Chapter XXI
 

And now I have come to a part of my story that I would much rather not write. Always my inclination if left alone is to sit in the sun and sing of things like crocuses, of nothing less fresh and clean than crocuses. The engaging sprightliness of crocuses; their dear little smell, not to be smelled except by the privileged few; their luminous transparency--I am thinking of the white and the purple; their kind way of not keeping hearts sick for Spring waiting longer than they can just bear; how pleasant to sit with a friend in the sun, a friend who like myself likes to babble of green fields, and talk together about all things flowery. But Priscilla's story has taken such a hold on me, it seemed when first I heard it to be so full of lessons, that I feel bound to set it down from beginning to end for the use and warning of all persons, princesses and others, who think that by searching, by going far afield, they will find happiness, and do not see that it is lying all the while at their feet. They do not see it because it is so close. It is so close that there is a danger of its being trodden on or kicked away. And it is shy, and waits to be picked up. Priscilla, we know, went very far afield in search of hers, and having undertaken to tell of what befell her I must not now, only because I would rather, suppress any portion of the story. Besides, it is a portion vital to the catastrophe.

In Minehead, then, there lived at this time a murderer. He had not been found out yet and he was not a murderer by profession, for he was a bricklayer; but in his heart he was, and that is just as bad. He had had a varied career into the details of which I do not propose to go, had come three or four years before to live in the West of England because it was so far from all the other places he had lived in, had got work in Minehead, settled there respectably, married, and was a friend of that carrier who brought the bread and other parcels every day to the Symford store. At this time he was in money difficulties and his wife, of whom he was fond, was in an expensive state of health. The accounts of Priscilla's generosity and wealth had reached Minehead as I said some time ago, and had got even into the local papers. The carrier was the chief transmitter of news, for he saw Mrs. Vickerton every day and she was a woman who loved to talk; but those of the Shuttleworth servants who were often in Minehead on divers errands ratified and added to all he said, and embellished the tale besides with what was to them the most interesting part, the unmistakable signs their Augustus showed of intending to marry the young woman. This did not interest the murderer. Sir Augustus and the lady he meant to marry were outside his sphere altogether; too well protected, too powerful. What he liked to hear about was the money Priscilla had scattered among the cottagers, how much each woman had got, whether it had been spent or not, whether she had a husband, or grown-up children; and best of all he liked to hear about the money Mrs. Jones had got. All the village, and therefore Mrs. Vickerton and the carrier, knew of it, knew even the exact spot beneath the bolster where it was kept, knew it was kept there for safety from the depredations of the vicar's wife, knew the vicar's wife had taken away Priscilla's first present. The carrier knew too of Mrs. Jones's age, her weakness, her nearness to death. He remarked that such a sum wasn't of much use to an old woman certain to die in a few days, and that it might just as well not be hers at all for all the spending it got. The murderer, whose reputation in Minehead was so immaculate that not a single fly had ever dared blow on it, said kindly that no doubt just to have it in her possession was cheering and that one should not grudge the old their little bits of comfort; and he walked over to Symford that night, and getting there about one o'clock murdered Mrs. Jones. I will not enter into details. I believe it was quite simple. He was back by six next morning with the five pounds in his pocket, and his wife that day had meat for dinner.

That is all I shall say about the murderer, except that he was never found out; and nothing shall induce me to dwell upon the murder. But what about the effect it had on Priscilla? Well, it absolutely crushed her.

The day before, after Mrs. Morrison's visit, she had been wretched enough, spending most of it walking very fast, as driven spirits do, with Fritzing for miles across the bleak and blowy moor, by turns contrite and rebellious, one moment ready to admit she was a miserable sinner, the next indignantly repudiating Mrs. Morrison's and her own conscience's accusations, her soul much beaten and bent by winds of misgiving but still on its feet, still defiant, still sheltering itself when it could behind plain common sense which whispered at intervals that all that had happened was only bad luck. They walked miles that day; often in silence, sometimes in gusty talk--talk gusty with the swift changes of Priscilla's mood scudding across the leaden background of Fritzing's steadier despair--and they got back tired, hungry, their clothes splashed with mud, their minds no nearer light than when they started. She had, I say, been wretched enough; but what was this wretchedness to that which followed? In her ignorance she thought it the worst day she had ever had, the most tormented; and when she went to bed she sought comfort in its very badness by telling herself that it was over and could never come again. It could not. But Time is prolific of surprises; and on Saturday morning Symford woke with a shudder to the murder of Mrs. Jones.

Now such a thing as this had not happened in that part of Somersetshire within the memory of living man, and though Symford shuddered it was also proud and pleased. The mixed feeling of horror, pleasure, and pride was a thrilling one. It felt itself at once raised to a position of lurid conspicuousness in the county, its name would be in every mouth, the papers, perhaps even the London papers, would talk about it. At all times, in spite of the care and guidance it had had from the clergy and gentry, the account of a murder gave Symford more pure pleasure than any other form of entertainment; and now here was one, not at second-hand, not to be viewed through the cooling medium of print and pictures, but in its midst, before its eyes, at its very doors. Mrs. Jones went up strangely in its estimation. The general feeling was that it was an honour to have known her. Nobody worked that day. The school was deserted. Dinners were not cooked. Babies shrieked uncomforted. All Symford was gathered in groups outside Mrs. Jones's cottage, and as the day wore on and the news spread, visitors from the neighbouring villages, from Minehead and from Ullerton, arrived with sandwiches and swelled them.

