A candle faintly burned in the window, to which the black ladder had often been raised for the sliding away of all that was most precious in this world to a striving wife and a brood of hungry babies; and Stephen added to his other thoughts the stern reflection, that of all the casualties of this existence upon earth, not one was dealt out with so unequal a hand as Death. The inequality of Birth was nothing to it. For, say that the child of a King and the child of a Weaver were born to-night in the same moment, what was that disparity, to the death of any human creature who was serviceable to, or beloved by, another, while this abandoned woman lived on!
From the outside of his home he gloomily passed to the inside, with suspended breath and with a slow footstep. He went up to his door, opened it, and so into the room.
Quiet and peace were there. Rachael was there, sitting by the bed.
She turned her head, and the light of her face shone in upon the midnight of his mind. She sat by the bed, watching and tending his wife. That is to say, he saw that some one lay there, and he knew too well it must be she; but Rachael’s hands had put a curtain up, so that she was screened from his eyes. Her disgraceful garments were removed, and some of Rachael’s were in the room. Everything was in its place and order as he had always kept it, the little fire was newly trimmed, and the hearth was freshly swept. It appeared to him that he saw all this in Rachael’s face, and looked at nothing besides. While looking at it, it was shut out from his view by the softened tears that filled his eyes; but not before he had seen how earnestly she looked at him, and how her own eyes were filled too.
She turned again towards the bed, and satisfying herself that all was quiet there, spoke in a low, calm, cheerful voice.
‘I am glad you have come at last, Stephen. You are very late.’
‘I ha’ been walking up an’ down.’
‘I thought so. But ’tis too bad a night for that. The rain falls very heavy, and the wind has risen.’
The wind? True. It was blowing hard. Hark to the thundering in the chimney, and the surging noise! To have been out in such a wind, and not to have known it was blowing!
‘I have been here once before, to-day, Stephen. Landlady came round for me at dinner-time. There was some one here that needed looking to, she said. And ‘deed she was right. All wandering and lost, Stephen. Wounded too, and bruised.’
He slowly moved to a chair and sat down, drooping his head before her.
‘I came to do what little I could, Stephen; first, for that she worked with me when we were girls both, and for that you courted her and married her when I was her friend—’
He laid his furrowed forehead on his hand, with a low groan.
‘And next, for that I know your heart, and am right sure and certain that ’tis far too merciful to let her die, or even so much as suffer, for want of aid. Thou knowest who said, “Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone at her!” There have been plenty to do that. Thou art not the man to cast the last stone, Stephen, when she is brought so low.’
‘O Rachael, Rachael!’
‘Thou hast been a cruel sufferer, Heaven reward thee!’ she said, in compassionate accents. ‘I am thy poor friend, with all my heart and mind.’
The wounds of which she had spoken, seemed to be about the neck of the self-made outcast. She dressed them now, still without showing her. She steeped a piece of linen in a basin, into which she poured some liquid from a bottle, and laid it with a gentle hand upon the sore. The three-legged table had been drawn close to the bedside, and on it there were two bottles. This was one.
It was not so far off, but that Stephen, following her hands with his eyes, could read what was printed on it in large letters. He turned of a deadly hue, and a sudden horror seemed to fall upon him.
‘I will stay here, Stephen,’ said Rachael, quietly resuming her seat, ‘till the bells go Three. ’Tis to be done again at three, and then she may be left till morning.’
‘But thy rest agen to-morrow’s work, my dear.’
‘I slept sound last night. I can wake many nights, when I am put to it. ’Tis thou who art in need of rest—so white and tired. Try to sleep in the chair there, while I watch. Thou hadst no sleep last night, I can well believe. To-morrow’s work is far harder for thee than for me.’
He heard the thundering and surging out of doors, and it seemed to him as if his late angry mood were going about trying to get at him. She had cast it out; she would keep it out; he trusted to her to defend him from himself.
‘She don’t know me, Stephen; she just drowsily mutters and stares. I have spoken to her times and again, but she don’t notice! ’Tis as well so. When she comes to her right mind once more, I shall have done what I can, and she never the wiser.’
‘How long, Rachael, is ’t looked for, that she’ll be so?’
‘Doctor said she would haply come to her mind to-morrow.’
His eyes fell again on the bottle, and a tremble passed over him, causing him to shiver in every limb. She thought he was chilled with the wet. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it was not that. He had had a fright.’
