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Chapter Thirty-Six

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« on: June 19, 2023, 07:41:17 am »

THE old church clock gave out the twelve strokes of a cloudy midnight. As a rule, when Miss Silver had read a psalm or a chapter from the shabby Bible which was her constant companion she would put out the light, arrange her two pillows to her liking, and pass immediately into a state of tranquil repose. Upon the rare occasions when this did not happen it was because her mind was too preoccupied to relax. To-night her thoughts were very deeply occupied indeed, and not only occupied, but burdened. Annie Jackson’s words stood out among them---“These things go in threes”. Two people had been murdered. Two successive Fridays had seen a victim struck down. Tomorrow it would be Friday again. The Vicarage work-party would assemble, Arnold Random would doubtless come to his practising in the church, and the faint sounds of the organ would steal out across the churchyard and hang in the air above the watersplash.

There might be no reason for the murderer to strike again. There might be a grave and insistent reason. Only the murderer would know. And in murder, as in many other things, it is the first step that is the difficult one. A couple of homely proverbs reinforced this line of thought---“In for a penny, in for a pound”, and, “As well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb”. And with each step into the dark other world beyond stability, the strength of the motive required would become progressively less, until in the end there might hardly need to be a motive at all. In the unbalanced mind the link between cause and effect may be crazily wrenched, if not altogether broken.

When the church clock struck twelve Miss Silver folded back the bed-clothes and went over to the window. Her room looked towards the churchyard, very deeply covered by the cloudy darkness, very sombre, mysterious and vague, and the black church watching it, its steeple pointing to heaven. The casement window stood partly open. She loosened the catch, pushed it wide, and leaned out. The house was two-storeyed and rambling. One of the windows glowed faintly. The curtains were not drawn. The two leaves of the casement jutted out, and between them the darkness thinned away. She could discern the window-frame, the sill, and those two jutting leaves. She knew the room to be Annie’s.

After some pause for reflection she put on her warm blue dressing-gown with the hand-made crochet trimming which had already completed years of useful service upon its red flannel predecessor, and opening her door, stepped silently into the passage. The landing was not far away, and a faint light burned there. Every step towards Annie Jackson’s room would take her farther away from it, but it would serve. Her feet, in black felt slippers lined with lamb’s wool and adorned by neat blue bows, made no sound on the rather worn carpeting.

Standing before Annie’s door, a hand upon the knob, she heard a deep choking breath, and then a gasping cry, “No---no---no!

Before the third “No!” was uttered she was in the room and the door shut behind her. She wanted neither Ruth nor the Vicar to be a witness to what might be going to take place between herself and Annie Jackson. The glow which she had seen from her window proceeded from an old-fashioned night-light stuck on a saucer and set very prudently in the basin upon Annie’s washstand. There was even a little water in the basin. Miss Lucy Wayne had evidently trained her maidservants well.

The light slanting up out of the basin threw all the shadows high. The bed, an old-fashioned single four-poster, was bare of the curtains for which it had been designed. The posts, and the rods which connected them, stood up stark like the bars of a cage. And in the middle of the bed Annie sat up straight, her hands clasped to her breast, her eyes wide, and fixed, and sightless. She was asleep, but not at rest. She walked in a dreadful dream and cried out against it.

Miss Silver stood at the bed foot and watched her. There was sweat on the face. The hair was pushed back in a disordered tangle. The mark of the bruise showed plain. She was speaking now in a rapid mutter where the words were lost. Hurry and fear, hurry and fear---they rode her, and needed no words to make themselves plain.

And then the words began to come through.

“Dark---dark---dark----” The voice was no more than a whisper at the first, but it rose to a thin trembling scream. And then the muttering----

Miss Silver made no move. She stood and watched.

Slowly and painfully, words were thrown up.

“Dark. . . . In dark---of night----” Then, with a convulsive shudder, “Dreadful---sin---dreadful---dreadful sin----”

Somewhere in Annie Jackson’s mind there walked the ghost of Christopher Hale, drowned in the watersplash more than a hundred years ago. The words which came from her on those difficult gasping breaths were part of the verse which she and Miss Silver had read together upon the tombstone set up by his wife.

    “In dark of night and dreadful sin
     The heart conceives its plan.”


Was it really the ghost of Christopher Hale who walked in Annie’s dream, or was it the ghost of William Jackson?

Miss Silver leaned forward from where she stood at the foot of the bed and said, “Annie!”

There was a change at once. The hands which had been clenched at the thin chest were flung out as if to ward a blow.

“I didn’t tell---I didn’t---I didn’t! No one can say I did! There isn’t no one can say I was there! There isn’t no one----” On the last word her voice faltered and dropped. Her hands dropped too. She looked about her as if she had waked in a strange place---wardrobe on the right---chest of drawers and washstand on the left, with the jug lifted out of the basin and the night-light burning.

Her troubled gaze came to rest upon Miss Silver in her blue dressing-gown, her hair very neatly controlled by the strong brown net which she wore at night.

