A Death-Bed Confession
by Ralph Henry Barbour
And so you think I shall go to heaven when I die, sir! And why? Because I have spent my time and what bits of money I’ve had in looking after the poor in this parish! And I would do it again if I had my time to come over again; but it will take more than that to wipe out my sins, and God forgive me if I can’t always believe that even His mercy will be equal to it. You’re a clergyman, and you ought to know. I think sometimes the black heart in me, that started me on that deed, must have come from the devil, and that I am his child after all, and shall go back to him at the last. Don’t look so shocked, sir. That’s not what I really believe; it’s only what I sometimes fear I ought to believe, when I wake up in the chill night and think things over, lying here alone.
To see me old and prim, with my cap and little checked shawl, you’d never think that I was once one of the two prettiest girls on all the South Downs. But I was, and my cousin Lilian was the other. We lived at Whitecroft together at our uncle’s. He was a well-to-do farmer, as well-to-do as a farmer could be in such times as those, and on such land as that.
Whenever I hear people say ‘home,’ it’s Whitecroft I think of, with its narrow windows and thatch roof and the farm-buildings about it, and the bits of trees all bent one way with the wind from the sea.
Whitecroft stands on a shoulder of the Downs, and on a clear day you can see right out to sea and over the hollow where Felscombe lies cuddled down close and warm, with its elms and its church, and its bright bits of gardens. They are sheltered from the sea wind down there, but there’s nothing to break the wing of it as it rolls across the Downs on to Whitecroft; and of a night Lilian and I used to lie and listen to the wind banging the windows, and know that the chimneys were rocking over our heads, and feel the house move to and fro with the strength of the wind like as if it was the swing of a cradle.
Lilian and I had come there, little things, and uncle had brought us up together, and we loved each other like sisters until that happened, and this is the first time I have told a human soul about it; and if being sorry can pay for things–well, but I’m afraid there are some things nothing can pay for.
It was one wild windy night, when, if you should open the door an inch, everything in the house jarred and rattled. We were sitting round the fire, uncle and Lilian and me, us with our knitting and him asleep in his newspaper, and nobody could have gone to sleep with a wind like that but a man who has been bred and born at sea, or on the South Downs.
Lilian and I were talking over our new winter dresses, when there come a knock at the side door, not nigh so loud as some of the noises the wind made, but not being used to it, uncle sat up, wide awake, and said, ‘Hark!’ In a minute it come again, and then I went to the door and opened it a bit. There was some one outside who began to speak as soon as he saw the light, but I could not hear what he said for the roaring of the wind, and the cracking of the trees outside.
‘Shut that door!’ uncle shouted from the parlour. ‘Let the dog in, whatever he is, and let him tell his tale this side the oak.’
So I let him in and shut the door after him, and I had better have shut to the lid of my own coffin after me.
Him that I let in was dripping wet, and all spent with fighting the wind on these Downs, where it is like a lion roaring for its prey, and will go nigh to kill you, if you fight it long enough. He leaned against the wall and said–
‘I have lost my way, and I have had a nasty fall. I think there is something wrong with my arm–hollow–slip–light–hospitality beg your pardon, I’m sure,’ and with that he fainted dead off on the cocoanut matting at my feet.
Uncle came out when I screamed, and we got the stranger in and put him on the big couch by the fire. Uncle was nursing up with one of his bad attacks of bronchitis, the same thing that carried him off in the end, and the first thing he said when he’d felt the poor chap’s arm down was–
‘This is a bad break. Which of you girls will go and wake one of the waggoners to fetch Doctor from Felscombe?’
‘I will,’ I said.
But before I went I got out the port wine and the brandy, and bade Lilian rub his hands a bit, and be sure she didn’t let him see her looking frightened when he come to.
Why did I do that? Because the Lord made me to be a fool–giving him her pretty face to be the first thing he looked at when he come to after that long, dreary spell on the Downs, and that black journey into the strange place where people go to when they faint.
But everything that there was of me ached to be of some use to him. So I went, and once outside the door it seemed easier to take Brown Bess and go myself to Felscombe than to rouse the waggoners, who were but sleepy and slow-headed at the best of times. So I saddled Brown Bess myself and started.
It was but a small way across the Downs that I had to lead her, it being almost as much as both of us could do to keep our feet in the fury of the wind. Then you go down the steep hill into the village, and as soon as we had passed the brow, it was easy and I mounted. I was down there in less time than it would have taken to rouse one of those heavy-headed carters; and Doctor, he come back with me, walking beside Brown Bess with his hand on her bridle, he not being by any means loth to come out such a night, because, forsooth, it was me that fetched him. Oh yes! I might have married him if I had wanted to, and more than one better man than him; but that’s neither here nor there.
