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Chapter 6

THE BLACK VEIL

One winter's evening, towards the close of the year 1800, or within
a year or two of that time, a young medical practitioner, recently
established in business, was seated by a cheerful fire in his
little parlour, listening to the wind which was beating the rain in
pattering drops against the window, or rumbling dismally in the
chimney. The night was wet and cold; he had been walking through
mud and water the whole day, and was now comfortably reposing in
his dressing-gown and slippers, more than half asleep and less than
half awake, revolving a thousand matters in his wandering
imagination. First, he thought how hard the wind was blowing, and
how the cold, sharp rain would be at that moment beating in his
face, if he were not comfortably housed at home. Then, his mind
reverted to his annual Christmas visit to his native place and
dearest friends; he thought how glad they would all be to see him,
and how happy it would make Rose if he could only tell her that he
had found a patient at last, and hoped to have more, and to come
down again, in a few months' time, and marry her, and take her home
to gladden his lonely fireside, and stimulate him to fresh
exertions. Then, he began to wonder when his first patient would
appear, or whether he was destined, by a special dispensation of
Providence, never to have any patients at all; and then, he thought
about Rose again, and dropped to sleep and dreamed about her, till
the tones of her sweet merry voice sounded in his ears, and her
soft tiny hand rested on his shoulder.

There WAS a hand upon his shoulder, but it was neither soft nor
tiny; its owner being a corpulent round-headed boy, who, in
consideration of the sum of one shilling per week and his food, was
let out by the parish to carry medicine and messages. As there was
no demand for the medicine, however, and no necessity for the
messages, he usually occupied his unemployed hours--averaging
fourteen a day--in abstracting peppermint drops, taking animal
nourishment, and going to sleep.

'A lady, sir--a lady!' whispered the boy, rousing his master with a
shake.

'What lady?' cried our friend, starting up, not quite certain that
his dream was an illusion, and half expecting that it might be Rose
herself.--'What lady? Where?'

'THERE, sir!' replied the boy, pointing to the glass door leading
into the surgery, with an expression of alarm which the very
unusual apparition of a customer might have tended to excite.

The surgeon looked towards the door, and started himself, for an
instant, on beholding the appearance of his unlooked-for visitor.

It was a singularly tall woman, dressed in deep mourning, and
standing so close to the door that her face almost touched the
glass. The upper part of her figure was carefully muffled in a
black shawl, as if for the purpose of concealment; and her face was
shrouded by a thick black veil. She stood perfectly erect, her
figure was drawn up to its full height, and though the surgeon felt
that the eyes beneath the veil were fixed on him, she stood
perfectly motionless, and evinced, by no gesture whatever, the
slightest consciousness of his having turned towards her.

'Do you wish to consult me?' he inquired, with some hesitation,
holding open the door. It opened inwards, and therefore the action
did not alter the position of the figure, which still remained
motionless on the same spot.

She slightly inclined her head, in token of acquiescence.

'Pray walk in,' said the surgeon.

The figure moved a step forward; and then, turning its head in the
direction of the boy--to his infinite horror--appeared to hesitate.

'Leave the room, Tom,' said the young man, addressing the boy,
whose large round eyes had been extended to their utmost width
during this brief interview. 'Draw the curtain, and shut the
door.'

The boy drew a green curtain across the glass part of the door,
retired into the surgery, closed the door after him, and
immediately applied one of his large eyes to the keyhole on the
other side.

The surgeon drew a chair to the fire, and motioned the visitor to a
seat. The mysterious figure slowly moved towards it. As the blaze
shone upon the black dress, the surgeon observed that the bottom of
it was saturated with mud and rain.

'You are very wet,' be said.

'I am,' said the stranger, in a low deep voice.

'And you are ill?' added the surgeon, compassionately, for the tone
was that of a person in pain.

'I am,' was the reply--'very ill; not bodily, but mentally. It is
not for myself, or on my own behalf,' continued the stranger, 'that
I come to you. If I laboured under bodily disease, I should not be
out, alone, at such an hour, or on such a night as this; and if I
were afflicted with it, twenty-four hours hence, God knows how
gladly I would lie down and pray to die. It is for another that I
beseech your aid, sir. I may be mad to ask it for him--I think I
am; but, night after night, through the long dreary hours of
watching and weeping, the thought has been ever present to my mind;
and though even _I_ see the hopelessness of human assistance
availing him, the bare thought of laying him in his grave without
it makes my blood run cold!' And a shudder, such as the surgeon
well knew art could not produce, trembled through the speaker's
frame.

