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Chapter 56

Up to this time Helen's sex, and its attributes, had been a great disadvantage to her. She had been stopped on the very threshold of her inquiry by petty difficulties which a man would have soon surmounted. But one fine day the scale gave a little turn, and she made a little discovery, thanks to her sex. Women, whether it is that they are born to be followed, or are accustomed to be followed, seem to have eyes in the backs of their heads, and instinct to divine when somebody is after them. This inexperienced girl, who had missed seeing many things our readers have seen, observed in merely passing her window a seedy man in the courtyard of the hotel. Would you believe it, she instantly recognized the man who had opened her cab door for her in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Quick as lightning it passed through her mind, "Why do I see the same figure at Lincoln's Inn Fields and at Charing Cross?" At various intervals she passed the window; and twice she saw the man again. She pondered, and determined to try a little experiment. Robert Penfold, it may be remembered, had mentioned an expert as one of the persons she was to see. She had looked for his name in the Directory; but experts were not down in the book. Another fatality! But at last she had found Undercliff, a lithographer, and she fancied that must be the same person. She did not hope to learn much from him; the newspapers said his evidence had caused a smile. She had a distinct object in visiting him, the nature of which will appear. She ordered a cab, and dressed herself. She came down, and entered the cab; but, instead of telling the man to drive, she gave him a slip of paper, containing the address of the lithographer. "Drive there," said she, a little mysteriously. The cabman winked, suspecting an intrigue, and went off to the place. There she learned Mr. Undercliff had moved to Frith Street, Soho, number not known. She told the cabman to drive slowly up and down the street, but could not find the name. At last she observed some lithographs in a window. She let the cabman go all down the street, then stopped him, and paid him off. She had no sooner done this than she walked very briskly back, and entered the little shop, and inquired for Mr. Undercliff. He was out, and not expected back for an hour. "I will wait," said Helen; and she sat down with her head upon her white hand. A seedy man passed the window rapidly with a busy air. And, if his eye shot a glance into the shop, it was so slight and careless nobody could suspect he was a spy and had done his work effectually as he flashed by. In that moment the young lady, through the chink of her fingers, which she had opened for that purpose, not only recognized the man, but noticed his face, his hat, his waistcoat, his dirty linen, and the pin in his necktie.

"Ah!" said she, and flushed to the brow.

She lifted up her head and became conscious of a formidable old woman, who was standing behind the counter at a side door, eying her with the severest scrutiny. This old woman was tall and thin, and had a fine face, the lower part of which was feminine enough; but the forehead and brows were alarming. Though her hair was silvery, the brows were black and shaggy, and the forehead was divided by a vertical furrow into two temples. Under those shaggy eyebrows shone dark gray eyes that passed for black with most people; and those eyes were fixed on Helen, reading her. Helen's light hazel eyes returned their gaze. She blushed, and, still looking, said, "Pray, madam, can I see Mr. Undercliff?"

"My son is out for the day, miss," said the old lady civilly.

"Oh, dear! how unfortunate I am!" said Helen, with a sigh.

"He comes back to-night. You can see him to-morrow at ten o'clock. A question of handwriting?"

"Not exactly," said Helen; "but he was witness in favor of a person I know was innocent."

"But he was found guilty," said the other, with cool frankness.

"Yes, madam. And he has no friend to clear him but me, a poor weak girl, baffled and defeated whichever way I turn." She began to cry.

The old woman looked at her crying, with that steady composure which marks her sex on these occasions; and, when she was better, said quietly, "You are not so weak as you think." She added, after a while, "If you wish to retain my son, you had better leave a fee."

"With pleasure, madam. What is the fee?"

"One guinea. Of course, there is a separate charge for any work he may do for you."

"That is but reasonable, madam." And with this she paid the fee, and rose to go.

"Shall I send any one home with you?"

"No, thank you," said Helen. "Why?"

"Because you are followed, and because you are not used to be followed."

"Why, how did you find that out?"

"By your face, when a man passed the window--a shabby-genteel fellow; he was employed by some gentleman, no doubt. Such faces as yours will be followed in London. If you feel uneasy, miss, I will put on my bonnet and see you home."

Helen was surprised at this act of substantial civility from the Gorgon. "Oh, thank you, Mrs. Undercliff," said she. "No, I am not the least afraid. Let them follow me, I am doing nothing that I am ashamed of. Indeed, I am glad I am thought worth the trouble of following. It shows me I am not so thoroughly contemptible. Good-by, and many thanks. Ten o'clock to-morrow."

And she walked home without looking once behind her till the hotel was in sight; then she stopped at a shop window, and in a moment her swift eye embraced the whole landscape. But the shabby-genteel man was nowhere in sight.

Charles Reade