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  • 26/11/1859-25/8/1860
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write to the farm near Limmeridge (Todd’s Corner), to inquire whether Mrs. Clements had communicated with Mrs. Todd during the past few months. How Mrs. Clements had been separated from Anne it was impossible for us to say, but that separation once effected, it would certainly occur to Mrs. Clements to inquire after the missing woman in the neighbourhood of all others to which she was known to be most attached–the neighbourhood of Limmeridge. I saw directly that Marian’s proposal offered us a prospect of success, and she wrote to Mrs. Todd accordingly by that day’s post.

While we were waiting for the reply, I made myself master of all the information Marian could afford on the subject of Sir Percival’s family, and of his early life. She could only speak on these topics from hearsay, but she was reasonably certain of the truth of what little she had to tell.

Sir Percival was an only child. His father, Sir Felix Glyde, had suffered from his birth under a painful and incurable deformity, and had shunned all society from his earliest years. His sole happiness was in the enjoyment of music, and he had married a lady with tastes similar to his own, who was said to be a most accomplished musician. He inherited the Blackwater property while still a young man. Neither he nor his wife after taking possession, made advances of any sort towards the society of the neighbourhood, and no one endeavoured to tempt them into abandoning their reserve, with the one disastrous exception of the rector of the parish.

The rector was the worst of all innocent mischief-makers–an over- zealous man. He had heard that Sir Felix had left College with the character of being little better than a revolutionist in politics and an infidel in religion, and he arrived conscientiously at the conclusion that it was his bounden duty to summon the lord of the manor to hear sound views enunciated in the parish church. Sir Felix fiercely resented the clergyman’s well- meant but ill-directed interference, insulting him so grossly and so publicly, that the families in the neighbourhood sent letters of indignant remonstrance to the Park, and even the tenants of the Blackwater property expressed their opinion as strongly as they dared. The baronet, who had no country tastes of any kind, and no attachment to the estate or to any one living on it, declared that society at Blackwater should never have a second chance of annoying him, and left the place from that moment.

After a short residence in London he and his wife departed for the Continent, and never returned to England again. They lived part of the time in France and part in Germany–always keeping themselves in the strict retirement which the morbid sense of his own personal deformity had made a necessity to Sir Felix. Their son, Percival, had been born abroad, and had been educated there by private tutors. His mother was the first of his parents whom he lost. His father had died a few years after her, either in 1825 or 1826. Sir Percival had been in England, as a young man, once or twice before that period, but his acquaintance with the late Mr. Fairlie did not begin till after the time of his father’s death. They soon became very intimate, although Sir Percival was seldom, or never, at Limmeridge House in those days. Mr. Frederick Fairlie might have met him once or twice in Mr. Philip Fairlie’s company, but he could have known little of him at that or at any other time. Sir Percival’s only intimate friend in the Fairlie family had been Laura’s father.

These were all the particulars that I could gain from Marian. They suggested nothing which was useful to my present purpose, but I noted them down carefully, in the event of their proving to be of importance at any future period.

Mrs. Todd’s reply (addressed, by our own wish, to a post-office at some distance from us) had arrived at its destination when I went to apply for it. The chances, which had been all against us hitherto, turned from this moment in our favour. Mrs. Todd’s letter contained the first item of information of which we were in search.

Mrs. Clements, it appeared, had (as we had conjectured) written to Todd’s Corner, asking pardon in the first place for the abrupt manner in which she and Anne had left their friends at the farm- house (on the morning after I had met the woman in white in Limmeridge churchyard), and then informing Mrs. Todd of Anne’s disappearance, and entreating that she would cause inquiries to be made in the neighbourhood, on the chance that the lost woman might have strayed back to Limmeridge. In making this request, Mrs. Clements had been careful to add to it the address at which she might always be heard of, and that address Mrs. Todd now transmitted to Marian. It was in London, and within half an hour’s walk of our own lodging.

In the words of the proverb, I was resolved not to let the grass grow under my feet. The next morning I set forth to seek an interview with Mrs. Clements. This was my first step forward in the investigation. The story of the desperate attempt to which I now stood committed begins here.

VI

The address communicated by Mrs. Todd took me to a lodging-house situated in a respectable street near the Gray’s Inn Road.

When I knocked the door was opened by Mrs. Clements herself. She did not appear to remember me, and asked what my business was. I recalled to her our meeting in Limmeridge churchyard at the close of my interview there with the woman in white, taking special care to remind her that I was the person who assisted Anne Catherick (as Anne had herself declared) to escape the pursuit from the Asylum. This was my only claim to the confidence of Mrs. Clements. She remembered the circumstance the moment I spoke of it, and asked me into the parlour, in the greatest anxiety to know if I had brought her any news of Anne.

It was impossible for me to tell her the whole truth without, at the same time, entering into particulars on the subject of the conspiracy, which it would have been dangerous to confide to a stranger. I could only abstain most carefully from raising any false hopes, and then explain that the object of my visit was to discover the persons who were really responsible for Anne’s disappearance. I even added, so as to exonerate myself from any after-reproach of my own conscience, that I entertained not the least hope of being able to trace her–that I believed we should never see her alive again–and that my main interest in the affair was to bring to punishment two men whom I suspected to be concerned in luring her away, and at whose hands I and some dear friends of mine had suffered a grievous wrong. With this explanation I left it to Mrs. Clements to say whether our interest in the matter (whatever difference there might be in the motives which actuated us) was not the same, and whether she felt any reluctance to forward my object by giving me such information on the subject of my inquiries as she happened to possess.

The poor woman was at first too much confused and agitated to understand thoroughly what I said to her. She could only reply that I was welcome to anything she could tell me in return for the kindness I had shown to Anne; but as she was not very quick and ready, at the best of times, in talking to strangers, she would beg me to put her in the right way, and to say where I wished her to begin.

Knowing by experience that the plainest narrative attainable from persons who are not accustomed to arrange their ideas, is the narrative which goes far enough back at the beginning to avoid all impediments of retrospection in its course, I asked Mrs. Clements to tell me first what had happened after she had left Limmeridge, and so, by watchful questioning, carried her on from point to point, till we reached the period of Anne’s disappearance.

The substance of the information which I thus obtained was as follows:–

On leaving the farm at Todd’s Corner, Mrs. Clements and Anne had travelled that day as far as Derby, and had remained there a week on Anne’s account. They had then gone on to London, and had lived in the lodging occupied by Mrs. Clements at that time for a month or more, when circumstances connected with the house and the landlord had obliged them to change their quarters. Anne’s terror of being discovered in London or its neighbourhood, whenever they ventured to walk out, had gradually communicated itself to Mrs. Clements, and she had determined on removing to one of the most out-of-the-way places in England–to the town of Grimsby in Lincolnshire, where her deceased husband had passed all his early life. His relatives were respectable people settled in the town– they had always treated Mrs. Clements with great kindness, and she thought it impossible to do better than go there and take the advice of her husband’s friends. Anne would not hear of returning to her mother at Welmingham, because she had been removed to the Asylum from that place, and because Sir Percival would be certain to go back there and find her again. There was serious weight in this objection, and Mrs. Clements felt that it was not to be easily removed.

At Grimsby the first serious symptoms of illness had shown themselves in Anne. They appeared soon after the news of Lady Glyde’s marriage had been made public in the newspapers, and had reached her through that medium.

The medical man who was sent for to attend the sick woman discovered at once that she was suffering from a serious affection of the heart. The illness lasted long, left her very weak, and returned at intervals, though with mitigated severity, again and again. They remained at Grimsby, in consequence, during the first half of the new year, and there they might probably have stayed much longer, but for the sudden resolution which Anne took at this time to venture back to Hampshire, for the purpose of obtaining a private interview with Lady Glyde.