There was a desperate earnestness in this woman's manner, that went
to the young man's heart. He was young in his profession, and had
not yet witnessed enough of the miseries which are daily presented
before the eyes of its members, to have grown comparatively callous
to human suffering.

'If,' he said, rising hastily, 'the person of whom you speak, be in
so hopeless a condition as you describe, not a moment is to be
lost. I will go with you instantly. Why did you not obtain
medical advice before?'

'Because it would have been useless before--because it is useless
even now,' replied the woman, clasping her hands passionately.

The surgeon gazed, for a moment, on the black veil, as if to
ascertain the expression of the features beneath it: its
thickness, however, rendered such a result impossible.

'You ARE ill,' he said, gently, 'although you do not know it. The
fever which has enabled you to bear, without feeling it, the
fatigue you have evidently undergone, is burning within you now.
Put that to your lips,' he continued, pouring out a glass of water-
-'compose yourself for a few moments, and then tell me, as calmly
as you can, what the disease of the patient is, and how long he has
been ill. When I know what it is necessary I should know, to
render my visit serviceable to him, I am ready to accompany you.'

The stranger lifted the glass of water to her mouth, without
raising the veil; put it down again untasted; and burst into tears.

'I know,' she said, sobbing aloud, 'that what I say to you now,
seems like the ravings of fever. I have been told so before, less
kindly than by you. I am not a young woman; and they do say, that
as life steals on towards its final close, the last short remnant,
worthless as it may seem to all beside, is dearer to its possessor
than all the years that have gone before, connected though they be
with the recollection of old friends long since dead, and young
ones--children perhaps--who have fallen off from, and forgotten one
as completely as if they had died too. My natural term of life
cannot be many years longer, and should be dear on that account;
but I would lay it down without a sigh--with cheerfulness--with
joy--if what I tell you now, were only false, or imaginary. To-
morrow morning he of whom I speak will be, I KNOW, though I would
fain think otherwise, beyond the reach of human aid; and yet, to-
night, though he is in deadly peril, you must not see, and could
not serve, him.'

'I am unwilling to increase your distress,' said the surgeon, after
a short pause, 'by making any comment on what you have just said,
or appearing desirous to investigate a subject you are so anxious
to conceal; but there is an inconsistency in your statement which I
cannot reconcile with probability. This person is dying to-night,
and I cannot see him when my assistance might possibly avail; you
apprehend it will be useless to-morrow, and yet you would have me
see him then! If he be, indeed, as dear to you, as your words and
manner would imply, why not try to save his life before delay and
the progress of his disease render it impracticable?'

'God help me!' exclaimed the woman, weeping bitterly, 'how can I
hope strangers will believe what appears incredible, even to
myself? You will NOT see him then, sir?' she added, rising
suddenly.

'I did not say that I declined to see him,' replied the surgeon;
'but I warn you, that if you persist in this extraordinary
procrastination, and the individual dies, a fearful responsibility
rests with you.'

'The responsibility will rest heavily somewhere,' replied the
stranger bitterly. 'Whatever responsibility rests with me, I am
content to bear, and ready to answer.'

'As I incur none,' continued the surgeon, 'by acceding to your
request, I will see him in the morning, if you leave me the
address. At what hour can he be seen?'

'NINE,' replied the stranger.

'You must excuse my pressing these inquiries,' said the surgeon.
'But is he in your charge now?'

'He is not,' was the rejoinder.

'Then, if I gave you instructions for his treatment through the
night, you could not assist him?'

The woman wept bitterly, as she replied, 'I could not.'

Finding that there was but little prospect of obtaining more
information by prolonging the interview; and anxious to spare the
woman's feelings, which, subdued at first by a violent effort, were
now irrepressible and most painful to witness; the surgeon repeated
his promise of calling in the morning at the appointed hour. His
visitor, after giving him a direction to an obscure part of
Walworth, left the house in the same mysterious manner in which she
had entered it.

