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.