Mrs. Clements did all in her power to oppose the execution of this hazardous and unaccountable project. No explanation of her motives was offered by Anne, except that she believed the day of her death was not far off, and that she had something on her mind which must be communicated to Lady Glyde, at any risk, in secret. Her resolution to accomplish this purpose was so firmly settled that she declared her intention of going to Hampshire by herself if Mrs. Clements felt any unwillingness to go with her. The doctor, on being consulted, was of opinion that serious opposition to her wishes would, in all probability, produce another and perhaps a fatal fit of illness, and Mrs. Clements, under this advice, yielded to necessity, and once more, with sad forebodings of trouble and danger to come, allowed Anne Catherick to have her own way.

On the journey from London to Hampshire Mrs. Clements discovered that one of their fellow-passengers was well acquainted with the neighbourhood of Blackwater, and could give her all the information she needed on the subject of localities. In this way she found out that the only place they could go to, which was not dangerously near to Sir Percival’s residence, was a large village called Sandon. The distance here from Blackwater Park was between three and four miles–and that distance, and back again, Anne had walked on each occasion when she had appeared in the neighbourhood of the lake.

For the few days during which they were at Sandon without being discovered they had lived a little away from the village, in the cottage of a decent widow-woman who had a bedroom to let, and whose discreet silence Mrs. Clements had done her best to secure, for the first week at least. She had also tried hard to induce Anne to be content with writing to Lady Glyde, in the first instance; but the failure of the warning contained in the anonymous letter sent to Limmeridge had made Anne resolute to speak this time, and obstinate in the determination to go on her errand alone.

Mrs. Clements, nevertheless, followed her privately on each occasion when she went to the lake, without, however, venturing near enough to the boat-house to be witness of what took place there. When Anne returned for the last time from the dangerous neighbourhood, the fatigue of walking, day after day, distances which were far too great for her strength, added to the exhausting effect of the agitation from which she had suffered, produced the result which Mrs. Clements had dreaded all along. The old pain over the heart and the other symptoms of the illness at Grimsby returned, and Anne was confined to her bed in the cottage.

In this emergency the first necessity, as Mrs. Clements knew by experience, was to endeavour to quiet Anne’s anxiety of mind, and for this purpose the good woman went herself the next day to the lake, to try if she could find Lady Glyde (who would be sure, as Anne said, to take her daily walk to the boat-house), and prevail on her to come back privately to the cottage near Sandon. On reaching the outskirts of the plantation Mrs. Clements encountered, not Lady Glyde, but a tall, stout, elderly gentleman, with a book in his hand–in other words, Count Fosco.

The Count, after looking at her very attentively for a moment, asked if she expected to see any one in that place, and added, before she could reply, that he was waiting there with a message from Lady Glyde, but that he was not quite certain whether the person then before him answered the description of the person with whom he was desired to communicate.

Upon this Mrs. Clements at once confided her errand to him, and entreated that he would help to allay Anne’s anxiety by trusting his message to her. The Count most readily and kindly complied with her request. The message, he said, was a very important one. Lady Glyde entreated Anne and her good friend to return immediately to London, as she felt certain that Sir Percival would discover them if they remained any longer in the neighbourhood of Blackwater. She was herself going to London in a short time, and if Mrs. Clements and Anne would go there first, and would let her know what their address was, they should hear from her and see her in a fortnight or less. The Count added that he had already attempted to give a friendly warning to Anne herself, but that she had been too much startled by seeing that he was a stranger to let him approach and speak to her.

To this Mrs. Clements replied, in the greatest alarm and distress, that she asked nothing better than to take Anne safely to London, but that there was no present hope of removing her from the dangerous neighbourhood, as she lay ill in her bed at that moment. The Count inquired if Mrs. Clements had sent for medical advice, and hearing that she had hitherto hesitated to do so, from the fear of making their position publicly known in the village, informed her that he was himself a medical man, and that he would go back with her if she pleased, and see what could be done for Anne. Mrs. Clements (feeling a natural confidence in the Count, as a person trusted with a secret message from Lady Glyde) gratefully accepted the offer, and they went back together to the cottage.

Anne was asleep when they got there. The Count started at the sight of her (evidently from astonishment at her resemblance to Lady Glyde). Poor Mrs. Clements supposed that he was only shocked to see how ill she was. He would not allow her to be awakened–he was contented with putting questions to Mrs. Clements about her symptoms, with looking at her, and with lightly touching her pulse. Sandon was a large enough place to have a grocer’s and druggist’s shop in it, and thither the Count went to write his prescription and to get the medicine made up. He brought it back himself, and told Mrs. Clements that the medicine was a powerful stimulant, and that it would certainly give Anne strength to get up and bear the fatigue of a journey to London of only a few hours. The remedy was to be administered at stated times on that day and on the day after. On the third day she would be well enough to travel, and he arranged to meet Mrs. Clements at the Blackwater station, and to see them off by the mid-day train. If they did not appear he would assume that Anne was worse, and would proceed at once to the cottage.

As events turned out, no such emergency as this occurred.

This medicine had an extraordinary effect on Anne, and the good results of it were helped by the assurance Mrs. Clements could now give her that she would soon see Lady Glyde in London. At the appointed day and time (when they had not been quite so long as a week in Hampshire altogether), they arrived at the station. The Count was waiting there for them, and was talking to an elderly lady, who appeared to be going to travel by the train to London also. He most kindly assisted them, and put them into the carriage himself, begging Mrs. Clements not to forget to send her address to Lady Glyde. The elderly lady did not travel in the same compartment, and they did not notice what became of her on reaching the London terminus. Mrs. Clements secured respectable lodgings in a quiet neighbourhood, and then wrote, as she had engaged to do, to inform Lady Glyde of the address.

A little more than a fortnight passed, and no answer came.

At the end of that time a lady (the same elderly lady whom they had seen at the station) called in a cab, and said that she came from Lady Glyde, who was then at an hotel in London, and who wished to see Mrs. Clements, for the purpose of arranging a future interview with Anne. Mrs. Clements expressed her willingness (Anne being present at the time, and entreating her to do so) to forward the object in view, especially as she was not required to be away from the house for more than half an hour at the most. She and the elderly lady (clearly Madame Fosco) then left in the cab. The lady stopped the cab, after it had driven some distance, at a shop before they got to the hotel, and begged Mrs. Clements to wait for her for a few minutes while she made a purchase that had been forgotten. She never appeared again.

After waiting some time Mrs. Clements became alarmed, and ordered the cabman to drive back to her lodgings. When she got there, after an absence of rather more than half an hour, Anne was gone.

The only information to be obtained from the people of the house was derived from the servant who waited on the lodgers. She had opened the door to a boy from the street, who had left a letter for “the young woman who lived on the second floor” (the part of the house which Mrs. Clements occupied). The servant had delivered the letter, had then gone downstairs, and five minutes afterwards had observed Anne open the front door and go out, dressed in her bonnet and shawl. She had probably taken the letter with her, for it was not to be found, and it was therefore impossible to tell what inducement had been offered to make her leave the house. It must have been a strong one, for she would never stir out alone in London of her own accord. If Mrs. Clements had not known this by experience nothing would have induced her to go away in the cab, even for so short a time as half an hour only.

As soon as she could collect her thoughts, the first idea that naturally occurred to Mrs. Clements was to go and make inquiries at the Asylum, to which she dreaded that Anne had been taken back.

