> "How infinite the wealth of love and hope > Garnered in these same tiny treasure-houses > And oh! what bankrupts in the world we feel, > When Death, like some remorseless creditor, > Seizes on all we fondly thought our own."
> —"THE TWINS."
The ghoul-like fever was not to be braved with impunity, and balked of it_rey. The widow had reclaimed her children; her neighbours, in the good- Samaritan sense of the word, had paid her little arrears of rent, and made he_ few shillings beforehand with the world. She determined to flit from tha_ellar to another less full of painful associations, less haunted by mournfu_emories. The Board, not so formidable as she had imagined, had inquired int_er case; and, instead of sending her to Stoke Claypole, her husband'_uckinghamshire parish, as she had dreaded, had agreed to pay her rent. S_ood for four mouths was all she was now required to find; only for three sh_ould have said; for herself and the unweaned child were but reckoned as on_n her calculation.
She had a strong heart, now her bodily strength had been recruited by a wee_r two of food, and she would not despair. So she took in some little childre_o nurse, who brought their daily food with them, which she cooked for them, without wronging their helplessness of a crumb; and when she had restored the_o their mothers at night, she set to work at plain sewing, "seam, and gusset, and band," and sat thinking how she might best cheat the factory inspector, and persuade him that her strong, big, hungry Ben was above thirteen. Her pla_f living was so far arranged, when she heard, with keen sorrow, that Wilson'_win lads were ill of the fever.
They had never been strong. They were like many a pair of twins, and seemed t_ave but one life divided between them. One life, one strength, and in thi_nstance, I might almost say, one brain, for they were helpless, gentle, sill_hildren, but not the less dear to their parents and to their strong, active, manly, elder brother. They were late on their feet, late in talking, lat_very way; had to be nursed and cared for when other lads of their age wer_umbling about in the street, and losing themselves, and being taken to th_olice-office miles away from home.
Still want had never yet come in at the door to make love for these innocent_ly out of the window. Nor was this the case even now, when Jem Wilson'_arnings, and his mother's occasional charings, were barely sufficient to giv_ll the family their fill of food.
But when the twins, after ailing many days, and caring little for their meat, fell sick on the same afternoon, with the same heavy stupor of suffering, th_hree hearts that loved them so, each felt, though none acknowledged to th_ther, that they had little chance for life. It was nearly a week before th_ale of their illness spread as far as the court where the Wilsons had onc_welt, and the Bartons yet lived.
Alice had heard of the sickness of her little nephews several days before, an_ad locked her cellar door, and gone off straight to her brother's house, i_ncoats; but she was often absent for days, sent for, as her neighbours knew, to help in some sudden emergency of illness or distress, so that occasioned n_urprise.
Margaret met Jem Wilson several days after his brothers were seriously ill, and heard from him the state of things at his home. She told Mary of it as sh_ntered the court late that evening; and Mary listened with saddened heart t_he strange contrast which such woeful tidings presented to the gay and lovin_ords she had been hearing on her walk home. She blamed herself for being s_uch taken up with visions of the golden future that she had lately gone bu_eldom on Sunday afternoons, or other leisure time, to see Mrs. Wilson, he_other's friend; and with hasty purpose of amendment she only stayed to leav_ message for her father with the next-door neighbour, and then went off at _risk pace on her way to the house of mourning.
She stopped with her hand on the latch of the Wilsons' door, to still he_eating heart, and listened to the hushed quiet within. She opened the doo_oftly; there sat Mrs. Wilson in the old rocking-chair, with one sick death- like boy lying on her knee, crying without let or pause, but softly, gently, as fearing to disturb the troubled, gasping child; while behind her, old Alic_et her fast-dropping tears fall down on the dead body of the other twin, which she was laying out on a board placed on a sort of sofa-settee in _orner of the room. Over the child, which yet breathed, the father bent, watching anxiously for some ground of hope, where hope there was none. Mar_tepped slowly and lightly across to Alice.
"Ay, poor lad! God has taken him early, Mary."
Mary could not speak, she did not know what to say; it was so much worse tha_he had expected. At last she ventured to whisper—
"Is there any chance for the other one, think you?"
Alice shook her head, and told with a look that she believed there was none.
She next endeavoured to lift the little body, and carry it to its ol_ccustomed bed in its parents' room. But earnest as the father was in watchin_he yet-living, he had eyes and ears for all that concerned the dead, an_prang gently up, and took his dead son on his hard couch in his arms wit_ender strength, and carried him upstairs as if afraid of wakening him.
The other child gasped louder, longer, with more of effort.
"We mun get him away from his mother. He cannot die while she's wishing him."
"Wishing him?" said Mary, in a tone of inquiry.
"Ay; donno' ye know what 'wishing' means? There's none can die in the arms o_hose who are wishing them sore to stay on earth. The soul o' them as hold_hem won't let the dying soul go free; so it has a hard struggle for the quie_f death. We mun get him away fra' his mother, or he'll have a hard death, poor lile[](footnotes.xml#footnote_20) fellow."
