I stood at the window—still the same leaden sky and feathery sleet before me—trying to estimate the magnitude of the discovery I had just made. Gradually a kind of despair seized me, and I threw myself passionately on my bed, weeping aloud.
Good Mary Quince was, of course, beside me in a moment, with her pale, concerned face.
'Oh, Mary, Mary, she's come—that dreadful woman, Madame de la Rougierre, has come to be my governess again; and Uncle Silas won't hear or believe anything about her. It is vain talking; he is prepossessed. Was ever so unfortunate a creature as I? Who could have fancied or feared such a thing? Oh, Mary, Mary, what am I to do? what is to become of me? Am I never to shake off that vindictive, terrible woman?'
Mary said all she could to console me. I was making too much of her. What was she, after all, more than a governess?—she could not hurt me. I was not a child no longer—she could not bully me now; and my uncle, though he might be deceived for a while, would not be long finding her out.
Thus and soforth did good Mary Quince declaim, and at last she did impress me a little, and I began to think that I had, perhaps, been making too much of Madame's visit. But still imagination, that instrument and mirror of prophecy, showed her formidable image always on its surface, with a terrible moving background of shadows.
In a few minutes there was a knock at my door, and Madame herself entered. She was in walking costume. There had been a brief clearing of the weather, and she proposed our making a promenade together.
On seeing Mary Quince she broke into a rapture of compliment and greeting, and took what Mr. Richardson would have called her passive hand, and pressed it with wonderful tenderness.
Honest Mary suffered all this somewhat reluctantly, never smiling, and, on the contrary, looking rather ruefully at her feet.
'Weel you make a some tea? When I come back, dear Mary Quince, I 'av so much to tell you and dear Miss Maud of all my adventures while I 'av been away; it will make a you laugh ever so much. I was—what you theenk?—near, ever so near to be married!' And upon this she broke into a screeching laugh, and shook Mary Quince merrily by the shoulder.
I sullenly declined going out, or rising; and when she had gone away, I told Mary that I should confine myself to my room while Madame stayed.
But self-denying ordinances self-imposed are not always long observed by youth. Madame de la Rougierre laid herself out to be agreeable; she had no end of stories—more than half, no doubt, pure fictions—to tell, but all, in that triste place, amusing. Mary Quince began to entertain a better opinion of her. She actually helped to make beds, and tried to be in every way of use, and seemed to have quite turned over a new leaf; and so gradually she moved me, first to listen, and at last to talk.
On the whole, these terms were better than a perpetual skirmish; but, notwithstanding all her gossip and friendliness, I continued to have a profound distrust and even terror of her.
She seemed curious about the Bartram-Haugh family, and all their ways, and listened darkly when I spoke. I told her, bit by bit, the whole story of Dudley, and she used, whenever there was news of the Seamew, to read the paragraph for my benefit; and in poor Milly's battered little Atlas she used to trace the ship's course with a pencil, writing in, from point to point, the date at which the vessel was 'spoken' at sea. She seemed amused at the irrepressible satisfaction with which I received these minutes of his progress; and she used to calculate the distance;—on such a day he was two hundred and sixty miles, on such another five hundred; the last point was more than eight hundred—good, better, best—best of all would be those 'deleecious antipode, w'ere he would so soon promener on his head twelve thousand mile away;' and at the conceit she would fall into screams of laughter.
Laugh as she might, however, there was substantial comfort in thinking of the boundless stretch of blue wave that rolled between me and that villainous cousin.
I was now on very odd terms with Madame. She had not relapsed into her favourite vein of oracular sarcasm and menace; she had, on the contrary, affected her good-humoured and genial vein. But I was not to be deceived by this. I carried in my heart that deep-seated fear of her which her unpleasant goodhumour and gaiety never disturbed for a moment. I was very glad, therefore, when she went to Todcaster by rail, to make some purchases for the journey which we were daily expecting to commence; and happy in the opportunity of a walk, good old Mary Quince and I set forth for a little ramble.
As I wished to make some purchases in Feltram, I set out, with Mary Quince for my companion. On reaching the great gate we found it locked. The key, however, was in it, and as it required more than the strength of my hand to turn, Mary tried it. At the same moment old Crowle came out of the sombre lodge by its side, swallowing down a mouthful of his dinner in haste. No one, I believe, liked the long suspicious face of the old man, seldom shorn or washed, and furrowed with great, grimy perpendicular wrinkles. Leering fiercely at Mary, not pretending to see me, he wiped his mouth hurriedly with the back of his hand, and growled—
'Open it, please, Mr. Crowle,' said Mary, renouncing the task.
Crowle wiped his mouth as before, looking inauspicious; shuffling to the spot, and muttering to himself, he first satisfied himself that the lock was fast, and then lodged the key in his coat-pocket, and still muttering, retraced his steps.
'We want the gate open, please,' said Mary.
'Miss Maud wants to go into the town,' she insisted.
'We wants many a thing we can't get,' he growled, stepping into his habitation.
'Please open the gate,' I said, advancing.
He half turned on his threshold, and made a dumb show of touching his hat, although he had none on.
'Can't, ma'am; without an order from master, no one goes out here.'
'You won't allow me and my maid to pass the gate?' I said.
Tisn't me, ma'am,' said he; 'but I can't break orders, and no one goes out without the master allows.'
And without awaiting further parley, he entered, shutting his hatch behind him.
