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?
What I did do, was to try and gain time by questioning her.
"Are you sure that your friend in London will receive you at such a late hour as this?" I said.
"Quite sure. Only say you will let me leave you when and how I please—only say you won't interfere with me. Will you promise?"
As she repeated the words for the third time, she came close to me and laid her hand, with a sudden gentle stealthiness, on my bosom—a thin hand; a cold hand (when I removed it with mine) even on that sultry night. Remember that I was young; remember that the hand which touched me was a woman's.
"Will you promise?"
One word! The little familiar word that is on everybody's lips, every hour in the day. Oh me! and I tremble, now, when I write it.
We set our faces towards London, and walked on together in the first still hour of the new day—I, and this woman, whose name, whose character, whose story, whose objects in life, whose very presence by my side, at that moment, were fathomless mysteries to me. It was like a dream. Was I Walter Hartright? Was this the well-known, uneventful road, where holiday people strolled on Sundays? Had I really left, little more than an hour since, the quiet, decent, conventionally domestic atmosphere of my mother's cottage? I was too bewildered—too conscious also of a vague sense of something like self-reproach—to speak to my strange companion for some minutes. It was her voice again that first broke the silence between us.
"I want to ask you something," she said suddenly. "Do you know many people in London?"
"Yes, a great many."
"Many men of rank and title?" There was an unmistakable tone of suspicion in the strange question. I hesitated about answering it.
"Some," I said, after a moment's silence.
"Many"—she came to a full stop, and looked me searchingly in the face—"many men of the rank of Baronet?"