It was a wet, gusty night and I had a lonely walk home. By taking the river road, though I hated it, I saved two miles, so I sloshed ahead trying not to think at all. Through the barbed wire fence I could see the racing river. Its black swollen body writhed along with extraordinary swiftness, breathlessly silent, only occasionally making a swishing ripple. I did not enjoy looking at it. I was somehow afraid.
And there, at the end of the river road where I swerved off, a figure stood waiting for me, motionless and enigmatic. I had to meet it or turn back.
It was a quite young girl, unknown to me, with a hood over her head, and with large unhappy eyes.
"My father is very ill," she said without a word of introduction. "The nurse is frightened. Could you come in and help?"
There was a gaunt house set back from the road, on a little slope. I could see a wan light upstairs.
"The nurse is not scared," the girl corrected, "but she is nervous. I wish you could come."
"Of course," and on my very word she turned and led the way in.
The hall was empty. It had nothing in it except a discouraged oil lamp on a dirty kitchen table. The shadowy stairs were bare. On my left on the ground floor a woman with gray hair and rusty face and red-rimmed eyes shuffled back into the shadows at my entry, a sort of ignoble Niobe.
"That's my mother," the grave child explained. And to the retreating slatternly figure the child called, "This man has come to help, Mother," as if men dropped from the sky.
She went up into the shadows and I followed. A flight of stairs, a long creaking landing. Another flight of stairs. Stumbles. Another landing. A stale aroma of cat. And a general sense that, although the staircase was well made and the landings wide, there was not one stick of furniture in the house.
As we approached the top floor we met fresher air and the pallid emanation of a night-light. A figure stood waiting at the head of the stairs.
This was a stout little nun, her face framed in creaking linen, and a great rustle of robes and rosary beads whenever she moved. She began a sharp whisper the minute we climbed to the landing.
"He's awake. He's out of his head. I'm glad you've come. Now, child, be off to bed with you, like a good girl. This way, if you please."
The child's vast eyes accepted me. "I'll go to Mother," she said, and she receded downstairs. The nun entered an open door to the right, and again I meekly followed.
It was a room out of the fables. There was a tall fireplace facing the door, with a slat of packing-case burning in it as well as the wind would permit, and a solitary candle glimmering in a bottle, set on the table at the head of the bed. Its uncertain light fell on the tousled hair of a once kempt human being, now evidently a semi-maniac staring at presences in the room. Down the chimney the wind came bluffing at intervals, and the one high window querulously rattled. The center of the room was the sick man's burning eyes.
I walked through his view and he did not see me. The nun and myself stood watching him from the head of the bed.
"Oh, he's awful bad, you have no idea how bad he is; I'm afraid for him; I am indeed. What am I to call you, Mister? Here, take this chair."
Before I answered her she continued, in a whisper that slid along from one s to the next. "They said the doctor would be here at seven and it's nearly twelve as it is. He's not coming. I wish he was here."
The sick man seemed to see us. "That's right now," he said, whistling his breath. "Bring me my clothes, I want to go home."
The nun laid her arm on him. "Lean back now, dear, and it'll be all right, I'm telling you." And she gently but ineffectually tried to press him down.
The sick man turned his face on her, into the candlelight. He was long unshaved, but the two things that struck me most, after the crop of gray bristle, were the dry cavern of his mouth and the scalding intensity of his eyes. I was terrified lest those eyes should alight on me, and yet I gazed hard at him. His lips were flaked with yellow scales, and dry mucus was in strings at the corners of his mouth. His night-shirt gaped open, showing a very hairy black chest. He seemed a shrunken man, not a very tall man, but his shoulders were broad and his chin very square. To support his chin seemed the great effort of his jaws. It fell open on him, giving him a vacant foolish expression, with his teeth so black and irregular, and he tried his best to clamp his teeth tight. The working of his jaws, however, scarcely interfered with his whistling breath or his gasping words.
"They will be at the back door, I say. God!" a feeble scream and whimper. "Bring me my clothes. You're hiding them on me. Oh, why are you hiding them on me? Can't you give me my clothes?"
"You're home now, dear. You're home now," the nurse assured him. "Isn't that your own clock on the mantel? Lie down now and I'll make you a comfortable drink and put you to sleep."
"Boy, fetch me my coat."
"Don't mind him," the nun turned to me, "but do you cover his feet."
His feet had lost the gray blanket. They stared blankly up from the end of the bed. I covered them snugly, glad to have something to do.
"It's all the whisky in him," the nun whispered when at last he went limp and lay down. "It's got to his brain. I thought he was over the pneumonia, but that whisky has him saturated. The poor thing! The poor thing!"
"Well, I must be going now," the sick man ejaculated, and with one twist of his body he was out of bed.
"Oh, keep yourself covered, for the love of God!" The poor nun ran after him with the blanket as his old flannel night shirt fluttered up his legs.
He staggered up to me fiercely, and his eyes razed my face.
"Fiddle your grandmother," he muttered, "I'm off home, I tell you."
"You can't leave the room; it's better for you to go back to bed," and I held him round with my arms.
"See here, you," his yellow cheeks reddened with his passionate effort, "you can't hold me a prisoner any longer. Oh, Barrett, Barrett, what are you doing to me to destroy me?"
I knew no Barrett, but the poor creature was shivering with anguish and cold. I put my arms around him and tried to move him out of the draught of the door. His thin arms closed on me at the first hint of force, and he clenched with feverish vigor. I could feel his frail bones against me, his bare ribs, his wild thumping heart.
"You can't, you can't. You can't keep me prisoner...."
He struggled, his heart thumping me. Then in one instant he went slack.
We lifted him to the bed, and I felt under his shirt for the flutter of his heart. His mouth had dropped open, his eyes were like a dead bird's.
The little nun began, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," and other holy words, while I groped helplessly over this fragile burned-out frame. Then I remembered and I stumbled wild-minded to find that woman downstairs.
I went headlong through the darkness. At my knock the door opened, as if by an unseen hand, and I saw, completely dressed, the pale little girl, with her grave eyes.
"Your mother?" I asked.
The child stopped me sharply, "Is Father worse?"
"He's worse," I answered feebly. "You'd better-"
The child was brushed aside by her mother, who had stumbled forward from inside. She looked at me vaguely.
The girl turned on her mother. "I'm going up to Father. Go inside."
The woman's will flickered and then expired. She pulled the door back upon herself, shutting us into the hall. The child led and I followed back upstairs.