"I suppose you often saw Sir Percival when he was in your village?" I said.
"Yes, sir, very often," replied Mrs. Clements.
"Did you ever observe that Anne was like him?"
"She was not at all like him, sir."
"Was she like her mother, then?"
"Not like her mother either, sir. Mrs. Catherick was dark, and full in the face."
Not like her mother and not like her (supposed) father. I knew that the test by personal resemblance was not to be implicitly trusted, but, on the other hand, it was not to be altogether rejected on that account. Was it possible to strengthen the evidence by discovering any conclusive facts in relation to the lives of Mrs. Catherick and Sir Percival before they either of them appeared at Old Welmingham? When I asked my next questions I put them with this view.
"When Sir Percival first arrived in your neighbourhood," I said, "did you hear where he had come from last?"
"No, sir. Some said from Blackwater Park, and some said from Scotland--but nobody knew."
"Was Mrs. Catherick living in service at Varneck Hall immediately before her marriage?"
"And had she been long in her place?"
"Three or four years, sir; I am not quite certain which."
"Did you ever hear the name of the gentleman to whom Varneck Hall belonged at that time?"
"Yes, sir. His name was Major Donthorne."
"Did Mr. Catherick, or did any one else you knew, ever hear that Sir Percival was a friend of Major Donthorne's, or ever see Sir Percival in the neighbourhood of Varneck Hall?"
"Catherick never did, sir, that I can remember--nor any one else either, that I know of."
I noted down Major Donthorne's name and address, on the chance that he might still be alive, and that it might be useful at some future time to apply to him. Meanwhile, the impression on my mind was now decidedly adverse to the opinion that Sir Percival was Anne's father, and decidedly favourable to the conclusion that the secret of his stolen interviews with Mrs. Catherick was entirely unconnected with the disgrace which the woman had inflicted on her husband's good name. I could think of no further inquiries which I might make to strengthen this impression--I could only encourage Mrs. Clements to speak next of Anne's early days, and watch for any chance-suggestion which might in this way offer itself to me.
"I have not heard yet," I said, "how the poor child, born in all this sin and misery, came to be trusted, Mrs. Clements, to your care."
"There was nobody else, sir, to take the little helpless creature in hand," replied Mrs. Clements. "The wicked mother seemed to hate it--as if the poor baby was in fault!--from the day it was born. My heart was heavy for the child, and I made the offer to bring it up as tenderly as if it was my own."
"Did Anne remain entirely under your care from that time?"
"Not quite entirely, sir. Mrs. Catherick had her whims and fancies about it at times, and used now and then to lay claim to the child, as if she wanted to spite me for bringing it up. But these fits of hers never lasted for long. Poor little Anne was always returned to me, and was always glad to get back--though she led but a gloomy life in my house, having no playmates, like other children, to brighten her up. Our longest separation was when her mother took her to Limmeridge. Just at that time I lost my husband, and I felt it was as well, in that miserable affliction, that Anne should not be in the house. She was between ten and eleven years old then, slow at her lessons, poor soul, and not so cheerful as other children--but as pretty a little girl to look at as you would wish to see. I waited at home till her mother brought her back, and then I made the offer to take her with me to London--the truth being, sir, that I could not find it in my heart to stop at Old Welmingham after my husband's death, the place was so changed and so dismal to me."
"And did Mrs. Catherick consent to your proposal?"
"No, sir. She came back from the north harder and bitterer than ever. Folks did say that she had been obliged to ask Sir Percival's leave to go, to begin with; and that she only went to nurse her dying sister at Limmeridge because the poor woman was reported to have saved money--the truth being that she hardly left enough to bury her. These things may have soured Mrs. Catherick likely enough, but however that may be, she wouldn't hear of my taking the child away. She seemed to like distressing us both by parting us. All I could do was to give Anne my direction, and to tell her privately, if she was ever in trouble, to come to me. But years passed before she was free to come. I never saw her again, poor soul, till the night she escaped from the mad-house."
"You know, Mrs. Clements, why Sir Percival Glyde shut her up?"
"I only know what Anne herself told me, sir. The poor thing used to ramble and wander about it sadly. She said her mother had got some secret of Sir Percival's to keep, and had let it out to her long after I left Hampshire--and when Sir Percival found she knew it, he shut her up. But she never could say what it was when I asked her. All she could tell me was, that her mother might be the ruin and destruction of Sir Percival if she chose. Mrs. Catherick may have let out just as much as that, and no more. I'm next to certain I should have heard the whole truth from Anne, if she had really known it as she pretended to do, and as she very likely fancied she did, poor soul."