She went there the next day, having been informed of the locality in which the house was situated by Anne herself. The answer she received (her application having in all probability been made a day or two before the false Anne Catherick had really been consigned to safe keeping in the Asylum) was, that no such person had been brought back there. She had then written to Mrs. Catherick at Welmingham to know if she had seen or heard anything of her daughter, and had received an answer in the negative. After that reply had reached her, she was at the end of her resources, and perfectly ignorant where else to inquire or what else to do. From that time to this she had remained in total ignorance of the cause of Anne’s disappearance and of the end of Anne’s story.

VII

Thus far the information which I had received from Mrs. Clements– though it established facts of which I had not previously been aware–was of a preliminary character only.

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?”

“Yes, sir. A gentleman born and brought up, who ought to have set a better example. You know him, sir–and my poor dear Anne knew him only too well.”

“Sir Percival Glyde?”

“Yes, Sir Percival Glyde.”

My heart beat fast–I thought I had my hand on the clue. How little I knew then of the windings of the labyrinths which were still to mislead me!

“Did Sir Percival live in your neighbourhood at that time?” I asked.

“No, sir. He came among us as a stranger. His father had died not long before in foreign parts. I remember he was in mourning. He put up at the little inn on the river (they have pulled it down since that time), where gentlemen used to go to fish. He wasn’t much noticed when he first came–it was a common thing enough for gentlemen to travel from all parts of England to fish in our river.”

“Did he make his appearance in the village before Anne was born?”

“Yes, sir. Anne was born in the June month of eighteen hundred and twenty-seven–and I think he came at the end of April or the beginning of May.”

“Came as a stranger to all of you? A stranger to Mrs. Catherick as well as to the rest of the neighbours?”

“So we thought at first, sir. But when the scandal broke out, nobody believed they were strangers. I remember how it happened as well as if it was yesterday. Catherick came into our garden one night, and woke us by throwing up a handful of gravel from the walk at our window. I heard him beg my husband, for the Lord’s sake, to come down and speak to him. They were a long time together talking in the porch. When my husband came back upstairs he was all of a tremble. He sat down on the side of the bed and he says to me, ‘Lizzie! I always told you that woman was a bad one–I always said she would end ill, and I’m afraid in my own mind that the end has come already. Catherick has found a lot of lace handkerchiefs, and two fine rings, and a new gold watch and chain, hid away in his wife’s drawer–things that nobody but a born lady ought ever to have–and his wife won’t say how she came by them.’ ‘Does he think she stole them?’ says I. ‘No,’ says he, ‘stealing would be bad enough. But it’s worse than that, she’s had no chance of stealing such things as those, and she’s not a woman to take them if she had. They’re gifts, Lizzie–there’s her own initials engraved inside the watch–and Catherick has seen her talking privately, and carrying on as no married woman should, with that gentleman in mourning, Sir Percival Glyde. Don’t you say anything about it–I’ve quieted Catherick for to-night. I’ve told him to keep his tongue to himself, and his eyes and his ears open, and to wait a day or two, till he can be quite certain.’ ‘I believe you are both of you wrong,’ says I. ‘It’s not in nature, comfortable and respectable as she is here, that Mrs. Catherick should take up with a chance stranger like Sir Percival Glyde.’ ‘Ay, but is he a stranger to her?’ says my husband. ‘You forget how Catherick’s wife came to marry him. She went to him of her own accord, after saying No over and over again when he asked her. There have been wicked women before her time, Lizzie, who have used honest men who loved them as a means of saving their characters, and I’m sorely afraid this Mrs. Catherick is as wicked as the worst of them. We shall see,’ says my husband, ‘we shall soon see.’ And only two days afterwards we did see.”

Mrs. Clements waited for a moment before she went on. Even in that moment, I began to doubt whether the clue that I thought I had found was really leading me to the central mystery of the labyrinth after all. Was this common, too common, story of a man’s treachery and a woman’s frailty the key to a secret which had been the life-long terror of Sir Percival Glyde?

“Well, sir, Catherick took my husband’s advice and waited,” Mrs. Clements continued. “And as I told you, he hadn’t long to wait. On the second day he found his wife and Sir Percival whispering together quite familiar, close under the vestry of the church. I suppose they thought the neighbourhood of the vestry was the last place in the world where anybody would think of looking after them, but, however that may be, there they were. Sir Percival, being seemingly surprised and confounded, defended himself in such a guilty way that poor Catherick (whose quick temper I have told you of already) fell into a kind of frenzy at his own disgrace, and struck Sir Percival. He was no match (and I am sorry to say it) for the man who had wronged him, and he was beaten in the cruelest manner, before the neighbours, who had come to the place on hearing the disturbance, could run in to part them. All this happened towards evening, and before nightfall, when my husband went to Catherick’s house, he was gone, nobody knew where. No living soul in the village ever saw him again. He knew too well, by that time, what his wife’s vile reason had been for marrying him, and he felt his misery and disgrace, especially after what had happened to him with Sir Percival, too keenly. The clergyman of the parish put an advertisement in the paper begging him to come back, and saying that he should not lose his situation or his friends. But Catherick had too much pride and spirit, as some people said–too much feeling, as I think, sir–to face his neighbours again, and try to live down the memory of his disgrace. My husband heard from him when he had left England, and heard a second time, when he was settled and doing well in America. He is alive there now, as far as I know, but none of us in the old country–his wicked wife least of all–are ever likely to set eyes on him again.”

“What became of Sir Percival?” I inquired. “Did he stay in the neighbourhood?”

“Not he, sir. The place was too hot to hold him. He was heard at high words with Mrs. Catherick the same night when the scandal broke out, and the next morning he took himself off.”

“And Mrs. Catherick? Surely she never remained in the village among the people who knew of her disgrace?”

“She did, sir. She was hard enough and heartless enough to set the opinions of all her neighbours at flat defiance. She declared to everybody, from the clergyman downwards, that she was the victim of a dreadful mistake, and that all the scandal-mongers in the place should not drive her out of it, as if she was a guilty woman. All through my time she lived at Old Welmingham, and after my time, when the new town was building, and the respectable neighbours began moving to it, she moved too, as if she was determined to live among them and scandalise them to the very last. There she is now, and there she will stop, in defiance of the best of them, to her dying day.”

“But how has she lived through all these years?” I asked. “Was her husband able and willing to help her?”

“Both able and willing, sir,” said Mrs. Clements. “In the second letter he wrote to my good man, he said she had borne his name, and lived in his home, and, wicked as she was, she must not starve like a beggar in the street. He could afford to make her some small allowance, and she might draw for it quarterly at a place in London.”

“Did she accept the allowance?”

“Not a farthing of it, sir. She said she would never be beholden to Catherick for bit or drop, if she lived to be a hundred. And she has kept her word ever since. When my poor dear husband died, and left all to me, Catherick’s letter was put in my possession with the other things, and I told her to let me know if she was ever in want. ‘I’ll let all England know I’m in want,’ she said, ‘before I tell Catherick, or any friend of Catherick’s. Take that for your answer, and give it to HIM for an answer, if he ever writes again.’ ”

“Do you suppose that she had money of her own?”

“Very little, if any, sir. It was said, and said truly, I am afraid, that her means of living came privately from Sir Percival Glyde.”

After that last reply I waited a little, to reconsider what I had heard. If I unreservedly accepted the story so far, it was now plain that no approach, direct or indirect, to the Secret had yet been revealed to me, and that the pursuit of my object had ended again in leaving me face to face with the most palpable and the most disheartening failure.