When we got in, we found Lilian kneeling by the sofa rubbing the young man’s hands as I had told her to, and his eyes were open, and there was a bit of colour in his cheek, and he was looking at her like as any one but a fool might have known he would look; and the Doctor, he saw it too, and looked at me and grinned; and if I had been God, that grin should have been his last. No, I don’t mean to be irreverent, but it’s true, all the same.
Well, the arm was set, and when he was a bit easier we settled round the fire, and he told us that his name was Edgar Linley, and he was an artist, and had been painting the angry sunset that had come before that night’s storm, and got caught in the dusk and so lost his way, as many do on our Downs at home, some not so lucky as him to see a light and get to it.
This Mr. Linley had a way with him like no other man I ever see; not only a way to please women with, but men too. I never saw my uncle so taken up with anybody; and the long and the short of it was that he stayed there a month, and we nursed him; and at the end of the month I knew no more than I had known that evening when I had seen him looking at Lilian; but he and Lilian, they had learned a deal in that time.
And one evening I was at my bedroom window, and I see them coming up the path in the red light of the evening, walking very close together, and I went down very quick to the parlour, where uncle was just come in to his tea and taking his big boots off, and I sat down there, for I wanted to hear how they’d say it, though I knew well enough what they had got to say. And they came in and he says, very frank and cheery–
‘Mr. Verinder,’ he says, ‘Lilian and I have made up our minds to take each other, with your consent, for better, for worse.’
And uncle was as pleased as Punch; and as for me, I didn’t believe in God then, or I should have prayed Him to strike them both down dead as they stood.
Why did I hate them so? And you call yourself a man and a parson, and one that knows the heart of man! Why did I hate them? Because I loved him as no woman will ever love you, sir, if you’ll pardon me being so bold, if you live to be a thousand.
He would have understood all about everything with half what I have been telling you. As it is, I sometimes think that he understood, for he was very gentle with me and kind, not making too much of Lilian when I was by, yet never with a look or a word that wasn’t the look and the word of her good, true lover; and she was very happy, for she loved him as much as that blue-and-white teacup kind of woman can love; and that’s more than I thought for at the time.
He was an orphan, and well off, and there was nothing to wait for, so the wedding was fixed for early in the new year; and I sewed at her new clothes with a marrow of lead in every bone of my fingers.
A truly understanding person might get some meaning out of my words when I say that I loved her in my heart all the time that I was hating her; and the devil himself must have sent out my soul and made use of the rest of me on that night I shall tell you about presently.
It was in the sharp, short, frosty days that brought in Christmas that uncle came home one day from Lewes, looking thunder black, with an eye like fire and a mouth like stone. And he walked straight into the kitchen where we three were making toast for tea, for Edgar was one of us by this time, and lent a hand at all such little things as young folks can be merry over together. And uncle says–
‘Leave my house, young man; it’s an honest house and a clean, and no fit place for a sinful swine. Get out,’ he says, ‘”For without are dogs–“‘
With that he went on with a long text of Revelation that I won’t repeat to you, sir, for I know your ears are nice, and it’s out of one of the plainest-spoken parts of the Bible. Edgar turned as white as a sheet.
‘I swear to God,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t to blame. I know what you have heard, but if I can’t whiten myself without blacking a woman
I’ll live and die as black as hell,’ he says. ‘But I don’t need whitening with those that love me,’ he says, looking at Lilian and then at me–oh! yes, he looked at me then.
I said, ‘No, indeed,’ and so did Lilian; but she began to cry, and before we had time to think what it was all about, he had taken his hat and kissed Lilian and was gone. But he turned back at the door again.
‘I’ll write to you,’ he says to Lilian, ‘but I don’t cross this door again till those words are unsaid,’ and so he was gone.
Him being gone, uncle told us what he had heard in Lewes, and what all folks there believed to be the truth; how young Edgar had carried on, as men may not, with a young married woman, the grocer’s wife where he lodged, the end of it being that she drowned herself in a pond near by, leaving as her last word that he was the cause of it; and so he may have been, but not the way my uncle and the folk at Lewes thought, I’ll stake my soul. God makes His troubles in dozens; He don’t make a new patterned one for every back. I wasn’t the only woman who ever loved Edgar Linley without encouragement and without hope, and risked her soul because she was mad with loving him.
But when uncle had told us all this with a black look on his face I never had seen before, he said–
‘Girls, I have always been a clean liver, and I have brought you up in the fear of the Lord. I don’t want to judge any man, and Lilian is of age and her own mistress. It’s not for me to say what she shall or shan’t do, but if she marries that scoundrel, she has my curse here and hereafter, and not one penny of my money, if it was to save her from the workhouse.’
After that we were sad enough at Whitecroft. But in two days come a letter from Edgar to Lilian; and when she had read it, she looked at me and said, ‘O Isabel, whatever shall I do? I never can marry without dear uncle’s consent,’ and I turned and went from her without a word, because I couldn’t bear to see her arguing and considering what to do, when the best thing in the world was to her hand for the taking.
