MY HANDS HAD been dressed twice or thrice in the night, and again in the morning. My left arm was a good deal burned to the elbow, and, less severely, as high as the shoulder; it was very painful, but the flames had set in that direction, and I felt thankful it was no worse. My right hand was not so badly burnt but that I could move the fingers. It was bandaged, of course, but much less inconveniently than my left hand and arm; those I carried in a sling; and I could only wear my coat like a cloak, loose over my shoulders and fastened at the neck. My hair had been caught by the fire, but not my head or face.
When Herbert had been down to Hammersmith and had seen his father, he came back to me at our chambers, and devoted the day to attending on me. He was the kindest of nurses, and at stated times took off the bandages, and steeped them in the cooling liquid that was kept ready, and put them on again, with a patient tenderness that I was deeply grateful for.
At first, as I lay quiet on the sofa, I found it painfully difficult, I might say impossible, to get rid of the impression of the glare of the flames, their hurry and noise, and the fierce burning smell. If I dozed for a minute, I was awakened by Miss Havisham's cries, and by her running at me with all that height of fire above her head. This pain of the mind was much harder to strive against than any bodily pain I suffered; and Herbert, seeing that, did his utmost to hold my attention engaged.
Neither of us spoke of the boat, but we both thought of it. That was made apparent by our avoidance of the subject, and by our agreeing—without agreement—to make my recovery of the use of my hands, a question of so many hours, not of so many weeks.
My first question when I saw Herbert had been, of course, whether all was well down the river? As he replied in the affirmative, with perfect confidence and cheerfulness, we did not resume the subject until the day was wearing away. But then, as Herbert changed the bandages, more by the light of the fire than by the outer light, he went back to it spontaneously.
“I sat with Provis last night, Handel, two good hours.”
“Where was Clara?”
“Dear little thing!” said Herbert. “She was up and down with Gruffandgrim all the evening. He was perpetually pegging at the floor, the moment she left his sight. I doubt if he can hold out long, though. What with rum and pepper—and pepper and rum—I should think his pegging must be nearly over.”
“And then you will be married, Herbert?”
“How can I take care of the dear child otherwise?—Lay your arm out upon the back of the sofa, my dear boy, and I'll sit down here, and get the bandage off so gradually that you shall not know when it comes. I was speaking of Provis. Do you know, Handel, he improves?”
“I said to you I thought he was softened when I last saw him.”
“So you did. And so he is. He was very communicative last night, and told me more of his life. You remember his breaking off here about some woman that he had had great trouble with.—Did I hurt you?”
I had started, but not under his touch. His words had given me a start.
“I had forgotten that, Herbert, but I remember it now you speak of it.”
“Well! He went into that part of his life, and a dark wild part it is. Shall I tell you? Or would it worry you just now?”
“Tell me by all means. Every word.”
Herbert bent forward to look at me more nearly, as if my reply had been rather more hurried or more eager than he could quite account for. “Your head is cool?” he said, touching it.
“Quite,” said I. “Tell me what Provis said, my dear Herbert.”
“It seems,” said Herbert, “—there's a bandage off most charmingly, and now comes the cool one—makes you shrink at first, my poor dear fellow, don't it? but it will be comfortable presently—it seems that the woman was a young woman, and a jealous woman, and a revengeful woman; revengeful, Handel, to the last degree.”
“To what last degree?”
“Murder.—Does it strike too cold on that sensitive place?”
“I don't feel it. How did she murder? Whom did she murder?”
“Why, the deed may not have merited quite so terrible a name,” said Herbert, “but she was tried for it, and Mr. Jaggers defended her, and the reputation of that defence first made his name known to Provis. It was another and a stronger woman who was the victim, and there had been a struggle—in a barn. Who began it, or how fair it was, or how unfair, may be doubtful; but how it ended is certainly not doubtful, for the victim was found throttled.”
“Was the woman brought in guilty?”
“No; she was acquitted.—My poor Handel, I hurt you!”
“It is impossible to be gentler, Herbert. Yes? What else?”
“This acquitted young woman and Provis had a little child: a little child of whom Provis was exceedingly fond. On the evening of the very night when the object of her jealousy was strangled as I tell you, the young woman presented herself before Provis for one moment, and swore that she would destroy the child (which was in her possession), and he should never see it again; then she vanished.—There's the worst arm comfortably in the sling once more, and now there remains but the right hand, which is a far easier job. I can do it better by this light than by a stronger, for my hand is steadiest when I don't see the poor blistered patches too distinctly.—You don't think your breathing is affected, my dear boy? You seem to breathe quickly.”
“Perhaps I do, Herbert. Did the woman keep her oath?”
“There comes the darkest part of Provis's life. She did.”
“That is, he says she did.”
“Why, of course, my dear boy,” returned Herbert, in a tone of surprise, and again bending forward to get a nearer look at me. “He says it all. I have no other information.”
“No, to be sure.”
“Now, whether,” pursued Herbert, “he had used the child's mother ill, or whether he had used the child's mother well, Provis doesn't say; but, she had shared some four or five years of the wretched life he described to us at this fireside, and he seems to have felt pity for her, and forbearance towards her. Therefore, fearing he should be called upon to depose about this destroyed child, and so be the cause of her death, he hid himself (much as he grieved for the child), kept himself dark, as he says, out of the way and out of the trial, and was only vaguely talked of as a certain man called Abel, out of whom the jealousy arose. After the acquittal she disappeared, and thus he lost the child and the child's mother.”
“I want to ask—”
“A moment, my dear boy, and I have done. That evil genius, Compeyson, the worst of scoundrels, knowing of his keeping out of the way at that time, and of his reasons for doing so, of course afterwards held the knowledge over his head as a means of keeping him poorer, and working him harder. It was clear last night that this barbed the point of Provis's animosity.”
“I want to know,” said I, “and particularly, Herbert, whether he told you when this happened?”
“Particularly? Let me remember, then, what he said as to that. His expression was, ‘a round score o’ year ago, and a'most directly after I took up wi' Compeyson.' How old were you when you came upon him in the little churchyard?”
“I think in my seventh year.”
“Ay. It had happened some three or four years then, he said, and you brought into his mind the little girl so tragically lost, who would have been about your age.”
“Herbert,” said I, after a short silence, in a hurried way, “can you see me best by the light of the window, or the light of the fire?”
“By the firelight,” answered Herbert, coming close again.
“Look at me.”
“I do look at you, my dear boy.”
“I do touch you, my dear boy.”
“You are not afraid that I am in any fever, or that my head is much disordered by the accident of last night?”
“N-no, my dear boy,” said Herbert, after taking time to examine me. “You are rather excited, but you are quite yourself.”
“I know I am quite myself. And the man we have in hiding down the river, is Estella's Father.”