It was clear that the series of deceptions which had removed Anne Catherick to London, and separated her from Mrs. Clements, had been accomplished solely by Count Fosco and the Countess, and the question whether any part of the conduct of husband or wife had been of a kind to place either of them within reach of the law might be well worthy of future consideration. But the purpose I had now in view led me in another direction than this. The immediate object of my visit to Mrs. Clements was to make some approach at least to the discovery of Sir Percival's secret, and she had said nothing as yet which advanced me on my way to that important end. I felt the necessity of trying to awaken her recollections of other times, persons, and events than those on which her memory had hitherto been employed, and when I next spoke I spoke with that object indirectly in view.
"I wish I could be of any help to you in this sad calamity," I said. "All I can do is to feel heartily for your distress. If Anne had been your own child, Mrs. Clements, you could have shown her no truer kindness--you could have made no readier sacrifices for her sake."
"There's no great merit in that, sir," said Mrs. Clements simply. "The poor thing was as good as my own child to me. I nursed her from a baby, sir, bringing her up by hand--and a hard job it was to rear her. It wouldn't go to my heart so to lose her if I hadn't made her first short clothes and taught her to walk. I always said she was sent to console me for never having chick or child of my own. And now she's lost the old times keep coming back to my mind, and even at my age I can't help crying about her-- I can't indeed, sir!"
I waited a little to give Mrs. Clements time to compose herself. Was the light that I had been looking for so long glimmering on me--far off, as yet--in the good woman's recollections of Anne's early life?
"Did you know Mrs. Catherick before Anne was born?" I asked.
"Not very long, sir--not above four months. We saw a great deal of each other in that time, but we were never very friendly together."
Her voice was steadier as she made that reply. Painful as many of her recollections might be, I observed that it was unconsciously a relief to her mind to revert to the dimly-seen troubles of the past, after dwelling so long on the vivid sorrows of the present.
"Were you and Mrs. Catherick neighbours?" I inquired, leading her memory on as encouragingly as I could.
"Yes, sir--neighbours at Old Welmingham."
"OLD Welmingham? There are two places of that name, then, in Hampshire?"
"Well, sir, there used to be in those days--better than three-and- twenty years ago. They built a new town about two miles off, convenient to the river--and Old Welmingham, which was never much more than a village, got in time to be deserted. The new town is the place they call Welmingham now--but the old parish church is the parish church still. It stands by itself, with the houses pulled down or gone to ruin all round it. I've lived to see sad changes. It was a pleasant, pretty place in my time."
"Did you live there before your marriage, Mrs. Clements?"
"No, sir--I'm a Norfolk woman. It wasn't the place my husband belonged to either. He was from Grimsby, as I told you, and he served his apprenticeship there. But having friends down south, and hearing of an opening, he got into business at Southampton. It was in a small way, but he made enough for a plain man to retire on, and settled at Old Welmingham. I went there with him when he married me. We were neither of us young, but we lived very happy together--happier than our neighbour, Mr. Catherick, lived along with his wife when they came to Old Welmingham a year or two afterwards."
"Was your husband acquainted with them before that?"
"With Catherick, sir--not with his wife. She was a stranger to both of us. Some gentlemen had made interest for Catherick, and he got the situation of clerk at Welmingham church, which was the reason of his coming to settle in our neighbourhood. He brought his newly-married wife along with him, and we heard in course of time she had been lady's-maid in a family that lived at Varneck Hall, near Southampton. Catherick had found it a hard matter to get her to marry him, in consequence of her holding herself uncommonly high. He had asked and asked, and given the thing up at last, seeing she was so contrary about it. When he HAD given it up she turned contrary just the other way, and came to him of her own accord, without rhyme or reason seemingly. My poor husband always said that was the time to have given her a lesson. But Catherick was too fond of her to do anything of the sort--he never checked her either before they were married or after. He was a quick man in his feelings, letting them carry him a deal too far, now in one way and now in another, and he would have spoilt a better wife than Mrs. Catherick if a better had married him. I don't like to speak ill of any one, sir, but she was a heartless woman, with a terrible will of her own--fond of foolish admiration and fine clothes, and not caring to show so much as decent outward respect to Catherick, kindly as he always treated her. My husband said he thought things would turn out badly when they first came to live near us, and his words proved true. Before they had been quite four months in our neighbourhood there was a dreadful scandal and a miserable break-up in their household. Both of them were in fault--I am afraid both of them were equally in fault."
"You mean both husband and wife?"
"Oh, no, sir! I don't mean Catherick--he was only to be pitied. I meant his wife and the person--"
"And the person who caused the scandal?"