‘Ay, ay! coming in. When I were walking. When I were thinking. When I—’ It seized him again; and he stood up, holding by the mantel-shelf, as he pressed his dank cold hair down with a hand that shook as if it were palsied.
She was coming to him, but he stretched out his arm to stop her.
‘No! Don’t, please; don’t. Let me see thee setten by the bed. Let me see thee, a’ so good, and so forgiving. Let me see thee as I see thee when I coom in. I can never see thee better than so. Never, never, never!’
He had a violent fit of trembling, and then sunk into his chair. After a time he controlled himself, and, resting with an elbow on one knee, and his head upon that hand, could look towards Rachael. Seen across the dim candle with his moistened eyes, she looked as if she had a glory shining round her head. He could have believed she had. He did believe it, as the noise without shook the window, rattled at the door below, and went about the house clamouring and lamenting.
‘When she gets better, Stephen, ’tis to be hoped she’ll leave thee to thyself again, and do thee no more hurt. Anyways we will hope so now. And now I shall keep silence, for I want thee to sleep.’
He closed his eyes, more to please her than to rest his weary head; but, by slow degrees as he listened to the great noise of the wind, he ceased to hear it, or it changed into the working of his loom, or even into the voices of the day (his own included) saying what had been really said. Even this imperfect consciousness faded away at last, and he dreamed a long, troubled dream.
He thought that he, and some one on whom his heart had long been set—but she was not Rachael, and that surprised him, even in the midst of his imaginary happiness—stood in the church being married. While the ceremony was performing, and while he recognized among the witnesses some whom he knew to be living, and many whom he knew to be dead, darkness came on, succeeded by the shining of a tremendous light. It broke from one line in the table of commandments at the altar, and illuminated the building with the words. They were sounded through the church, too, as if there were voices in the fiery letters. Upon this, the whole appearance before him and around him changed, and nothing was left as it had been, but himself and the clergyman. They stood in the daylight before a crowd so vast, that if all the people in the world could have been brought together into one space, they could not have looked, he thought, more numerous; and they all abhorred him, and there was not one pitying or friendly eye among the millions that were fastened on his face. He stood on a raised stage, under his own loom; and, looking up at the shape the loom took, and hearing the burial service distinctly read, he knew that he was there to suffer death. In an instant what he stood on fell below him, and he was gone.
—Out of what mystery he came back to his usual life, and to places that he knew, he was unable to consider; but he was back in those places by some means, and with this condemnation upon him, that he was never, in this world or the next, through all the unimaginable ages of eternity, to look on Rachael’s face or hear her voice. Wandering to and fro, unceasingly, without hope, and in search of he knew not what (he only knew that he was doomed to seek it), he was the subject of a nameless, horrible dread, a mortal fear of one particular shape which everything took. Whatsoever he looked at, grew into that form sooner or later. The object of his miserable existence was to prevent its recognition by any one among the various people he encountered. Hopeless labour! If he led them out of rooms where it was, if he shut up drawers and closets where it stood, if he drew the curious from places where he knew it to be secreted, and got them out into the streets, the very chimneys of the mills assumed that shape, and round them was the printed word.
The wind was blowing again, the rain was beating on the house-tops, and the larger spaces through which he had strayed contracted to the four walls of his room. Saving that the fire had died out, it was as his eyes had closed upon it. Rachael seemed to have fallen into a doze, in the chair by the bed. She sat wrapped in her shawl, perfectly still. The table stood in the same place, close by the bedside, and on it, in its real proportions and appearance, was the shape so often repeated.
He thought he saw the curtain move. He looked again, and he was sure it moved. He saw a hand come forth and grope about a little. Then the curtain moved more perceptibly, and the woman in the bed put it back, and sat up.
With her woful eyes, so haggard and wild, so heavy and large, she looked all round the room, and passed the corner where he slept in his chair. Her eyes returned to that corner, and she put her hand over them as a shade, while she looked into it. Again they went all round the room, scarcely heeding Rachael if at all, and returned to that corner. He thought, as she once more shaded them—not so much looking at him, as looking for him with a brutish instinct that he was there—that no single trace was left in those debauched features, or in the mind that went along with them, of the woman he had married eighteen years before. But that he had seen her come to this by inches, he never could have believed her to be the same.
All this time, as if a spell were on him, he was motionless and powerless, except to watch her.
Stupidly dozing, or communing with her incapable self about nothing, she sat for a little while with her hands at her ears, and her head resting on them. Presently, she resumed her staring round the room. And now, for the first time, her eyes stopped at the table with the bottles on it.