It will be readily believed that so extraordinary a visit produced
a considerable impression on the mind of the young surgeon; and
that he speculated a great deal and to very little purpose on the
possible circumstances of the case. In common with the generality
of people, he had often heard and read of singular instances, in
which a presentiment of death, at a particular day, or even minute,
had been entertained and realised. At one moment he was inclined
to think that the present might be such a case; but, then, it
occurred to him that all the anecdotes of the kind he had ever
heard, were of persons who had been troubled with a foreboding of
their own death. This woman, however, spoke of another person--a
man; and it was impossible to suppose that a mere dream or delusion
of fancy would induce her to speak of his approaching dissolution
with such terrible certainty as she had spoken. It could not be
that the man was to be murdered in the morning, and that the woman,
originally a consenting party, and bound to secrecy by an oath, had
relented, and, though unable to prevent the commission of some
outrage on the victim, had determined to prevent his death if
possible, by the timely interposition of medical aid? The idea of
such things happening within two miles of the metropolis appeared
too wild and preposterous to be entertained beyond the instant.
Then, his original impression that the woman's intellects were
disordered, recurred; and, as it was the only mode of solving the
difficulty with any degree of satisfaction, he obstinately made up
his mind to believe that she was mad. Certain misgivings upon this
point, however, stole upon his thoughts at the time, and presented
themselves again and again through the long dull course of a
sleepless night; during which, in spite of all his efforts to the
contrary, he was unable to banish the black veil from his disturbed
imagination.

The back part of Walworth, at its greatest distance from town, is a
straggling miserable place enough, even in these days; but, five-
and-thirty years ago, the greater portion of it was little better
than a dreary waste, inhabited by a few scattered people of
questionable character, whose poverty prevented their living in any
better neighbourhood, or whose pursuits and mode of life rendered
its solitude desirable. Very many of the houses which have since
sprung up on all sides, were not built until some years afterwards;
and the great majority even of those which were sprinkled about, at
irregular intervals, were of the rudest and most miserable
description.

The appearance of the place through which he walked in the morning,
was not calculated to raise the spirits of the young surgeon, or to
dispel any feeling of anxiety or depression which the singular kind
of visit he was about to make, had awakened. Striking off from the
high road, his way lay across a marshy common, through irregular
lanes, with here and there a ruinous and dismantled cottage fast
falling to pieces with decay and neglect. A stunted tree, or pool
of stagnant water, roused into a sluggish action by the heavy rain
of the preceding night, skirted the path occasionally; and, now and
then, a miserable patch of garden-ground, with a few old boards
knocked together for a summer-house, and old palings imperfectly
mended with stakes pilfered from the neighbouring hedges, bore
testimony, at once to the poverty of the inhabitants, and the
little scruple they entertained in appropriating the property of
other people to their own use. Occasionally, a filthy-looking
woman would make her appearance from the door of a dirty house, to
empty the contents of some cooking utensil into the gutter in
front, or to scream after a little slip-shod girl, who had
contrived to stagger a few yards from the door under the weight of
a sallow infant almost as big as herself; but, scarcely anything
was stirring around: and so much of the prospect as could be
faintly traced through the cold damp mist which hung heavily over
it, presented a lonely and dreary appearance perfectly in keeping
with the objects we have described.

After plodding wearily through the mud and mire; making many
inquiries for the place to which he had been directed; and
receiving as many contradictory and unsatisfactory replies in
return; the young man at length arrived before the house which had
been pointed out to him as the object of his destination. It was a
small low building, one story above the ground, with even a more
desolate and unpromising exterior than any he had yet passed. An
old yellow curtain was closely drawn across the window up-stairs,
and the parlour shutters were closed, but not fastened. The house
was detached from any other, and, as it stood at an angle of a
narrow lane, there was no other habitation in sight.