So without circumlocution she went and offered to take the sinking child. Bu_he mother would not let him go, and looking in Alice's face with brimming an_mploring eyes, declared, in earnest whispers, that she was not wishing him, that she would fain have him released from his suffering. Alice and Mary stoo_y with eyes fixed on the poor child, whose struggles seemed to increase, til_t last his mother said, with a choking voice—
"May happen[](footnotes.xml#footnote_21) yo'd better take him, Alice; _elieve my heart's wishing him a' this while, for I cannot, no, I cannot brin_ysel to let my two childer go in one day; I cannot help longing to keep him, and yet he shan't suffer longer for me."
She bent down, and fondly, oh! with what passionate fondness, kissed he_hild, and then gave him up to Alice, who took him with tender care. Nature'_truggles were soon exhausted, and he breathed his little life away in peace.
Then the mother lifted up her voice and wept. Her cries brought her husban_own to try with his aching heart to comfort hers. Again Alice laid out th_ead, Mary helping with reverent fear. The father and mother carried hi_pstairs to the bed, where his little brother lay in calm repose.
Mary and Alice drew near the fire, and stood in quiet sorrow for some time.
Then Alice broke the silence by saying—
"It will be bad news for Jem, poor fellow, when he comes home."
"Where is he?" asked Mary.
"Working over-hours at th' shop. They'n getten a large order fra' forri_arts; and yo know, Jem mun work, though his heart's well-nigh breaking fo_hese poor laddies."
Again they were silent in thought, and again Alice spoke first.
"I sometimes think the Lord is against planning. Whene'er I plan overmuch, H_s sure to send and mar all my plans, as if He would ha' me put the futur_nto His hands. Afore Christmas time I was as full as full could be, of goin_ome for good and all; yo han heard how I've wished it this terrible lon_ime. And a young lass from behind Burton came into place in Manchester las_artinmas; so after awhile she had a Sunday out, and she comes to me, an_ells me some cousins o' mine bid her find me out, and say how glad the_hould be to ha' me to bide wi' 'em, and look after th' childer, for they'_etten a big farm, and she's a deal to do among th' cows. So many's a winter'_ight did I lie awake and think, that please God, come summer, I'd bid Georg_nd his wife goodbye, and go home at last. Little did I think how God Almight_ould balk me, for not leaving my days in His hands, who had led me throug_he wilderness hitherto. Here's George out of work, and more cast down tha_ver I seed him; wanting every chip o' comfort he can get, e'en afore thi_ast heavy stroke; and now I'm thinking the Lord's finger points very clear t_y fit abiding-place; and I'm sure if George and Jane can say 'His will b_one,' it's no more than what I'm beholden to do."
So saying, she fell to tidying the room, removing as much as she could ever_estige of sickness; making up the fire, and setting on the kettle for a cu_f tea for her sister-in-law, whose low moans and sobs were occasionally hear_n the room below.
Mary helped her in all these little offices. They were busy in this way whe_he door was softly opened, and Jem came in, all grimed and dirty from hi_ight-work, his soiled apron wrapped round his middle, in guise and apparel i_hich he would have been sorry at another time to have been seen by Mary. Bu_ust now he hardly saw her; he went straight up to Alice, and asked how th_ittle chaps were. They had been a shade better at dinner-time; and he ha_een working away through the long afternoon, and far into the night, in th_elief that they had taken the turn. He had stolen out during the half-hou_llowed at the works for tea, to buy them an orange or two, which now puffe_ut his jacket-pocket.
He would make his aunt speak: he would not understand her shake of the hea_nd fast coursing tears.
"They're both gone," said she.
"Ay! poor fellows. They took worse about two o'clock. Joe went first, as eas_s a lamb, and Will died harder like."
"Ay, lad! both. The Lord has ta'en them from some evil to come, or He would na' ha' made choice o' them. Ye may rest sure o' that."
Jem went to the cupboard, and quietly extricated from his pocket the orange_e had bought. But he stayed long there, and at last his sturdy frame shoo_ith his strong agony. The two women were frightened, as women always are, o_itnessing a man's overpowering grief. They cried afresh in company. Mary'_eart melted within her as she witnessed Jem's sorrow, and she stepped gentl_p to the corner where he stood, with his back turned to them, and putting he_and softly on his arm, said—
"O Jem, don't give way so; I cannot bear to see you."
Jem felt a strange leap of joy in his heart, and knew the power she had o_omforting him. He did not speak, as though fearing to destroy by sound o_otion the happiness of that moment, when her soft hand's touch thrille_hrough his frame, and her silvery voice was whispering tenderness in his ear.
Yes! it might be very wrong; he could almost hate himself for it; with deat_nd woe so surrounding him, it yet was happiness, was bliss, to be so spoke_o by Mary.
"Don't, Jem, please don't," whispered she again, believing that his silenc_as only another form of grief.
He could not contain himself. He took her hand in his firm yet tremblin_rasp, and said, in tones that instantly produced a revulsion in her mood—
"Mary, I almost loathe myself when I feel I would not give up this minute, when my brothers lie dead, and father and mother are in such trouble, for al_y life that's past and gone. And, Mary," (as she tried to release her hand),
"you know what makes me feel so blessed."
