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Chapter 12

TRAGEDY OF A MUD HOUSE.


THE dog-cart bumped between the trees of Caddam, flinging Gavin and
the doctor at each other as a wheel rose on some beech-root or
sank for a moment in a pool. I suppose the wood was a pretty sight
that day, the pines only white where they had met the snow, as if
the numbed painter had left his work unfinished, the brittle twigs
snapping overhead, the water as black as tar. But it matters
little what the wood was like. Within a squirrel's leap of it an
old woman was standing at the door of a mud house listening for
the approach of the trap that was to take her to the poorhouse.
Can you think of the beauty of the day now?

Nanny was not crying. She had redd up her house for the last time
and put on her black merino. Her mouth was wide open while she
listened. If yon had, addressed her you would have thought her
polite and stupid. Look at her. A flabby-faced woman she is now,
with a swollen body, and no one has heeded her much these thirty
years. I can tell you something; it is almost droll. Nanny Webster
was once a gay flirt, and in Airlie Square there is a weaver with
an unsteady head who thought all the earth of her. His loom has
taken a foot from his stature, and gone are Nanny's raven locks on
which he used to place his adoring hand. Down in Airlie Square he
is weaving for his life, and here is Nanny, ripe for the
poorhouse, and between them is the hill where they were lovers.
That is all the story save that when Nanny heard the dog-cart she
screamed.

No neighbour was with her. If you think this hard, it is because
you do not understand. Perhaps Nanny had never been very lovable
except to one man, and him, it is said, she lost through her own
vanity; but there was much in her to like. The neighbours, of whom
there were two not a hundred yards away, would have been with her
now but they feared to hurt her feelings. No heart opens to
sympathy without letting in delicacy, and these poor people knew
that Nanny would not like them to see her being taken away. For a
week they had been aware of what was coming, and they had been
most kind to her, but that hideous word, the poorhouse, they had
not uttered. Poorhouse is not to be spoken in Thrums, though it is
nothing to tell a man that you see death in his face. Did Nanny
think they knew where she was going? was a question they whispered
to each other, and her suffering eyes cut scars on their hearts.
So now that the hour had come they called their children into
their houses and pulled down their blinds.

"If you would like to see her by yourself," the doctor said
eagerly to Gavin, as the horse drew up at Nanny's gate, "I'll wait
with the horse. Not," he added, hastily, "that I feel sorry for
her. We are doing her a kindness."

They dismounted together, however, and Nanny, who had run from the
trap into the house, watched them from her window.

McQueen saw her and said glumly, "I should have come alone, for if
you pray she is sure to break down. Mr. Dishart, could you not
pray cheerfully?"

"You don't look very cheerful yourself," Gavin said sadly.

"Nonsense," answered the doctor. "I have no patience with this
false sentiment. Stand still, Lightning, and be thankful you are
not your master today."

The door stood open, and Nanny was crouching against the opposite
wall of the room, such a poor, dull kitchen, that you would have
thought the furniture had still to be brought into it. The blanket
and the piece of old carpet that was Nanny's coverlet were already
packed in her box. The plate rack was empty. Only the round table
and the two chairs, and the stools and some pans were being left
behind.

"Well, Nanny," the doctor said, trying to bluster, "I have come,
and you see Mr. Dishart is with me."

Nanny rose bravely. She knew the doctor was good to her, and she
wanted to thank him. I have not seen a great deal of the world
myself, but often the sweet politeness of the aged poor has struck
me as beautiful. Nanny dropped a curtesy, an ungainly one maybe,
but it was an old woman giving the best she had.

"Thank you kindly, sirs," she said; and then two pairs of eyes
dropped before hers.

"Please to take a chair," she added timidly. It is strange to know
that at that awful moment, for let none tell me it was less than
awful, the old woman was the one who could speak.

Both men sat down, for they would have hurt Nanny by remaining
standing. Some ministers would have known the right thing to say
to her, but Gavin dared not let himself speak. I have again to
remind you that he was only one-and-twenty.

"I'm drouthy, Nanny," the doctor said, to give her something to
do, "and I would be obliged for a drink of water."

Nanny hastened to the pan that stood behind her door, but stopped
before she reached it.

"It's toom," she said. "I--I didna think I needed to fill it this
morning." She caught the doctor's eye, and could only half
restrain a sob._ "I couldna help that," she said, apologetically.
"I'm richt angry at myself for being so ungrateful like."

The doctor thought it best that they should depart at once. He
rose.

"Oh, no, doctor," cried Nanny in alarm.