When we say that the surgeon hesitated, and walked a few paces
beyond the house, before he could prevail upon himself to lift the
knocker, we say nothing that need raise a smile upon the face of
the boldest reader. The police of London were a very different
body in that day; the isolated position of the suburbs, when the
rage for building and the progress of improvement had not yet begun
to connect them with the main body of the city and its environs,
rendered many of them (and this in particular) a place of resort
for the worst and most depraved characters. Even the streets in
the gayest parts of London were imperfectly lighted, at that time;
and such places as these, were left entirely to the mercy of the
moon and stars. The chances of detecting desperate characters, or
of tracing them to their haunts, were thus rendered very few, and
their offences naturally increased in boldness, as the
consciousness of comparative security became the more impressed
upon them by daily experience. Added to these considerations, it
must be remembered that the young man had spent some time in the
public hospitals of the metropolis; and, although neither Burke nor
Bishop had then gained a horrible notoriety, his own observation
might have suggested to him how easily the atrocities to which the
former has since given his name, might be committed. Be this as it
may, whatever reflection made him hesitate, he DID hesitate: but,
being a young man of strong mind and great personal courage, it was
only for an instant;--he stepped briskly back and knocked gently at
the door.

A low whispering was audible, immediately afterwards, as if some
person at the end of the passage were conversing stealthily with
another on the landing above. It was succeeded by the noise of a
pair of heavy boots upon the bare floor. The door-chain was softly
unfastened; the door opened; and a tall, ill-favoured man, with
black hair, and a face, as the surgeon often declared afterwards,
as pale and haggard, as the countenance of any dead man he ever
saw, presented himself.

'Walk in, sir,' he said in a low tone.

The surgeon did so, and the man having secured the door again, by
the chain, led the way to a small back parlour at the extremity of
the passage.

'Am I in time?'

'Too soon!' replied the man. The surgeon turned hastily round,
with a gesture of astonishment not unmixed with alarm, which he
found it impossible to repress.

'If you'll step in here, sir,' said the man, who had evidently
noticed the action--'if you'll step in here, sir, you won't be
detained five minutes, I assure you.'

The surgeon at once walked into the room. The man closed the door,
and left him alone.

It was a little cold room, with no other furniture than two deal
chairs, and a table of the same material. A handful of fire,
unguarded by any fender, was burning in the grate, which brought
out the damp if it served no more comfortable purpose, for the
unwholesome moisture was stealing down the walls, in long slug-like
tracks. The window, which was broken and patched in many places,
looked into a small enclosed piece of ground, almost covered with
water. Not a sound was to be heard, either within the house, or
without. The young surgeon sat down by the fireplace, to await the
result of his first professional visit.

He had not remained in this position many minutes, when the noise
of some approaching vehicle struck his ear. It stopped; the
street-door was opened; a low talking succeeded, accompanied with a
shuffling noise of footsteps, along the passage and on the stairs,
as if two or three men were engaged in carrying some heavy body to
the room above. The creaking of the stairs, a few seconds
afterwards, announced that the new-comers having completed their
task, whatever it was, were leaving the house. The door was again
closed, and the former silence was restored.

Another five minutes had elapsed, and the surgeon had resolved to
explore the house, in search of some one to whom he might make his
errand known, when the room-door opened, and his last night's
visitor, dressed in exactly the same manner, with the veil lowered
as before, motioned him to advance. The singular height of her
form, coupled with the circumstance of her not speaking, caused the
idea to pass across his brain for an instant, that it might be a
man disguised in woman's attire. The hysteric sobs which issued
from beneath the veil, and the convulsive attitude of grief of the
whole figure, however, at once exposed the absurdity of the
suspicion; and he hastily followed.

The woman led the way up-stairs to the front room, and paused at
the door, to let him enter first. It was scantily furnished with
an old deal box, a few chairs, and a tent bedstead, without
hangings or cross-rails, which was covered with a patchwork
counterpane. The dim light admitted through the curtain which he
had noticed from the outside, rendered the objects in the room so
indistinct, and communicated to all of them so uniform a hue, that
he did not, at first, perceive the object on which his eye at once
rested when the woman rushed frantically past him, and flung
herself on her knees by the bedside.

Stretched upon the bed, closely enveloped in a linen wrapper, and
covered with blankets, lay a human form, stiff and motionless. The
head and face, which were those of a man, were uncovered, save by a
bandage which passed over the head and under the chin. The eyes
were closed. The left arm lay heavily across the bed, and the
woman held the passive hand.

The surgeon gently pushed the woman aside, and took the hand in
his.

