Madame Fosco looked for her orders again, got them again, said she would prefer leaving us to our business, and resolutely walked out. The Count lit a cigarette, went back to the flowers in the window, and puffed little jets of smoke at the leaves, in a state of the deepest anxiety about killing the insects.

Meanwhile Sir Percival unlocked a cupboard beneath one of the book-cases, and produced from it a piece of parchment, folded longwise, many times over. He placed it on the table, opened the last fold only, and kept his hand on the rest. The last fold displayed a strip of blank parchment with little wafers stuck on it at certain places. Every line of the writing was hidden in the part which he still held folded up under his hand. Laura and I looked at each other. Her face was pale, but it showed no indecision and no fear.

Sir Percival dipped a pen in ink, and handed it to his wife.

`Sign your name there,' he said, pointing to the place. `You and Fosco are to sign afterwards, Miss Halcombe, opposite those two wafers. Come here, Fosco! witnessing a signature is not to be done by mooning out of window and smoking into the flowers.'

The Count threw away his cigarette, and joined us at the table, with his hands carelessly thrust into the scarlet belt of his blouse, and his eyes steadily fixed on Sir Percival's face. Laura, who was on the other side of her husband, with the pen in her hand, looked at him too. He stood between them, holding the folded parchment down firmly on the table, and glancing across at me, as I sat opposite to him, with such a sinister mixture of suspicion and embarrassment on his face, that he looked more like a prisoner at the bar than a gentleman in his own house.

`Sign there,' he repeated, turning suddenly on Laura, and pointing once more to the place on the parchment.

`What is it I am to sign?' she asked quietly.

`I have no time to explain,' he answered. `The dog-cart is at the door, and I must go directly. Besides, if I had time, you wouldn't understand. It is a purely formal document, full of legal technicalities, and all that sort of thing. Come! come I sign your name, and let us have done as soon as possible.'

`I ought surely to know what I am signing, Sir Percival, before I write my name?'

`Nonsense! What have women to do with business? I tell you again, you can't understand it.'

`At any rate, let me try to understand it. Whenever Mr Gilmore had any business for me to do, he always explained it first, and I always understood him.'

`l dare say he did. He was your servant, and was obliged to explain. I am your husband, and am not obliged. How much longer do you mean to keep me here? I tell you again, there is no time for reading anything -- the dog-cart is waiting at the door. Once for all, will you sign or will you not?'

She still had the pen in her hand, but she made no approach to signing her name with it.

`If my signature pledges me to anything,' she said, `surely I have some claim to know what that pledge is?'

He lifted up the parchment, and struck it angrily on the table.

`Speak out!' he said. `You were always famous for telling the truth. Never mind Miss Halcombe, never mind Fosco -- say, in plain terms, you distrust me.'

The Count took one of his hands out of his belt and laid it on Sir Percival's shoulder. Sir Percival shook it off irritably. The Count put it on again with unruffled composure.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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