Distrust, the very feeling I dreaded, appeared in Hannah's face. "I'll give you a piece of bread," she said, after a pause; "but we can't take in a vagrant to lodge. It isn't likely."
"Do let me speak to your mistresses."
"No, not I. What can they do for you? You should not be roving about now; it looks very ill."
"But where shall I go if you drive me away? What shall I do?"
"Oh, I'll warrant you know where to go and what to do. Mind you don't do wrong, that's all. Here is a penny; now go — "
"A penny cannot feed me, and I have no strength to go farther. Don't shut the door: — oh, don't, for God's sake!"
"I must; the rain is driving in — "
"Tell the young ladies. Let me see them — "
"Indeed, I will not. You are not what you ought to be, or you wouldn't make such a noise. Move off."
"But I must die if I am turned away."
"Not you. I'm fear'd you have some ill plans agate, that bring you about folk's houses at this time o' night. If you've any followers — housebreakers or such like — anywhere near, you may tell them we are not by ourselves in the house; we have a gentleman, and dogs, and guns." Here the honest but inflexible servant clapped the door to and bolted it within.
This was the climax. A pang of exquisite suffering — a throe of true despair — rent and heaved my heart. Worn out, indeed, I was; not another step could I stir. I sank on the wet doorstep: I groaned — I wrung my hands — I wept in utter anguish. Oh, this spectre of death! Oh, this last hour, approaching in such horror! Alas, this isolation — this banishment from my kind! Not only the anchor of hope, but the footing of fortitude was gone — at least for a moment; but the last I soon endeavoured to regain.
"I can but die," I said, "and I believe in God. Let me try to wait His will in silence."
These words I not only thought, but uttered; and thrusting back all my misery into my heart, I made an effort to compel it to remain there — dumb and still.
"All men must die," said a voice quite close at hand; "but all are not condemned to meet a lingering and premature doom, such as yours would be if you perished here of want."
"Who or what speaks?" I asked, terrified at the unexpected sound, and incapable now of deriving from any occurrence a hope of aid. A form was near — what form, the pitch-dark night and my enfeebled vision prevented me from distinguishing. With a loud long knock, the new-comer appealed to the door.
"Is it you, Mr. St. John?" cried Hannah.
"Yes — yes; open quickly."
"Well, how wet and cold you must be, such a wild night as it is! Come in — your sisters are quite uneasy about you, and I believe there are bad folks about. There has been a beggar-woman — I declare she is not gone yet! — laid down there. Get up! for shame! Move off, I say!"
"Hush, Hannah! I have a word to say to the woman. You have done your duty in excluding, now let me do mine in admitting her. I was near, and listened to both you and her. I think this is a peculiar case — I must at least examine into it. Young woman, rise, and pass before me into the house."
With difficulty I obeyed him. Presently I stood within that clean, bright kitchen — on the very hearth — trembling, sickening; conscious of an aspect in the last degree ghastly, wild, and weather-beaten. The two ladies, their brother, Mr. St. John, the old servant, were all gazing at me.
"St. John, who is it?" I heard one ask.
"I cannot tell: I found her at the door," was the reply.
"She does look white," said Hannah.
"As white as clay or death," was responded. "She will fall: let her sit."
And indeed my head swam: I dropped, but a chair received me. I still possessed my senses, though just now I could not speak.
"Perhaps a little water would restore her. Hannah, fetch some. But she is worn to nothing. How very thin, and how very bloodless!"
"A mere spectre!"
"Is she ill, or only famished?"
"Famished, I think. Hannah, is that milk? Give it me, and a piece of bread."
Diana (I knew her by the long curls which I saw drooping between me and the fire as she bent over me) broke some bread, dipped it in milk, and put it to my lips. Her face was near mine: I saw there was pity in it, and I felt sympathy in her hurried breathing. In her simple words, too, the same balm-like emotion spoke: "Try to eat."
"Yes — try," repeated Mary gently; and Mary's hand removed my sodden bonnet and lifted my head. I tasted what they offered me: feebly at first, eagerly soon.
"Not too much at first — restrain her," said the brother; "she has had enough." And he withdrew the cup of milk and the plate of bread.
"A little more, St. John — look at the avidity in her eyes."
"No more at present, sister. Try if she can speak now — ask her her name."
I felt I could speak, and I answered — "My name is Jane Elliott." Anxious as ever to avoid discovery, I had before resolved to assume an alias.
"And where do you live? Where are your friends?"
I was silent.
"Can we send for any one you know?"
I shook my head.
"What account can you give of yourself?"
Somehow, now that I had once crossed the threshold of this house, and once was brought face to face with its owners, I felt no longer outcast, vagrant, and disowned by the wide world. I dared to put off the mendicant — to resume my natural manner and character. I began once more to know myself; and when Mr. St. John demanded an account — which at present I was far too weak to render — I said after a brief pause —
"Sir, I can give you no details to-night."
"But what, then," said he, "do you expect me to do for you?"
"Nothing," I replied. My strength sufficed for but short answers. Diana took the word —
"Do you mean," she asked, "that we have now given you what aid you require? and that we may dismiss you to the moor and the rainy night?"
I looked at her. She had, I thought, a remarkable countenance, instinct both with power and goodness. I took sudden courage. Answering her compassionate gaze with a smile, I said — "I will trust you. If I were a masterless and stray dog, I know that you would not turn me from your hearth to-night: as it is, I really have no fear. Do with me and for me as you like; but excuse me from much discourse — my breath is short — I feel a spasm when I speak." All three surveyed me, and all three were silent.
"Hannah," said Mr. St. John, at last, "let her sit there at present, and ask her no questions; in ten minutes more, give her the remainder of that milk and bread. Mary and Diana, let us go into the parlour and talk the matter over."
They withdrew. Very soon one of the ladies returned — I could not tell which. A kind of pleasant stupor was stealing over me as I sat by the genial fire. In an undertone she gave some directions to Hannah. Ere long, with the servant's aid, I contrived to mount a staircase; my dripping clothes were removed; soon a warm, dry bed received me. I thanked God — experienced amidst unutterable exhaustion a glow of grateful joy — and slept.