"I don't understand you," she said, after evidently trying hard, and trying in vain, to discover the meaning of the words I had last said to her.
"How long?" she repeated. "I stayed with Mrs. Clements till we both came to this place, two days ago."
"You are living in the village, then?" I said. "It is strange I should not have heard of you, though you have only been here two days."
"No, no, not in the village. Three miles away at a farm. Do you know the farm? They call it Todd's Corner."
I remembered the place perfectly--we had often passed by it in our drives. It was one of the oldest farms in the neighbourhood, situated in a solitary, sheltered spot, inland at the junction of two hills.
"They are relations of Mrs. Clements at Todd's Corner," she went on, "and they had often asked her to go and see them. She said she would go, and take me with her, for the quiet and the fresh air. It was very kind, was it not? I would have gone anywhere to be quiet, and safe, and out of the way. But when I heard that Todd's Corner was near Limmeridge--oh! I was so happy I would have walked all the way barefoot to get there, and see the schools and the village and Limmeridge House again. They are very good people at Todd's Corner. I hope I shall stay there a long time. There is only one thing I don't like about them, and don't like about Mrs. Clements----"
"What is it?"
"They will tease me about dressing all in white--they say it looks so particular. How do they know? Mrs. Fairlie knew best. Mrs. Fairlie would never have made me wear this ugly blue cloak! Ah! she was fond of white in her lifetime, and here is white stone about her grave--and I am making it whiter for her sake. She often wore white herself, and she always dressed her little daughter in white. Is Miss Fairlie well and happy? Does she wear white now, as she used when she was a girl?"
Her voice sank when she put the questions about Miss Fairlie, and she turned her head farther and farther away from me. I thought I detected, in the alteration of her manner, an uneasy consciousness of the risk she had run in sending the anonymous letter, and I instantly determined so to frame my answer as to surprise her into owning it.
"Miss Fairlie was not very well or very happy this morning," I said.
She murmured a few words, but they were spoken so confusedly, and in such a low tone, that I could not even guess at what they meant.
"Did you ask me why Miss Fairlie was neither well nor happy this morning?" I continued.
"No," she said quickly and eagerly--"oh no, I never asked that."
"I will tell you without your asking," I went on. "Miss Fairlie has received your letter."
She had been down on her knees for some little time past, carefully removing the last weather-stains left about the inscription while we were speaking together. The first sentence of the words I had just addressed to her made her pause in her occupation, and turn slowly without rising from her knees, so as to face me. The second sentence literally petrified her. The cloth she had been holding dropped from her hands--her lips fell apart--all the little colour that there was naturally in her face left it in an instant.
"How do you know?" she said faintly. "Who showed it to you?" The blood rushed back into her face--rushed overwhelmingly, as the sense rushed upon her mind that her own words had betrayed her. She struck her hands together in despair. "I never wrote it," she gasped affrightedly; "I know nothing about it!"
"Yes," I said, "you wrote it, and you know about it. It was wrong to send such a letter, it was wrong to frighten Miss Fairlie. If you had anything to say that it was right and necessary for her to hear, you should have gone yourself to Limmeridge House--you should have spoken to the young lady with your own lips."
She crouched down over the flat stone of the grave, till her face was hidden on it, and made no reply.
"Miss Fairlie will be as good and kind to you as her mother was, if you mean well," I went on. "Miss Fairlie will keep your secret, and not let you come to any harm. Will you see her to- morrow at the farm? Will you meet her in the garden at Limmeridge House?"
"Oh, if I could die, and be hidden and at rest with YOU!" Her lips murmured the words close on the grave-stone, murmured them in tones of passionate endearment, to the dead remains beneath. "You know how I love your child, for your sake! Oh, Mrs. Fairlie! Mrs. Fairlie! tell me how to save her. Be my darling and my mother once more, and tell me what to do for the best."
I heard her lips kissing the stone--I saw her hands beating on it passionately. The sound and the sight deeply affected me. I stooped down, and took the poor helpless hands tenderly in mine, and tried to soothe her.
It was useless. She snatched her hands from me, and never moved her face from the stone. Seeing the urgent necessity of quieting her at any hazard and by any means, I appealed to the only anxiety that she appeared to feel, in connection with me and with my opinion of her--the anxiety to convince me of her fitness to be mistress of her own actions.
"Come, come," I said gently. "Try to compose yourself, or you will make me alter my opinion of you. Don't let me think that the person who put you in the Asylum might have had some excuse----"
The next words died away on my lips. The instant I risked that chance reference to the person who had put her in the Asylum she sprang up on her knees. A most extraordinary and startling change passed over her. Her face, at all ordinary times so touching to look at, in its nervous sensitiveness, weakness, and uncertainty, became suddenly darkened by an expression of maniacally intense hatred and fear, which communicated a wild, unnatural force to every feature. Her eyes dilated in the dim evening light, like the eyes of a wild animal. She caught up the cloth that had fallen at her side, as if it had been a living creature that she could kill, and crushed it in both her hands with such convulsive strength, that the few drops of moisture left in it trickled down on the stone beneath her.