servants, close about you. But to lie aching with cold—to hear a woman shrieking in a cell two floors below, because she has the nightmares, or the drunkard’s horrors, or is new, and screams because—because she cannot believe that they have taken her hair off and put her in a room, and locked the door on her!’ Did I think there was anything that could make her bear that better? Did I think it not a punishment, because a spirit sometimes came to her—came and put its lips to hers, then melted away before the kiss was done, and left her, with the very darkness darker than before?
The words seem still very vivid to me; and I seem still to hear her own voice, hissing them, and stumbling over them—for of course, she would not shout or shriek, for fear of the matron, but smothered her passion so that only I might catch it. I did not smile now. I could not answer her. I believe I turned my shoulder to her and gazed out, through the iron gate, at the smooth, blank, limewashed wall.
Then I heard her step. She had risen from her chair and was beside me and—I think—had raised her hand to touch me.
But when I moved away, nearer to the gate, her hand fell.
I said I had not meant my visit to upset her. I said that the other women I had spoken with were perhaps less thoughtful than her, or had been hardened by their lives outside.
She said: ‘I am sorry.’
‘You must not be sorry .’ How grotesque it would be, if she were really sorry ! ‘But if you would prefer for me to leave—?’ She said nothing, and I must have continued to gaze into the darkening passage-way, until at last I knew she would not speak again. Then I gripped the bars and called out for the matron.
It was Mrs Jelf who came. She gazed at me, then past me; I heard Dawes sit, and when I looked at her she had taken up her ball of yarn again and was pulling at it. I said, ‘Good-bye.’ She did not answer. Only as the matron locked the gate did she raise her head, and I saw her slim throat working. She called, ‘Miss Prior,’ and looked once at Mrs Jelf. Then: ‘We none of us sleep soundly here,’ she murmured. ‘Think of us, will you, the next time you are wakeful?’
And her cheek, which had been pale as alabaster all this time, flushed pink. I said, ‘I will, Dawes. I will.’
Beside me, the matron put her hand upon my arm. ‘Will you come down the ward, miss?’ she said. ‘Can I show you Nash, or Hamer—or Chaplin, our poisoner?’
But I did not visit any more women then. I left the wards, and let myself be taken to the men’s gaol.
There, by chance, I met Mr Shillitoe. ‘How do you find us?’ he asked.
I said that the matrons had been kind to me; and that one or two of the prisoners had seemed glad to have me go to them.
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘And they received you well? What did they talk of?’
I said, of their own thoughts and feelings.
He nodded. ‘That is good! For you must, of course, secure their confidence. You must let them see that you respect them in their station, in order to encourage them to respect you, in yours.’
I gazed at him. I still felt unnerved, from my interview with Selina Dawes. I said I was not sure. I said, ‘Perhaps, after all, I have not the knowledge or the temperament that a Visitor should . . .?’
Knowledge? he said then. I had a knowledge of human nature; and that was all the knowledge that was required of me there! Did I think his officers more knowledgeable than myself? Did I think their temperaments more sympathetic, than mine?
I thought of rough Miss Craven, and how Dawes had had to hide her passion for fear of her scolds. I said, ‘But there are some women, I think—some troubled women—’
There were always those, he said, at Millbank! But, did I know, it was often the most troublesome prisoners who responded best, at the last, to ladies’ interest; because the troublesome prisoners were frequently the most susceptible. If I encounter a difficult woman, he said, I