I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four roadsmet--the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the road toFinchley, the road to West End, and the road back to London. I had mechanically turned in this latter direction, and was strolling along the lonely high-road--idly wondering, I remember, what the Cumberland young ladies would look like--when, in one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me.
I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.
There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road--there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven--stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.
I was far too seriously startled by the suddenness with which this extraordinary apparition stood before me, in the dead of night and in that lonely place, to ask what she wanted. The strange woman spoke first.
"Is that the road to London?" she said.
I looked attentively at her, as she put that singular question to me.It was then nearly one o'clock. All I could discern distinctly by themoonlight was a colourless, youthful face, meagre and sharp to look at about the cheeks and chin; large, grave, wistfully attentive eyes; nervous, uncertain lips; and light hair of a pale, brownish-yellow hue. There was nothing wild, nothing immodest in her manner: it was quietand self-controlled, a little melancholy and a little touched by suspicion; not exactly the manner of a lady, and, at the same time, not the manner of a woman in the humblest rank of life. The voice, little as I had yet heard of it, had something curiously still and mechanical in its tones, and the utterance was remarkably rapid. She held a smallbag in her hand: and her dress--bonnet, shawl, and gown all of white--was, so far as I could guess, certainly not composed of very delicate or very expensive materials. Her figure was slight, and rather above the average height--her gait and actions free from the slightest approach to extravagance. This was all that I could observe of her in the dim light and under the perplexingly strange circumstances of our meeting. What sort of a woman she was, and how she came to be out alone in the high-road, an hour after midnight, I altogether failed to guess. The one thing of which I felt certain was, that the grossest of mankind could not have misconstrued her motive inspeaking, even at that suspiciously late hour and in that suspiciously lonely place.
"Did you hear me?" she said, still quietly and rapidly, and without the least fretfulness or impatience. "I asked if that was the way to London."
"Yes," I replied, "that is the way: it leads to St. John's Wood and the Regent's Park. You must excuse my not answering you before. I was rather startled by your sudden appearance in the road; and I am, even now, quite unable to account for it."
"You don't suspect me of doing anything wrong, do you? I have done nothing wrong. I have met with an accident--I am very unfortunate in being here alone so late. Why do you suspect me of doing wrong?"
She spoke with unnecessary earnestness and agitation, and shrank backfrom me several paces. I did my best to reassure her.
"Pray don't suppose that I have any idea of suspecting you," I said,"or any other wish than to be of assistance to you, if I can. I only wondered at your appearance in the road, because it seemed to me to be empty the instant before I saw you."
She turned, and pointed back to a place at the junction of the road to London and the road to Hampstead, where there was a gap in the hedge.
"I heard you coming," she said, "and hid there to see what sort of man you were, before I risked speaking. I doubted and feared about it till you passed; and then I was obliged to steal after you, and touch you."
Steal after me and touch me? Why not call to me? Strange, to say the least of it.
"May I trust you?" she asked. "You don't think the worse of me because I have met with an accident?" She stopped in confusion; shifted her bag from one hand to the other; and sighed bitterly.
The loneliness and helplessness of the woman touched me. The natural impulse to assist her and to spare her got the better of the judgment, the caution, the worldly tact, which an older, wiser, and colder man might have summoned to help him in this strange emergency.
"You may trust me for any harmless purpose," I said. "If it troublesyou to explain your strange situation to me, don't think of returning to the subject again. I have no right to ask you for any explanations. Tell me how I can help you; and if I can, I will."
"You are very kind, and I am very, very thankful to have met you."
The first touch of womanly tenderness that I had heard from her trembled in her voice as she said the words; but no tears glistened in those large,wistfully attentive eyes of hers, which were still fixed on me. "I have only been in London once before," she went on, more and more rapidly, "and I know nothing about that side of it, yonder. Can I get a fly, or a carriage of any kind? Is it too late? I don't know. If you could show me where to get a fly--and if you will only promise not to interfere with me, and to let me leave you, when and how I please--I have a friend in London who will be glad to receive me--I want nothing else--will you promise?"
She looked anxiously up and down the road; shifted her bag again from one hand to the other; repeated the words, "Will you promise?" and looked hard in my face, with a pleading fear and confusion that it troubled me to see.
What could I do? Here was a stranger utterly and helplessly at my mercy--and that stranger a forlorn woman. No house was near; no one was passing whom I could consult; and no earthly right existed on my part to give me a power of control over her, even if I had known how to exercise it. I trace these lines, self-distrustfully, with the shadows of after-events darkening the very paper I write on; and still I say,what could I do?
Wilkie Collin, The Woman in White, qu'on peut lire sur Gutenberg.