“So you reckon I’ve got to die?”
The room was mean, but not without distinction. The meanness lay in lime-washed walls, scant fittings, and uncovered boards; the distinction came of ample proportions and something of durability in the furniture. Rooms, like human faces, reflect their histories; and that generation after generation of the same family had here struggled to birth or death was written in this chamber unmistakably. The candle-light, twinkling on the face of a dark wardrobe near the door, lit up its rough inscription, “S.T. and M.T., MDCLXVII”; the straight-backed oaken chairs might well claim an equal age; and the bed in the corner was a spacious four-poster, pillared in smooth mahogany and curtained in faded green damask.
In the shadow of this bed lay the man who had spoken. A single candle stood on a tall chest at his left hand, and its ray, filtering through the thin green curtain, emphasised the hue of death on his face. The features were pinched, and very old. His tone held neither complaint nor passion: it was matter-of-fact even, as of one whose talk is merely a concession to good manners. There was the faintest interrogation in it; no more.
After a minute or so, getting no reply, he added more querulously–
“I reckon you might answer, ‘Lizabeth. Do ‘ee think I’ve got to die?”
‘Lizabeth, who stood by the uncurtained window, staring into the blackness without, barely turned her head to answer–
“Doctor said so, did he?”
‘Lizabeth, still with her back towards him, nodded. For a minute or two there was silence.
“I don’t feel like dyin’; but doctor ought to know. Seemed to me ’twas harder, an’–an’ more important. This sort o’ dyin’ don’t seem o’ much account.”
“That’s it. I reckon, though, ‘twould be other if I had a family round the bed. But there ain’t none o’ the boys left to stand by me now. It’s hard.”
“Why, that two out o’ the three should be called afore me. And hard is the manner of it. It’s hard that, after Samuel died o’ fever, Jim shud be blown up at Herodsfoot powder-mill. He made a lovely corpse, did Samuel; but Jim, you see, he hadn’t a chance. An’ as for William, he’s never come home nor wrote a line since he joined the Thirty-Second; an’ it’s little he cares for his home or his father. I reckoned, back along, ‘Lizabeth, as you an’ he might come to an understandin’.”
“William’s naught to me.”
“Look here!” cried the old man sharply; “he treated you bad, did William.”
“Who says so?”
“Why, all the folks. Lord bless the girl! do ‘ee think folks use their eyes without usin’ their tongues? An’ I wish it had come about, for you’d ha’ kept en straight. But he treated you bad, and he treated me bad, tho’ he won’t find no profit o’ that. You’m my sister’s child, ‘Lizabeth,” he rambled on; “an’ what house-room you’ve had you’ve fairly earned–not but what you was welcome: an’ if I thought as there was harm done, I’d curse him ‘pon my deathbed, I would.”
“You be quiet!”
She turned from the window and cowed him with angry grey eyes. Her figure was tall and meagre; her face that of a woman well over thirty–once comely, but worn over-much, and prematurely hardened. The voice had hardened with it, perhaps. The old man, who had risen on his elbow in an access of passion, was taken with a fit of coughing, and sank back upon the pillows.
“There’s no call to be niffy,” he apologised at last. “I was on’y thinkin’ of how you’d manage when I’m dead an’ gone.”
“I reckon I’ll shift.”
She drew a chair towards the bed and sat beside him. He seemed drowsy, and after a while stretched out an arm over the coverlet and fell asleep. ‘Lizabeth took his hand, and sat there listlessly regarding the still shadows on the wall. The sick man never moved; only muttered once–some words that ‘Lizabeth did not catch. At the end of an hour, alarmed perhaps by some sound within the bed’s shadow, or the feel of the hand in hers, she suddenly pushed the curtain back, and, catching up the candle, stooped over the sick man.