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MY FIRST DEATHBED.
I reached my lodgings, I had scarcely my latch-key into the key-hole before the door
opened, and there stood Mrs Wilson nerving
herself for an oratorical effort.
'Haskin' your parding, sir' (it is needless to say that Mrs Wilson was not Scotch), 'me an' Wilson will take it kind if you won't bring any more of your poor people into our first-floor. We has little 'uns, an' so has the sergeant, an' there's no sayin' where them dirty critturs comes from, or what fevers they brings with them. And hif you will hexcuse me, sir, it ain't respectable to see sich as them goin' in an' out of a honest tradesman's 'ouse.'
It was plainly the dread of social, rather than sanitary contagion that had prompted worthy little Mrs Wilson to this bold speech - bold for her, in spite of the repeated apologies, since she was a great reverencer of the clergy. Both her pleas, however, were so plausible that I pro-[-22-]mised to remember in future that I was not dwelling under my own roof. I could see that the little woman had been expecting opposition from the way in which she brightened up.
'I'm sure I'm much obliged to you, sir, an' so is Wilson, for he wouldn't like to lose you as a lodger, sir, though he don't belong to the Church; an' I 'ope you'll hexcuse the liberty. "It's wery kind o' Mr B, an' that we can't deny," says I to Mrs Adfield. "An' nobody wants to deny it, Mrs Wilson, ma'am," says she to me, "he's a dear good gentleman to look after sich as them, but then you see, Mrs Wilson, ma'am, both you and me is mothers. Oh, deary me, sir, I ought to have given this to you at once. The vicar's servant brought it an hour ago, and it's marked to be delivered immediate.'
What Mrs Wilson handed me was a note from the vicar, stating that a woman had just called at his house with a request that a clergyman would go to see a young person who was dying at hers; the vicar added that he knew nothing of the case, that he could not possibly go himself, owing to an inevitable engagement, and, giving the address, asked me to start at once to see the poor creature.
'Do you know Sutton Place, Mrs Wilson?' I inquired.
'Oh yes, sir - it's that quiet little street, with the neck like a bottle, that runs out o' Grimes Street, and leads to nowhere. There's a wall at the bottom with "Try Boag's Blacking," in big white letters on it. You can see 'em as you go along Grimes Street. One o' the boys shall go with you, or Wilson will, an' I'll mind the shop.'
[-23-] But I knew Grimes Street, and felt sure that in so short a street I could not fail to find Sutton Place after Mrs Wilson's description. It proved to be one of those double rows of modern houses that get squeezed into previously unoccupied spaces between older houses in London-the new not looking even as substantial as the old, and squalid with a drearier reedy-made squalor - making you think somehow of poor little babies that ought to have been born fresh as dew, but have been born scarred by the sins that their fathers and grandfathers have committed. The roadway was unpaved, pitted, and littered with all kinds of rubbish ; and intermittent little reaches of cracked and crumbling kerbstone were the only sign that footpaths had ever been thought of there. The cramped little two-floored drab houses looked more mildewedly miserable than the smoky, indistinguishably red-brick houses around them. But Sutton Place could boast of one proof of 'gentility,' -there was not a 'shop' in it. A dress-maker's fly-spitten card hung over one flyspitten muslin blind ; over another of brown Holland hung a tailor's announcement that 'Gentlemen's own materials' were 'elegantly made up within;' from the lintel of one door protruded a painting of a mangle; one wire-blind, upside down, bore the tarnished gilt name of somebody, agent for some insurance company, but that had evidently been bought second or seventh hand. Most of the houses, even my limited acquaintance with London life enabled me to see, were sub-let, in floors or rooms, furnished and unfurnished, to lodgers.
A slatternly woman, with a very smutty face, answered [-24-] my knock at No. 9. Making her face still smuttier by smearing it with her greasy, grimy apron, she said sulkily, 'You're the parson, I s'pose,' and ushered me up-stairs. The bed, and the blind, and a box were almost the only furniture of the back-room I entered. 'Yes, she've sold her things, poor crittur,' said the landlady, noticing my glance round the unexpected bareness of the room; 'an' she've paid me honest up till next Saturday. I will say that, though I needn't, an' it's a deal o' bother 'avin' folks dyin' that way in your 'ouse. Of course, the parish must bury her, an' look arter the boy; but it ain't pleasant to a woman as works 'ard to pay her way to 'ave folks dyin' in their ouse like that. Some would ha' got 'er out afore this-pinchin' herself as she did but I 'adn't the 'eart to do it, when the rent was al'ays ready some'ow. I never lost a penny by the poor crittur - that I will say - an' she'll be gone afore Saturday.'
On the bed lay a terribly emaciated young woman. Her face was so completely skin and bone that in one sense it was horrible to look at; and yet there was something in it that made me think the poor creature had once been very handsome. The long brown hair that bulged down upon her angular shoulder, and spread like a flood over the scanty bed-clothes, was very silky. The almost transparent hand that drooped at the bedside, was beautifully formed. A wedding-ring was on its proper finger, but only kept from falling on the floor by the crooking of the second joint. It seems heartless, somehow, to give these details, but I saw them far more quickly than I have written them down. When the landlady saw me [-25-] glance at the fourth finger, she said glibly, 'Oh yes, sir, there's no doubt she's an honest woman - a lady, too, I reckon, once upon a time - though that's all the gold she's got about her now, I'll go bail. I'll see, though, she's buried in it. The parish shan't ave it.'
On the box sat a handsome frightened little boy, sobbing as if he would choke at every breath he caught. He looked sickly, but not with the gaunt look of his mother; and, though his clothes showed signs of wear, they were what is called 'good' in material and cut. 'Mamma won't speak to me,' he sobbed, when I put my hand upon his shoulder.
When I stooped over his mamma, I thought at first that her soul had already fled; yet a minute afterwards her big blue eyes opened, dim at first, but the film seemed to be shrivelled up by the brightness that shot through it, and she gaspingly whispered, 'Pray - pray - pray!'
My thumb was in my Prayer-Book at the Visitation of the Sick, and, hastily kneeling down, I began with the first prayer my eye fell on : 'O Father of mercies, and God of all comfort, our only help in time of need; We fly unto Thee for succour in behalf of this Thy servant, here lying-' But as I said it, a strange wild light - half-greeting and half-yearning farewell - came into the young creature's eyes. Her boy rushed to her, and clutched her as if her body as well as its spirit were being wrenched from him. 'God bless - be a good - ' she stammered; and as she tried to fling her arms round his neck, her head fell back upon the flabby pillow, with an awfully beautiful smile upon the blue pinched lips.