The following Wednesday, when Mr. and Mrs. Hackit were seated comfortably by their bright hearth, enjoying the long afternoon afforded by an early dinner, Rachel, the housemaid, came in and said — ‘If you please ‘m, the shepherd says, have you heard as Mrs. Barton’s wuss, and not expected to live?’
Mrs. Hackit turned pale, and hurried out to question the shepherd, who, she found, had heard the sad news at an ale-house in the village. Mr. Hackit followed her out and said, ‘Thee’dst better have the pony-chaise, and go directly.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Hackit, too much overcome to utter any exclamations. ‘Rachel, come an’ help me on wi’ my things.’
When her husband was wrapping her cloak round her feet in the pony-chaise, she said — ‘If I don’t come home to-night, I shall send back the pony-chaise, and you’ll know I’m wanted there.’
It was a bright frosty day, and by the time Mrs. Hackit arrived at the Vicarage, the sun was near its setting. There was a carriage and pair standing at the gate, which she recognized as Dr Madeley’s, the physician from Rotherby. She entered at the kitchen door that she might avoid knocking, and quietly question Nanny. No one was in the kitchen, but, passing on, she saw the sitting-room door open, and Nanny, with Walter in her arms, removing the knives and forks, which had been laid for dinner three hours ago.
‘Master says he can’t eat no dinner,’ was Nanny’s first word. ‘He’s never tasted nothin’ sin’ yesterday mornin’, but a cup o’ tea.’
‘When was your missis took worse?’
‘O’ Monday night. They sent for Dr Madeley i’ the middle o’ the day yisterday, an’ he’s here again now.’
‘Is the baby alive?’
‘No, it died last night. The children’s all at Mrs. Bond’s. She come and took ’em away last night, but the master says they must be fetched soon. He’s up-stairs now, wi’ Dr Madeley and Mr. Brand.’
At this moment Mrs. Hackit heard the sound of a heavy, slow foot, in the passage; and presently Amos Barton entered, with dry despairing eyes, haggard and unshaven. He expected to find the sitting-room as he left it, with nothing to meet his eyes but Milly’s work-basket in the corner of the sofa, and the children’s toys overturned in the bow-window. But when he saw Mrs. Hackit come towards him with answering sorrow in her face, the pent-up fountain of tears was opened; he threw himself on the sofa, hid his face, and sobbed aloud.
‘Bear up, Mr. Barton,’ Mrs. Hackit ventured to say at last; ‘bear up, for the sake o’ them dear children.’
‘The children,’ said Amos, starting up. ‘They must be sent for. Some one must fetch them. Milly will want to . . . ’
He couldn’t finish the sentence, but Mrs. Hackit understood him, and said, ‘I’ll send the man with the pony-carriage for ’em.’
She went out to give the order, and encountered Dr Madeley and Mr. Brand, who were just going.
Mr. Brand said: ‘I am very glad to see you are here, Mrs. Hackit. No time must be lost in sending for the children. Mrs. Barton wants to see them.’
‘Do you quite give her up then?’
‘She can hardly live through the night. She begged us to tell her how long she had to live; and then asked for the children.’
The pony-carriage was sent; and Mrs. Hackit, returning to Mr. Barton, said she would like to go up-stairs now. He went up-stairs with her and opened the door. The chamber fronted the west; the sun was just setting, and the red light fell full upon the bed, where Milly lay with the hand of death visibly upon her. The feather-bed had been removed, and she lay low on a mattress, with her head slightly raised by pillows. Her long fair neck seemed to be struggling with a painful effort; her features were pallid and pinched, and her eyes were closed. There was no one in the room but the nurse, and the mistress of the free school, who had come to give her help from the beginning of the change.
Amos and Mrs. Hackit stood beside the bed, and Milly opened her eyes.
‘My darling, Mrs. Hackit is come to see you.’
Milly smiled and looked at her with that strange, far-off look which belongs to ebbing life.
‘Are the children coming?’ she said, painfully.
‘Yes, they will be here directly.’
She closed her eyes again.
Presently the pony-carriage was heard; and Amos, motioning to Mrs. Hackit to follow him, left the room. On their way downstairs she suggested that the carriage should remain to take them away again afterwards, and Amos assented.
There they stood in the melancholy sitting-room — the five sweet children, from Patty to Chubby — all, with their mother’s eyes — all, except Patty, looking up with a vague fear at their father as he entered. Patty understood the great sorrow that was come upon them, and tried to check her sobs as she heard her papa’s footsteps.
‘My children,’ said Amos, taking Chubby in his arms, ‘God is going to take away your dear mamma from us. She wants to see you to say good-bye. You must try to be very good and not cry.’
He could say no more, but turned round to see if Nanny was there with Walter, and then led the way up-stairs, leading Dickey with the other hand. Mrs. Hackit followed with Sophy and Patty, and then came Nanny with Walter and Fred.
It seemed as if Milly had heard the little footsteps on the stairs, for when Amos entered her eyes were wide open, eagerly looking towards the door. They all stood by the bedside — Amos nearest to her, holding Chubby and Dickey. But she motioned for Patty to come first, and clasping the poor pale child by the hand, said — ‘Patty, I’m going away from you. Love your papa. Comfort him; and take care of your little brothers and sisters. God will help you.’
Patty stood perfectly quiet, and said, ‘Yes, mamma.’
The mother motioned with her pallid lips for the dear child to lean towards her and kiss her; and then Patty’s great anguish overcame her, and she burst into sobs. Amos drew her towards him and pressed her head gently to him, while Milly beckoned Fred and Sophy, and said to them more faintly — ‘Patty will try to be your mamma when I am gone, my darlings. You will be good and not vex her.’
They leaned towards her, and she stroked their fair heads, and kissed their tear-stained cheeks. They cried because mamma was ill and papa looked so unhappy; but they thought, perhaps next week things would be as they used to be again.
The little ones were lifted on the bed to kiss her. Little Walter said, ‘Mamma, mamma’, and stretched out his fat arms and smiled; and Chubby seemed gravely wondering; but Dickey, who had been looking fixedly at her, with lip hanging down, ever since he came into the room, now seemed suddenly pierced with the idea that mamma was going away somewhere; his little heart swelled and he cried aloud.
Then Mrs. Hackit and Nanny took them all away. Patty at first begged to stay at home and not go to Mrs. Bond’s again; but when Nanny reminded her that she had better go to take care of the younger ones, she submitted at once, and they were all packed in the pony-carriage once more.
Milly kept her eyes shut for some time after the children were gone. Amos had sunk on his knees, and was holding her hand while he watched her face. By-and-by she opened her eyes, and, drawing him close to her, whispered slowly — ‘My dear — dear — husband — you have been — very — good to me. You — have — made me — very — happy.’
She spoke no more for many hours. They watched her breathing becoming more and more difficult, until evening deepened into night, and until midnight was past. About half-past twelve she seemed to be trying to speak, and they leaned to catch her words. ‘Music — music — didn’t you hear it?’
Amos knelt by the bed and held her hand in his. He did not believe in his sorrow. It was a bad dream. He did not know when she was gone. But Mr. Brand, whom Mrs. Hackit had sent for before twelve o’clock, thinking that Mr. Barton might probably need his help, now came up to him, and said — ‘She feels no more pain now. Come, my dear sir, come with me.’
‘She isn’t dead?’ shrieked the poor desolate man, struggling to shake off Mr. Brand, who had taken him by the arm. But his weary weakened frame was not equal to resistance, and he was dragged out of the room.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08