With that intimation her ladyship threw herself back in her chair, with her elbows on the arms, and her fingers joined at the tips, as if she was receiving a deputation. “Yes?” she said, interrogatively. Sir Patrick paid a private tribute of pity to his late brother’s memory, and entered on his business.
“We won’t call it a painful matter,” he began. “Let us say it’s a matter of domestic anxiety. Blanche—”
Lady Lundie emitted a faint scream, and put her hand over her eyes.
“Must you?” cried her ladyship, in a tone of touching remonstrance. “Oh, Sir Patrick, must you?”
“Yes. I must.”
Lady Lundie’s magnificent eyes looked up at that hidden court of human appeal which is lodged in the ceiling. The hidden court looked down at Lady Lundie, and saw—Duty advertising itself in the largest capital letters.
“Go on, Sir Patrick. The motto of woman is Self-sacrifice. You sha’n’t see how you distress me. Go on.”
Sir Patrick went on impenetrably—without betraying the slightest expression of sympathy or surprise.
“I was about to refer to the nervous attack from which Blanche has suffered this morning,” he said. “May I ask whether you have been informed of the cause to which the attack is attributable?”
“There!” exclaimed Lady Lundie with a sudden bound in her chair, and a sudden development of vocal power to correspond. “The one thing I shrank from speaking of! the cruel, cruel, cruel behavior I was prepared to pass over! And Sir Patrick hints on it! Innocently—don’t let me do an injustice—innocently hints on it!”
“Hints on what, my dear Madam?”
“Blanche’s conduct to me this morning. Blanche’s heartless secrecy. Blanche’s undutiful silence. I repeat the words: Heartless secrecy. Undutiful silence.”
“Allow me for one moment, Lady Lundie—”
“Allow me, Sir Patrick! Heaven knows how unwilling I am to speak of it. Heaven knows that not a word of reference to it escaped my lips. But you leave me no choice now. As mistress of the household, as a Christian woman, as the widow of your dear brother, as a mother to this misguided girl, I must state the facts. I know you mean well; I know you wish to spare me. Quite useless! I must state the facts.”
Sir Patrick bowed, and submitted. (If he had only been a bricklayer! and if Lady Lundie had not been, what her ladyship unquestionably was, the strongest person of the two!)
“Permit me to draw a veil, for your sake,” said Lady Lundie, “over the horrors—I can not, with the best wish to spare you, conscientiously call them by any other name—the horrors that took place up stairs. The moment I heard that Blanche was ill I was at my post. Duty will always find me ready, Sir Patrick, to my dying day. Shocking as the whole thing was, I presided calmly over the screams and sobs of my step-daughter.