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Chapter Twenty-Four

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« on: June 18, 2023, 05:03:32 am »

MISS Silver’s reception at the Vicarage was in every sense of the word a warm one. She was given a room which looked south, her things were unpacked for her by the pale, middle-aged parlourmaid, and she was made to feel herself a valued and most welcome guest.

There was time for a little walk before lunch, and Mrs. Ball took her down to the watersplash and along the village street, pointing out such objects of interest as the yew tunnel leading up to the church---“It is said to be eight hundred years old”---and the Miss Blakes’ house with its jutting bay and the pillars which supported it. They walked as far as the south lodge, and saw Susan Wayne coming down from the Hall. Mrs. Ball exclaiming that it must be later than she had thought, Susan explained that she had come away earlier than usual because Mr. Random’s housekeeper was out of baking-powder and she had promised to get her some at Mrs. Alexander’s and take it back with her when she went up in the afternoon.

Miss Silver considered this a pleasing instance of the give and take of country life. She regarded Susan with approbation. Such pretty hair, such a lovely skin, such agreeable manners. Susan walked back with them as far as the shop, and when they had left her there Miss Silver expressed herself with warmth.

“Really a very charming girl. Does she live here?”

“She was brought up here by an aunt, but she is only on a visit just now. She is making a catalogue of the books at the Hall and staying with Mrs. Random. Her aunt, Miss Lucy Wayne, was the daughter and grand-daughter of two former vicars, but she died before we came here. I have only met Susan quite lately. You know, Miss Silver, it may be wrong of me---John says it is---but I do feel that we shall have to be here till we are about a hundred before anyone stops thinking of us as strangers. By the way, my house-parlourmaid, Annie Jackson, was with Miss Lucy Wayne for twenty-four years, I believe.” She turned round blue eyes upon Miss Silver. “You see what I mean---there---there is something dwarfing about it.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“Did you not mention in your letter that your new house-parlourmaid was the widow of the unfortunate man who was drowned in the watersplash?”

“Oh, yes, I did. It was so foolish of her to marry him. She was much older than he was, and Miss Wayne had left her a little money. At least that is what everybody says----” She broke off, colouring deeply. “John is always telling me not to fall in with the uncharitable judgments of the crowd. He says villages are terribly censorious. But don’t you think sometimes they know?

Miss Silver agreed.

Ruth Ball went on talking about Annie Jackson.

“It seems so soon for her to be going out to work, but she said she would rather, and John thought it would be the best thing for her. Her cottage is a very lonely one on the other side of the splash. She said she didn’t want to stay there, and she has got a good tenant, so we said she could move in as soon as she liked after the funeral.”

Annie Jackson was certainly very good at her work. Lunch was deftly and efficiently served---the walnut table in a high state of polish, the glass shining, and the silver bright. But the poor woman herself looked like a burdened ghost. The word kept recurring to Miss Silver’s mind. Annie Jackson looked like a woman who carried a heavy burden. Her shoulders sagged under it, and her strength was ready to fail.

When lunch was over Miss Silver sat with her old friend’s daughter in the charming small sitting-room which was so much more easily heated than the rather too spacious drawing-room. Ruth Ball produced some domestic sewing, and Miss Silver the pale pink vest which she was knitting for Stacy Forrest’s expected baby. The afternoon stretched cosily before them. Afterwards Ruth was to wonder how much of their conversation would have escaped John’s strictures upon gossip. They had certainly talked about the village and its people---the Randoms up at the Hall, James and Jonathan who were dead, and Arnold who reigned in James’ stead---Jonathan’s widow, Emmeline, who lived at the south lodge, and his son Edward, who had been away for five years and was now taking up his duties as Lord Burlingham’s agent.

“He is living with his stepmother. They have always been very fond of each other.”

“What is he like, my dear Ruth?”

Mrs. Ball’s needle remained poised above a hole in one of the Vicar’s socks.

“I really don’t know. I have only just met him---I haven’t really even spoken to him. He came out of the south lodge one day as I was going in. One of the kittens ran up my skirt. He picked it off, and I said thank you. Mrs. Random has dozens of kittens---no, of course I don’t mean that, and John says it is wrong to exaggerate, but she does have a great many.”

Miss Silver shepherded her gently.

“And you only met Mr. Edward Random on this occasion? But sometimes a first impression----”

“Oh, yes---I do agree about that! And I did have an impression---quite a strong one---about his being unhappy. But when I passed him in the road the other day---I had to go out early, and he was on his way to Mr. Barr’s---I did think he looked a good deal better. After all, nobody knows what happened to him during the five years he was away, and it must have been horrid for him to come home and find his uncle gone and everything left away from him.”

“It must indeed.”

They went on talking about Edward Random, about his Uncle Arnold and his stepmother Emmeline, about Susan Wayne, about the Miss Blakes, and Mrs. Stone, and Miss Sims, and the various stories, rumours and conjectures which were going round as to the deaths of William Jackson and Clarice Dean.

Miss Silver had finished the vest she was knitting and had begun another before it was time for tea. She had been for the most part content to listen, merely prompting Ruth with a question if the stream of information appeared to be running dry. She lingered a little on the subject of the watersplash.

“It is not at all deep, is it---just that one pool? Really quite a difficult place to drown in.”

