The Count, with the most alarming solemnity, sighed and shook his head.
"Must I really hear them?"
He shrugged his shoulders (it was the first foreign thing he had done, since he had been in the room); and looked at me in an unpleasantly penetrating manner. My instincts told me that I had better close my eyes. I obeyed my instincts.
"Please break it gently," I pleaded. "Anybody dead?"
"Dead!" cried the Count, with unnecessary foreign fierceness. "Mr. Fairlie! your national composure terrifies me. In the name of Heaven, what have I said, or done, to make you think me the messenger of death?"
"Pray accept my apologies," I answered. "You have said and done nothing. I make it a rule, in these distressing cases, always to anticipate the worst. It breaks the blow, by meeting it half way, and so on. Inexpressibly relieved, I am sure, to hear that nobody is dead. Anybody ill?"
I opened my eyes, and looked at him. Was he very yellow, when he came in? or had he turned very yellow, in the last minute or two? I really can't say; and I can't ask Louis, because he was not in the room at the time.
"Anybody ill?" I repeated; observing that my national composure still appeared to affect him.
"That is part of my bad news, Mr. Fairlie. Yes. Somebody is ill."
"Grieved, I am sure. Which of them is it?"
"To my profound sorrow, Miss Halcombe. Perhaps you were in some degree prepared to hear this? Perhaps, when you found that Miss Halcombe did not come here by herself, as you proposed, and did not write a second time, your affectionate anxiety may have made you fear that she was ill?"
I have no doubt my affectionate anxiety had led to that melancholy apprehension, at some time or other; but at the moment, my wretched memory entirely failed to remind me of the circumstance. However, I said, Yes, in justice to myself. I was much shocked. It was so very uncharacteristic of such a robust person as dear Marian to be ill, that I could only suppose she had met with an accident. A horse, or a false step on the stairs, or something of that sort.
"Is it serious?" I asked.
"Serious—beyond a doubt," he replied. "Dangerous—I hope and trust not. Miss Halcombe unhappily exposed herself to be wetted through by a heavy rain. The cold that followed was of an aggravated kind; and it has now brought with it the worst consequence—Fever."