“What---is it?”

“You have had a bad dream. You cried out.”

Annie closed her eyes. The dream still lay behind them.

“It won’t let me be----” The tears began to run down over her pinched face. “It won’t let me be. Soon as ever I lie down it’s there again. I dursn’t go to sleep but I’m down there in the dark---and the water drowning him.” Her eyes flew open suddenly. “I didn’t say it---oh---I didn’t say it!”

Miss Silver came round to the side of the bed. She sat down there.

“Annie, won’t you tell me what happened on the night your husband was drowned? If you did, I think that the dream would go away, and that you would not be troubled with it again.”

Annie stared at her with dilated eyes.

“And have them---hang me?” she said.

Miss Silver took one of the bony hands.

“Have you done anything for which they could hang you?”

The hand jerked in hers. The whole frail body jerked.

“And who’s going to believe I didn’t? Who’s going to believe me against them whose word ’ud be taken afore mine? If my Miss Lucy was here she’d speak for me. Twenty-four years is a long time to be living with anyone, and you’d know they wasn’t the kind to do murder. But she’s gone---and there’s no one now. They’d find out about the girl in Embank---and how I said I wished I was dead before I married him. And they’d see how he bruised me. It didn’t show so much at first---but they couldn’t help but see it now---not if they looked. And they’ll think I did it!”

“And did you do it, Annie?”

She was holding the hand in a firm but gentle clasp. This time there was no jerk. It closed a little upon hers and was still. Annie looked at her and said,

“Oh, no, miss. I’ve wished myself dead many’s the time---but not him.”

“But you went to the watersplash the night that he was drowned?”

Annie took a heavy sobbing breath.

“I’ve gone there most nights lately come closing time---to see if he was coming home. Sometimes he’d come---and sometimes he wouldn’t. Then I’d know he’d gone off to that girl.”

“You went every night?”

“Mostly. Mr. Edward could have told them that---if he’d a mind. There’s two or three times he’s gone by me---walking quick---coming back from Mr. Barr’s he’d be---and he’d go past me and say good-night. He might have spoke of it---but he wouldn’t want to get me into trouble.”

After the loneliness, the coldness, and the dark secret on her heart, Annie was feeling a quite extraordinary sense of relief. There was an easing of her whole mind and body. The words which had come with so much effort now flowed like water. In some strange unreasoning way she recognized the presence of kindness and authority and responded to them.

Miss Silver held her hand and said gently,

“Then you went down to the splash on the night your husband was drowned----”

Annie repeated the words in an uncertain voice.

“I---went---down----”

“What time was it?”

“It was---getting on---for ten----”

“Did you see Mr. Edward Random?”

“He’d gone past me---just before I come to the splash.”

“Where was he when you came to it?”

“He was going up the slope---and William was coming down. They said a word or two, and I heard him call out, ‘Good-night, Willy!’ They’d known each other from boys.”

“What happened after that?”

“I went back---up the other side of the rise. I didn’t want William---to see me. I waited to hear him---come over the splash---- She gave a sudden violent shudder. “But he never.”

“Why?”

The answer came in a shaking whisper.

“He was done in----”

“By whom?”

Annie’s eyes met hers in a fixed stare. The flow of words had stopped. Fear had come down and cut them off like the closing of a dam.

“Annie, what did you see, or hear?”

She just stared.

“Did you go down to the splash again?”

“When---he---didn’t come----” The stumbling answer was so faint that it was hardly to be heard.

“And then?”

“He---came----”

“Yes, Annie?”

She pulled away her hand with great suddenness.

“I went away home. Do you think I wanted him to catch me? I ran most part of the way. I see them come down the rise, and I ran for it.”

Miss Silver picked out a single word and presented it with gravity.

“Them?”

The breath caught in Annie’s throat.

“What do you think I’m going to say---that there was someone coming down there after him? It was dark, wasn’t it? How could I see in the dark? And if I could, what do you think I’m going to do---put up my word against them that would set their hand on the Bible and swear they saw me push William in? And stand by and see me hanged---and never lose a good night’s sleep over it neither! Who’s going to credit my word against them that would do that? Not if I was to take my Bible oath that I ran home the fastest I could go!”

“Why did you do that?”

Annie was sobbing, a hand at her throat. Her words came out between the sobs.

“I thought---he’d have---my life. He was drunk---and he was angry. I could hear him---talking---to himself. ‘I’ll get it out of him!’ he said---and a lot of bad words---and, ‘I’ll be even with him!’ And I didn’t wait to hear no more---I took and ran.”

There was a pause. Faint steady light in the room, and a soft air coming in from the mild November night. Miss Silver said,

“Someone was following your husband?”

There was a slight movement of the bruised head.

“Who was it?”

Annie caught her breath painfully.

“It---was---dark----”

“Shall I tell you who it was?”

The sobs ceased. The troubled breathing ceased. Everything seemed to wait and listen.

Miss Silver leaned forward and spoke a name.

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