Priscilla saw these groups from her windows. The fatal cottage was at the foot of the hill in full view both of her bedroom and her parlour. Only by sitting in the bathroom would she be able to get away from it. When the news was brought her, breathlessly, pallidly, by Annalise in the early morning with her hot water, she refused to believe it. Annalise knew no English and must have got hold of a horrible wrong tale. The old lady was dead no doubt, had died quietly in her sleep as had been expected, but what folly was all this about a murder? Yet she sat up in bed and felt rather cold as she looked at Annalise, for Annalise was very pallid. And then at last she had to believe it. Annalise had had it told her from beginning to end, with the help of signs, by the charwoman. She had learned more English in those few crimson minutes than in the whole of the time she had been in England. The charwoman had begun her demonstration by slowly drawing her finger across her throat from one ear to the other, and Annalise repeated the action for Priscilla's clearer comprehension. How Priscilla got up that day and dressed she never knew. Once at least during the process she stumbled back on to the bed and lay with her face on her arms, shaken by a most desperate weeping. That fatal charity; those fatal five-pound notes. Annalise, panic-stricken lest she who possessed so many should be the next victim, poured out the tale of the missing money, of the plain motive for the murder, with a convincingness, a naked truth, that stabbed Priscilla to the heart with each clinching word.

"They say the old woman must have cried out--must have been awakened, or the man would have taken the money without--"

"Oh don't--oh leave me--" moaned Priscilla.

She did not go downstairs that day. Every time Annalise tried to come in she sent her away. When she was talked to of food, she felt sick. Once she began to pace about the room, but the sight of those eager black knots of people down the street, of policemen and other important and official-looking persons going in and out of the cottage, drove her back to her bed and its sheltering, world-deadening pillow. Indeed the waters of life had gone over her head and swallowed her up in hopeless blackness. She acknowledged herself wrong. She gave in utterly. Every word Mrs. Morrison--a dreadful woman, yet dreadful as she was still a thousand times better than herself--every word she had said, every one of those bitter words at which she had been so indignant the morning before, was true, was justified. That day Priscilla tore the last shreds of self-satisfaction from her soul and sat staring at it with horrified eyes as at a thing wholly repulsive, dangerous, blighting. What was to become of her, and of poor Fritzing, dragged down by her to an equal misery? About one o'clock she heard Mrs. Morrison's voice below, in altercation apparently with him. At this time she was crying again; bitter, burning tears; those scorching tears that follow in the wake of destroyed illusions, that drop, hot and withering, on to the fragments of what was once the guiding glory of an ideal. She was brought so low, was so humbled, so uncertain of herself, that she felt it would bring her peace if she might go down to Mrs. Morrison and acknowledge all her vileness; tell her how wrong she had been, ask her forgiveness for her rudeness, beg her for pity, for help, for counsel. She needed some kind older woman,--oh she needed some kind older woman to hold out cool hands of wisdom and show her the way. But then she would have to make a complete confession of everything she had done, and how would Mrs. Morrison or any other decent woman look upon her flight from her father's home? Would they not turn away shuddering from what she now saw was a hideous selfishness and ingratitude? The altercation going on below rose rapidly in heat. Just at the end it grew so heated that even through the pillow Priscilla could hear its flaming conclusion.

"Man, I tell you your niece is to all intents and purposes a murderess, a double murderess," cried Mrs. Morrison. "Not only has she the woman's murder to answer for, but the ruined soul of the murderer as well."

Upon which there was a loud shout of "Hence! Hence!" and a great slamming of the street door.

For some time after this Priscilla heard fevered walking about in her parlour and sounds as of many and muffled imprecations; then, when they had grown a little more intermittent, careful footsteps came up her stairs, footsteps so careful, so determined not to disturb, that the stairs cracked and wheezed more than they had ever yet been known to do. Arrived at the top they paused outside her door, and Priscilla, checking her sobs, could hear how Fritzing stood there wrestling with his body's determination to breathe too loud. He stood there listening for what seemed to her an eternity. She almost screamed at last as the minutes passed and she knew he was still there, motionless, listening. After a long while he went away again with the same anxious care to make no noise, and she, with a movement of utter abandonment to woe, turned over and cried herself sick.

Till evening she lay there alone, and then the steps came up again, accompanied this time by the tinkle of china and spoons. Priscilla was sitting at the window looking on to the churchyard, staring into the dark with its swaying branches and few faint stars, and when she heard him outside the door listening again in anxious silence she got up and opened it.

Fritzing held a plate of food in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. The expression on his face was absurdly like that of a mother yearning over a sick child. "Mein liebes Kind--mein liebes Kind," he stammered when she came out, so woebegone, so crushed, so utterly unlike any Priscilla of any one of her moods that he had ever seen before. Her eyes were red, her eyelids heavy with tears, her face was pinched and narrower, the corners of her mouth had a most piteous droop, her very hair, pushed back off her forehead, seemed sad, and hung in spiritless masses about her neck and ears. "Mein liebes Kind," stammered poor Fritzing; and his hand shook so that he upset some of the milk.