All the next week she cried all day and most of the night. Then uncle went to London, my belief being it was to alter his will, so that if Lilian married Edgar, she should feel it in her pocket, anyhow, and he was to stay all night, and the farm servants slept out of the house, and we were without a maid at the time. So Lilian and me were left alone at Whitecroft.
Lilian and I didn’t sleep in one room now. I had made some excuse to sleep on the other side of the house, because I couldn’t bear to wake up of mornings and see her lying there so pretty, looking like a lily in her white nightgown and her fair hair all tumbled about her face. It was more than any woman could have borne to see her lying there, and think that early in the new year it was him that would see her lying like that of a morning.
And that night the place seemed very quiet and empty, as if there was more room in it for being unhappy in. When Lilian had taken her candle and gone up to bed, I walked through all the rooms below, as uncle’s habit was, to see that all was fast for the night. It was as I set the bolt on the door of the little lean-to shed, where the faggots were kept, that the devil entered into me all in a breath; and I thought of Lilian upstairs in her white bed, and of how the day must come, when he would see how pretty she looked and white, and I said to myself, ‘No, it never shall, not if I burn for it too.’
I hope you are understanding me. I sometimes think there is something done to folks when they are learning to be parsons as takes out of them a part of a natural person’s understandingness; and I would rather have told the doctor, but then he couldn’t have told me whether these are the kind of things Christ died to make His Father forgive, and I suppose you can.
What I did was this. I clean forgot all about uncle and how fond I was of Whitecroft, and how much I had always loved Lilian (and I loved her then, though I know you can’t understand me when I say so), and I took all them faggots, dragging them across the sanded floor of the kitchen, and I put them in the parlour in the little wing to the left, and just under Lilian’s bedroom, and I laid them under the wooden corner cupboard where the best china is, and then I poured oil and brandy all over, and set it alight.
Then I put on my hat and jacket, buttoning it all the way down, as quiet as if I was going down to the village for a pound of candles. And I made sure all was burning free, and out of the front door I went and up on to the Downs, and there I set me down under the wall where I could see Whitecroft.
And I watched to see the old place burn down; and at first there was no light to be seen.
But presently I see the parlour windows get redder and redder, and soon I knew the curtains had caught, and then there was a light in Lilian’s bedroom. I see the bars of the window as you do in the ruined mill when the sun is setting behind it; and the light got more and more, till I see the stone above the front door that tells how it was builded by one of our name this long time since; and at that, as sudden as he had come, the devil left me, and I knew all in a minute that I was crouched against a wall, very cold, and my hands hooked into my hair over my ears, and my knees drawn up under my chin; and there was the old house on fire, the dear old house, with Lilian inside it in her little white bed, being burnt to death, and me her murderer! And with that I got up, and I remember I was stiff, as if I had been screwing myself all close together to keep from knowing what it was I had been a-doing. I ran down the meadow to our house faster than I ever ran in my life, in at the door, and up the stairs, all blue and black, and hidden up with coppery-coloured smoke.
I don’t know how I got up them stairs, for they were beginning to burn too. I opened her door–all red and glowing it was inside! like an oven when you open it to rake out the ashes on a baking-day. And I tried to get in, because all I wanted then was to save her–to get her out safe and sound, if I had to roast myself for it, because we had been brought up together from little things, and I loved her like a sister. And while I was trying to get my jacket off and round my head, something gave way right under my feet, and I seemed to fall straight into hell!
I was badly burnt, and what handsomeness there was about my face was pretty well scorched out of it by that night’s work; and I didn’t know anything for a bit.
When I come to myself, they had got me into bed bound up with cotton-wool and oil and things. And the first thing I did was to sit up and try to tear them off.
‘You’ll kill yourself,’ says the nurse.
‘Thank you,’ says I, ‘that’s the best thing I can do, now Lilian is dead.’
And with that the nurse gives a laugh. ‘Oh, that’s what’s on your mind, is it?’ says she. ‘Doctor said there was something. Miss Lilian had run away that night to her young man. Lucky for her! She’s luckier than you, poor thing! And they’re married and living in lodgings at Brighton, and she’s been over to see you every day.’
That day she came again. I lay still and let her thank me for having tried to save her; for the farm men had seen the fire, and had come up in time to see me go up the staircase to her room, and they had pulled me out. She believes to this day the fire was an accident, and that I would have sacrificed my life for her. And so I would; she’s right there.
I wasn’t going to make her unhappy by telling her the real truth, because she was as fond of me as I was of her; and she has been as happy as the day is long, all her life long, and so she deserves.
And as for me, I stayed on with uncle at the farm until he died of that bronchitis I told you of, and the little wing was built up again, and the lichen has grown on it, so that now you could hardly tell it is only forty years old; and he left me all his money, and when he died, and Whitecroft went to a distant relation, I came here to do what bits of good I could.
And I have never told the truth about this to any one but you. I couldn’t have told it to any one as cared, but I know you don’t. So that makes it easy.