“May I be forgiven if I trench on such a delicate subject, and assure you of my most sincere sympathy? Everybody felt for you deeply. I hope you will believe that I am, and ever shall be, at your orders and devoted to your service.”
“Yes, yes, I am sure of it; I know I can depend upon you fully, and I mean to do so now at once. You know, you have heard, that Lord Blackadder is here, and actually in this hotel?”
“I came with him. I was watching that fellow, the detective Falfani, when his lordship came upon the scene. We had words, a quarrel, almost a fight.”
“Pfu! He would not fight! I only wish you had thrashed him as he deserves. But that won’t help matters now. How am I to escape him?”
“With the child?”
“To be sure. Of course, I do not fear him in the least for myself.”
“You want to keep the child?”
“Naturally, as I carried it off.”
“And still more because you had the best right to it, whatever the Court might direct. You are its mother.”
Again she blushed and smiled, rather comically. “I certainly shall not surrender it to Lord Blackadder, not without a struggle. Yet he is very near getting it now.”
“In there?” I nodded towards the next room. “It is a close thing. How are you to manage it?”
“There would not have been the slightest difficulty; it was all but done, and then some one, something, failed me. I expected too much perhaps, but I have been bitterly disappointed, and the danger has revived.”
“Come, come, Lady Blackadder, keep up your courage. Let us take counsel together. We can surely devise some fresh plan. Don’t give way now; you have been so plucky all through. Be brave still.”
“Thank you, Colonel Annesley, I will.” She put out her hand with enchanting frankness, her fine eyes shining gratefully. A man would have dared much, endured much, to win such gracious approval.
“It is getting late, but you must hear all I have to tell before we can decide upon the next step. Will you listen to me? I shall not bore you. It is a long story. First let me clear the ground a little. I must disabuse your mind on one point. I am not Lady Blackadder—no, no, do not misunderstand me—not on account of the divorce, but I never was Lady Blackadder. She was Henriette Standish. I am Claire, her sister Claire.”
“What a fool I’ve been!” I cried. “I might have guessed.”
“How should you? But let me go on. I shall never forget that detestable trial, those awful days in the Divorce Court, when the lawyers fought and wrangled over my darling sister, like dogs over a bone, tearing and snarling at each other, while the judge sat above like a solemn old owl, never moving or making a sign.
“Henriette positively refused to appear in the case, although she was pressed and entreated by her legal advisers. She could have thrown so much light on the worst and darkest part. She could have repudiated the cowardly charges made, and cast back the lies drawn round her to ruin her. If the jury had but seen her pretty, pathetic face, and heard from her own sweet lips all she had endured, they would have come to a very different verdict.