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.