But there was one point in the narrative which made me doubt the propriety of accepting it unreservedly, and which suggested the idea of something hidden below the surface.

I could not account to myself for the circumstance of the clerk’s guilty wife voluntarily living out all her after-existence on the scene of her disgrace. The woman’s own reported statement that she had taken this strange course as a practical assertion of her innocence did not satisfy me. It seemed, to my mind, more natural and more probable to assume that she was not so completely a free agent in this matter as she had herself asserted. In that case, who was the likeliest person to possess the power of compelling her to remain at Welmingham? The person unquestionably from whom she derived the means of living. She had refused assistance from her husband, she had no adequate resources of her own, she was a friendless, degraded woman–from what source should she derive help but from the source at which report pointed–Sir Percival Glyde?

Reasoning on these assumptions, and always bearing in mind the one certain fact to guide me, that Mrs. Catherick was in possession of the Secret, I easily understood that it was Sir Percival’s interest to keep her at Welmingham, because her character in that place was certain to isolate her from all communication with female neighbours, and to allow her no opportunities of talking incautiously in moments of free intercourse with inquisitive bosom friends. But what was the mystery to be concealed? Not Sir Percival’s infamous connection with Mrs. Catherick’s disgrace, for the neighbours were the very people who knew of it–not the suspicion that he was Anne’s father, for Welmingham was the place in which that suspicion must inevitably exist. If I accepted the guilty appearances described to me as unreservedly as others had accepted them, if I drew from them the same superficial conclusion which Mr. Catherick and all his neighbours had drawn, where was the suggestion, in all that I had heard, of a dangerous secret between Sir Percival and Mrs. Catherick, which had been kept hidden from that time to this?

And yet, in those stolen meetings, in those familiar whisperings between the clerk’s wife and “the gentleman in mourning,” the clue to discovery existed beyond a doubt.

Was it possible that appearances in this case had pointed one way while the truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction? Could Mrs. Catherick’s assertion, that she was the victim of a dreadful mistake, by any possibility be true? Or, assuming it to be false, could the conclusion which associated Sir Percival with her guilt have been founded in some inconceivable error? Had Sir Percival, by any chance, courted the suspicion that was wrong for the sake of diverting from himself some other suspicion that was right? Here–if I could find it–here was the approach to the Secret, hidden deep under the surface of the apparently unpromising story which I had just heard.

My next questions were now directed to the one object of ascertaining whether Mr. Catherick had or had not arrived truly at the conviction of his wife’s misconduct. The answers I received from Mrs. Clements left me in no doubt whatever on that point. Mrs. Catherick had, on the clearest evidence, compromised her reputation, while a single woman, with some person unknown, and had married to save her character. It had been positively ascertained, by calculations of time and place into which I need not enter particularly, that the daughter who bore her husband’s name was not her husband’s child

The next object of inquiry, whether it was equally certain that Sir Percival must have been the father of Anne, was beset by far greater difficulties. I was in no position to try the probabilities on one side or on the other in this instance by any better test than the test of personal resemblance.

“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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.”

VIII

When I reached home again after my interview with Mrs. Clements, I was struck by the appearance of a change in Laura.

The unvarying gentleness and patience which long misfortune had tried so cruelly and had never conquered yet, seemed now to have suddenly failed her. Insensible to all Marian’s attempts to soothe and amuse her, she sat, with her neglected drawing pushed away on the table, her eyes resolutely cast down, her fingers twining and untwining themselves restlessly in her lap. Marian rose when I came in, with a silent distress in her face, waited for a moment to see if Laura would look up at my approach, whispered to me, “Try if you can rouse her,” and left the room.

I sat down in the vacant chair–gently unclasped the poor, worn, restless fingers, and took both her hands in mine.

“What are you thinking of, Laura? Tell me, my darling–try and tell me what it is.”

She struggled with herself, and raised her eyes to mine. “I can’t feel happy,” she said, “I can’t help thinking—-” She stopped, bent forward a little, and laid her head on my shoulder, with a terrible mute helplessness that struck me to the heart.

“Try to tell me,” I repeated gently; “try to tell me why you are not happy.”

“I am so useless–I am such a burden on both of you,” she answered, with a weary, hopeless sigh. “You work and get money, Walter, and Marian helps you. Why is there nothing I can do? You will end in liking Marian better than you like me–you will, because I am so helpless! Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t treat me like a child!”

I raised her head, and smoothed away the tangled hair that fell over her face, and kissed her–my poor, faded flower! my lost, afflicted sister! “You shall help us, Laura,” I said, “you shall begin, my darling, to-day.”

She looked at me with a feverish eagerness, with a breathless interest, that made me tremble for the new life of hope which I had called into being by those few words.

I rose, and set her drawing materials in order, and placed them near her again.

“You know that I work and get money by drawing,” I said. “Now you have taken such pains, now you are so much improved, you shall begin to work and get money too. Try to finish this little sketch as nicely and prettily as you can. When it is done I will take it away with me, and the same person will buy it who buys all that I do. You shall keep your own earnings in your own purse, and Marian shall come to you to help us, as often as she comes to me. Think how useful you are going to make yourself to both of us, and you will soon be as happy, Laura, as the day is long.”

Her face grew eager, and brightened into a smile. In the moment while it lasted, in the moment when she again took up the pencils that had been laid aside, she almost looked like the Laura of past days.

I had rightly interpreted the first signs of a new growth and strength in her mind, unconsciously expressing themselves in the notice she had taken of the occupations which filled her sister’s life and mine. Marian (when I told her what had passed) saw, as I saw, that she was longing to assume her own little position of importance, to raise herself in her own estimation and in ours– and, from that day, we tenderly helped the new ambition which gave promise of the hopeful, happier future, that might now not be far off. Her drawings, as she finished them, or tried to finish them, were placed in my hands. Marian took them from me and hid them carefully, and I set aside a little weekly tribute from my earnings, to be offered to her as the price paid by strangers for the poor, faint, valueless sketches, of which I was the only purchaser. It was hard sometimes to maintain our innocent deception, when she proudly brought out her purse to contribute her share towards the expenses, and wondered with serious interest, whether I or she had earned the most that week. I have all those hidden drawings in my possession still–they are my treasures beyond price–the dear remembrances that I love to keep alive–the friends in past adversity that my heart will never part from, my tenderness never forget.

Am I trifling, here, with the necessities of my task? am I looking forward to the happier time which my narrative has not yet reached? Yes. Back again–back to the days of doubt and dread, when the spirit within me struggled hard for its life, in the icy stillness of perpetual suspense. I have paused and rested for a while on my forward course. It is not, perhaps, time wasted, if the friends who read these pages have paused and rested too.

I took the first opportunity I could find of speaking to Marian in private, and of communicating to her the result of the inquiries which I had made that morning. She seemed to share the opinion on the subject of my proposed journey to Welmingham, which Mrs. Clements had already expressed to me.

“Surely, Walter,” she said, “you hardly know enough yet to give you any hope of claiming Mrs. Catherick’s confidence? Is it wise to proceed to these extremities, before you have really exhausted all safer and simpler means of attaining your object? When you told me that Sir Percival and the Count were the only two people in existence who knew the exact date of Laura’s journey, you forgot, and I forgot, that there was a third person who must surely know it–I mean Mrs. Rubelle. Would it not be far easier, and far less dangerous, to insist on a confession from her, than to force it from Sir Percival?”

