"Talk of something else," she said, whispering through her teeth. "I shall lose myself if you talk of that."
Every vestige of the gentler thoughts which had filled her mind hardly a minute since seemed to be swept from it now. It was evident that the impression left by Mrs. Fairlie's kindness was not, as I had supposed, the only strong impression on her memory. With the grateful remembrance of her school-days at Limmeridge, there existed the vindictive remembrance of the wrong inflicted on her by her confinement in the Asylum. Who had done that wrong? Could it really be her mother?
It was hard to give up pursuing the inquiry to that final point, but I forced myself to abandon all idea of continuing it. Seeing her as I saw her now, it would have been cruel to think of anything but the necessity and the humanity of restoring her composure.
"I will talk of nothing to distress you," I said soothingly.
"You want something," she answered sharply and suspiciously. "Don't look at me like that. Speak to me--tell me what you want."
"I only want you to quiet yourself, and when you are calmer, to think over what I have said."
"Said?" She paused--twisted the cloth in her hands, backwards and forwards, and whispered to herself, "What is it he said?" She turned again towards me, and shook her head impatiently. "Why don't you help me?" she asked, with angry suddenness.
"Yes, yes," I said, "I will help you, and you will soon remember. I ask you to see Miss Fairlie to-morrow and to tell her the truth about the letter."
"Ah! Miss Fairlie--Fairlie--Fairlie----"
The mere utterance of the loved familiar name seemed to quiet her. Her face softened and grew like itself again.
"You need have no fear of Miss Fairlie," I continued, "and no fear of getting into trouble through the letter. She knows so much about it already, that you will have no difficulty in telling her all. There can be little necessity for concealment where there is hardly anything left to conceal. You mention no names in the letter; but Miss Fairlie knows that the person you write of is Sir Percival Glyde----"
The instant I pronounced that name she started to her feet, and a scream burst from her that rang through the churchyard, and made my heart leap in me with the terror of it. The dark deformity of the expression which had just left her face lowered on it once more, with doubled and trebled intensity. The shriek at the name, the reiterated look of hatred and fear that instantly followed, told all. Not even a last doubt now remained. Her mother was guiltless of imprisoning her in the Asylum. A man had shut her up--and that man was Sir Percival Glyde.
The scream had reached other ears than mine. On one side I heard the door of the sexton's cottage open; on the other I heard the voice of her companion, the woman in the shawl, the woman whom she had spoken of as Mrs. Clements.
"I'm coming! I'm coming!" cried the voice from behind the clump of dwarf trees.
In a moment more Mrs. Clements hurried into view.
"Who are you?" she cried, facing me resolutely as she set her foot on the stile. "How dare you frighten a poor helpless woman like that?"
She was at Anne Catherick's side, and had put one arm around her, before I could answer. "What is it, my dear?" she said. "What has he done to you?"
"Nothing," the poor creature answered. "Nothing. I'm only frightened."
Mrs. Clements turned on me with a fearless indignation, for which I respected her.
"I should be heartily ashamed of myself if I deserved that angry look," I said. "But I do not deserve it. I have unfortunately startled her without intending it. This is not the first time she has seen me. Ask her yourself, and she will tell you that I am incapable of willingly harming her or any woman."
I spoke distinctly, so that Anne Catherick might hear and understand me, and I saw that the words and their meaning had reached her.
"Yes, yes," she said--"he was good to me once--he helped me----" She whispered the rest into her friend's ear.
"Strange, indeed!" said Mrs. Clements, with a look of perplexity. "It makes all the difference, though. I'm sorry I spoke so rough to you, sir; but you must own that appearances looked suspicious to a stranger. It's more my fault than yours, for humouring her whims, and letting her be alone in such a place as this. Come, my dear--come home now."
I thought the good woman looked a little uneasy at the prospect of the walk back, and I offered to go with them until they were both within sight of home. Mrs. Clements thanked me civilly, and declined. She said they were sure to meet some of the farm- labourers as soon as they got to the moor.
"Try to forgive me," I said, when Anne Catherick took her friend's arm to go away. Innocent as I had been of any intention to terrify and agitate her, my heart smote me as I looked at the poor, pale, frightened face.
"I will try," she answered. "But you know too much--I'm afraid you'll always frighten me now."
Mrs. Clements glanced at me, and shook her head pityingly.
"Good-night, sir," she said. "You couldn't help it, I know but I wish it was me you had frightened, and not her."
They moved away a few steps. I thought they had left me, but Anne suddenly stopped, and separated herself from her friend.
"Wait a little," she said. "I must say good-bye."
She returned to the grave, rested both hands tenderly on the marble cross, and kissed it.
"I'm better now," she sighed, looking up at me quietly. "I forgive you."
She joined her companion again, and they left the burial-ground. I saw them stop near the church and speak to the sexton's wife, who had come from the cottage, and had waited, watching us from a distance. Then they went on again up the path that led to the moor. I looked after Anne Catherick as she disappeared, till all trace of her had faded in the twilight--looked as anxiously and sorrowfully as if that was the last I was to see in this weary world of the woman in white.