. "Your foreign forms of politeness are not understood by Englishwomen."
"Pardon me, my angel! The best and dearest Englishwoman in the world understands them." With those words, he dropped my hand, and quietly raised his wife's hand to his lips, in place of it.
I ran back up the stairs to take refuge in my own room.