As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out, and left to corruption and decay, the girl we had followed strayed down to the river's brink, and stood in the midst of this night-picture, lonely and still, looking at the water.
There were some boats and barges astrand in the mud, and these enabled us to come within a few yards of her without being seen. I then signed to Mr. Peggotty to remain where he was, and emerged from their shade to speak to her. I did not approach her solitary figure without trembling; for this gloomy end to her determined walk, and the way in which she stood, almost within the cavernous shadow of the iron bridge, looking at the lights crookedly reflected in the strong tide, inspired a dread within me.
I think she was talking to herself. I am sure, although absorbed in gazing at the water, that her shawl was off her shoulders, and that she was muffling her hands in it, in an unsettled and bewildered way, more like the action of a sleep-walker than a waking person. I know, and never can forget, that there was that in her wild manner which gave me no assurance but that she would sink before my eyes, until I had her arm within my grasp.
At the same moment I said 'Martha!'
She uttered a terrified scream, and struggled with me with such strength that I doubt if I could have held her alone. But a stronger hand than mine was laid upon her; and when she raised her frightened eyes and saw whose it was, she made but one more effort and dropped down between us. We carried her away from the water to where there were some dry stones, and there laid her down, crying and moaning. In a little while she sat among the stones, holding her wretched head with both her hands.
'Oh, the river!' she cried passionately. 'Oh, the river!'
'Hush, hush!' said I. 'Calm yourself.'
But she still repeated the same words, continually exclaiming, 'Oh, the river!' over and over again.
'I know it's like me!' she exclaimed. 'I know that I belong to it. I know that it's the natural company of such as I am! It comes from country places, where there was once no harm in it — and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable — and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled — and I feel that I must go with it!' I have never known what despair was, except in the tone of those words.
'I can't keep away from it. I can't forget it. It haunts me day and night. It's the only thing in all the world that I am fit for, or that's fit for me. Oh, the dreadful river!'
The thought passed through my mind that in the face of my companion, as he looked upon her without speech or motion, I might have read his niece's history, if I had known nothing of it. I never saw, in any painting or reality, horror and compassion so impressively blended. He shook as if he would have fallen; and his hand — I touched it with my own, for his appearance alarmed me — was deadly cold.
'She is in a state of frenzy,' I whispered to him. 'She will speak differently in a little time.'
I don't know what he would have said in answer. He made some motion with his mouth, and seemed to think he had spoken; but he had only pointed to her with his outstretched hand.
A new burst of crying came upon her now, in which she once more hid her face among the stones, and lay before us, a prostrate image of humiliation and ruin. Knowing that this state must pass, before we could speak to her with any hope, I ventured to restrain him when he would have raised her, and we stood by in silence until she became more tranquil.
'Martha,' said I then, leaning down, and helping her to rise — she seemed to want to rise as if with the intention of going away, but she was weak, and leaned against a boat. 'Do you know who this is, who is with me?'
She said faintly, 'Yes.'
'Do you know that we have followed you a long way tonight?'
She shook her head. She looked neither at him nor at me, but stood in a humble attitude, holding her bonnet and shawl in one hand, without appearing conscious of them, and pressing the other, clenched, against her forehead.
'Are you composed enough,' said I, 'to speak on the subject which so interested you — I hope Heaven may remember it! — that snowy night?'
Her sobs broke out afresh, and she murmured some inarticulate thanks to me for not having driven her away from the door.
'I want to say nothing for myself,' she said, after a few moments. 'I am bad, I am lost. I have no hope at all. But tell him, sir,' she had shrunk away from him, 'if you don't feel too hard to me to do it, that I never was in any way the cause of his misfortune.' 'It has never been attributed to you,' I returned, earnestly responding to her earnestness.
'It was you, if I don't deceive myself,' she said, in a broken voice, 'that came into the kitchen, the night she took such pity on me; was so gentle to me; didn't shrink away from me like all the rest, and gave me such kind help! Was it you, sir?'