Chapter 16

WE found my lady with no light in the room but the reading-lamp. The shade was screwed down so as to overshadow her face, Instead of looking up at us in her usual straightforward way, she sat close at the table, and kept her eyes fixed obstinately on an open book.

`Officer,' she said, `is it important to the inquiry you are conducting, to know beforehand if any person now in this house wishes to leave it?'

`Most important, my lady.'

`I have to tell you, then, that Miss Verinder proposes going to stay with her aunt, Mrs. Ablewhite, of Frizinghall. She has arranged to leave us the first thing to-morrow morning.'

Sergeant Cuff looked at me. I made a step forward to speak to my mistress--and, feeling my heart fail me (if I must own it), took a step back again, and said nothing.

`May I ask your ladyship when Miss Verinder informed you that she was going to her aunt's?' inquired the Sergeant.

`About an hour since,' answered my mistress.

Sergeant Cuff looked at me once more. They say old people's hearts are not very easily moved. My heart couldn't have thumped much harder than it did now, if I had been five-and-twenty again!

`I have no claim, my lady,' says the Sergeant, `to control Miss Verinder's actions. All I can ask you to do is to put off her departure, if possible, till later in the day. I must go to Frizinghall myself to-morrow morning -- and I shall be back by two o'clock, if not before. If Miss Verinder can be kept here till that time, I should wish to say two words to her -- unexpectedly -- before she goes.'

My lady directed me to give the coachman her orders, that the carriage was not to come for Miss Rachel until two o'clock. `Have you more to say?' she asked of the Sergeant, when this had been done.

`Only one thing, your ladyship. If Miss Verinder is surprised at this change in the arrangements, please not to mention Me as being the cause of putting off her journey.'

My mistress lifted her head suddenly from her book as if she was going to say something -- checked herself by a great effort -- and, looking back again at the open page, dismissed us with a sign of her hand.

`That's a wonderful woman,' said Sergeant Cuff, when we were out in the hall again. `But for her self- control, the mystery that puzzles you, Mr. Betteredge, would have been at an end to-night.'

At those words, the truth rushed at last into my stupid old head. For the moment, I suppose I must have gone clean out of my senses. I seized the Sergeant by the collar of his coat, and pinned him against the wall.

`Damn you!' I cried out, `there's something wrong about Miss Rachel -- and you have been hiding it from me all this time!'

Sergeant Cuff looked up at me -- flat against the wall -- without stirring a hand, or moving a muscle of his melancholy face.

`Ah,' he said, `you've guessed it at last.'

My hand dropped from his collar, and my head sunk on my breast. Please to remember, as some excuse for my breaking out as I did, that I had served the family for fifty years. Miss Rachel had climbed upon my knees, and pulled my whiskers, many and many a time when she was a child. Miss Rachel, with

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