"You can't come across," Bathsheba said in a whisper, which she vainly endeavoured to make loud enough to reach Liddy's ears. Liddy, not knowing this, stepped down upon the swamp, saying, as she did so, "It will bear me up, I think."
Bathsheba never forgot that transient little picture of Liddy crossing the swamp to her there in the morning light. Iridescent bubbles of dank subterranean breath rose from the sweating sod beside the waiting-maid's feet as she trod, hissing as they burst and expanded away to join the vapoury firmament above. Liddy did not sink, as Bathsheba had anticipated.
She landed safely on the other side, and looked up at the beautiful though pale and weary face of her young mistress.
"Poor thing!" said Liddy, with tears in her eyes, "Do hearten yourself up a little, ma'am. However did — "
"I can't speak above a whisper — my voice is gone for the present," said Bathsheba, hurriedly. "I suppose the damp air from that hollow has taken it away. Liddy, don't question me, mind. Who sent you — anybody?"
"Nobody. I thought, when I found you were not at home, that something cruel had happened. I fancy I heard his voice late last night; and so, knowing something was wrong — "
"Is he at home?"
"No; he left just before I came out."
"Is Fanny taken away?"
"Not yet. She will soon be — at nine o'clock."
"We won't go home at present, then. Suppose we walk about in this wood?"
Liddy, without exactly understanding everything, or anything, in this episode, assented, and they walked together further among the trees.
"But you had better come in, ma'am, and have something to eat. You will die of a chill!"
"I shall not come indoors yet — perhaps never."
"Shall I get you something to eat, and something else to put over your head besides that little shawl?"
"If you will, Liddy."
Liddy vanished, and at the end of twenty minutes returned with a cloak, hat, some slices of bread and butter, a tea-cup, and some hot tea in a little china jug.
"Is Fanny gone?" said Bathsheba.
"No," said her companion, pouring out the tea.
Bathsheba wrapped herself up and ate and drank sparingly. Her voice was then a little clearer, and trifling colour returned to her face. "Now we'll walk about again," she said.
They wandered about the wood for nearly two hours, Bathsheba replying in monosyllables to Liddy's prattle, for her mind ran on one subject, and one only. She interrupted with —
"I wonder if Fanny is gone by this time?"
"I will go and see."
She came back with the information that the men were just taking away the corpse; that Bathsheba had been inquired for; that she had replied to the effect that her mistress was unwell and could not be seen.
"Then they think I am in my bedroom?"
"Yes." Liddy then ventured to add: "You said when I first found you that you might never go home again — you didn't mean it, ma'am?"
"No; I've altered my mind. It is only women with no pride in them who run away from their husbands. There is one position worse than that of being found dead in your husband's house from his ill usage, and that is, to be found alive through having gone away to the house of somebody else. I've thought of it all this morning, and I've chosen my course. A runaway wife is an encumbrance to everybody, a burden to herself and a byword — all of which make up a heap of misery greater than any that comes by staying at home — though this may include the trifling items of insult, beating, and starvation. Liddy, if ever you marry — God forbid that you ever should! — you'll find yourself in a fearful situation; but mind this, don't you flinch. Stand your ground, and be cut to pieces. That's what I'm going to do."
"Oh, mistress, don't talk so!" said Liddy, taking her hand; "but I knew you had too much sense to bide away. May I ask what dreadful thing it is that has happened between you and him?"
"You may ask; but I may not tell."
In about ten minutes they returned to the house by a circuitous route, entering at the rear. Bathsheba glided up the back stairs to a disused attic, and her companion followed.
"Liddy," she said, with a lighter heart, for youth and hope had begun to reassert themselves; "you are to be my confidante for the present — somebody must be — and I choose you. Well, I shall take up my abode here for a while. Will you get a fire lighted, put down a piece of carpet, and help me to make the place comfortable. Afterwards, I want you and Maryann to bring up that little stump bedstead in the small room, and the bed belonging to it, and a table, and some other things . . . . What shall I do to pass the heavy time away?"
"Hemming handkerchiefs is a very good thing," said Liddy.
"Oh no, no! I hate needlework — I always did."
"And that, too."
"You might finish your sampler. Only the carnations and peacocks want filling in; and then it could be framed and glazed, and hung beside your aunt's ma'am."
"Samplers are out of date — horribly countrified. No Liddy, I'll read. Bring up some books — not new ones. I haven't heart to read anything new."
"Some of your uncle's old ones, ma'am?"
"Yes. Some of those we stowed away in boxes." A faint gleam of humour passed over her face as she said: "Bring Beaumont and Fletcher's Maid's Tragedy, and the Mourning Bride, and — let me see — Night Thoughts, and the Vanity of Human Wishes."