'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. 'Go on, go on — yes — what of it? Who was the mother? When was it?'
'She charge me to keep it safe,' replied the woman with a groan, 'and trusted me as the only woman about her. I stole it in my heart when she first showed it me hanging round her neck; and the child's death, perhaps, is on me besides! They would have treated him better, if they had known it all!'
'Known what?' asked the other. 'Speak!'
'The boy grew so like his mother,' said the woman, rambling on, and not heeding the question, 'that I could never forget it when I saw his face. Poor girl! poor girl! She was so young, too! Such a gentle lamb! Wait; there's more to tell. I have not told you all, have I?'
'No, no,' replied the matron, inclining her head to catch the words, as they came more faintly from the dying woman. 'Be quick, or it may be too late!'
'The mother,' said the woman, making a more violent effort than before; 'the mother, when the pains of death first came upon her, whispered in my ear that if her baby was born alive, and thrived, the day might come when it would not feel so much disgraced to hear its poor young mother named. "And oh, kind Heaven!" she said, folding her thin hands together, "whether it be boy or girl, raise up some friends for it in this troubled world, and take pity upon a lonely desolate child, abandoned to its mercy!"'
'The boy's name?' demanded the matron.
'They called him Oliver,' replied the woman, feebly. 'The gold I stole was — '
'Yes, yes — what?' cried the other.
She was bending eagerly over the woman to hear her reply; but drew back, instinctively, as she once again rose, slowly and stiffly, into a sitting posture; then, clutching the coverlid with both hands, muttered some indistinct sounds in her throat, and fell lifeless on the bed.
'Stone dead!' said one of the old women, hurrying in as soon as the door was opened.
'And nothing to tell, after all,' rejoined the matron, walking carelessly away.
The two crones, to all appearance, too busily occupied in the preparations for their dreadful duties to make any reply, were left alone, hovering about the body.