When they had sat in silence for some time, the two old women rose from the bed, and crouching over the fire, held out their withered hands to catch the heat. The flame threw a ghastly light on their shrivelled faces, and made their ugliness appear terrible, as, in this position, they began to converse in a low voice.
Did she say any more, Anny dear, while I was gone? inquired the messenger.
Not a word, replied the other. She plucked and tore at her arms for a little time; but I held her hands, and she soon dropped off. She hasn't much strength in her, so I easily kept her quiet. I ain't so weak for an old woman, although I am on parish allowance; no, no!
Did she drink the hot wine the doctor said she was to have? demanded the first.
I tried to get it down, rejoined the other, But her teeth were tight set, and she clenched the mug so hard that it was as much as I could do to get it back again. So I drank it; and it did me good!
Looking cautiously round, to ascertain that they were not overheard, the two hags cowered nearer to the fire, and chuckled heartily.
I mind the time, said the first speaker, when she would have done the same, and made rare fun of it afterwards.
Ay, that she would, rejoined the other; she had a merry heart. A many, many, beautiful corpses she laid out, as nice and neat as wax-work. My old eyes have seen them ay, and those old hands touched them too; for I have helped her, scores of times.
Stretching forth her trembling fingers as she spoke, the old creature shook them exultingly before her face, and fumbling in her pocket, brought out an old time-discoloured tin snuffbox, from which she shook a few grains into the outstretched palm of her companion, and a few more into her own. While they were thus employed, the matron, who had been impatiently watching until the dying woman should awaken from her stupor, joined them by the fire, and sharply asked how long she was to wait?
Not long, mistress, replied the second woman, looking up into her face. We have none of us long to wait for Death. Patience, patience! He'll be here soon enough for us all.
Hold your tongue, you doting idiot! said the matron, sternly. You, Martha, tell me; has she been in this way before!
Often, answered the first woman.
But will never be again, added the second one; that is, she'll never wake again but once and mind, mistress, that won't be for long!
Long or short, said the matron, snappishly, she won't find me here when she does wake; take care, both of you, how you worry me again for nothing. It's no part of my duty to see all the old women in the house die, and I won't that's more. Mind that, you impudent old harridans. If you make a fool of me again, I'll soon cure you, I warrant you!
She was bouncing away, when a cry from the two women, who had turned towards the bed, caused her to look round. The patient had raised herself upright, and was stretching her arms towards them.
Who's that? she cried, in a hollow voice.
Hush, hush! said one of the women, stooping over her. Lie down, lie down!
I'll never lie down again alive! said the woman, struggling. I will tell her! Come here! Nearer! Let me whisper in your ear.
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