“It might be easier,” I replied, “but we are not aware of the full extent of Mrs. Rubelle’s connivance and interest in the conspiracy, and we are therefore not certain that the date has been impressed on her mind, as it has been assuredly impressed on the minds of Sir Percival and the Count. It is too late, now, to waste the time on Mrs. Rubelle, which may be all-important to the discovery of the one assailable point in Sir Percival’s life? Are you thinking a little too seriously, Marian, of the risk I may run in returning to Hampshire? Are you beginning to doubt whether Sir Percival Glyde may not in the end be more than a match for me?”

“He will not be more than your match,” she replied decidedly, “because he will not be helped in resisting you by the impenetrable wickedness of the Count.”

“What has led you to that conclusion?” I replied, in some surprise.

“My own knowledge of Sir Percival’s obstinacy and impatience of the Count’s control,” she answered. “I believe he will insist on meeting you single-handed–just as he insisted at first on acting for himself at Blackwater Park. The time for suspecting the Count’s interference will be the time when you have Sir Percival at your mercy. His own interests will then be directly threatened, and he will act, Walter, to terrible purpose in his own defence.”

“We may deprive him of his weapons beforehand,” I said. “Some of the particulars I have heard from Mrs. Clements may yet be turned to account against him, and other means of strengthening the case may be at our disposal. There are passages in Mrs. Michelson’s narrative which show that the Count found it necessary to place himself in communication with Mr. Fairlie, and there may be circumstances which compromise him in that proceeding. While I am away, Marian, write to Mr. Fairlie and say that you want an answer describing exactly what passed between the Count and himself, and informing you also of any particulars that may have come to his knowledge at the same time in connection with his niece. Tell him that the statement you request will, sooner or later, be insisted on, if he shows any reluctance to furnish you with it of his own accord.”

“The letter shall be written, Walter. But are you really determined to go to Welmingham?”

“Absolutely determined. I will devote the next two days to earning what we want for the week to come, and on the third day I go to Hampshire.”

When the third day came I was ready for my journey.

As it was possible that I might be absent for some little time, I arranged with Marian that we were to correspond every day–of course addressing each other by assumed names, for caution’s sake. As long as I heard from her regularly, I should assume that nothing was wrong. But if the morning came and brought me no letter, my return to London would take place, as a matter of course, by the first train. I contrived to reconcile Laura to my departure by telling her that I was going to the country to find new purchasers for her drawings and for mine, and I left her occupied and happy. Marian followed me downstairs to the street door.

“Remember what anxious hearts you leave here,” she whispered, as we stood together in the passage. “Remember all the hopes that hang on your safe return. If strange things happen to you on this journey–if you and Sir Percival meet—-”

“What makes you think we shall meet?” I asked.

“I don’t know–I have fears and fancies that I cannot account for. Laugh at them, Walter, if you like–but, for God’s sake, keep your temper if you come in contact with that man!”

“Never fear, Marian! I answer for my self-control.”

With those words we parted.

I walked briskly to the station. There was a glow of hope in me. There was a growing conviction in my mind that my journey this time would not be taken in vain. It was a fine, clear, cold morning. My nerves were firmly strung, and I felt all the strength of my resolution stirring in me vigorously from head to foot.

As I crossed the railway platform, and looked right and left among the people congregated on it, to search for any faces among them that I knew, the doubt occurred to me whether it might not have been to my advantage if I had adopted a disguise before setting out for Hampshire. But there was something so repellent to me in the idea–something so meanly like the common herd of spies and informers in the mere act of adopting a disguise–that I dismissed the question from consideration almost as soon as it had risen in my mind. Even as a mere matter of expediency the proceeding was doubtful in the extreme. If I tried the experiment at home the landlord of the house would sooner or later discover me, and would have his suspicions aroused immediately. If I tried it away from home the same persons might see me, by the commonest accident, with the disguise and without it, and I should in that way be inviting the notice and distrust which it was my most pressing interest to avoid. In my own character I had acted thus far–and in my own character I was resolved to continue to the end.

The train left me at Welmingham early in the afternoon.

Is there any wilderness of sand in the deserts of Arabia, is there any prospect of desolation among the ruins of Palestine, which can rival the repelling effect on the eye, and the depressing influence on the mind, of an English country town in the first stage of its existence, and in the transition state of its prosperity? I asked myself that question as I passed through the clean desolation, the neat ugliness, the prim torpor of the streets of Welmingham. And the tradesmen who stared after me from their lonely shops–the trees that drooped helpless in their arid exile of unfinished crescents and squares–the dead house- carcasses that waited in vain for the vivifying human element to animate them with the breath of life–every creature that I saw, every object that I passed, seemed to answer with one accord: The deserts of Arabia are innocent of our civilised desolation–the ruins of Palestine are incapable of our modern gloom!

I inquired my way to the quarter of the town in which Mrs. Catherick lived, and on reaching it found myself in a square of small houses, one story high. There was a bare little plot of grass in the middle, protected by a cheap wire fence. An elderly nursemaid and two children were standing in a corner of the enclosure, looking at a lean goat tethered to the grass. Two foot-passengers were talking together on one side of the pavement before the houses, and an idle little boy was leading an idle little dog along by a string on the other. I heard the dull tinkling of a piano at a distance, accompanied by the intermittent knocking of a hammer nearer at hand. These were all the sights and sounds of life that encountered me when I entered the square.

I walked at once to the door of Number Thirteen–the number of Mrs. Catherick’s house–and knocked, without waiting to consider beforehand how I might best present myself when I got in. The first necessity was to see Mrs. Catherick. I could then judge, from my own observation, of the safest and easiest manner of approaching the object of my visit.

The door was opened by a melancholy middle-aged woman servant. I gave her my card, and asked if I could see Mrs. Catherick. The card was taken into the front parlour, and the servant returned with a message requesting me to mention what my business was.

“Say, if you please, that my business relates to Mrs. Catherick’s daughter,” I replied. This was the best pretext I could think of, on the spur of the moment, to account for my visit.

The servant again retired to the parlour, again returned, and this time begged me, with a look of gloomy amazement, to walk in.

I entered a little room, with a flaring paper of the largest pattern on the walls. Chairs, tables, cheffonier, and sofa, all gleamed with the glutinous brightness of cheap upholstery. On the largest table, in the middle of the room, stood a smart Bible, placed exactly in the centre on a red and yellow woollen mat and at the side of the table nearest to the window, with a little knitting-basket on her lap, and a wheezing, blear-eyed old spaniel crouched at her feet, there sat an elderly woman, wearing a black net cap and a black silk gown, and having slate-coloured mittens on her hands. Her iron-grey hair hung in heavy bands on either side of her face–her dark eyes looked straight forward, with a hard, defiant, implacable stare. She had full square cheeks, a long, firm chin, and thick, sensual, colourless lips. Her figure was stout and sturdy, and her manner aggressively self-possessed. This was Mrs. Catherick.

“You have come to speak to me about my daughter,” she said, before I could utter a word on my side. “Be so good as to mention what you have to say.”

The tone of her voice was as hard, as defiant, as implacable as the expression of her eyes. She pointed to a chair, and looked me all over attentively, from head to foot, as I sat down in it. I saw that my only chance with this woman was to speak to her in her own tone, and to meet her, at the outset of our interview, on her own ground.

“You are aware,” I said, “that your daughter has been lost?”

“I am perfectly aware of it.”

“Have you felt any apprehension that the misfortune of her loss might be followed by the misfortune of her death?”

“Yes. Have you come here to tell me she is dead?”

“I have.”

“Why?”

She put that extraordinary question without the slightest change in her voice, her face, or her manner. She could not have appeared more perfectly unconcerned if I had told her of the death of the goat in the enclosure outside.

