Nurse and Patient
I had not been at home again many days when one evening I went upstairs into my own room to take a peep over Charley's shoulder and see how she was getting on with her copy-book. Writing was a trying business to Charley, who seemed to have no natural power over a pen, but in whose hand every pen appeared to become perversely animated, and to go wrong and crooked, and to stop, and splash, and sidle into corners like a saddle-donkey. It was very odd to see what old letters Charley's young hand had made, they so wrinkled, and shrivelled, and tottering, it so plump and round. Yet Charley was uncommonly expert at other things and had as nimble little fingers as I ever watched.
"Well, Charley," said I, looking over a copy of the letter O in which it was represented as square, triangular, pear-shaped, and collapsed in all kinds of ways, "we are improving. If we only get to make it round, we shall be perfect, Charley."
Then I made one, and Charley made one, and the pen wouldn't join Charley's neatly, but twisted it up into a knot.
"Never mind, Charley. We shall do it in time."
Charley laid down her pen, the copy being finished, opened and shut her cramped little hand, looked gravely at the page, half in pride and half in doubt, and got up, and dropped me a curtsy.
"Thank you, miss. If you please, miss, did you know a poor person of the name of Jenny?"
"A brickmaker's wife, Charley? Yes."
"She came and spoke to me when I was out a little while ago, and said you knew her, miss. She asked me if I wasn't the young lady's little maid — meaning you for the young lady, miss — and I said yes, miss."
"I thought she had left this neighbourhood altogether, Charley."
"So she had, miss, but she's come back again to where she used to live — she and Liz. Did you know another poor person of the name of Liz, miss?"
"I think I do, Charley, though not by name."
"That's what she said!" returned Charley. "They have both come back, miss, and have been tramping high and low."
"Tramping high and low, have they, Charley?"
"Yes, miss." If Charley could only have made the letters in her copy as round as the eyes with which she looked into my face, they would have been excellent. "And this poor person came about the house three or four days, hoping to get a glimpse of you, miss — all she wanted, she said — but you were away. That was when she saw me. She saw me a-going about, miss," said Charley with a short laugh of the greatest delight and pride, "and she thought I looked like your maid!"
"Did she though, really, Charley?"
"Yes, miss!" said Charley. "Really and truly." And Charley, with another short laugh of the purest glee, made her eyes very round again and looked as serious as became my maid. I was never tired of seeing Charley in the full enjoyment of that great dignity, standing before me with her youthful face and figure, and her steady manner, and her childish exultation breaking through it now and then in the pleasantest way.
"And where did you see her, Charley?" said I.
My little maid's countenance fell as she replied, "By the doctor's shop, miss." For Charley wore her black frock yet.
I asked if the brickmaker's wife were ill, but Charley said no. It was some one else. Some one in her cottage who had tramped down to Saint Albans and was tramping he didn't know where. A poor boy, Charley said. No father, no mother, no any one. "Like as Tom might have been, miss, if Emma and me had died after father," said Charley, her round eyes filling with tears.
"And she was getting medicine for him, Charley?"
"She said, miss," returned Charley, "how that he had once done as much for her."
My little maid's face was so eager and her quiet hands were folded so closely in one another as she stood looking at me that I had no great difficulty in reading her thoughts. "Well, Charley," said I, "it appears to me that you and I can do no better than go round to Jenny's and see what's the matter."
The alacrity with which Charley brought my bonnet and veil, and having dressed me, quaintly pinned herself into her warm shawl and made herself look like a little old woman, sufficiently expressed her readiness. So Charley and I, without saying anything to any one, went out.
It was a cold, wild night, and the trees shuddered in the wind. The rain had been thick and heavy all day, and with little intermission for many days. None was falling just then, however. The sky had partly cleared, but was very gloomy — even above us, where a few stars were shining. In the north and north-west, where the sun had set three hours before, there was a pale dead light both beautiful and awful; and into it long sullen lines of cloud waved up like a sea stricken immovable as it was heaving. Towards London a lurid glare overhung the whole dark waste, and the contrast between these two lights, and the fancy which the redder light engendered of an unearthly fire, gleaming on all the unseen buildings of the city and on all the faces of its many thousands of wondering inhabitants, was as solemn as might be.
I had no thought that night — none, I am quite sure — of what was soon to happen to me. But I have always remembered since that when we had stopped at the garden-gate to look up at the sky, and when we went upon our way, I had for a moment an undefinable impression of myself as being something different from what I then was. I know it was then and there that I had it. I have ever since connected the feeling with that spot and time and with everything associated with that spot and time, to the distant voices in the town, the barking of a dog, and the sound of wheels coming down the miry hill.
It was Saturday night, and most of the people belonging to the place where we were going were drinking elsewhere. We found it quieter than I had previously seen it, though quite as miserable. The kilns were burning, and a stifling vapour set towards us with a pale-blue glare.
We came to the cottage, where there was a feeble candle in the patched window. We tapped at the door and went in. The mother of the little child who had died was sitting in a chair on one side of the poor fire by the bed; and opposite to her, a wretched boy, supported by the chimney-piece, was cowering on the floor. He held under his arm, like a little bundle, a fragment of a fur cap; and as he tried to warm himself, he shook until the crazy door and window shook. The place was closer than before and had an unhealthy and a very peculiar smell.
I had not lifted my veil when I first spoke to the woman, which was at the moment of our going in. The boy staggered up instantly and stared at me with a remarkable expression of surprise and terror.
His action was so quick and my being the cause of it was so evident that I stood still instead of advancing nearer.
"I won't go no more to the berryin ground," muttered the boy; "I ain't a-going there, so I tell you!"
I lifted my veil and spoke to the woman. She said to me in a low voice, "Don't mind him, ma'am. He'll soon come back to his head," and said to him, "Jo, Jo, what's the matter?"