So Mary and I stood, looking very foolish at one another. This was the first restraint I had experienced since Milly and I had been refused a passage through the Windmill paling. The rule, however, on which Crowle insisted I felt confident could not have been intended to apply to me. A word to Uncle Silas would set all right; and in the meantime I proposed to Mary that we should take a walk—my favourite ramble—into the Windmill Wood.
I looked toward Dickon's farmstead as we passed, thinking that Beauty might have been there. I did see the girl, who was plainly watching us. She stood in the doorway of the cottage, withdrawn into the shade, and, I fancied, anxious to escape observation. When we had passed on a little, I was confirmed in that belief by seeing her run down the footpath which led from the rear of the farmyard in the direction contrary to that in which we were moving.
'So,' I thought, 'poor Meg falls from me!'
Mary Quince and I rambled on through the wood, till we reached the windmill itself, and seeing its low arched door open, we entered the chiaro-oscuro of its circular basement. As we did so I heard a rush and the creak of a plank, and looking up, I saw just a foot—no more—disappearing through the trap-door.
In the case of one we love or fear intensely, what feats of comparative anatomy will not the mind unconsciously perform? Constructing the whole living animal from the turn of an elbow, the curl of a whisker, a segment of a hand. How instantaneous and unerring is the instinct!
'Oh, Mary, what have I seen!' I whispered, recovering from the fascination that held my gaze fast to the topmost rounds of the ladder, that disappeared in the darkness above the open door in the loft. 'Come, Mary—come away.'
At the same instant appeared the swarthy, sullen face of Dickon Hawkes in the shadow of the aperture. Having but one serviceable leg, his descent was slow and awkward, and having got his head to the level of the loft he stopped to touch his hat to me, and to hasp and lock the trap-door.
When this was done, the man again touched his hat, and looked steadily and searchingly at me for a second or so, while he got the key into his pocket.
'These fellahs stores their flour too long 'ere, ma'am. There's a deal o' trouble a-looking arter it. I'll talk wi' Silas, and settle that.'
By this time he had got upon the worn-tiled floor, and touching his hat again, he said—
'I'm a-goin' to lock the door, ma'am!'
So with a start, and again whispering—
'Come, Mary—come away'—
With my arm fast in hers, we made a swift departure.
'I feel very faint, Mary,' said I. 'Come quickly. There's nobody following us?'
'No, Miss, dear. That man with the wooden leg is putting a padlock on the door.'
'Come very fast,' I said; and when we had got a little farther, I said, 'Look again, and see whether anyone is following.'
'No one, Miss,' answered Mary, plainly surprised. 'He's putting the key in his pocket, and standin' there a-lookin' after us.'
'Oh, Mary, did not you see it?'
'What, Miss?' asked Mary, almost stopping.
'Come on, Mary. Don't pause. They will observe us,' I whispered, hurrying her forward.
'What did you see, Miss?' repeated Mary.
'Mr. Dudley,' I whispered, with a terrified emphasis, not daring to turn my head as I spoke.
'Lawk, Miss!' remonstrated honest Quince, with a protracted intonation of wonder and incredulity, which plainly implied a suspicion that I was dreaming.
'Yes, Mary. When we went into that dreadful room—that dark, round place—I saw his foot on the ladder. His foot, Mary I can't be mistaken. I won't be questioned. You'll find I'm right. He's here. He never went in that ship at all. A fraud has been practised on me—it is infamous—it is terrible. I'm frightened out of my life. For heaven's sake, look back again, and tell me what you see.'
'Nothing, Miss,' answered Mary, in contagious whispers, 'but that wooden-legged chap, standin' hard by the door.'
'And no one with him?'
'No one, Miss.'
We got without pursuit through the gate in the paling. I drew breath so soon as we had reached the cover of the thicket near the chestnut hollow, and I began to reflect that whoever the owner of the foot might be—and I was still instinctively certain that it was no other than Dudley—concealment was plainly his object. I need not, then, be at all uneasy lest he should pursue us.
As we walked slowly and in silence along the grassy footpath, I heard a voice calling my name from behind. Mary Quince had not heard it at all, but I was quite certain.
It was repeated twice or thrice, and, looking in considerable doubt and trepidation under the hanging boughs, I saw Beauty, not ten yards away, standing among the underwood.
I remember how white the eyes and teeth of the swarthy girl looked, as with hand uplifted toward her ear, she watched us while, as it seemed, listening for more distant sounds.
Beauty beckoned eagerly to me, advancing, with looks of great fear and anxiety, two or three short steps toward me.
'She baint to come,' said Beauty, under her breath, so soon as I had nearly reached her, pointing without raising her hand at Mary Quince.
'Tell her to sit on the ash-tree stump down yonder, and call ye as loud as she can if she sees any fellah a-comin' this way, an' rin ye back to me;' and she impatiently beckoned me away on her errand.
When I returned, having made this dispositions, I perceived how pale the girl was.
'Are you ill, Meg?' I asked.
'Never ye mind. Well enough. Listen, Miss; I must tell it all in a crack, an' if she calls, rin awa' to her, and le' me to myself, for if fayther or t'other un wor to kotch me here, I think they'd kill me a'most. Hish!'
She paused a second, looking askance, in the direction where she fancied Mary Quince was. Then she resumed in a whisper—
'Now, lass, mind ye, ye'll keep what I say to yourself. You're not to tell that un nor any other for your life, mind, a word o' what I'm goin' to tell ye.'
'I'll not say a word. Go on.'
'Did ye see Dudley?'
'I think I saw him getting up the ladder.'
'In the mill? Ha! that's him. He never went beyond Todcaster. He staid in Feltram after.'
It was my turn to look pale now. My worst conjecture was established.