The heat had been painfully oppressive all day, and it was now a
close and sultry night.
My mother and sister had spoken so many last words, and had
begged me to wait another five minutes so many times, that it was
nearly midnight when the servant locked the garden-gate behind me.
I walked forward a few paces on the shortest way back to London,
then stopped and hesitated.
The moon was full and broad in the dark blue starless sky, and
the broken ground of the heath looked wild enough in the mysterious
light to be hundreds of miles away from the great city that lay
beneath it. The idea of descending any sooner than I could help
into the heat and gloom of London repelled me. The prospect of
going to bed in my airless chambers, and the prospect of gradual
suffocation, seemed, in my present restless frame of mind and body,
to be one and the same thing. I determined to stroll home in the
purer air by the most roundabout way I could take; to follow the
white winding paths across the lonely heath; and to approach London
through its most open suburb by striking into the Finchley Road,
and so getting back, in the cool of the new morning, by the western
side of the Regent's Park.
I wound my way down slowly over the heath, enjoying the divine
stillness of the scene, and admiring the soft alternations of light
and shade as they followed each other over the broken ground on
every side of me. So long as I was proceeding through this first
and prettiest part of my night walk my mind remained passively open
to the impressions produced by the view; and I thought but little
on any subject—indeed, so far as my own sensations were concerned,
I can hardly say that I thought at all.
But when I had left the heath and had turned into the by-road,
where there was less to see, the ideas naturally engendered by the
approaching change in my habits and occupations gradually drew more
and more of my attention exclusively to themselves. By the time I
had arrived at the end of the road I had become completely absorbed
in my own fanciful visions of Limmeridge House, of Mr. Fairlie, and
of the two ladies whose practice in the art of water-colour
painting I was so soon to superintend.
I had now arrived at that particular point of my walk where four
roads met—the road to Hampstead, along which I had returned, the
road to Finchley, 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
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
"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 the moonlight 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 quiet and 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 small bag 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 in
speaking, 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
She spoke with unnecessary earnestness and agitation, and shrank
back from 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
"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
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
"You may trust me for any harmless purpose," I said. "If it
troubles you 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
"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
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?
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
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
"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?"
Too much astonished to reply, I questioned her in my turn.
"Why do you ask?"
"Because I hope, for my own sake, there is one Baronet that you
"Will you tell me his name?"
"I can't—I daren't—I forget myself when I mention it." She spoke
loudly and almost fiercely, raised her clenched hand in the air,
and shook it passionately; then, on a sudden, controlled herself
again, and added, in tones lowered to a whisper "Tell me which of
them YOU know."
I could hardly refuse to humour her in such a trifle, and I
mentioned three names. Two, the names of fathers of families whose
daughters I taught; one, the name of a bachelor who had once taken
me a cruise in his yacht, to make sketches for him.
"Ah! you DON'T know him," she said, with a sigh of relief. "Are
you a man of rank and title yourself?"
"Far from it. I am only a drawing-master."
As the reply passed my lips—a little bitterly, perhaps—she took
my arm with the abruptness which characterised all her actions.
"Not a man of rank and title," she repeated to herself. "Thank
God! I may trust HIM."
I had hitherto contrived to master my curiosity out of
consideration for my companion; but it got the better of me
"I am afraid you have serious reason to complain of some man of
rank and title?" I said. "I am afraid the baronet, whose name you
are unwilling to mention to me, has done you some grievous wrong?
Is he the cause of your being out here at this strange time of
"Don't ask me: don't make me talk of it," she answered. "I'm not
fit now. I have been cruelly used and cruelly wronged. You will be
kinder than ever, if you will walk on fast, and not speak to me. I
sadly want to quiet myself, if I can."
We moved forward again at a quick pace; and for half an hour, at
least, not a word passed on either side. From time to time, being
forbidden to make any more inquiries, I stole a look at her face.
It was always the same; the lips close shut, the brow frowning, the
eyes looking straight forward, eagerly and yet absently. We had
reached the first houses, and were close on the new Wesleyan
college, before her set features relaxed and she spoke once
"Do you live in London?" she said.
"Yes." As I answered, it struck me that she might have formed
some intention of appealing to me for assistance or advice, and
that I ought to spare her a possible disappointment by warning her
of my approaching absence from home. So I added, "But to-morrow I
shall be away from London for some time. I am going into the
"Where?" she asked. "North or south?"
"Cumberland!" she repeated the word tenderly. "Ah! wish I was
going there too. I was once happy in Cumberland."
