An old man in a Scotch cap sitting among others on a form at the table, eating out of a tin porringer, pushes back his cap a little to look at us, claps it down on his forehead again with the palm of his hand, and goes on eating.
'All well here?' (repeated).
No answer. Another old man sitting on his bed, paralytically peeling a boiled potato, lifts his head and stares.
'Enough to eat?'
No answer. Another old man, in bed, turns himself and coughs.
'How are YOU to-day?' To the last old man.
That old man says nothing; but another old man, a tall old man of very good address, speaking with perfect correctness, comes forward from somewhere, and volunteers an answer. The reply almost always proceeds from a volunteer, and not from the person looked at or spoken to.
'We are very old, sir,' in a mild, distinct voice. 'We can't expect to be well, most of us.'
'Are you comfortable?'
'I have no complaint to make, sir.' With a half shake of his head, a half shrug of his shoulders, and a kind of apologetic smile.
'Enough to eat?'
'Why, sir, I have but a poor appetite,' with the same air as before; 'and yet I get through my allowance very easily.'
'But,' showing a porringer with a Sunday dinner in it; 'here is a portion of mutton, and three potatoes. You can't starve on that?'
'Oh dear no, sir,' with the same apologetic air. 'Not starve.'
'What do you want?'
'We have very little bread, sir. It's an exceedingly small quantity of bread.'
The nurse, who is now rubbing her hands at the questioner's elbow, interferes with, 'It ain't much raly, sir. You see they've only six ounces a day, and when they've took their breakfast, there CAN only be a little left for night, sir.'
Another old man, hitherto invisible, rises out of his bed-clothes, as out of a grave, and looks on.
'You have tea at night?' The questioner is still addressing the well-spoken old man.
'Yes, sir, we have tea at night.'
'And you save what bread you can from the morning, to eat with it?'
'Yes, sir - if we can save any.'
'And you want more to eat with it?'
'Yes, sir.' With a very anxious face.
The questioner, in the kindness of his heart, appears a little discomposed, and changes the subject.
'What has become of the old man who used to lie in that bed in the corner?'
The nurse don't remember what old man is referred to. There has been such a many old men. The well-spoken old man is doubtful. The spectral old man who has come to life in bed, says, 'Billy Stevens.' Another old man who has previously had his head in the fireplace, pipes out,
Something like a feeble interest is awakened. I suppose Charley Walters had conversation in him.
'He's dead,' says the piping old man.
Another old man, with one eye screwed up, hastily displaces the piping old man, and says.
'Yes! Charley Walters died in that bed, and - and - '
'Billy Stevens,' persists the spectral old man.
'No, no! and Johnny Rogers died in that bed, and - and - they're both on 'em dead - and Sam'l Bowyer;' this seems very extraordinary to him; 'he went out!'
With this he subsides, and all the old men (having had quite enough of it) subside, and the spectral old man goes into his grave again, and takes the shade of Billy Stevens with him.
As we turn to go out at the door, another previously invisible old man, a hoarse old man in a flannel gown, is standing there, as if he had just come up through the floor.
'I beg your pardon, sir, could I take the liberty of saying a word?'
'Yes; what is it?'
'I am greatly better in my health, sir; but what I want, to get me quite round,' with his hand on his throat, 'is a little fresh air, sir. It has always done my complaint so much good, sir. The regular leave for going out, comes round so seldom, that if the gentlemen, next Friday, would give me leave to go out walking, now and then - for only an hour or so, sir! - '
Who could wonder, looking through those weary vistas of bed and infirmity, that it should do him good to meet with some other scenes, and assure himself that there was something else on earth? Who could help wondering why the old men lived on as they did; what grasp they had on life; what crumbs of interest or occupation they could pick up from its bare board; whether Charley Walters had ever described to them the days when he kept company with some old pauper woman in the bud, or Billy Stevens ever told them of the time when he was a dweller in the far-off foreign land called Home!
The morsel of burnt child, lying in another room, so patiently, in bed, wrapped in lint, and looking steadfastly at us with his bright quiet eyes when we spoke to him kindly, looked as if the knowledge of these things, and of all the tender things there are to think about, might have been in his mind - as if he thought, with us, that there was a fellow-feeling in the pauper nurses which appeared to make them more kind to their charges than the race of common nurses in the hospitals - as if he mused upon the Future of some older children lying around him in the same place, and thought it best, perhaps, all things considered, that he should die - as if he knew, without fear, of those many coffins, made and unmade, piled up in the store below - and of his unknown friend, 'the dropped child,' calm upon the box-lid covered with a cloth.