TREATS ON A VERY POOR SUBJECT.
BUT IS A SHORT ONE, AND MAY BE FOUND OF IMPORTANCE
IN THIS HISTORY
It was no unfit messenger of death,
who had disturbed the quiet of the matron’s
room. Her body was bent by age; her limbs trembled
with palsy; her face, distorted into a mumbling leer,
resembled more the grotesque shaping of some wild
pencil, than the work of Nature’s hand.
Alas! How few of Nature’s
faces are left alone to gladden us with their beauty!
The cares, and sorrows, and hungerings, of the world,
change them as they change hearts; and it is only when
those passions sleep, and have lost their hold for
ever, that the troubled clouds pass off, and leave
Heaven’s surface clear. It is a common
thing for the countenances of the dead, even in that
fixed and rigid state, to subside into the long-forgotten
expression of sleeping infancy, and settle into the
very look of early life; so calm, so peaceful, do they
grow again, that those who knew them in their happy
childhood, kneel by the coffin’s side in awe,
and see the Angel even upon earth.
The old crone tottered along the passages,
and up the stairs, muttering some indistinct answers
to the chidings of her companion; being at length
compelled to pause for breath, she gave the light into
her hand, and remained behind to follow as she might:
while the more nimble superior made her way to the
room where the sick woman lay.
It was a bare garret-room, with a
dim light burning at the farther end. There was
another old woman watching by the bed; the parish
apothecary’s apprentice was standing by the fire,
making a toothpick out of a quill.
‘Cold night, Mrs. Corney,’
said this young gentleman, as the matron entered.
‘Very cold, indeed, sir,’
replied the mistress, in her most civil tones, and
dropping a curtsey as she spoke.
‘You should get better coals
out of your contractors,’ said the apothecary’s
deputy, breaking a lump on the top of the fire with
the rusty poker; ‘these are not at all the sort
of thing for a cold night.’
‘They’re the board’s
choosing, sir,’ returned the matron. ’The
least they could do, would be to keep us pretty warm:
for our places are hard enough.’
The conversation was here interrupted
by a moan from the sick woman.
‘Oh!’ said the young mag,
turning his face towards the bed, as if he had previously
quite forgotten the patient, ’it’s all
U.P. there, Mrs. Corney.’
‘It is, is it, sir?’ asked the matron.
‘If she lasts a couple of hours,
I shall be surprised,’ said the apothecary’s
apprentice, intent upon the toothpick’s point.
’It’s a break-up of the system altogether.
Is she dozing, old lady?’
The attendant stooped over the bed,
to ascertain; and nodded in the affirmative.
‘Then perhaps she’ll go
off in that way, if you don’t make a row,’
said the young man. ‘Put the light on
the floor. She won’t see it there.’
The attendant did as she was told:
shaking her head meanwhile, to intimate that the
woman would not die so easily; having done so, she
resumed her seat by the side of the other nurse, who
had by this time returned. The mistress, with
an expression of impatience, wrapped herself in her
shawl, and sat at the foot of the bed.
The apothecary’s apprentice,
having completed the manufacture of the toothpick,
planted himself in front of the fire and made good
use of it for ten minutes or so: when apparently
growing rather dull, he wished Mrs. Corney joy of
her job, and took himself off on tiptoe.
When they had sat in silence for some
time, the two old women rose from the bed, and crouching
over the fire, held out their withered hands to catch
the heat. The flame threw a ghastly light on
their shrivelled faces, and made their ugliness appear
terrible, as, in this position, they began to converse
in a low voice.
‘Did she say any more, Anny
dear, while I was gone?’ inquired the messenger.
‘Not a word,’ replied
the other. ’She plucked and tore at her
arms for a little time; but I held her hands, and
she soon dropped off. She hasn’t much
strength in her, so I easily kept her quiet.
I ain’t so weak for an old woman, although I
am on parish allowance; no, no!’
‘Did she drink the hot wine
the doctor said she was to have?’ demanded the
‘I tried to get it down,’
rejoined the other. ’But her teeth were
tight set, and she clenched the mug so hard that it
was as much as I could do to get it back again.
So I drank it; and it did me good!’
Looking cautiously round, to ascertain
that they were not overheard, the two hags cowered
nearer to the fire, and chuckled heartily.
‘I mind the time,’ said
the first speaker, ’when she would have done
the same, and made rare fun of it afterwards.’
‘Ay, that she would,’
rejoined the other; ’she had a merry heart.
’A many, many, beautiful corpses she laid out,
as nice and neat as waxwork. My old eyes have
seen them ay, and those old hands touched
them too; for I have helped her, scores of times.’
Stretching forth her trembling fingers
as she spoke, the old creature shook them exultingly
before her face, and fumbling in her pocket, brought
out an old time-discoloured tin snuff-box, from which
she shook a few grains into the outstretched palm
of her companion, and a few more into her own.
While they were thus employed, the matron, who had
been impatiently watching until the dying woman should
awaken from her stupor, joined them by the fire, and
sharply asked how long she was to wait?
‘Not long, mistress,’
replied the second woman, looking up into her face.