Priscilla leaned against the door-post. She was feeling sick and giddy. "How dreadful this is," she murmured, looking at him with weary, woeful eyes.

"No, no--all will be well," said Fritzing, striving to be brisk. "Drink some milk, ma'am."

"Oh, I have been wicked."

"Wicked?"

Fritzing hastily put the plate and glass down on the floor, and catching up the hand hanging limply by her side passionately kissed it. "You are the noblest woman on earth," he said.

"Oh," said Priscilla, turning away her head and shutting her eyes for very weariness of such futile phrases.

"Ma'am, you are. I would swear it. But you are also a child, and so you are ready at the first reverse to suppose you have done with happiness for ever. Who knows," said Fritzing with a great show of bright belief in his own prophecy, the while his heart was a stone, "who knows but what you are now on the very threshold of it?"

"Oh," murmured Priscilla, too beaten to do anything but droop her head.

"It is insisting on the commonplace to remind you, ma'am, that the darkest hour comes before dawn. Yet it is a well-known natural phenomenon."

Priscilla leaned her head against the door-post. She stood there motionless, her hands hanging by her side, her eyes shut, her mouth slightly open, the very picture of one who has given up.

"Drink some milk, ma'am. At least endeavour to."

She took no heed of him.

"For God's sake, ma'am, do not approach these slight misadventures in so tragic a spirit. You have done nothing wrong whatever. I know you accuse yourself. It is madness to do so. I, who have so often scolded you, who have never spared the lash of my tongue when in past years I saw fair reason to apply it, I tell you now with the same reliable candour that your actions in this village and the motives that prompted them have been in each single case of a stainless nobility."

She took no heed of him.

He stooped down and picked up the glass. "Drink some milk, ma'am. A few mouthfuls, perhaps even one, will help to clear the muddied vision of your mind. I cannot understand," he went on, half despairing, half exasperated, "what reasons you can possibly have for refusing to drink some milk. It is a feat most easily accomplished."

She did not move.

"Do you perchance imagine that a starved and badly treated body can ever harbour that most precious gift of the gods, a clear, sane mind?"

She did not move.

He looked at her in silence for a moment, then put down the glass. "This is all my fault," he said slowly. "The whole responsibility for this unhappiness is on my shoulders, and I frankly confess it is a burden so grievous that I know not how to bear it."

He paused, but she took no notice.

"Ma'am, I have loved you."

She took no notice.

"And the property of love, I have observed, is often to mangle and kill the soul of its object."

She might have been asleep.

"Ma'am, I have brought you to a sorry pass. I was old, and you were young. I experienced, you ignorant. I deliberate, you impulsive. I a man, you a woman. Instead of restraining you, guiding you, shielding you from yourself, I was most vile, and fired you with desires for freedom that under the peculiar circumstances were wicked, set a ball rolling that I might have foreseen could never afterwards be stopped, put thoughts into your head that never without me would have entered it, embarked you on an enterprise in which the happiness of your whole life was doomed to shipwreck."

She stirred a little, and sighed a faint protest.

"This is very terrible to me--of a crushing, killing weight. Let it not also have to be said that I mangled your very soul, dimmed your reason, impaired the sweet sanity, the nice adjustment of what I know was once a fair and balanced mind."

She raised her head slowly and looked at him. "What?" she said. "Do you think--do you think I'm going mad?"

"I think it very likely, ma'am," said Fritzing with conviction.

A startled expression crept into her eyes.

"So much morbid introspection," he went on, "followed by hours of weeping and fasting, if indulged in long enough will certainly have that result. A person who fasts a sufficient length of time invariably parts piecemeal with valuable portions of his wits."

She stretched out her hand.

He mistook the action and bent down and kissed it.

"No," said Priscilla, "I want the milk."

He snatched it up and gave it to her, watching her drink with all the relief, the thankfulness of a mother whose child's sickness takes a turn for the better. When she had finished she gave him back the glass. "Fritzi," she said, looking at him with eyes wide open now and dark with anxious questioning, "we won't reproach ourselves then if we can help it--"

"Certainly not, ma'am--a most futile thing to do."

"I'll try to believe what you say about me, if you promise to believe what I say about you."

"Ma'am, I'll believe anything if only you will be reasonable."

"You've been everything to me--that's what I want to say. Always, ever since I can remember."

"And you, ma'am? What have you not been to me?"

"And there's nothing, nothing you can blame yourself for."

"Ma'am--"

"You've been too good, too unselfish, and I've dragged you down."

"Ma'am--"

"Well, we won't begin again. But tell me one thing--and tell me the truth--oh Fritzi tell me the truth as you value your soul--do you anywhere see the least light on our future? Do you anywhere see even a bit, a smallest bit of hope?"

He took her hand again and kissed it; then lifted his head and looked at her very solemnly. "No, ma'am," he said with the decision of an unshakable conviction, "upon my immortal soul I do not see a shred."