'My God!' he exclaimed, letting it fall involuntarily--'the man is
dead!'

The woman started to her feet and beat her hands together.

'Oh! don't say so, sir,' she exclaimed, with a burst of passion,
amounting almost to frenzy. 'Oh! don't say so, sir! I can't bear
it! Men have been brought to life, before, when unskilful people
have given them up for lost; and men have died, who might have been
restored, if proper means had been resorted to. Don't let him lie
here, sir, without one effort to save him! This very moment life
may be passing away. Do try, sir,--do, for Heaven's sake!'--And
while speaking, she hurriedly chafed, first the forehead, and then
the breast, of the senseless form before her; and then, wildly beat
the cold hands, which, when she ceased to hold them, fell
listlessly and heavily back on the coverlet.

'It is of no use, my good woman,' said the surgeon, soothingly, as
he withdrew his hand from the man's breast. 'Stay--undraw that
curtain!'

'Why?' said the woman, starting up.

'Undraw that curtain!' repeated the surgeon in an agitated tone.

'I darkened the room on purpose,' said the woman, throwing herself
before him as he rose to undraw it.--'Oh! sir, have pity on me! If
it can be of no use, and he is really dead, do not expose that form
to other eyes than mine!'

'This man died no natural or easy death,' said the surgeon. 'I
MUST see the body!' With a motion so sudden, that the woman hardly
knew that he had slipped from beside her, he tore open the curtain,
admitted the full light of day, and returned to the bedside.

'There has been violence here,' he said, pointing towards the body,
and gazing intently on the face, from which the black veil was now,
for the first time, removed. In the excitement of a minute before,
the female had thrown off the bonnet and veil, and now stood with
her eyes fixed upon him. Her features were those of a woman about
fifty, who had once been handsome. Sorrow and weeping had left
traces upon them which not time itself would ever have produced
without their aid; her face was deadly pale; and there was a
nervous contortion of the lip, and an unnatural fire in her eye,
which showed too plainly that her bodily and mental powers had
nearly sunk, beneath an accumulation of misery.

'There has been violence here,' said the surgeon, preserving his
searching glance.

'There has!' replied the woman.

'This man has been murdered.'

'That I call God to witness he has,' said the woman, passionately;
'pitilessly, inhumanly murdered!'

'By whom?' said the surgeon, seizing the woman by the arm.

'Look at the butchers' marks, and then ask me!' she replied.

The surgeon turned his face towards the bed, and bent over the body
which now lay full in the light of the window. The throat was
swollen, and a livid mark encircled it. The truth flashed suddenly
upon him.

'This is one of the men who were hanged this morning!' he
exclaimed, turning away with a shudder.

'It is,' replied the woman, with a cold, unmeaning stare.

'Who was he?' inquired the surgeon.

'MY SON,' rejoined the woman; and fell senseless at his feet.

It was true. A companion, equally guilty with himself, had been
acquitted for want of evidence; and this man had been left for
death, and executed. To recount the circumstances of the case, at
this distant period, must be unnecessary, and might give pain to
some persons still alive. The history was an every-day one. The
mother was a widow without friends or money, and had denied herself
necessaries to bestow them on her orphan boy. That boy, unmindful
of her prayers, and forgetful of the sufferings she had endured for
him--incessant anxiety of mind, and voluntary starvation of body--
had plunged into a career of dissipation and crime. And this was
the result; his own death by the hangman's hands, and his mother's
shame, and incurable insanity.

For many years after this occurrence, and when profitable and
arduous avocations would have led many men to forget that such a
miserable being existed, the young surgeon was a daily visitor at
the side of the harmless mad woman; not only soothing her by his
presence and kindness, but alleviating the rigour of her condition
by pecuniary donations for her comfort and support, bestowed with
no sparing hand. In the transient gleam of recollection and
consciousness which preceded her death, a prayer for his welfare
and protection, as fervent as mortal ever breathed, rose from the
lips of this poor friendless creature. That prayer flew to Heaven,
and was heard. The blessings he was instrumental in conferring,
have been repaid to him a thousand-fold; but, amid all the honours
of rank and station which have since been heaped upon him, and
which he has so well earned, he can have no reminiscence more
gratifying to his heart than that connected with The Black Veil.

Charles Dickens