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CHAPTER XXIV

TREATS ON A VERY POOR SUBJECT. BUT IS A SHORT ONE, AND MAY BE
FOUND OF IMPORTANCE IN THIS HISTORY

It was no unfit messanger 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 alone 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 first.

'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
them.

'Who's that?' she cried, in a hollow voice.

'Hush, hush!' said one of the women, stooping over her. 'Lie
down, 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 eager listeners.

'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
ladies themselves.

'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 her life!'

'Gold!' echoed the matron, bending eagerly over the woman as she
fell back. 'Go on, go on--yest--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 other.

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 was opened.

'And nothing to tell, after all,' rejoined the matron, walking
carelessly away.

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.





Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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