"Certainly, Miss Halcombe. I have always time at your service."
"I want to say a word to you in private, Mr. Hartright. Get your hat and come out into the garden. We are not likely to be disturbed there at this hour in the morning."
As we stepped out on to the lawn, one of the under-gardeners—a mere lad—passed us on his way to the house, with a letter in his hand. Miss Halcombe stopped him.
"Is that letter for me?" she asked.
"Nay, miss; it's just said to be for Miss Fairlie," answered the lad, holding out the letter as he spoke.
Miss Halcombe took it from him and looked at the address.
"A strange handwriting," she said to herself. "Who can Laura's correspondent be? Where did you get this?" she continued, addressing the gardener.
"Well, miss," said the lad, "I just got it from a woman."
"A woman well stricken in age."
"Oh, an old woman. Any one you knew?"
"I canna' tak' it on mysel' to say that she was other than a stranger to me."
"Which way did she go?"
"That gate," said the under-gardener, turning with great deliberation towards the south, and embracing the whole of that part of England with one comprehensive sweep of his arm.
"Curious," said Miss Halcombe; "I suppose it must be a begging-letter. There," she added, handing the letter back to the lad, "take it to the house, and give it to one of the servants. And now, Mr. Hartright, if you have no objection, let us walk this way."
She led me across the lawn, along the same path by which I had followed her on the day after my arrival at Limmeridge.
At the little summer-house, in which Laura Fairlie and I had first seen each other, she stopped, and broke the silence which she had steadily maintained while we were walking together.
"What I have to say to you I can say here."
With those words she entered the summer-house, took one of the chairs at the little round table inside, and signed to me to take the other. I suspected what was coming when she spoke to me in the breakfast-room; I felt certain of it now.
"Mr. Hartright," she said, "I am going to begin by making a frank avowal to you. I am going to say—without phrase-