The Shadow of a Crime - Chapter XXXIX - The Fiery Hand.
- From: John <stuff.for@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Tue, 12 Sep 2006 22:18:26 +0100
THE FIERY HAND.
They drove Robbie Anderson that night to the house of the old woman
with whom he lodged, but their errand was an idle one. Reuben Thwaite
jumped from the cart and rapped at the door. Old 'Becca Rudd opened
it, held a candle over her head, and peered into the darkness. When
she heard what sick guest they had brought her, she trembled from head
to foot, and cried to them not to shorten the life of a poor old soul
whose days were numbered.
"Nay, nay; take him away, take him away," she said.
"Art daft, or what dusta mean?" said Mattha from his seat in the cart.
"Nay, but have mercy on me, have mercy on me," cried 'Becca
"Weel, weel," said Mattha, "they do say as theer's no fools like auld
fools. Why, the lad's ram'lin'. Canst hear?--ram'lin'. Wadst hev us
keck him intil the dike to die like ony dog?"
"Take him away, take him away," cried 'Becca, retiring inwards, her
importunity becoming every moment louder and more vehement.
"I reckon ye wad be a better stepmother to yon brocken-backt bitch of
yours an it had the mange?" said Mattha.
"Nay, but the plague--the plague. Ye've heard what the new preachers
are telling about the plague. Robbie's got it, Robbie's got the
plague; I'm sure of it, sure."
'Becca set down the candle to wring her hands.
"So thoo's sure of it, ista?" said Mattha. "Weel, I'll tell thee what
_I_'s sure on, and that is that thoo art yan o' them folks as waddant
part with the reek off their kail. Ye'r nobbut an auld blatherskite,
'Becca, as preaches mair charity in a day ner ye'r ready to stand by
in a twelvemonth. Come, Reuben, whip up yer dobbin. Let's away to my
own house. I'd hev to be as poor as a kirk louse afore I'd turn my
back on a motherless lad as is nigh to death's door."
"Don't say that, father," whimpered Liza.
"Nay, Mattha, nay, man," cried 'Becca, "it's nought of that. It's my
life that's in danger."
"Shaf! that 'at is nowt is nivver in danger. Whear's the plague as wad
think it worth while to bodder wid a skinflint like thee? Good neet,
'Becca, good neet, and 'od white te, lass, God requite thee!"
So they drove to Matthew Branthwaite's cottage, and installed the sick
man in the disused workroom, where the loom had stood silent for
nearly ten years.
A rough shakedown was improvised, a log fire was speedily kindled, and
in half an hour Mrs. Branthwaite was sitting at Robbie's bedside
bathing his hot forehead with cloths damped in vinegar. The little
woman--timid and nervous in quieter times--was beginning to show some
"Robbie has the fever, the brain fever," she said. She was right. The
old wife's diagnosis was as swift as thought. Next day they sent for
the doctor from Gaskarth. He came; looked wise and solemn; asked three
questions in six syllables apiece, and paused between them. Then he
felt the sick man's pulse. He might almost have heard the tick of it.
Louder was the noise of the beating heart. Still not a word. In the
dread stillness out came the lance, and Robbie was bled. Then sundry
hums and ahs, but no syllable of counsel or cheer.
"Is there any danger?" asked little Liza in a fretful tone. She was
standing with head averted from the bowl which was in her mother's
hands, with nervous fingers and palpitating breast.
The wise man replied in two guarded words.
Robbie had appeared to be conscious before the operation of the lance.
He was wandering again. He would soon be wildly delirious.
The great man took up his hat and his fee together. His silence at
least had been golden.
"Didsta iver see sic a dumb daft boggle?" said Mattha as the doctor
disappeared. "It cannot even speak when it's spoken to."
The medical ghost never again haunted that particular ghost-walk.
Robbie lay four days insensible, and Mrs. Branthwaite was
thenceforward his sole physician and nurse. On the afternoon of the
third day of Robbie's illness--it was Sunday--Rotha Stagg left her own
peculiar invalid in the care of one of the farm women and walked over
to Mattha's house.
Willy Ray had not returned from Carlisle. He had exchanged scarcely
six words with her since the interview previously recorded. Rotha had
not come to Shoulthwaite for Willy's satisfaction. Neither would she
leave it for his displeasure.
When the girl reached the weaver's cottage and entered the sick-room,
Mattha himself was sitting at the fireside, with a pipe, puffing the
smoke up the chimney. Mrs. Branthwaite was bathing the sick man's
head, from which the hair had been cut away. Liza was persuading
herself that she was busy sewing at a new gown. The needle stuck and
stopped twenty times a minute. Robbie was delirious.
"Robbie, Robbie, do you know who has come to see you?" said Liza,
bending over him.
"Ey, mother, ey, here I am, home at last," muttered Robbie.
"He's ram'lin' agen," said Mattha from the chimney corner.
"Bless your old heart, mammy, but I'll mend my management. I will,
that I will. It's true _this_ time, mammy, ey, it is. No, no; try me
again just _once_, mammy!"
"He's forever running on that, poor lad," whispered Mattha. "I reckon
it's been a sair point with him sin' he put auld Martha intil t'
"Don't greet, mammy; don't greet."
Poor Liza found the gown wanted close attention at that moment. It
went near enough to her eyes.
"I say it was fifty strides to the north of the bridge! Swear it? Ey,
swear it!" cried Robbie at a fuller pitch of his weakened voice.
"He's olas running on that, too," whispered Mattha to Rotha. "Dusta
mind 'at laal Reuben said the same?"
In a soft and pleading tone Robbie mumbled on,--
"Don't greet, mammy, or ye'll kill me sure enough. Killing _you?_ Ey,
it's true it's true; but I'll mend my management--I _will_." There
were sobs in Robbie's voice, but no tears in his bloodshot eyes.
"There, there, Robbie," whispered Mrs. Branthwaite soothingly in his
ear; "rest thee still, Robbie, rest thee still."
It was a pitiful scene. The remorse of the poor, worn, wayward,
tender-hearted lad seemed to rend the soul in his unconscious body.
"If he could but sleep!" said Mrs. Branthwaite; "but he cannot."
Liza got up and went out.
Robbie struggled to raise himself on one elbow. His face, red as a
furnace, was turned aside as though in the act of listening for some
noise far away. Then in a thick whisper he said,--
"Fifty strides north of the bridge. No dreaming about it--north, I
Robbie sank back exhausted, and Rotha prepared to leave.
"It were that ducking of his heed did it, sure enough," said Mattha,
"that and the drink together. I mind Bobbie's father--just sic like,
just sic like! Poor auld Martha, she _hed_ a sad bout of it, she hed,
what with father and son. And baith good at the bottom, too, baith,
A graver result than any that Mattha dreamt of hung at this moment on
Robbie's insensibility, and when consciousness returned the
catastrophe had fallen.
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