"But you are ready?"

"Ay," she said, "I have been ready this twa hours, but you micht
wait a minute. Hendry Munn and Andrew Allardyce is coming yont the
road, and they would see me."

"Wait, doctor," Gavin said.

"Thank you kindly, sir," answered Nanny.

"But Nanny," the doctor said, "you must remember what I told you
about the poo--, about the place you are going to. It is a fine
house, and you will be very happy in it."

"Ay, I'll be happy in't," Nanny faltered, "but, doctor, if I could
just hae bidden on here though I wasna happy!"

"Think of the food you will get: broth nearly every day."

"It--it'll be terrible enjoyable," Nanny said.

"And there will be pleasant company for you always," continued the
doctor, "and a nice room to sit in. Why, after you have been there
a week, you won't be the same woman."

"That's it!" cried Nanny with sudden passion. "Na, na; I'll be a
woman on the poor's rates. Oh, mither, mither, you little thocht
when you bore me that I would come to this!"

"Nanny," the doctor said, rising again, "I am ashamed of you."

"I humbly speir your forgiveness, sir," she said, "and you micht
bide just a wee yet. I've been ready to gang these twa hours, but
now that the machine is at the gate, I dinna ken how it is, but
I'm terrible sweer to come awa'. Oh, Mr. Dishart, it's richt true
what the doctor says about the--the place, but I canna just take
it in. I'm--I'm gey auld."

"You will often get out to see your friends," was all Gavin could
say.

"Na, na, na," she cried, "dinna say that; I'll gang, but you mauna
bid me ever come out, except in a hearse. Dinna let onybody in
Thrums look on my face again."

"We must go," said the doctor firmly. "Put on your mutch, Nanny."

"I dinna need to put on a mutch," she answered, with a faint flush
of pride. "I have a bonnet."

She took the bonnet from her bed, and put it on slowly.

"Are you sure there's naebody looking?" she asked.

The doctor glanced at the minister, and Gavin rose.

"Let us pray," he said, and the three went down on their knees.

It was not the custom of Auld Licht ministers to leave any house
without offering up a prayer in it, and to us it always seemed
that when Gavin prayed, he was at the knees of God. The little
minister pouring himself out in prayer in a humble room, with awed
people around him who knew much more of the world than he, his
voice at times thick and again a squeal, and his hands clasped not
gracefully, may have been only a comic figure, but we were old-
fashioned, and he seemed to make us better men. If I only knew the
way, I would draw him as he was, and not fear to make him too mean
a man for you to read about. He had not been long in Thrums before
he knew that we talked much of his prayers, and that doubtless
puffed him up a little. Sometimes, I daresay, he rose from his
knees feeling that he had prayed well to-day, which is a dreadful
charge to bring against anyone. But it was not always so, nor was
it so now.

I am not speaking harshly of this man, whom I have loved beyond
all others, when I say that Nanny came between him and his prayer.
Had he been of God's own image, unstained, he would have forgotten
all else in his Maker's presence, but Nanny was speaking too, and
her words choked his. At first she only whispered, but soon what
was eating her heart burst out painfully, and she did not know
that the minister had stopped.

They were such moans as these that brought him back to earth:--

"I'll hae to gang... I'm a base woman no' to be mair thankfu' to
them that is so good to me... I dinna like to prig wi' them to
take a roundabout road, and I'm sair fleid a' the Roods will see
me... If it could just be said to poor Sanders when he comes back
that I died hurriedly, syne he would be able to haud up his
head ... Oh, mither! ... I wish terrible they had come and ta'en me
at nicht... It's a dog-cart, and I was praying it micht be a cart,
so that they could cover me wi' straw."

"This is more than I can stand," the doctor cried.

Nanny rose frightened.

"I've tried you, sair," she said, "but, oh, I'm grateful, and I'm
ready now."

They all advanced toward the door without another word, and Nanny
even tried to smile. But in the middle of the floor something came
over her, and she stood there. Gavin took her hand, and it was
cold. She looked from one to the other, her mouth opening and
shutting.

"I canna help it," she said.

"It's cruel hard," muttered the doctor. "I knew this woman when
she was a lassie."

The little minister stretched out his hands.

"Have pity on her, O God!" he prayed, with the presumptuousness of
youth.

Nanny heard the words.

"Oh, God," she cried, "you micht!"

God needs no minister to tell Him what to do, but it was His will
that the poorhouse should not have this woman. He made use of a
strange instrument, no other than the Egyptian, who now opened the
mud-house door.


James M. Barrie