Ruth nodded.

“That is just what I said---only John says it would be better if I didn’t---because odd things do happen, and the poor man was drunk.”

Miss Silver pulled on her pale pink ball.

“But not Clarice Dean,” she said.

“No, no, of course not---that must have been an accident. There has been quite a lot of rain, and the stones are slippery. She may have hit her head. You see, she must have been going to meet Edward Random---there really isn’t anything else that could take her over the splash. And if she was in a hurry she could easily have slipped on the stones.”

Miss Silver reflected on the improbability that an active young woman would drown in a pool which seemed to be no more than two feet deep. Unless somebody or something held her down. She coughed in an absent-minded manner and enquired,

“Has anyone ever been drowned in the splash before?”

Ruth became animated.

“Oh, yes! But it was a long time ago, right away back in the nineteenth century. His name was Christopher Hale, and you can see his tombstone in the churchyard with some very quaint verses on it. I can show it to you if you like.”

Miss Silver said that she would like to see it very much, and the Vicar came home to tea.

As it turned out, Miss Silver found the grave of Christopher Hale for herself. Tea being at four o’clock, there was still a good deal of daylight left when they had finished. The evening was mild and fine, and after an afternoon spent indoors the thought of a stroll in the churchyard was agreeable. Since Ruth Ball had a visit to pay in connection with the Sunday School, she asked in what direction the grave was to be found, and made her way to it. An old country churchyard is always full of interest. With how much heavy marble had some of these previous centuries weighed down their dead. What human tragedies were recorded on some of the stones. What human grudges had been set forth for posterity to read. “Here lies Alice Jane Masters, wife of Thomas Henry Masters. She that would master as well as mistress be, let her to buriall come like thee.” The date on this was 1665.

Christopher Hale was buried at the far end beyond the church. The spot was a sheltered one, which might account for the fact that the verses on the tall headstone were quite legible. Or perhaps, being something of a curiosity, they had been carefully preserved. In the quiet evening light the lettering stood out plainly:

   To the Memory of
   Christopher Hale
   Born March 10th, 1800. Drowned March 11th, 1839.
   This stone is erected by Kezia his wife.

    In dark of night and dreadful sin
    The heart conceives its plan
    And wickedness in secret plots
    Against the righteous man.

    There is a Judge whose awefull law
    Shall all thy deeds require.
    Better to drown in water now
    Than burn in endless fire.

Miss Silver read the inscription through several times. She found it enigmatic. Was it the dead man under the stone who had conceived and plotted against the righteous man, or was he himself the person who had been plotted against “in dark of night and dreadful sin”?

She turned, not at a sound but with the instinctive feeling that she was no longer alone. It was just a little startling to find Annie Jackson so near. She was bareheaded in a black indoor dress, and she had come quite silently across the grass in her thin house shoes. She looked white and strange as she said, “His wife put up that stone.” She lifted a hand and pointed. “It’s there for everyone to read---this stone was put up by Kezia his wife. It doesn’t say she wrote the verses, but she did.”

“Do you know what she meant by them, Mrs. Jackson?”

Annie Jackson was already so pale that it would not have seemed possible that she could lose colour, yet she did. It might have been an effect of the waning light, but Miss Silver did not think so.

Annie dropped her voice and said, “Don’t call me that. He’s drowned, and I’m not married any more. I’m back in service like I was with Miss Wayne. I’m Annie Parker again, that’s what I am.”

She turned, walked a few steps, and came back again.

“I’ll not be putting up a stone for William,” she said. “He was a bad husband. He drank, and he went with other women. I didn’t ought to have married him. They all said so, but I didn’t take any notice.”

The sun was almost gone, but not quite. Here from the churchyard, sloping to the west, they could see it lie like a golden ball between two clouds on the rim of the sky. The clouds were flushed and streaked with scarlet. Standing on the edge of the grass, Annie was full in the last level ray. It struck her forehead and the side of her head as she faced Miss Silver, and there, where the hair blew back in the lightly stirring air, was the mark of a livid bruise. It had not showed as she went about her work in the house, but it showed now.

Miss Silver regarded her with grave compassion. She came a step nearer.

“I’d no call to think well of him nor to speak well of him. But murder---that’s another thing! Christopher Hale, he was a loose liver like William, he was. And Kezia to her dying day she said he was murdered, and what’s more she named the man. Wanted to put it on the stone, but the old Vicar wouldn’t let her. He was Miss Wayne’s grandfather, and he was Vicar here. And his son, Miss Lucy’s father, after him. Miss Lucy had all the papers. And murder isn’t right---it isn’t right. You can’t get from it.” A shudder went over her. She said in a changed voice, “I’m sure I beg your pardon---talking like this. I heard Mrs. Ball say you were clever at finding out such things. She said you’d done it many’s the time, and found out what was being kept secret. So it just come over me, and I’m sure I beg your pardon. You won’t mention it, I hope---not to Mrs. Ball nor to anyone. It’s easy to set people talking.”

Miss Silver said, “I shall not mention it to Mrs. Ball, Annie.”

Annie Jackson turned and went away over the grass, making no sound at all. The light was failing now. The sun was gone. There was a greyness and a chill.

But it was some time before Miss Silver went back to the Vicarage.

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