"I am near nineteen: but I am not married. No."
I felt a burning glow mount to my face; for bitter and agitating recollections were awakened by the allusion to marriage. They all saw the embarrassment and the emotion. Diana and Mary relieved me by turning their eyes elsewhere than to my crimsoned visage; but the colder and sterner brother continued to gaze, till the trouble he had excited forced out tears as well as colour.
"Where did you last reside?" he now asked.
"You are too inquisitive, St. John," murmured Mary in a low voice; but he leaned over the table and required an answer by a second firm and piercing look.
"The name of the place where, and of the person with whom I lived, is my secret," I replied concisely.
"Which, if you like, you have, in my opinion, a right to keep, both from St. John and every other questioner," remarked Diana.
"Yet if I know nothing about you or your history, I cannot help you," he said. "And you need help, do you not?"
"I need it, and I seek it so far, sir, that some true philanthropist will put me in the way of getting work which I can do, and the remuneration for which will keep me, if but in the barest necessaries of life."
"I know not whether I am a true philanthropist; yet I am willing to aid you to the utmost of my power in a purpose so honest. First, then, tell me what you have been accustomed to do, and what youcando."
I had now swallowed my tea. I was mightily refreshed by the beverage; as much so as a giant with wine: it gave new tone to my unstrung nerves, and enabled me to address this penetrating young judge steadily.
"Mr. Rivers," I said, turning to him, and looking at him, as he looked at me, openly and without diffidence, "you and your sisters have done me a great service - the greatest man can do his fellow-being; you have rescued me, by your noble hospitality, from death. This benefit conferred gives you an unlimited claim on my gratitude, and a claim, to a certain extent, on my confidence. I will tell you as much of the history of the wanderer you have harboured, as I can tell without compromising my own peace of mind - my own security, moral and physical, and that of others.
"I am an orphan, the daughter of a clergyman. My parents died before I could know them. I was brought up a dependant; educated in a charitable institution. I will even tell you the name of the establishment, where I passed six years as a pupil, and two as a teacher - Lowood Orphan Asylum, ---shire: you will have heard of it, Mr. Rivers? - the Rev. Robert Brocklehurst is the treasurer."
"I have heard of Mr. Brocklehurst, and I have seen the school."
"I left Lowood nearly a year since to become a private governess. I obtained a good situation, and was happy. This place I was obliged to leave four days before I came here. The reason of my departure I cannot and ought not to explain: it would be useless, dangerous, and would sound incredible. No blame attached to me: I am as free from culpability as any one of you three. Miserable I am, and must be for a time; for the catastrophe which drove me from a house I had found a paradise was of a strange and direful nature. I observed but two points in planning my departure - speed, secrecy: to secure these, I had to leave behind me everything I possessed except a small parcel; which, in my hurry and trouble of mind, I forgot to take out of the coach that brought me to Whitcross. To this neighbourhood, then, I came, quite destitute. I slept two nights in the open air, and wandered about two days without crossing a threshold: but twice in that space of time did I taste food; and it was when brought by hunger, exhaustion, and despair almost to the last gasp, that you, Mr. Rivers, forbade me to perish of want at your door, and took me under the shelter of your roof. I know all your sisters have done for me since - for I have not been insensible during my seeming torpor - and I owe to their spontaneous, genuine, genial compassion as large a debt as to your evangelical charity."
"Don't make her talk any more now, St. John," said Diana, as I paused; "she is evidently not yet fit for excitement. Come to the sofa and sit down now, Miss Elliott."
I gave an involuntary half start at hearing thealias: I had forgotten my new name. Mr. Rivers, whom nothing seemed to escape, noticed it at once.
"You said your name was Jane Elliott?" he observed.
"I did say so; and it is the name by which I think it expedient to be called at present, but it is not my real name, and when I hear it, it sounds strange to me."
"Your real name you will not give?"
"No: I fear discovery above all things; and whatever disclosure would lead to it, I avoid."
"You are quite right, I am sure," said Diana. "Now do, brother, let her be at peace a while."
But when St. John had mused a few moments he recommenced as imperturbably and with as much acumen as ever.
"You would not like to be long dependent on our hospitality - you would wish, I see, to dispense as soon as may be with my sisters' compassion, and, above all, with mycharity(I am quite sensible of the distinction drawn, nor do I resent it - it is just): you desire to be independent of us?"
"I do: I have already said so. Show me how to work, or how to seek work: that is all I now ask; then let me go, if it be but to the meanest cottage; but till then, allow me to stay here: I dread another essay of the horrors of homeless destitution."
"Indeed youshallstay here," said Diana, putting her white hand on my head. "Youshall," repeated Mary, in the tone of undemonstrative sincerity which seemed natural to her.
"My sisters, you see, have a pleasure in keeping you," said Mr. St. John, "as they would have a pleasure in keeping and cherishing a half-frozen bird, some wintry wind might have driven through their casement. I feel more inclination to put you in the way of keeping yourself, and shall endeavour to do so; but observe, my sphere is narrow. I am but the incumbent of a poor country parish: my aid must be of the humblest sort. And if you are inclined to despise the day of small things, seek some more efficient succour than such as I can offer."
"She has already said that she is willing to do anything honest she can do," answered Diana for me; "and you know, St. John, she has no choice of helpers: she is forced to put up with such crusty people as you."
"I will be a dressmaker; I will be a plain-workwoman; I will be a servant, a nurse-girl, if I can be no better," I answered.
"Right," said Mr. St. John, quite coolly. "If such is your spirit, I promise to aid you, in my own time and way."
He now resumed the book with which he had been occupied before tea. I soon withdrew, for I had talked as much, and sat up as long, as my present strength would permit.