"You say right, no doubt. Trouble has taught you a deeper vein of talk than mine. All I meant was regarding her life here. She has died too soon."
"Perhaps through my living too long. I have had a bitter experience on that score this last month, Diggory. But come in; I have been wanting to see you."
He conducted the reddleman into the large room where the dancing had taken place the previous Christmas, and they sat down in the settle together. "There's the cold fireplace, you see," said Clym. "When that half-burnt log and those cinders were alight she was alive! Little has been changed here yet. I can do nothing. My life creeps like a snail."
"How came she to die?" said Venn.
Yeobright gave him some particulars of her illness and death, and continued: "After this no kind of pain will ever seem more than an indisposition to me. I began saying that I wanted to ask you something, but I stray from subjects like a drunken man. I am anxious to know what my mother said to you when she last saw you. You talked with her a long time, I think?"
"I talked with her more than half an hour."
"Yes. And it must have been on account of what we said that she was on the heath. Without question she was coming to see you."
"But why should she come to see me if she felt so bitterly against me? There's the mystery."
"Yet I know she quite forgave 'ee."
"But, Diggory — would a woman, who had quite forgiven her son, say, when she felt herself ill on the way to his house, that she was broken-hearted because of his ill-usage? Never!"
"What I know is that she didn't blame you at all. She blamed herself for what had happened, and only herself. I had it from her own lips."
"You had it from her lips that I had NOT ill-treated her; and at the same time another had it from her lips that I HAD ill-treated her? My mother was no impulsive woman who changed her opinion every hour without reason. How can it be, Venn, that she should have told such different stories in close succession?"
"I cannot say. It is certainly odd, when she had forgiven you, and had forgiven your wife, and was going to see ye on purpose to make friends."
"If there was one thing wanting to bewilder me it was this incomprehensible thing!... Diggory, if we, who remain alive, were only allowed to hold conversation with the dead — just once, a bare minute, even through a screen of iron bars, as with persons in prison — what we might learn! How many who now ride smiling would hide their heads! And this mystery — I should then be at the bottom of it at once. But the grave has forever shut her in; and how shall it be found out now?"
No reply was returned by his companion, since none could be given; and when Venn left, a few minutes later, Clym had passed from the dullness of sorrow to the fluctuation of carking incertitude.
He continued in the same state all the afternoon. A bed was made up for him in the same house by a neighbour, that he might not have to return again the next day; and when he retired to rest in the deserted place it was only to remain awake hour after hour thinking the same thoughts. How to discover a solution to this riddle of death seemed a query of more importance than highest problems of the living. There was housed in his memory a vivid picture of the face of a little boy as he entered the hovel where Clym's mother lay. The round eyes, eager gaze, the piping voice which enunciated the words, had operated like stilettos on his brain.
A visit to the boy suggested itself as a means of gleaning new particulars; though it might be quite unproductive. To probe a child's mind after the lapse of six weeks, not for facts which the child had seen and understood, but to get at those which were in their nature beyond him, did not promise much; yet when every obvious channel is blocked we grope towards the small and obscure. There was nothing else left to do; after that he would allow the enigma to drop into the abyss of undiscoverable things.
It was about daybreak when he had reached this decision, and he at once arose. He locked up the house and went out into the green patch which merged in heather further on. In front of the white garden-palings the path branched into three like a broad arrow. The road to the right led to the Quiet Woman and its neighbourhood; the middle track led to Mistover Knap; the left-hand track led over the hill to another part of Mistover, where the child lived. On inclining into the latter path Yeobright felt a creeping chilliness, familiar enough to most people, and probably caused by the unsunned morning air. In after days he thought of it as a thing of singular significance.
When Yeobright reached the cottage of Susan Nunsuch, the mother of the boy he sought, he found that the inmates were not yet astir. But in upland hamlets the transition from a-bed to abroad is surprisingly swift and easy. There no dense partition of yawns and toilets divides humanity by night from humanity by day. Yeobright tapped at the upper windowsill, which he could reach with his walking stick; and in three or four minutes the woman came down.
It was not till this moment that Clym recollected her to be the person who had behaved so barbarously to Eustacia. It partly explained the insuavity with which the woman greeted him. Moreover, the boy had been ailing again; and Susan now, as ever since the night when he had been pressed into Eustacia's service at the bonfire, attributed his indispositions to Eustacia's influence as a witch. It was one of those sentiments which lurk like moles underneath the visible surface of manners, and may have been kept alive by Eustacia's entreaty to the captain, at the time that he had intended to prosecute Susan for the pricking in church, to let the matter drop; which he accordingly had done.
Yeobright overcame his repugnance, for Susan had at least borne his mother no ill-will. He asked kindly for the boy; but her manner did not improve.
"I wish to see him," continued Yeobright, with some hesitation, "to ask him if he remembers anything more of his walk with my mother than what he has previously told."
She regarded him in a peculiar and criticizing manner. To anybody but a half-blind man it would have said, "You want another of the knocks which have already laid you so low."
She called the boy downstairs, asked Clym to sit down on a stool, and continued, "Now, Johnny, tell Mr. Yeobright anything you can call to mind."
"You have not forgotten how you walked with the poor lady on that hot day?" said Clym.
"No," said the boy.
"And what she said to you?"
The boy repeated the exact words he had used on entering the hut. Yeobright rested his elbow on the table and shaded his face with his hand; and the mother looked as if she wondered how a man could want more of what had stung him so deeply.
"She was going to Alderworth when you first met her?"
"No; she was coming away."
"That can't be."
"Yes; she walked along with me. I was coming away, too."
"Then where did you first see her?"
"At your house."
"Attend, and speak the truth!" said Clym sternly.
"Yes, sir; at your house was where I seed her first."
Clym started up, and Susan smiled in an expectant way which did not embellish her face; it seemed to mean, "Something sinister is coming!"
"What did she do at my house?"
"She went and sat under the trees at the Devil's Bellows."
"Good God! this is all news to me!"
"You never told me this before?" said Susan.
"No, Mother; because I didn't like to tell 'ee I had been so far. I was picking blackhearts, and went further than I meant."
"What did she do then?" said Yeobright.
"Looked at a man who came up and went into your house."
"That was myself — a furze-cutter, with brambles in his hand."
"No; 'twas not you. 'Twas a gentleman. You had gone in afore."
"Who was he?"