Suddenly, and quite without my invitation or encouragement, she reseated herself by my side.
“See, Colonel Annesley, let us come to an understanding.” She said it quite gaily and with no shadow of apprehension left in her, not a sign of shame or remorse in her voice. Her mood had entirely changed. She was debonnaire, frolicsome, overflowing with fun.
“What do you mean to do? Give me into custody? Call in the gendarmes at the next station? Have me taken red-handed with the—stolen property—the ‘swag,’ you know the word, perhaps, in my possession?”
“I am not a police officer; it’s not my business,” I answered gruffly. I thought this flippancy very much misplaced.
“Or you might telegraph back to England, to London, to Scotland Yard: ’The woman Blair in the Engadine express. Wire along the line to authorities, French and Swiss, to look out for her and arrest preparatory to extradition.’”
“I would much rather not continue this conversation, Mrs. Blair.”
“I am not ‘Mrs. Blair,’” she cried, laughing merrily as at a tremendous joke. “It is only one of my aliases. I am better known as Slippery Sue, and the Countess of Plantagenet, and the Sly American, and dashing Mrs. Mortimer, and—”
“Oh, please, please spare me. It does not matter, not a row of pins, what you are called. I would rather not have the whole list,” I interrupted her, but could not check her restless tongue.
“You shall hear, you must know all about me and my famous exploits. I was the heroine of that robbery at Buckingham Palace. I was at the State Ball, and made a fine harvest of jewels. I have swept a dozen country-houses clean; I have picked pockets and lifted old lace from the shop counters, and embezzled and forged—”
“And turned pirate, and held up trains, and robbed the Bank of England,” I added, falling into her humour and laughing as she rose to her full height; and again her mood changed, dominating me with imperious air, her voice icily cold in manner, grave and repellent.
“Why not? I am a thief; you believe me to be a common thief.”
I was too much taken aback to do better than stammer out helplessly, hopelessly, almost unintelligibly, a few words striving to remind her of her own admission. Nothing, indeed, could take the sting out of this, and yet it was all but impossible to accuse her, to blame her even for what she had done.
She read that in my eyes, in my abashed face, my hands held out deprecating her wrath, and her next words had a note of conciliation in them.
“There are degrees of wrong-doing, shades of guilt,” she said. “Crimes, offences, misdeeds, call them as you please, are not absolutely unpardonable; in some respects they are excusable, if not justifiable. Do you believe that?”
“I should like to do so in your case,” I replied gently. “You know I am still quite in the dark.”