"What does Mr. Bucket mean?" he repeated, and I saw by his face that all the time he talked he was listening for the discovery of the letter, to my own great agitation, for I knew then how important it must be; "I'll tell you what he means, ma'am. Go and see Othello acted. That's the tragedy for you."
Mrs. Snagsby consciously asked why.
"Why?" said Mr. Bucket. "Because you'll come to that if you don't look out. Why, at the very moment while I speak, I know what your mind's not wholly free from respecting this young lady. But shall I tell you who this young lady is? Now, come, you're what I call an intellectual woman — with your soul too large for your body, if you come to that, and chafing it — and you know me, and you recollect where you saw me last, and what was talked of in that circle. Don't you? Yes! Very well. This young lady is that young lady."
Mrs. Snagsby appeared to understand the reference better than I did at the time.
"And Toughey — him as you call Jo — was mixed up in the same business, and no other; and the law-writer that you know of was mixed up in the same business, and no other; and your husband, with no more knowledge of it than your great grandfather, was mixed up (by Mr. Tulkinghorn, deceased, his best customer) in the same business, and no other; and the whole bileing of people was mixed up in the same business, and no other. And yet a married woman, possessing your attractions, shuts her eyes (and sparklers too), and goes and runs her delicate-formed head against a wall. Why, I am ashamed of you! (I expected Mr. Woodcourt might have got it by this time.)"
Mrs. Snagsby shook her head and put her handkerchief to her eyes.
"Is that all?" said Mr. Bucket excitedly. "No. See what happens. Another person mixed up in that business and no other, a person in a wretched state, comes here to-night and is seen a-speaking to your maid-servant; and between her and your maid-servant there passes a paper that I would give a hundred pound for, down. What do you do? You hide and you watch 'em, and you pounce upon that maid-servant — knowing what she's subject to and what a little thing will bring 'em on — in that surprising manner and with that severity that, by the Lord, she goes off and keeps off, when a life may be hanging upon that girl's words!"
He so thoroughly meant what he said now that I involuntarily clasped my hands and felt the room turning away from me. But it stopped. Mr. Woodcourt came in, put a paper into his hand, and went away again.
"Now, Mrs. Snagsby, the only amends you can make," said Mr. Bucket, rapidly glancing at it, "is to let me speak a word to this young lady in private here. And if you know of any help that you can give to that gentleman in the next kitchen there or can think of any one thing that's likelier than another to bring the girl round, do your swiftest and best!" In an instant she was gone, and he had shut the door. "Now my dear, you're steady and quite sure of yourself?"
"Quite," said I.
"Whose writing is that?"
It was my mother's. A pencil-writing, on a crushed and torn piece of paper, blotted with wet. Folded roughly like a letter, and directed to me at my guardian's.
"You know the hand," he said, "and if you are firm enough to read it to me, do! But be particular to a word."
It had been written in portions, at different times. I read what follows:
"I came to the cottage with two objects. First, to see the dear one, if I could, once more — but only to see her — not to speak to her or let her know that I was near. The other object, to elude pursuit and to be lost. Do not blame the mother for her share. The assistance that she rendered me, she rendered on my strongest assurance that it was for the dear one's good. You remember her dead child. The men's consent I bought, but her help was freely given."
"'I came.' That was written," said my companion, "when she rested there. It bears out what I made of it. I was right."
The next was written at another time:
"I have wandered a long distance, and for many hours, and I know that I must soon die. These streets! I have no purpose but to die. When I left, I had a worse, but I am saved from adding that guilt to the rest. Cold, wet, and fatigue are sufficient causes for my being found dead, but I shall die of others, though I suffer from these. It was right that all that had sustained me should give way at once and that I should die of terror and my conscience."
"Take courage," said Mr. Bucket. "There's only a few words more."
Those, too, were written at another time. To all appearance, almost in the dark:
"I have done all I could do to be lost. I shall be soon forgotten so, and shall disgrace him least. I have nothing about me by which I can be recognized. This paper I part with now. The place where I shall lie down, if I can get so far, has been often in my mind. Farewell. Forgive."
Mr. Bucket, supporting me with his arm, lowered me gently into my chair. "Cheer up! Don't think me hard with you, my dear, but as soon as ever you feel equal to it, get your shoes on and be ready."
I did as he required, but I was left there a long time, praying for my unhappy mother. They were all occupied with the poor girl, and I heard Mr. Woodcourt directing them and speaking to her often. At length he came in with Mr. Bucket and said that as it was important to address her gently, he thought it best that I should ask her for whatever information we desired to obtain. There was no doubt that she could now reply to questions if she were soothed and not alarmed. The questions, Mr. Bucket said, were how she came by the letter, what passed between her and the person who gave her the letter, and where the person went. Holding my mind as steadily as I could to these points, I went into the next room with them. Mr. Woodcourt would have remained outside, but at my solicitation went in with us.
The poor girl was sitting on the floor where they had laid her down. They stood around her, though at a little distance, that she might have air. She was not pretty and looked weak and poor, but she had a plaintive and a good face, though it was still a little wild. I kneeled on the ground beside her and put her poor head upon my shoulder, whereupon she drew her arm round my neck and burst into tears.
"My poor girl," said I, laying my face against her forehead, for indeed I was crying too, and trembling, "it seems cruel to trouble you now, but more depends on our knowing something about this letter than I could tell you in an hour."
She began piteously declaring that she didn't mean any harm, she didn't mean any harm, Mrs. Snagsby!
"We are all sure of that," said I. "But pray tell me how you got it."
"Yes, dear lady, I will, and tell you true. I'll tell true, indeed, Mrs. Snagsby."
"I am sure of that," said I. "And how was it?"