“Now, sir,” Mrs. Blair turned on me fiercely, “will you be so good as to explain how I find you quarrelling with my maid, permitting yourself to cast aspersions, to make imputations upon two unprotected women?”
“How much have you overheard?” I asked, feeling very small already. My self-reproach was aroused even before I quailed under the withering contempt of her tone.
“Enough to expect ample apology. How dare you, how dare you say such things? What you may imagine, what unworthy idea you may have formed, is beyond me to guess, but you can know nothing. You can have no real reason for condemning me.”
“Let me admit that, and leave the matter there,” I pleaded. I could not bring myself to tell her that she was self-condemned, that she was the principal witness against herself. It would have been too cruel, ungenerous, to take an unfair advantage. Why should I constitute myself her judge?
She looked at me very keenly, her eyes piercing me through and through. I felt that she was penetrating my inmost thoughts and turning me inside out.
“I will not leave it at that. I insist upon your speaking plainly. I must know what is in your mind.”
“And if I refuse, distinctly, positively, categorically; if I deny your contention, and protest that I have nothing to tell you?”
“I shall not believe you. Come, please, let there be no more evasion. I must have it out. I shall stay here until you tell me what you think of me, and why.”
She seated herself by my side in the narrow velvet seat of the small compartment, so close that the folds of her tweed skirt (she had removed her ulster) touched and rubbed against me. I was invaded by the sweet savour of her gracious presence (she used some delightful scent, violette ideale, I believe), by putting forth my hand a few inches I might have taken hers in mine. She fixed her eyes on me with an intent unvarying gaze that under other conditions would have been intoxicating, but was now no more than disquieting and embarrassing.
As I was still tongue-tied, she returned to her point with resolute insistence.
“Come, Colonel Annesley, how long is this to go on? I want and will have an explanation. Why have you formed such a bad opinion of me?”
“How do you know I have done so?” I tried to fence and fight with her, but in vain.
“I cannot be mistaken. I myself heard you tell my maid that you wished to have nothing to say to us, that we were not your sort. Well! why is that? How do I differ from the rest of—your world, let us call it?”
“You do not, as far as I can see. At least you ought to hold your own anywhere, in any society, the very best.”
“And yet I’m not ‘your sort.’ Am I a humbug, an impostor, an adventuress, a puppet and play-actress? Or is it that I have forfeited my right, my rank of gentlewoman, my position in the world, your world?”