’We have none of us long to wait for Death.
Patience, patience! He’ll be here soon
enough for us all.’
‘Hold your tongue, you doting
idiot!’ said the matron sternly. ’You,
Martha, tell me; has she been in this way before?’
‘Often,’ answered the first woman.
‘But will never be again,’
added the second one; ’that is, she’ll
never wake again but once and mind, mistress,
that won’t be for long!’
‘Long or short,’ said
the matron, snappishly, ’she won’t find
me here when she does wake; take care, both of you,
how you worry me again for nothing. It’s
no part of my duty to see all the old women in the
house die, and I won’t that’s
more. Mind that, you impudent old harridans.
If you make a fool of me again, I’ll soon cure
you, I warrant you!’
She was bouncing away, when a cry
from the two women, who had turned towards the bed,
caused her to look round. The patient had raised
herself upright, and was stretching her arms towards
‘Who’s that?’ she cried, in a hollow
‘Hush, hush!’ said one
of the women, stooping over her. ’Lie down,
‘I’ll never lie down again
alive!’ said the woman, struggling. ’I
will tell her! Come here! Nearer!
Let me whisper in your ear.’
She clutched the matron by the arm,
and forcing her into a chair by the bedside, was about
to speak, when looking round, she caught sight of
the two old women bending forward in the attitude of
‘Turn them away,’ said
the woman, drowsily; ‘make haste! make haste!’
The two old crones, chiming in together,
began pouring out many piteous lamentations that the
poor dear was too far gone to know her best friends;
and were uttering sundry protestations that they would
never leave her, when the superior pushed them from
the room, closed the door, and returned to the bedside.
On being excluded, the old ladies changed their tone,
and cried through the keyhole that old Sally was drunk;
which, indeed, was not unlikely; since, in addition
to a moderate dose of opium prescribed by the apothecary,
she was labouring under the effects of a final taste
of gin-and-water which had been privily administered,
in the openness of their hearts, by the worthy old
‘Now listen to me,’ said
the dying woman aloud, as if making a great effort
to revive one latent spark of energy. ’In
this very room in this very bed I
once nursed a pretty young creetur’, that was
brought into the house with her feet cut and bruised
with walking, and all soiled with dust and blood.
She gave birth to a boy, and died. Let me think what
was the year again!’
‘Never mind the year,’
said the impatient auditor; ‘what about her?’
‘Ay,’ murmured the sick
woman, relapsing into her former drowsy state, ‘what
about her? what about I know!’
she cried, jumping fiercely up: her face flushed,
and her eyes starting from her head ’I
robbed her, so I did! She wasn’t cold I
tell you she wasn’t cold, when I stole it!’
‘Stole what, for God’s
sake?’ cried the matron, with a gesture as if
she would call for help.
‘It!’ replied the
woman, laying her hand over the other’s mouth.
’The only thing she had. She wanted clothes
to keep her warm, and food to eat; but she had kept
it safe, and had it in her bosom. It was gold,
I tell you! Rich gold, that might have saved
‘Gold!’ echoed the matron,
bending eagerly over the woman as she fell back.
’Go on, go on yes what
of it? Who was the mother? When was it?’
‘She charge me to keep it safe,’
replied the woman with a groan, ’and trusted
me as the only woman about her. I stole it in
my heart when she first showed it me hanging round
her neck; and the child’s death, perhaps, is
on me besides! They would have treated him better,
if they had known it all!’
‘Known what?’ asked the other. ‘Speak!’
‘The boy grew so like his mother,’
said the woman, rambling on, and not heeding the question,
’that I could never forget it when I saw his
face. Poor girl! poor girl! She was so
young, too! Such a gentle lamb! Wait; there’s
more to tell. I have not told you all, have I?’
‘No, no,’ replied the
matron, inclining her head to catch the words, as
they came more faintly from the dying woman.
’Be quick, or it may be too late!’
‘The mother,’ said the
woman, making a more violent effort than before; ’the
mother, when the pains of death first came upon her,
whispered in my ear that if her baby was born alive,
and thrived, the day might come when it would not
feel so much disgraced to hear its poor young mother
named. “And oh, kind Heaven!” she
said, folding her thin hands together, “whether
it be boy or girl, raise up some friends for it in
this troubled world, and take pity upon a lonely desolate
child, abandoned to its mercy!"’
‘The boy’s name?’ demanded the matron.
‘They called him Oliver,’
replied the woman, feebly. ’The gold I
stole was ’
‘Yes, yes what?’ cried the
She was bending eagerly over the woman
to hear her reply; but drew back, instinctively, as
she once again rose, slowly and stiffly, into a sitting
posture; then, clutching the coverlid with both hands,
muttered some indistinct sounds in her throat, and
fell lifeless on the bed.
‘Stone dead!’ said one
of the old women, hurrying in as soon as the door
‘And nothing to tell, after
all,’ rejoined the matron, walking carelessly
The two crones, to all appearance,
too busily occupied in the preparations for their
dreadful duties to make any reply, were left alone,
hovering about the body.