At last she looked up with something reckless and defiant in her manner.
"Well, I'll answer," she said. "What are your questions?"
"Did you correspond with Sir Charles?"
"I certainly wrote to him once or twice to acknowledge his delicacy and his generosity."
"Have you the dates of those letters?"
"Have you ever met him?"
"Yes, once or twice, when he came into Coombe Tracey. He was a very retiring man, and he preferred to do good by stealth."
"But if you saw him so seldom and wrote so seldom, how did he know enough about your affairs to be able to help you, as you say that he has done?"
She met my difficulty with the utmost readiness.
"There were several gentlemen who knew my sad history and united to help me. One was Mr. Stapleton, a neighbour and intimate friend of Sir Charles's. He was exceedingly kind, and it was through him that Sir Charles learned about my affairs."
I knew already that Sir Charles Baskerville had made Stapleton his almoner upon several occasions, so the lady's statement bore the impress of truth upon it.
"Did you ever write to Sir Charles asking him to meet you?" I continued.
Mrs. Lyons flushed with anger again.
"Really, sir, this is a very extraordinary question."
"I am sorry, madam, but I must repeat it."
"Then I answer, certainly not."
"Not on the very day of Sir Charles's death?"
The flush had faded in an instant, and a deathly face was before me. Her dry lips could not speak the "No" which I saw rather than heard.
"Surely your memory deceives you," said I. "I could even quote a passage of your letter. It ran 'Please, please, as you are a gentleman, burn this letter, and be at the gate by ten o'clock.'"
I thought that she had fainted, but she recovered herself by a supreme effort.
"Is there no such thing as a gentleman?" she gasped.
"You do Sir Charles an injustice. He did burn the letter. But sometimes a letter may be legible even when burned. You acknowledge now that you wrote it?"
"Yes, I did write it," she cried, pouring out her soul in a torrent of words. "I did write it. Why should I deny it? I have no reason to be ashamed of it. I wished him to help me. I believed that if I had an interview I could gain his help, so I asked him to meet me."
"But why at such an hour?"
"Because I had only just learned that he was going to London next day and might be away for months. There were reasons why I could not get there earlier."
"But why a rendezvous in the garden instead of a visit to the house?"
"Do you think a woman could go alone at that hour to a bachelor's house?"
"Well, what happened when you did get there?"
"I never went."
"No, I swear it to you on all I hold sacred. I never went. Something intervened to prevent my going."
"What was that?"
"That is a private matter. I cannot tell it."
"You acknowledge then that you made an appointment with Sir Charles at the very hour and place at which he met his death, but you deny that you kept the appointment."
"That is the truth."
Again and again I cross-questioned her, but I could never get past that point.
"Mrs. Lyons," said I, as I rose from this long and inconclusive interview, "you are taking a very great responsibility and putting yourself in a very false position by not making an absolutely clean breast of all that you know. If I have to call in the aid of the police you will find how seriously you are compromised. If your position is innocent, why did you in the first instance deny having written to Sir Charles upon that date?"
"Because I feared that some false conclusion might be drawn from it and that I might find myself involved in a scandal."
"And why were you so pressing that Sir Charles should destroy your letter?"
"If you have read the letter you will know."
"I did not say that I had read all the letter."
"You quoted some of it."
"I quoted the postscript. The letter had, as I said, been burned and it was not all legible. I ask you once again why it was that you were so pressing that Sir Charles should destroy this letter which he received on the day of his death."
"The matter is a very private one."
"The more reason why you should avoid a public investigation."
"I will tell you, then.