"Yes, I DO ask that."
"What have I to do with your determination?"
"You shall hear. There are certain events in Sir Percival's past life which it is necessary for my purpose to be fully acquainted with. YOU know them--and for that reason I come to YOU."
"What events do you mean?"
I had reached the woman at last through the barrier of impenetrable reserve that she had tried to set up between us. I saw her temper smouldering in her eyes--as plainly as I saw her hands grow restless, then unclasp themselves, and begin mechanically smoothing her dress over her knees.
"What do you know of those events?" she asked.
"All that Mrs. Clements could tell me," I answered.
There was a momentary flush on her firm square face, a momentary stillness in her restless hands, which seemed to betoken a coming outburst of anger that might throw her off her guard. But no--she mastered the rising irritation, leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms on her broad bosom, and with a smile of grim sarcasm on her thick lips, looked at me as steadily as ever.
"Ah! I begin to understand it all now," she said, her tamed and disciplined anger only expressing itself in the elaborate mockery of her tone and manner. "You have got a grudge of your own against Sir Percival Glyde, and I must help you to wreak it. I must tell you this, that, and the other about Sir Percival and myself, must I? Yes, indeed? You have been prying into my private affairs. You think you have found a lost woman to deal with, who lives here on sufferance, and who will do anything you ask for fear you may injure her in the opinions of the town's-people. I see through you and your precious speculation--I do! and it amuses me. Ha! ha!"
She stopped for a moment, her arms tightened over her bosom, and she laughed to herself--a hard, harsh, angry laugh.
"You don't know how I have lived in this place, and what I have done in this place, Mr. What's-your-name," she went on. "I'll tell you, before I ring the bell and have you shown out. I came here a wronged woman--I came here robbed of my character and determined to claim it back. I've been years and years about it-- and I HAVE claimed it back. I have matched the respectable people fairly and openly on their own ground. If they say anything against me now they must say it in secret--they can't say it, they daren't say it, openly. I stand high enough in this town to be out of your reach. THE CLERGYMAN BOWS TO ME. Aha! you didn't bargain for that when you came here. Go to the church and inquire about me--you will find Mrs. Catherick has her sitting like the rest of them, and pays the rent on the day it's due. Go to the town-hall. There's a petition lying there--a petition of the respectable inhabitants against allowing a circus to come and perform here and corrupt our morals--yes! OUR morals. I signed that petition this morning. Go to the bookseller's shop. The clergyman's Wednesday evening Lectures on Justification by Faith are publishing there by subscription--I'm down on the list. The doctor's wife only put a shilling in the plate at our last charity sermon--I put half-a-crown. Mr. Churchwarden Soward held the plate, and bowed to me. Ten years ago he told Pigrum the chemist I ought to be whipped out of the town at the cart's tail. Is your mother alive? Has she got a better Bible on her table than I have got on mine? Does she stand better with her trades-people than I do with mine? Has she always lived within her income? I have always lived within mine. Ah! there IS the clergyman coming along the square. Look, Mr. What's-your-name--look, if you please!"
She started up with the activity of a young woman, went to the window, waited till the clergyman passed, and bowed to him solemnly. The clergyman ceremoniously raised his hat, and walked on. Mrs. Catherick returned to her chair, and looked at me with a grimmer sarcasm than ever.
"There!" she said. "What do you think of that for a woman with a lost character? How does your speculation look now?"
The singular manner in which she had chosen to assert herself, the extraordinary practical vindication of her position in the town which she had just offered, had so perplexed me that I listened to her in silent surprise. I was not the less resolved, however, to make another effort to throw her off her guard. If the woman's fierce temper once got beyond her control, and once flamed out on me, she might yet say the words which would put the clue in my hands.
"How does your speculation look now?" she repeated.
"Exactly as it looked when I first came in," I answered. "I don't doubt the position you have gained in the town, and I don't wish to assail it even if I could. I came here because Sir Percival Glyde is, to my certain knowledge, your enemy, as well as mine. If I have a grudge against him, you have a grudge against him too. You may deny it if you like, you may distrust me as much as you please, you may be as angry as you will--but, of all the women in England, you, if you have any sense of injury, are the woman who ought to help me to crush that man."
"Crush him for yourself," she said; "then come back here, and see what I say to you."
She spoke those words as she had not spoken yet, quickly, fiercely, vindictively. I had stirred in its lair the serpent- hatred of years, but only for a moment. Like a lurking reptile it leaped up at me as she eagerly bent forward towards the place in which I was sitting. Like a lurking reptile it dropped out of sight again as she instantly resumed her former position in the chair.