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LITTLE NOVELS by Wilkie Collins

Part 10 out of 10

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assist me in the discovery of a crime. I even offered him money.
He drew back from my hand. "You shall have it for nothing," he
said, "if you will only go away and never come here again." He
tried to cut it out of the page--but his trembling hands were
helpless. I cut it out myself, and attempted to thank him. He
wouldn't hear me. "Go away!" he said, "I don't like the look of

It may be here objected that I ought not to have felt so sure as
I did of the woman's guilt, until I had got more evidence against
her. The knife might have been stolen from her, supposing she was
the person who had snatched it out of the engraver's hands, and
might have been afterward used by the thief to commit the murder.
All very true. But I never had a moment's doubt in my own mind,
from the time when I read the damnable line in the engraver's

I went back to the railway without any plan in my head. The train
by which I had proposed to follow her had left Waterbank. The
next train
that arrived was for London. I took my place in it--still
without any plan in my head.

At Charing Cross a friend met me. He said, "You're looking
miserably ill. Come and have a drink."

I went with him. The liquor was what I really wanted; it strung
me up, and cleared my head. He went his way, and I went mine. In
a little while more, I determined what I would do.

In the first place, I decided to resign my situation in the
police, from a motive which will presently appear. In the second
place, I took a bed at a public-house. She would no doubt return
to London, and she would go to my lodgings to find out why I had
broken my appointment. To bring to justice the one woman whom I
had dearly loved was too cruel a duty for a poor creature like
me. I preferred leaving the police force. On the other hand, if
she and I met before time had helped me to control myself, I had
a horrid fear that I might turn murderer next, and kill her then
and there. The wretch had not only all but misled me into
marrying her, but also into charging the innocent housemaid with
being concerned in the murder.

The same night I hit on a way of clearing up such doubts as still
harassed my mind. I wrote to the rector of Roth, informing him
that I was engaged to marry her, and asking if he would tell me
(in consideration of my position) what her former relations might
have been with the person named John Zebedee.

By return of post I got this reply:

"SIR--Under the circumstances, I think I am bound to tell you
confidentially what the friends and well-wishers of Priscilla
have kept secret, for her sake.

"Zebedee was in service in this neighborhood. I am sorry to say
it, of a man who has come to such a miserable end--but his
behavior to Priscilla proves him to have been a vicious and
heartless wretch. They were engaged--and, I add with indignation,
he tried to seduce her under a promise of marriage. Her virtue
resisted him, and he pretended to be ashamed of himself. The
banns were published in my church. On the next day Zebedee
disappeared, and cruelly deserted her. He was a capable servant;
and I believe he got another place. I leave you to imagine what
the poor girl suffered under the outrage inflicted on her. Going
to London, with my recommendation, she answered the first
advertisement that she saw, and was unfortunate enough to begin
her career in domestic service in the very lodging-house to which
(as I gather from the newspaper report of the murder) the man
Zebedee took the person whom he married, after deserting
Priscilla. Be assured that you are about to unite yourself to an
excellent girl, and accept my best wishes for your happiness."

It was plain from this that neither the rector nor the parents
and friends knew anything of the purchase of the knife. The one
miserable man who knew the truth was the man who had asked her to
be his wife.

I owed it to myself--at least so it seemed to me--not to let it
be supposed that I, too, had meanly deserted her. Dreadful as the
prospect was, I felt that I must see her once more, and for the
last time.

She was at work when I went into her room. As I opened the door
she started to her feet. Her cheeks reddened, and her eyes
flashed with anger. I stepped forward--and she saw my face. My
face silenced her.

I spoke in the fewest words I could find.

"I have been to the cutler's shop at Waterbank," I said. "There
is the unfinished inscription on the knife, complete in your
handwriting. I could hang you by a word. God forgive me--I can't
say the word."

Her bright complexion turned to a dreadful clay-color. Her eyes
were fixed and staring, like the eyes of a person in a fit. She
stood before me, still and silent. Without saying more, I dropped
the inscription into the fire. Without saying more, I left her.

I never saw her again.


BUT I heard from her a few days later. The letter has long since
been burned. I wish I could have forgotten it as well. It sticks
to my memory. If I die with my senses about me, Priscilla's
letter will be my last recollection on earth.

In substance it repeated what the rector had already told me.
Further, it informed me that she had bought the knife as a
keepsake for Zebedee, in place of a similar knife which he had
lost. On the Saturday, she made the purchase, and left it to be
engraved. On the Sunday, the banns were put up. On the Monday,
she was deserted; and she snatched the knife from the table while
the engraver was at work.

She only knew that Zebedee had added a new sting to the insult
inflicted on her when he arrived at the lodgings with his wife.
Her duties as cook kept her in the kitchen--and Zebedee never
discovered that she was in the house. I still remember the last
lines of her confession:

"The devil entered into me when I tried their door, on my way up
to bed, and found it unlocked, and listened a while, and peeped
in. I saw them by the dying light of the candle--one asleep on
the bed, the other asleep by the fireside. I had the knife in my
hand, and the thought came to me to do it, so that they might
hang _her_ for the murder. I couldn't take the knife out again,
when I had done it. Mind this! I did really like you--I didn't
say Yes, because you could hardly hang your own wife, if you
found out who killed Zebedee."

Since the past time I have never heard again of Priscilla
Thurlby; I don't know whether she is living or dead. Many people
may think I deserve to be hanged myself for not having given her
up to the gallows. They may, perhaps, be disappointed when they
see this confession, and hear that I have died decently in my
bed. I don't blame them. I am a penitent sinner. I wish all
merciful Christians good-by forever.

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