Straightway she turned her eyes back to his corner, with the defiance of last night, and moving very cautiously and softly, stretched out her greedy hand. She drew a mug into the bed, and sat for a while considering which of the two bottles she should choose. Finally, she laid her insensate grasp upon the bottle that had swift and certain death in it, and, before his eyes, pulled out the cork with her teeth.
Dream or reality, he had no voice, nor had he power to stir. If this be real, and her allotted time be not yet come, wake, Rachael, wake!
She thought of that, too. She looked at Rachael, and very slowly, very cautiously, poured out the contents. The draught was at her lips. A moment and she would be past all help, let the whole world wake and come about her with its utmost power. But in that moment Rachael started up with a suppressed cry. The creature struggled, struck her, seized her by the hair; but Rachael had the cup.
Stephen broke out of his chair. ‘Rachael, am I wakin’ or dreamin’ this dreadfo’ night?’
‘’Tis all well, Stephen. I have been asleep, myself. ’Tis near three. Hush! I hear the bells.’
The wind brought the sounds of the church clock to the window. They listened, and it struck three. Stephen looked at her, saw how pale she was, noted the disorder of her hair, and the red marks of fingers on her forehead, and felt assured that his senses of sight and hearing had been awake. She held the cup in her hand even now.
‘I thought it must be near three,’ she said, calmly pouring from the cup into the basin, and steeping the linen as before. ‘I am thankful I stayed! ’Tis done now, when I have put this on. There! And now she’s quiet again. The few drops in the basin I’ll pour away, for ’tis bad stuff to leave about, though ever so little of it.’ As she spoke, she drained the basin into the ashes of the fire, and broke the bottle on the hearth.
She had nothing to do, then, but to cover herself with her shawl before going out into the wind and rain.
‘Thou’lt let me walk wi’ thee at this hour, Rachael?’
‘No, Stephen. ’Tis but a minute, and I’m home.’
‘Thou’rt not fearfo’;’ he said it in a low voice, as they went out at the door; ‘to leave me alone wi’ her!’
As she looked at him, saying, ‘Stephen?’ he went down on his knee before her, on the poor mean stairs, and put an end of her shawl to his lips.
‘Thou art an Angel. Bless thee, bless thee!’
‘I am, as I have told thee, Stephen, thy poor friend. Angels are not like me. Between them, and a working woman fu’ of faults, there is a deep gulf set. My little sister is among them, but she is changed.’
She raised her eyes for a moment as she said the words; and then they fell again, in all their gentleness and mildness, on his face.
‘Thou changest me from bad to good. Thou mak’st me humbly wishfo’ to be more like thee, and fearfo’ to lose thee when this life is ower, and a’ the muddle cleared awa’. Thou’rt an Angel; it may be, thou hast saved my soul alive!’
She looked at him, on his knee at her feet, with her shawl still in his hand, and the reproof on her lips died away when she saw the working of his face.
‘I coom home desp’rate. I coom home wi’out a hope, and mad wi’ thinking that when I said a word o’ complaint I was reckoned a unreasonable Hand. I told thee I had had a fright. It were the Poison-bottle on table. I never hurt a livin’ creetur; but happenin’ so suddenly upon ’t, I thowt, “How can I say what I might ha’ done to myseln, or her, or both!”’
She put her two hands on his mouth, with a face of terror, to stop him from saying more. He caught them in his unoccupied hand, and holding them, and still clasping the border of her shawl, said hurriedly:
‘But I see thee, Rachael, setten by the bed. I ha’ seen thee, aw this night. In my troublous sleep I ha’ known thee still to be there. Evermore I will see thee there. I nevermore will see her or think o’ her, but thou shalt be beside her. I nevermore will see or think o’ anything that angers me, but thou, so much better than me, shalt be by th’ side on’t. And so I will try t’ look t’ th’ time, and so I will try t’ trust t’ th’ time, when thou and me at last shall walk together far awa’, beyond the deep gulf, in th’ country where thy little sister is.’
He kissed the border of her shawl again, and let her go. She bade him good night in a broken voice, and went out into the street.
The wind blew from the quarter where the day would soon appear, and still blew strongly. It had cleared the sky before it, and the rain had spent itself or travelled elsewhere, and the stars were bright. He stood bare-headed in the road, watching her quick disappearance. As the shining stars were to the heavy candle in the window, so was Rachael, in the rugged fancy of this man, to the common experiences of his life.
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