“Why?” I repeated. “Do you ask why I come here to tell you of your daughter’s death?”

“Yes. What interest have you in me, or in her? How do you come to know anything about my daughter?”

“In this way. I met her on the night when she escaped from the Asylum, and I assisted her in reaching a place of safety.”

“You did very wrong.”

“I am sorry to hear her mother say so.”

“Her mother does say so. How do you know she is dead?”

“I am not at liberty to say how I know it–but I DO know it.”

“Are you at liberty to say how you found out my address?”

“Certainly. I got your address from Mrs. Clements.”

“Mrs. Clements is a foolish woman. Did she tell you to come here?”

“She did not.”

“Then, I ask you again, why did you come?”

As she was determined to have her answer, I gave it to her in the plainest possible form.

“I came,” I said, “because I thought Anne Catherick’s mother might have some natural interest in knowing whether she was alive or dead.”

“Just so,” said Mrs. Catherick, with additional self-possession. “Had you no other motive?”

I hesitated. The right answer to that question was not easy to find at a moment’s notice.

“If you have no other motive,” she went on, deliberately taking off her slate-coloured mittens, and rolling them up, “I have only to thank you for your visit, and to say that I will not detain you here any longer. Your information would be more satisfactory if you were willing to explain how you became possessed of it. However, it justifies me, I suppose, in going into mourning. There is not much alteration necessary in my dress, as you see. When I have changed my mittens, I shall be all in black.”

She searched in the pocket of her gown, drew out a pair of black lace mittens, put them on with the stoniest and steadiest composure, and then quietly crossed her hands in her lap.

“I wish you good morning,” she said.

The cool contempt of her manner irritated me into directly avowing that the purpose of my visit had not been answered yet.

“I HAVE another motive in coming here,” I said.

“Ah! I thought so,” remarked Mrs. Catherick.

“Your daughter’s death—-”

“What did she die of?”

“Of disease of the heart.”

“Yes. Go on.”

“Your daughter’s death has been made the pretext for inflicting serious injury on a person who is very dear to me. Two men have been concerned, to my certain knowledge, in doing that wrong. One of them is Sir Percival Glyde.”

“Indeed!”

I looked attentively to see if she flinched at the sudden mention of that name. Not a muscle of her stirred–the hard, defiant, implacable stare in her eyes never wavered for an instant.

“You may wonder,” I went on, “how the event of your daughter’s death can have been made the means of inflicting injury on another person.”

“No,” said Mrs. Catherick; “I don’t wonder at all. This appears to be your affair. You are interested in my affairs. I am not interested in yours.”

“You may ask, then,” I persisted, “why I mention the matter in your presence.”

“Yes, I DO ask that.”

“I mention it because I am determined to bring Sir Percival Glyde to account for the wickedness he has committed.”

“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?”

“Events that occurred at Old Welmingham when your husband was parish-clerk at that place, and before the time when your daughter was born.”

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.

“You won’t trust me?” I said.

“No.”

“You are afraid?”

“Do I look as if I was?”

“You are afraid of Sir Percival Glyde?”

“Am I?”

Her colour was rising, and her hands were at work again smoothing her gown. I pressed the point farther and farther home, I went on without allowing her a moment of delay.

“Sir Percival has a high position in the world,” I said; “it would be no wonder if you were afraid of him. Sir Percival is a powerful man, a baronet, the possessor of a fine estate, the descendant of a great family—-”

She amazed me beyond expression by suddenly bursting out laughing.

“Yes,” she repeated, in tones of the bitterest, steadiest contempt. “A baronet, the possessor of a fine estate, the descendant of a great family. Yes, indeed! A great family– especially by the mother’s side.”

There was no time to reflect on the words that had just escaped her, there was only time to feel that they were well worth thinking over the moment I left the house.

“I am not here to dispute with you about family questions,” I said. “I know nothing of Sir Percival’s mother—-”

“And you know as little of Sir Percival himself,” she interposed sharply.

“I advise you not to be too sure of that,” I rejoined. “I know some things about him, and I suspect many more.”

“What do you suspect?”

“I’ll tell you what I DON’T suspect. I DON’T suspect him of being Anne’s father.”

She started to her feet, and came close up to me with a look of fury.

“How dare you talk to me about Anne’s father! How dare you say who was her father, or who wasn’t!” she broke out, her face quivering, her voice trembling with passion.

“The secret between you and Sir Percival is not THAT secret,” I persisted. “The mystery which darkens Sir Percival’s life was not born with your daughter’s birth, and has not died with your daughter’s death.”

She drew back a step. “Go!” she said, and pointed sternly to the door.

“There was no thought of the child in your heart or in his,’ I went on, determined to press her back to her last defences. “There was no bond of guilty love between you and him when you held those stolen meetings, when your husband found you whispering together under the vestry of the church.”

Her pointing hand instantly dropped to her side, and the deep flush of anger faded from her face while I spoke. I saw the change pass over her–I saw that hard, firm, fearless, self- possessed woman quail under a terror which her utmost resolution was not strong enough to resist when I said those five last words, “the vestry of the church.”

For a minute or more we stood looking at each other in silence. I spoke first.

“Do you still refuse to trust me?” I asked.

She could not call the colour that had left it back to her face, but she had steadied her voice, she had recovered the defiant self-possession of her manner when she answered me.

“I do refuse,” she said.

“Do you still tell me to go?”

“Yes. Go–and never come back.”

I walked to the door, waited a moment before I opened it, and turned round to look at her again.

“I may have news to bring you of Sir Percival which you don’t expect,” I said, “and in that case I shall come back.”

“There is no news of Sir Percival that I don’t expect, except—-”

She stopped, her pale face darkened, and she stole back with a quiet, stealthy, cat-like step to her chair.

“Except the news of his death,” she said, sitting down again, with the mockery of a smile just hovering on her cruel lips, and the furtive light of hatred lurking deep in her steady eyes.

As I opened the door of the room to go out, she looked round at me quickly. The cruel smile slowly widened her lips–she eyed me, with a strange stealthy interest, from head to foot–an unutterable expectation showed itself wickedly all over her face. Was she speculating, in the secrecy of her own heart, on my youth and strength, on the force of my sense of injury and the limits of my self-control, and was she considering the lengths to which they might carry me, if Sir Percival and I ever chanced to meet? The bare doubt that it might be so drove me from her presence, and silenced even the common forms of farewell on my lips. Without a word more, on my side or on hers, I left the room.

As I opened the outer door, I saw the same clergyman who had already passed the house once, about to pass it again, on his way back through the square. I waited on the door-step to let him go by, and looked round, as I did so, at the parlour window.

Mrs. Catherick had heard his footsteps approaching, in the silence of that lonely place, and she was on her feet at the window again, waiting for him. Not all the strength of all the terrible passions I had roused in that woman’s heart, could loosen her desperate hold on the one fragment of social consideration which years of resolute effort had just dragged within her grasp. There she was again, not a minute after I had left her, placed purposely in a position which made it a matter of common courtesy on the part of the clergyman to bow to her for a second time. He raised his hat once more. I saw the hard ghastly face behind the window soften, and light up with gratified pride–I saw the head with the grim black cap bend ceremoniously in return. The clergyman had bowed to her, and in my presence, twice in one day!

IX

I Left the house, feeling that Mrs. Catherick had helped me a step forward, in spite of herself. Before I had reached the turning which led out of the square, my attention was suddenly aroused by the sound of a closing door behind me.

