Almost frightened by coming upon him so unexpectedly, I stood still for a moment and should have retired without speaking had he not, in again passing his hand abstractedly through his hair, seen me and started.
I told him what I had come for.
"At work so late, my dear?"
"I am working late to-night," said I, "because I couldn't sleep and wished to tire myself. But, dear guardian, you are late too, and look weary. You have no trouble, I hope, to keep you waking?"
"None, little woman, that YOU would readily understand," said he.
He spoke in a regretful tone so new to me that I inwardly repeated, as if that would help me to his meaning, "That I could readily understand!"
"Remain a moment, Esther," said he, "You were in my thoughts."
"I hope I was not the trouble, guardian?"
He slightly waved his hand and fell into his usual manner. The change was so remarkable, and he appeared to make it by dint of so much self-command, that I found myself again inwardly repeating, "None that I could understand!"
"Little woman," said my guardian, "I was thinking--that is, I have been thinking since I have been sitting here--that you ought to know of your own history all I know. It is very little. Next to nothing."
"Dear guardian," I replied, "when you spoke to me before on that subject--"
"But since then," he gravely interposed, anticipating what I meant to say, "I have reflected that your having anything to ask me, and my having anything to tell you, are different considerations, Esther. It is perhaps my duty to impart to you the little I know."
"If you think so, guardian, it is right."
"I think so," he returned very gently, and kindly, and very distinctly. "My dear, I think so now. If any real disadvantage can attach to your position in the mind of any man or woman worth a thought, it is right that you at least of all the world should not magnify it to yourself by having vague impressions of its nature."
I sat down and said after a little effort to be as calm as I ought to be, "One of my earliest remembrances, guardian, is of these words: 'Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers. The time will come, and soon enough, when you will understand this better, and will feel it too, as no one save a woman can.'" I had covered my face with my hands in repeating the words, but I took them away now with a better kind of shame, I hope, and told him that to him I owed the blessing that I had from my childhood to that hour never, never, never felt it. He put up his hand as if to stop me. I well knew that he was never to be thanked, and said no more.
"Nine years, my dear," he said after thinking for a little while, "have passed since I received a letter from a lady living in seclusion, written with a stern passion and power that rendered it unlike all other letters I have ever read. It was written to me (as it told me in so many words), perhaps because it was the writer's idiosyncrasy to put that trust in me, perhaps because it was mine to justify it. It told me of a child, an orphan girl then twelve years old, in some such cruel words as those which live in your remembrance. It told me that the writer had bred her in secrecy from her birth, had blotted out all trace of her existence, and that if the writer were to die before the child became a woman, she would be left entirely friendless, nameless, and unknown. It asked me to consider if I would, in that case, finish what the writer had begun."
I listened in silence and looked attentively at him.
"Your early recollection, my dear, will supply the gloomy medium through which all this was seen and expressed by the writer, and the distorted religion which clouded her mind with impressions of the need there was for the child to expiate an offence of which she was quite innocent. I felt concerned for the little creature, in her darkened life, and replied to the letter."
I took his hand and kissed it.
"It laid the injunction on me that I should never propose to see the writer, who had long been estranged from all intercourse with the world, but who would see a confidential agent if I would appoint one.