Behind the bench was a little promenade under the wall where people sometimes walked instead of on the gravel. The bench seemed to be touched by something, she looked round, and a face was bending over her, veiled, but still distinct, the face of the young woman she had seen yesterday.
Elizabeth-Jane looked confounded for a moment, knowing she had been overheard, though there was pleasure in her confusion. "Yes, I heard you," said the lady, in a vivacious voice, answering her look. "What can have happened?"
"I don't — I can't tell you," said Elizabeth, putting her hand to her face to hide a quick flush that had come.
There was no movement or word for a few seconds; then the girl felt that the young lady was sitting down beside her.
"I guess how it is with you," said the latter. "That was your mother." She waved her hand towards the tombstone. Elizabeth looked up at her as if inquiring of herself whether there should be confidence. The lady's manner was so desirous, so anxious, that the girl decided there should be confidence. "It was my mother," she said, "my only friend."
"But your father, Mr. Henchard. He is living?"
"Yes, he is living," said Elizabeth-Jane.
"Is he not kind to you?"
"I've no wish to complain of him."
"There has been a disagreement?"
"Perhaps you were to blame," suggested the stranger.
"I was — in many ways," sighed the meek Elizabeth. "I swept up the coals when the servants ought to have done it; and I said I was leery; — and he was angry with me."
The lady seemed to warm towards her for that reply. "Do you know the impression your words give me?" she said ingenuously. "That he is a hot-tempered man — a little proud — perhaps ambitious; but not a bad man." Her anxiety not to condemn Henchard while siding with Elizabeth was curious.
"O no; certainly not BAD," agreed the honest girl. "And he has not even been unkind to me till lately — since mother died. But it has been very much to bear while it has lasted. All is owing to my defects, I daresay; and my defects are owing to my history."
"What is your history?"
Elizabeth-Jane looked wistfully at her questioner. She found that her questioner was looking at her, turned her eyes down; and then seemed compelled to look back again. "My history is not gay or attractive," she said. "And yet I can tell it, if you really want to know."
The lady assured her that she did want to know; whereupon Elizabeth-Jane told the tale of her life as she understood it, which was in general the true one, except that the sale at the fair had no part therein.
Contrary to the girl's expectation her new friend was not shocked. This cheered her; and it was not till she thought of returning to that home in which she had been treated so roughly of late that her spirits fell.
"I don't know how to return," she murmured. "I think of going away. But what can I do? Where can I go?"
"Perhaps it will be better soon," said her friend gently. "So I would not go far. Now what do you think of this: I shall soon want somebody to live in my house, partly as housekeeper, partly as companion; would you mind coming to me? But perhaps — "
"O yes," cried Elizabeth, with tears in her eyes. "I would, indeed — I would do anything to be independent; for then perhaps my father might get to love me. But, ah!"
"I am no accomplished person. And a companion to you must be that."
"O, not necessarily."
"Not? But I can't help using rural words sometimes, when I don't mean to."
"Never mind, I shall like to know them."
"And — O, I know I shan't do!" — she cried with a distressful laugh. "I accidentally learned to write round hand instead of ladies'-hand. And, of course, you want some one who can write that?"
"What, not necessary to write ladies'-hand?" cried the joyous Elizabeth.
"Not at all."
"But where do you live?"
"In Casterbridge, or rather I shall be living here after twelve o'clock to-day."
Elizabeth expressed her astonishment.
"I have been staying at Budmouth for a few days while my house was getting ready. The house I am going into is that one they call High-Place Hall — the old stone one looking down the lane to the market. Two or three rooms are fit for occupation, though not all: I sleep there to-night for the first time. Now will you think over my proposal, and meet me here the first fine day next week, and say if you are still in the same mind?"
Elizabeth, her eyes shining at this prospect of a change from an unbearable position, joyfully assented; and the two parted at the gate of the churchyard.