I looked round, and saw an undersized man in black on the door- step of a house, which, as well as I could judge, stood next to Mrs. Catherick’s place of abode–next to it, on the side nearest to me. The man did not hesitate a moment about the direction he should take. He advanced rapidly towards the turning at which I had stopped. I recognised him as the lawyer’s clerk, who had preceded me in my visit to Blackwater Park, and who had tried to pick a quarrel with me, when I asked him if I could see the house.

I waited where I was, to ascertain whether his object was to come to close quarters and speak on this occasion. To my surprise he passed on rapidly, without saying a word, without even looking up in my face as he went by. This was such a complete inversion of the course of proceeding which I had every reason to expect on his part, that my curiosity, or rather my suspicion, was aroused, and I determined on my side to keep him cautiously in view, and to discover what the business might be in which he was now employed. Without caring whether he saw me or not, I walked after him. He never looked back, and he led me straight through the streets to the railway station.

The train was on the point of starting, and two or three passengers who were late were clustering round the small opening through which the tickets were issued. I joined them, and distinctly heard the lawyer’s clerk demand a ticket for the Blackwater station I satisfied myself that he had actually left by the train before I came away.

There was only one interpretation that I could place on what I had just seen and heard. I had unquestionably observed the man leaving a house which closely adjoined Mrs. Catherick’s residence. He had been probably placed there, by Sir Percival’s directions, as a lodger, in anticipation of my inquiries leading me, sooner or later, to communicate with Mrs. Catherick. He had doubtless seen me go in and come out, and he had hurried away by the first train to make his report at Blackwater Park, to which place Sir Percival would naturally betake himself (knowing what he evidently knew of my movements), in order to be ready on the spot, if I returned to Hampshire. Before many days were over, there seemed every likelihood now that he and I might meet.

Whatever result events might be destined to produce, I resolved to pursue my own course, straight to the end in view, without stopping or turning aside for Sir Percival or for any one. The great responsibility which weighed on me heavily in London–the responsibility of so guiding my slightest actions as to prevent them from leading accidentally to the discovery of Laura’s place of refuge–was removed, now that I was in Hampshire. I could go and come as I pleased at Welmingham, and if I chanced to fail in observing any necessary precautions, the immediate results, at least, would affect no one but myself.

When I left the station the winter evening was beginning to close in. There was little hope of continuing my inquiries after dark to any useful purpose in a neighbourhood that was strange to me. Accordingly, I made my way to the nearest hotel, and ordered my dinner and my bed. This done, I wrote to Marian, to tell her that I was safe and well, and that I had fair prospects of success. I had directed her, on leaving home, to address the first letter she wrote to me (the letter I expected to receive the next morning) to “The Post-Office, Welmingham,” and I now begged her to send her second day’s letter to the same address.

I could easily receive it by writing to the postmaster if I happened to be away from the town when it arrived.

The coffee-room of the hotel, as it grew late in the evening, became a perfect solitude. I was left to reflect on what I had accomplished that afternoon as uninterruptedly as if the house had been my own. Before I retired to rest I had attentively thought over my extraordinary interview with Mrs. Catherick from beginning to end, and had verified at my leisure the conclusions which I had hastily drawn in the earlier part of the day.

The vestry of Old Welmingham church was the starting-point from which my mind slowly worked its way back through all that I had heard Mrs. Catherick say, and through all I had seen Mrs. Catherick do.

At the time when the neighbourhood of the vestry was first referred to in my presence by Mrs. Clements, I had thought it the strangest and most unaccountable of all places for Sir Percival to select for a clandestine meeting with the clerk’s wife. Influenced by this impression, and by no other, I had mentioned “the vestry of the church” before Mrs. Catherick on pure speculation–it represented one of the minor peculiarities of the story which occurred to me while I was speaking. I was prepared for her answering me confusedly or angrily, but the blank terror that seized her when I said the words took me completely by surprise. I had long before associated Sir Percival’s Secret with the concealment of a serious crime which Mrs. Catherick knew of, but I had gone no further than this. Now the woman’s paroxysm of terror associated the crime, either directly or indirectly, with the vestry, and convinced me that she had been more than the mere witness of it–she was also the accomplice, beyond a doubt.

What had been the nature of the crime? Surely there was a contemptible side to it, as well as a dangerous side, or Mrs. Catherick would not have repeated my own words, referring to Sir Percival’s rank and power, with such marked disdain as she had certainly displayed. It was a contemptible crime then and a dangerous crime, and she had shared in it, and it was associated with the vestry of the church.

The next consideration to be disposed of led me a step farther from this point.

Mrs. Catherick’s undisguised contempt for Sir Percival plainly extended to his mother as well. She had referred with the bitterest sarcasm to the great family he had descended from–” especially by the mother’s side.” What did this mean?

There appeared to be only two explanations of it. Either his mother’s birth had been low, or his mother’s reputation was damaged by some hidden flaw with which Mrs. Catherick and Sir Percival were both privately acquainted? I could only put the first explanation to the test by looking at the register of her marriage, and so ascertaining her maiden name and her parentage as a preliminary to further inquiries.

On the other hand, if the second case supposed were the true one, what had been the flaw in her reputation? Remembering the account which Marian had given me of Sir Percival’s father and mother, and of the suspiciously unsocial secluded life they had both led, I now asked myself whether it might not be possible that his mother had never been married at all. Here again the register might, by offering written evidence of the marriage, prove to me, at any rate, that this doubt had no foundation in truth. But where was the register to be found? At this point I took up the conclusions which I had previously formed, and the same mental process which had discovered the locality of the concealed crime, now lodged the register also in the vestry of Old Welmingham church.

These were the results of my interview with Mrs. Catherick–these were the various considerations, all steadily converging to one point, which decided the course of my proceedings on the next day.

The morning was cloudy and lowering, but no rain fell. I left my bag at the hotel to wait there till I called for it, and, after inquiring the way, set forth on foot for Old Welmingham church.

It was a walk of rather more than two miles, the ground rising slowly all the way.

On the highest point stood the church–an ancient, weather-beaten building, with heavy buttresses at its sides, and a clumsy square tower in front. The vestry at the back was built out from the church, and seemed to be of the same age. Round the building at intervals appeared the remains of the village which Mrs. Clements had described to me as her husband’s place of abode in former years, and which the principal inhabitants had long since deserted for the new town. Some of the empty houses had been dismantled to their outer walls, some had been left to decay with time, and some were still inhabited by persons evidently of the poorest class. It was a dreary scene, and yet, in the worst aspect of its ruin, not so dreary as the modern town that I had just left. Here there was the brown, breezy sweep of surrounding fields for the eye to repose on–here the trees, leafless as they were, still varied the monotony of the prospect, and helped the mind to look forward to summer-time and shade.

As I moved away from the back of the church, and passed some of the dismantled cottages in search of a person who might direct me to the clerk, I saw two men saunter out after me from behind a wall. The tallest of the two–a stout muscular man in the dress of a gamekeeper–was a stranger to me. The other was one of the men who had followed me in London on the day when I left Mr. Kyrle’s office. I had taken particular notice of him at the time; and I felt sure that I was not mistaken in identifying the fellow on this occasion.

Neither he nor his companion attempted to speak to me, and both kept themselves at a respectful distance, but the motive of their presence in the neighbourhood of the church was plainly apparent. It was exactly as I had supposed–Sir Percival was already prepared for me. My visit to Mrs. Catherick had been reported to him the evening before, and those two men had been placed on the look-out near the church in anticipation of my appearance at Old Welmingham. If I had wanted any further proof that my investigations had taken the right direction at last, the plan now adopted for watching me would have supplied it.