She did know—he was right there. But as he turned to catch a look at her swee_ace, he saw that it expressed unfeigned distress, almost amounting t_exation; a dread of him, that he thought was almost repugnance.
He let her hand go, and she quickly went away to Alice's side.
"Fool that I was—nay, wretch that I was—to let myself take this time o_rouble to tell her how I loved her; no wonder that she turns away from such _elfish beast."
Partly to relieve her from his presence, and partly from natural desire, an_artly, perhaps, from a penitent wish to share to the utmost his parents'
sorrow, he soon went upstairs to the chamber of death.
Mary mechanically helped Alice in all the duties she performed through th_emainder of that long night, but she did not see Jem again. He remaine_pstairs until after the early dawn showed Mary that she need have no fear o_oing home through the deserted and quiet streets, to try and get a littl_leep before work-hour. So leaving kind messages to George and Jane Wilson, and hesitating whether she might dare to send a few kind words to Jem, an_eciding that she had better not, she stepped out into the bright mornin_ight, so fresh a contrast to the darkened room where death had been.
"They had Another morn than ours."
Mary lay down on her bed in her clothes; and whether it was this, or the broa_ay-light that poured in through the sky window, or whether it was over- excitement, it was long before she could catch a wink of sleep. Her thought_an on Jem's manner and words; not but what she had known the tale they tol_or many a day; but still she wished he had not put it so plainly.
"O dear," said she to herself, "I wish he would not mistake me so; I neve_are to speak a common word o' kindness, but his eye brightens and his chee_lushes. It's very hard on me; for father and George Wilson are old friends; and Jem and I ha' known each other since we were quite children. I canno_hink what possesses me, that I must always be wanting to comfort him whe_e's downcast, and that I must go meddling wi' him to-night, when sure enoug_t was his aunt's place to speak to him. I don't care for him, and yet, unles_'m always watching myself, I'm speaking to him in a loving voice. I think _annot go right, for I either check myself till I'm downright cross to him, o_lse I speak just natural, and that's too kind and tender by half. And I'm a_ood as engaged to be married to another; and another far handsomer than Jem; only I think I like Jem's face best for all that; liking's liking, and there'_o help for it. Well, when I'm Mrs. Harry Carson, may happen I can put som_ood fortune in Jem's way. But will he thank me for it? He's rather savage a_imes, that I can see, and perhaps kindness from me, when I'm another's, wil_nly go against the grain. I'll not plague myself wi' thinking any more abou_im, that I won't."
So she turned on her pillow, and fell asleep, and dreamt of what was often i_er waking thoughts; of the day when she should ride from church in he_arriage, with wedding-bells ringing, and take up her astonished father, an_rive away from the old dim work-a-day court for ever, to live in a gran_ouse, where her father should have newspapers, and pamphlets, and pipes, an_eat dinners every day—and all day long if he liked.
Such thoughts mingled in her predilection for the handsome young Mr. Carson, who, unfettered by work-hours, let scarcely a day pass without contriving _eeting with the beautiful little milliner he had first seen while lounging i_ shop where his sisters were making some purchases, and afterwards neve_ested till he had freely, though respectfully, made her acquaintance in he_aily walks. He was, to use his own expression to himself, quite infatuated b_er, and was restless each day till the time came when he had a chance, and, of late, more than a chance of meeting her. There was something of kee_ractical shrewdness about her, which contrasted very bewitchingly with th_imple, foolish, unworldly ideas she had picked up from the romances whic_iss Simmonds' young ladies were in the habit of recommending to each other.
Yes! Mary was ambitious, and did not favour Mr. Carson the less because he wa_ich and a gentleman. The old leaven, infused years ago by her Aunt Esther, fermented in her little bosom, and perhaps all the more, for her father'_version to the rich and the gentle. Such is the contrariness of the huma_eart, from Eve downwards, that we all, in our old Adam state, fancy thing_orbidden sweetest. So Mary dwelt upon and enjoyed the idea of some da_ecoming a lady, and doing all the elegant nothings appertaining to ladyhood.
It was a comfort to her, when scolded by Miss Simmonds, to think of the da_hen she would drive up to the door in her own carriage, to order her gown_rom the hasty-tempered yet kind dressmaker. It was a pleasure to her to hea_he general admiration of the two elder Miss Carsons, acknowledged beauties i_all-room and street, on horseback and on foot, and to think of the time whe_he should ride and walk with them in loving sisterhood. But the best of he_lans, the holiest, that which in some measure redeemed the vanity of th_est, were those relating to her father; her dear father, now oppressed wit_are, and always a disheartened, gloomy person. How she would surround hi_ith every comfort she could devise (of course, he was to live with them), till he should acknowledge riches to be very pleasant things, and bless hi_ady-daughter! Every one who had shown her kindness in her low estate shoul_hen be repaid a hundredfold.
Such were the castles in air, the Alnaschar-visions in which Mary indulged, and which she was doomed in after days to expiate with many tears.
Meanwhile, her words—or, even more, her tones—would maintain their hold on Je_ilson's memory. A thrill would yet come over him when he remembered how he_and had rested on his arm. The thought of her mingled with all his grief, an_t was profound, for the loss of his brothers.