This idea had more than once occurred to my own mind. I had already told Marian that I doubted whether Laura was really on the point of making any important discovery when she and Anne Catherick were disturbed by Count Fosco at the boat-house. It was perfectly in character with Anne's mental affliction that she should assume an absolute knowledge of the secret on no better grounds than vague suspicion, derived from hints which her mother had incautiously let drop in her presence. Sir Percival's guilty distrust would, in that case, infallibly inspire him with the false idea that Anne knew all from her mother, just as it had afterwards fixed in his mind the equally false suspicion that his wife knew all from Anne.
The time was passing, the morning was wearing away. It was doubtful, if I stayed longer, whether I should hear anything more from Mrs. Clements that would be at all useful to my purpose. I had already discovered those local and family particulars, in relation to Mrs. Catherick, of which I had been in search, and I had arrived at certain conclusions, entirely new to me, which might immensely assist in directing the course of my future proceedings. I rose to take my leave, and to thank Mrs. Clements for the friendly readiness she had shown in affording me information.
"I am afraid you must have thought me very inquisitive," I said. "I have troubled you with more questions than many people would have cared to answer."
"You are heartily welcome, sir, to anything I can tell you," answered Mrs. Clements. She stopped and looked at me wistfully. "But I do wish," said the poor woman, "you could have told me a little more about Anne, sir. I thought I saw something in your face when you came in which looked as if you could. You can't think how hard it is not even to know whether she is living or dead. I could bear it better if I was only certain. You said you never expected we should see her alive again. Do you know, sir-- do you know for truth--that it has pleased God to take her?"
I was not proof against this appeal, it would have been unspeakably mean and cruel of me if I had resisted it.
"I am afraid there is no doubt of the truth," I answered gently; "I have the certainty in my own mind that her troubles in this world are over."
The poor woman dropped into her chair and hid her face from me. "Oh, sir," she said, "how do you know it? Who can have told you?"
"No one has told me, Mrs. Clements. But I have reasons for feeling sure of it--reasons which I promise you shall know as soon as I can safely explain them. I am certain she was not neglected in her last moments--I am certain the heart complaint from which she suffered so sadly was the true cause of her death. You shall feel as sure of this as I do, soon--you shall know, before long, that she is buried in a quiet country churchyard--in a pretty, peaceful place, which you might have chosen for her yourself."
"Dead!" said Mrs. Clements, "dead so young, and I am left to hear it! I made her first short frocks. I taught her to walk. The first time she ever said Mother she said it to me--and now I am left and Anne is taken! Did you say, sir," said the poor woman, removing the handkerchief from her face, and looking up at me for the first time, "did you say that she had been nicely buried? Was it the sort of funeral she might have had if she had really been my own child?"
I assured her that it was. She seemed to take an inexplicable pride in my answer--to find a comfort in it which no other and higher considerations could afford. "It would have broken my heart," she said simply, "if Anne had not been nicely buried--but how do you know it, sir? who told you?" I once more entreated her to wait until I could speak to her unreservedly. "You are sure to see me again," I said, "for I have a favour to ask when you are a little more composed--perhaps in a day or two."
"Don't keep it waiting, sir, on my account," said Mrs. Clements. "Never mind my crying if I can be of use. If you have anything on your mind to say to me, sir, please to say it now."
"I only wish to ask you one last question," I said. "I only want to know Mrs. Catherick's address at Welmingham."
My request so startled Mrs. Clements, that, for the moment, even the tidings of Anne's death seemed to be driven from her mind. Her tears suddenly ceased to flow, and she sat looking at me in blank amazement.
"For the Lord's sake, sir!" she said, "what do you want with Mrs. Catherick!"
"I want this, Mrs. Clements," I replied, "I want to know the secret of those private meetings of hers with Sir Percival Glyde. There is something more in what you have told me of that woman's past conduct, and of that man's past relations with her, than you or any of your neighbours ever suspected. There is a secret we none of us know between those two, and I am going to Mrs. Catherick with the resolution to find it out."
"Think twice about it, sir!" said Mrs. Clements, rising in her earnestness and laying her hand on my arm. "She's an awful woman-- you don't know her as I do. Think twice about it."
"I am sure your warning is kindly meant, Mrs. Clements. But I am determined to see the woman, whatever comes of it."
Mrs. Clements looked me anxiously in the face.
"I see your mind is made up, sir," she said. "I will give you the address."
I wrote it down in my pocket-book and then took her hand to say farewell.
"You shall hear from me soon," I said; "you shall know all that I have promised to tell you."
Mrs. Clements sighed and shook her head doubtfully.
"An old woman's advice is sometimes worth taking, sir," she said. "Think twice before you go to Welmingham."