I walked on away from the church till I reached one of the inhabited houses, with a patch of kitchen garden attached to it on which a labourer was at work. He directed me to the clerk’s abode, a cottage at some little distance off, standing by itself on the outskirts of the forsaken village. The clerk was indoors, and was just putting on his greatcoat. He was a cheerful, familiar, loudly-talkative old man, with a very poor opinion (as I soon discovered) of the place in which he lived, and a happy sense of superiority to his neighbours in virtue of the great personal distinction of having once been in London.

“It’s well you came so early, sir,” said the old man, when I had mentioned the object of my visit. “I should have been away in ten minutes more. Parish business, sir, and a goodish long trot before it’s all done for a man at my age. But, bless you, I’m strong on my legs still! As long as a man don’t give at his legs, there’s a deal of work left in him. Don’t you think so yourself, sir?”

He took his keys down while he was talking from a hook behind the fireplace, and locked his cottage door behind us.

“Nobody at home to keep house for me,” said the clerk, with a cheerful sense of perfect freedom from all family encumbrances. “My wife’s in the churchyard there, and my children are all married. A wretched place this, isn’t it, sir? But the parish is a large one–every man couldn’t get through the business as I do. It’s learning does it, and I’ve had my share, and a little more. I can talk the Queen’s English (God bless the Queen!), and that’s more than most of the people about here can do. You’re from London, I suppose, sir? I’ve been in London a matter of five-and- twenty year ago. What’s the news there now, if you please?”

Chattering on in this way, he led me back to the vestry. I looked about to see if the two spies were still in sight. They were not visible anywhere. After having discovered my application to the clerk, they had probably concealed themselves where they could watch my next proceedings in perfect freedom.

The vestry door was of stout old oak, studded with strong nails, and the clerk put his large heavy key into the lock with the air of a man who knew that he had a difficulty to encounter, and who was not quite certain of creditably conquering it.

“I’m obliged to bring you this way, sir,” he said, “because the door from the vestry to the church is bolted on the vestry side. We might have got in through the church otherwise. This is a perverse lock, if ever there was one yet. It’s big enough for a prison-door–it’s been hampered over and over again, and it ought to be changed for a new one. I’ve mentioned that to the churchwarden fifty times over at least–he’s always saying, ‘I’ll see about it’–and he never does see. Ah, It’s a sort of lost corner, this place. Not like London–is it, sir? Bless you, we are all asleep here! We don’t march with the times.”

After some twisting and turning of the key, the heavy lock yielded, and he opened the door.

The vestry was larger than I should have supposed it to be, judging from the outside only. It was a dim, mouldy, melancholy old room, with a low, raftered ceiling. Round two sides of it, the sides nearest to the interior of the church, ran heavy wooden presses, worm-eaten and gaping with age. Hooked to the inner corner of one of these presses hung several surplices, all bulging out at their lower ends in an irreverent-looking bundle of limp drapery. Below the surplices, on the floor, stood three packing- cases, with the lids half off, half on, and the straw profusely bursting out of their cracks and crevices in every direction. Behind them, in a corner, was a litter of dusty papers, some large and rolled up like architects’ plans, some loosely strung together on files like bills or letters. The room had once been lighted by a small side window, but this had been bricked up, and a lantern skylight was now substituted for it. The atmosphere of the place was heavy and mouldy, being rendered additionally oppressive by the closing of the door which led into the church. This door also was composed of solid oak, and was bolted at the top and bottom on the vestry side.

“We might be tidier, mightn’t we, sir?” said the cheerful clerk; “but when you’re in a lost corner of a place like this, what are you to do? Why, look here now, just look at these packing-cases. There they’ve been, for a year or more, ready to go down to London–there they are, littering the place, and there they’ll stop as long as the nails hold them together. I’ll tell you what, sir, as I said before, this is not London. We are all asleep here. Bless you, WE don’t march with the times!”

“What is there in the packing-cases?” I asked.

“Bits of old wood carvings from the pulpit, and panels from the chancel, and images from the organ-loft,” said the clerk. “Portraits of the twelve apostles in wood, and not a whole nose among ’em. All broken, and worm-eaten, and crumbling to dust at the edges. As brittle as crockery, sir, and as old as the church, if not older.”

“And why were they going to London? To be repaired?”

“That’s it, sir, to be repaired, and where they were past repair, to be copied in sound wood. But, bless you, the money fell short, and there they are, waiting for new subscriptions, and nobody to subscribe. It was all done a year ago, sir. Six gentlemen dined together about it, at the hotel in the new town. They made speeches, and passed resolutions, and put their names down, and printed off thousands of prospectuses. Beautiful prospectuses, sir, all flourished over with Gothic devices in red ink, saying it was a disgrace not to restore the church and repair the famous carvings, and so on. There are the prospectuses that couldn’t be distributed, and the architect’s plans and estimates, and the whole correspondence which set everybody at loggerheads and ended in a dispute, all down together in that corner, behind the packing-cases. The money dribbled in a little at first–but what CAN you expect out of London? There was just enough, you know, to pack the broken carvings, and get the estimates, and pay the printer’s bill, and after that there wasn’t a halfpenny left. There the things are, as I said before. We have nowhere else to put them–nobody in the new town cares about accommodating us– we’re in a lost corner–and this is an untidy vestry–and who’s to help it?–that’s what I want to know.”

My anxiety to examine the register did not dispose me to offer much encouragement to the old man’s talkativeness. I agreed with him that nobody could help the untidiness of the vestry, and then suggested that we should proceed to our business without more delay.

“Ay, ay, the marriage-register, to be sure,” said the clerk, taking a little bunch of keys from his pocket. “How far do you want to look back, sir?”

Marian had informed me of Sir Percival’s age at the time when we had spoken together of his marriage engagement with Laura. She had then described him as being forty-five years old. Calculating back from this, and making due allowance for the year that had passed since I had gained my information, I found that he must have been born in eighteen hundred and four, and that I might safely start on my search through the register from that date.

“I want to begin with the year eighteen hundred and four,” I said.

“Which way after that, sir?” asked the clerk. “Forwards to our time or backwards away from us?”

“Backwards from eighteen hundred and four.”

He opened the door of one of the presses–the press from the side of which the surplices were hanging–and produced a large volume bound in greasy brown leather. I was struck by the insecurity of the place in which the register was kept. The door of the press was warped and cracked with age, and the lock was of the smallest and commonest kind. I could have forced it easily with the walking-stick I carried in my hand.

“Is that considered a sufficiently secure place for the register?” I inquired. “Surely a book of such importance as this ought to be protected by a better lock, and kept carefully in an iron safe?”

“Well, now, that’s curious!” said the clerk, shutting up the book again, just after he had opened it, and smacking his hand cheerfully on the cover. “Those were the very words my old master was always saying years and years ago, when I was a lad. ‘Why isn’t the register’ (meaning this register here, under my hand)– ‘why isn’t it kept in an iron safe?’ If I’ve heard him say that once, I’ve heard him say it a hundred times. He was the solicitor in those days, sir, who had the appointment of vestry-clerk to this church. A fine hearty old gentleman, and the most particular man breathing. As long as he lived he kept a copy of this book in his office at Knowlesbury, and had it posted up regular, from time to time, to correspond with the fresh entries here. You would hardly think it, but he had his own appointed days, once or twice in every quarter, for riding over to this church on his old white pony, to check the copy, by the register, with his own eyes and hands. ‘How do I know?’ (he used to say) ‘how do I know that the register in this vestry may not be stolen or destroyed? Why isn’t it kept in an iron safe? Why can’t I make other people as careful