“She knew what we had come for, of course — that villain had lost no time in poisoning her mind against us. Miss Winter’s advent rather amazed her, I think, but she waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess receiving two rather leprous mendicants. If your head is inclined to swell, my dear Watson, take a course of Miss Violet de Merville.
“ ‘Well, sir,’ said she in a voice like the wind from an iceberg, ‘your name is familiar to me. You have called, as I understand, to malign my fiance, Baron Gruner. It is only by my father’s request that I see you at all, and I warn you in advance that anything you can say could not possibly have the slightest effect upon my mind.’
“I was sorry for her, Watson. I thought of her for the moment as I would have thought of a daughter of my own. I am not often eloquent. I use my head, not my heart. But I really did plead with her with all the warmth of words that I could find in my nature. I pictured to her the awful position of the woman who only wakes to a man’s character after she is his wife — a woman who has to submit to be caressed by bloody hands and lecherous lips. I spared her nothing — the shame, the fear, the agony, the hopelessness of it all. All my hot words could not bring one tinge of colour to those ivory cheeks or one gleam of emotion to those abstracted eyes. I thought of what the rascal had said about a post-hypnotic influence. One could really believe that she was living above the earth in some ecstatic dream. Yet there was nothing indefinite in her replies.
“ ‘I have listened to you with patience, Mr. Holmes,’ said she. ‘The effect upon my mind is exactly as predicted. I am aware that Adelbert, that my fiance, has had a stormy life in which he has incurred bitter hatreds and most unjust aspersions. You are only the last of a series who have brought their slanders before me. Possibly you mean well, though I learn that you are a paid agent who would have been equally willing to act for the Baron as against him. But in any case I wish you to understand once for all that I love him and that he loves me, and that the opinion of all the world is no more to me than the twitter of those birds outside the window. If his noble nature has ever for an instant fallen, it may be that I have been specially sent to raise it to its true and lofty level. I am not clear’ — here she turned eyes upon my companion — ‘who this young lady may be.’
“I was about to answer when the girl broke in like a whirlwind. If ever you saw flame and ice face to face, it was those two women.
“ ‘I’ll tell you who I am,’ she cried, springing out of her chair, her mouth all twisted with passion — ‘I am his last mistress. I am one of a hundred that he has tempted and used and ruined and thrown into the refuse heap, as he will you also. Your refuse heap is more likely to be a grave, and maybe that’s the best. I tell you, you foolish woman, if you marry this man he’ll be the death of you. It may be a broken heart or it may be a broken neck, but he’ll have you one way or the other. It‘s not out of love for you I’m speaking. I don‘t care a tinker’s curse whether you live or die. It’s out of hate for him and to spite him and to get back on him for what he did to me. But it’s all the same, and you needn’t look at me like that, my fine lady, for you may be lower than I am before you are through with it.’
“ ‘I should prefer not to discuss such matters,’ said Miss de Merville coldly. ‘Let me say once for all that I am aware of three passages in my fiance’s life in which he became entangled with designing women, and that I am assured of his hearty repentance for any evil that he may have done.’
“ ‘Three passages!’ screamed my companion. ‘You fool! You unutterable fool!’
“ ‘Mr. Holmes, I beg that you will bring this interview to an end,’ said the icy voice. ‘I have obeyed my father’s wish in seeing you, but I am not compelled to listen to the ravings of this person.’
“With an oath Miss Winter darted forward, and if I had not caught her wrist she would have clutched this maddening woman by the hair.