I tried again to lift the veil that hung between this woman and
"Perhaps you were born," I said, "in the beautiful Lake
"No," she answered. "I was born in Hampshire; but I once went to
school for a little while in Cumberland. Lakes? I don't remember
any lakes. It's Limmeridge village, and Limmeridge House, I should
like to see again."
It was my turn now to stop suddenly. In the excited state of my
curiosity, at that moment, the chance reference to Mr. Fairlie's
place of residence, on the lips of my strange companion, staggered
me with astonishment.
"Did you hear anybody calling after us?" she asked, looking up
and down the road affrightedly, the instant I stopped.
"No, no. I was only struck by the name of Limmeridge House. I
heard it mentioned by some Cumberland people a few days since."
"Ah! not my people. Mrs. Fairlie is dead; and her husband is
dead; and their little girl may be married and gone away by this
time. I can't say who lives at Limmeridge now. If any more are left
there of that name, I only know I love them for Mrs. Fairlie's
She seemed about to say more; but while she was speaking, we
came within view of the turnpike, at the top of the Avenue Road.
Her hand tightened round my arm, and she looked anxiously at the
gate before us.
"Is the turnpike man looking out?" she asked.
He was not looking out; no one else was near the place when we
passed through the gate. The sight of the gas-lamps and houses
seemed to agitate her, and to make her impatient.
"This is London," she said. "Do you see any carriage I can get?
I am tired and frightened. I want to shut myself in and be driven
I explained to her that we must walk a little further to get to
a cab-stand, unless we were fortunate enough to meet with an empty
vehicle; and then tried to resume the subject of Cumberland. It was
useless. That idea of shutting herself in, and being driven away,
had now got full possession of her mind. She could think and talk
of nothing else.
We had hardly proceeded a third of the way down the Avenue Road
when I saw a cab draw up at a house a few doors below us, on the
opposite side of the way. A gentleman got out and let himself in at
the garden door. I hailed the cab, as the driver mounted the box
again. When we crossed the road, my companion's impatience
increased to such an extent that she almost forced me to run.
"It's so late," she said. "I am only in a hurry because it's so
"I can't take you, sir, if you're not going towards Tottenham
Court Road," said the driver civilly, when I opened the cab door.
"My horse is dead beat, and I can't get him no further than the
"Yes, yes. That will do for me. I'm going that way—I'm going
that way." She spoke with breathless eagerness, and pressed by me
into the cab.
I had assured myself that the man was sober as well as civil
before I let her enter the vehicle. And now, when she was seated
inside, I entreated her to let me see her set down safely at her
"No, no, no," she said vehemently. "I'm quite safe, and quite
happy now. If you are a gentleman, remember your promise. Let him
drive on till I stop him. Thank you—oh! thank you, thank you!"
My hand was on the cab door. She caught it in hers, kissed it,
and pushed it away. The cab drove off at the same moment—I started
into the road, with some vague idea of stopping it again, I hardly
knew why—hesitated from dread of frightening and distressing
her—called, at last, but not loudly enough to attract the driver's
attention. The sound of the wheels grew fainter in the distance—the
cab melted into the black shadows on the road—the woman in white
Ten minutes or more had passed. I was still on the same side of
the way; now mechanically walking forward a few paces; now stopping
again absently. At one moment I found myself doubting the reality
of my own adventure; at another I was perplexed and distressed by
an uneasy sense of having done wrong, which yet left me confusedly
ignorant of how I could have done right. I hardly knew where I was
going, or what I meant to do next; I was conscious of nothing but
the confusion of my own thoughts, when I was abruptly recalled to
myself—awakened, I might almost say—by the sound of rapidly
approaching wheels close behind me.
I was on the dark side of the road, in the thick shadow of some
garden trees, when I stopped to look round. On the opposite and
lighter side of the way, a short distance below me, a policeman was
strolling along in the direction of the Regent's Park.
The carriage passed me—an open chaise driven by two men.
"Stop!" cried one. "There's a policeman. Let's ask him."
The horse was instantly pulled up, a few yards beyond the dark
place where I stood.
"Policeman!" cried the first speaker. "Have you seen a woman
pass this way?"
"What sort of woman, sir?"
"A woman in a lavender-coloured gown—"
"No, no," interposed the second man. "The clothes we gave her
were found on her bed. She must have gone away in the clothes she
wore when she came to us. In white, policeman. A woman in
"I haven't seen her, sir."
"If you or any of your men meet with the woman, stop her, and
send her in careful keeping to that address. I'll pay all expenses,
and a fair reward into the bargain."
The policeman looked at the card that was handed down to
"Why are we to stop her, sir? What has she done?"
"Done! She has escaped from my Asylum. Don't forget; a woman in
white. Drive on."