'I scarcely know,' said the widow, breaking silence, 'how to begin. You will think my mind disordered.'
'The whole tenor of your quiet and reproachless life since you were last here,' returned Mr Haredale, mildly, 'shall bear witness for you. Why do you fear to awaken such a suspicion? You do not speak to strangers. You have not to claim our interest or consideration for the first time. Be more yourself. Take heart. Any advice or assistance that I can give you, you know is yours of right, and freely yours.'
'What if I came, sir,' she rejoined, 'I who have but one other friend on earth, to reject your aid from this moment, and to say that henceforth I launch myself upon the world, alone and unassisted, to sink or swim as Heaven may decree!'
'You would have, if you came to me for such a purpose,' said Mr Haredale calmly, 'some reason to assign for conduct so extraordinary, which--if one may entertain the possibility of anything so wild and strange--would have its weight, of course.'
'That, sir,' she answered, 'is the misery of my distress. I can give no reason whatever. My own bare word is all that I can offer. It is my duty, my imperative and bounden duty. If I did not discharge it, I should be a base and guilty wretch. Having said that, my lips are sealed, and I can say no more.'
As though she felt relieved at having said so much, and had nerved herself to the remainder of her task, she spoke from this time with a firmer voice and heightened courage.
'Heaven is my witness, as my own heart is--and yours, dear young lady, will speak for me, I know--that I have lived, since that time we all have bitter reason to remember, in unchanging devotion, and gratitude to this family. Heaven is my witness that go where I may, I shall preserve those feelings unimpaired. And it is my witness, too, that they alone impel me to the course I must take, and from which nothing now shall turn me, as I hope for mercy.'
'These are strange riddles,' said Mr Haredale.
'In this world, sir,' she replied, 'they may, perhaps, never be explained. In another, the Truth will be discovered in its own good time. And may that time,' she added in a low voice, 'be far distant!'
'Let me be sure,' said Mr Haredale, 'that I understand you, for I am doubtful of my own senses. Do you mean that you are resolved voluntarily to deprive yourself of those means of support you have received from us so long--that you are determined to resign the annuity we settled on you twenty years ago--to leave house, and home, and goods, and begin life anew--and this, for some secret reason or monstrous fancy which is incapable of explanation, which only now exists, and has been dormant all this time? In the name of God, under what delusion are you labouring?'
'As I am deeply thankful,' she made answer, 'for the kindness of those, alive and dead, who have owned this house; and as I would not have its roof fall down and crush me, or its very walls drip blood, my name being spoken in their hearing; I never will again subsist upon their bounty, or let it help me to subsistence. You do not know,' she added, suddenly, 'to what uses it may be applied; into what hands it may pass. I do, and I renounce it.'
'Surely,' said Mr Haredale, 'its uses rest with you.'
'They did. They rest with me no longer. It may be--it IS--devoted to purposes that mock the dead in their graves. It never can prosper with me. It will bring some other heavy judgement on the head of my dear son, whose innocence will suffer for his mother's guilt.'
'What words are these!' cried Mr Haredale, regarding her with wonder. 'Among what associates have you fallen? Into what guilt have you ever been betrayed?'
'I am guilty, and yet innocent; wrong, yet right; good in intention, though constrained to shield and aid the bad. Ask me no more questions, sir; but believe that I am rather to be pitied than condemned. I must leave my house to-morrow, for while I stay there, it is haunted. My future dwelling, if I am to live in peace, must be a secret.