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"May I say a word?" Mrs. Mosey inquired. She entered the room--pale and trembling. Seeing that ominous change, Emily dropped back into her chair.
"Dead?" she said faintly.
Mrs. Mosey looked at her in vacant surprise.
"I wish to say, miss, that your aunt has frightened me."
Even that vague allusion was enough for Emily.
"You need say no more," she replied. "I know but too well how my aunt's mind is affected by the fever."
Confused and frightened as she was, Mrs. Mosey still found relief in her customary flow of words.
"Many and many a person have I nursed in fever," she announced. "Many and many a person have I heard say strange things. Never yet, miss, in all my experience--!"
"Don't tell me of it!" Emily interposed.
"Oh, but I must tell you! In your own interests, Miss Emily--in your own interests. I won't be inhuman enough to leave you alone in the house to-night; but if this delirium goes on, I must ask you to get another nurse. Shocking suspicions are lying in wait for me in that bedroom, as it were. I can't resist them as I ought, if I go back again, and hear your aunt saying what she has been saying for the last half hour and more. Mrs. Ellmother has expected impossibilities of me; and Mrs. Ellmother must take the consequences. I don't say she didn't warn me--speaking, you will please to understand, in the strictest confidence. 'Elizabeth,' she says, 'you know how wildly people talk in Miss Letitia's present condition. Pay no heed to it,' she says. 'Let it go in at one ear and out at the other,' she says. 'If Miss Emily asks questions--you know nothing about it. If she's frightened--you know nothing about it. If she bursts into fits of crying that are dreadful to see, pity her, poor thing, but take no notice.' All very well, and sounds like speaking out, doesn't it? Nothing of the sort! Mrs. Ellmother warns me to expect this, that, and the other. But there is one horrid thing (which I heard, mind, over and over again at your aunt's bedside) that she does not prepare me for; and that horrid thing is--Murder!"
At that last word, Mrs. Mosey dropped her voice to a whisper--and waited to see what effect she had produced.
Sorely tried already by the cruel perplexities of her position, Emily's courage failed to resist the first sensation of horror, aroused in her by the climax of the nurse's hysterical narrative. Encouraged by her silence, Mrs. Mosey went on. She lifted one hand with theatrical solemnity--and luxuriously terrified herself with her own horrors.
"An inn, Miss Emily; a lonely inn, somewhere in the country; and a comfortless room at the inn, with a makeshift bed at one end of it, and a makeshift bed at the other--I give you my word of honor, that was how your aunt put it. She spoke of two men next; two men asleep (you understand) in the two beds. I think she called them 'gentlemen'; but I can't be sure, and I wouldn't deceive you--you know I wouldn't deceive you, for the world. Miss Letitia muttered and mumbled, poor soul. I own I was getting tired of listening--when she burst out plain again, in that one horrid word--Oh, miss, don't be impatient! don't interrupt me!"
Emily did interrupt, nevertheless. In some degree at least she had recovered herself. "No more of it!" she said--"I won't hear a word more."
But Mrs. Mosey was too resolutely bent on asserting her own importance, by making the most of the alarm that she had suffered, to be repressed by any ordinary method of remonstrance. Without paying the slightest attention to what Emily had said, she went on again more loudly and more excitably than ever.
"Listen, miss--listen! The dreadful part of it is to come; you haven't heard about the two gentlemen yet. One of them was murdered--what do you think of that!--and the other (I heard your aunt say it, in so many words) committed the crime. Did Miss Letitia fancy she was addressing a lot of people when you were nursing her? She called out, like a person making public proclamation, when I was in her room. 'Whoever you are, good people' (she says), 'a hundred pounds reward, if you find the runaway murderer. Search everywhere for a poor weak womanish creature, with rings on his little white hands. There's nothing about him like a man, except his voice--a fine round voice. You'll know him, my friends--the wretch, the monster--you'll know him by his voice.' That was how she put it; I tell you again, that was how she put it. Did you hear her scream? Ah, my dear young lady, so much the better for you! 'O the horrid murder' (she says)--'hush it up!' I'll take my Bible oath before the magistrate," cried Mrs. Mosey, starting out of her chair, "your aunt said, 'Hush it up!'"
Emily crossed the room. The energy of her character was roused at last. She seized the foolish woman by the shoulders, forced her back in the chair, and looked her straight in the face without uttering a word.
For the moment, Mrs. Mosey was petrified. She had fully expected--having reached the end of her terrible story--to find Emily at her feet, entreating her not to carry out her intention of leaving the cottage the next morning; and she had determined, after her sense of her own importance had been sufficiently flattered, to grant the prayer of the helpless young lady. Those were her anticipations--and how had they been fulfilled? She had been treated like a mad woman in a state of revolt!
"How dare you assault me?" she asked piteously. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself. God knows I meant well."
"You are not the first person," Emily answered, quietly releasing her, "who has done wrong with the best intentions."
"I did my duty, miss, when I told you what your aunt said."
"You forgot your duty when you listened to what my aunt said."
"Allow me to explain myself."
"No: not a word more on that subject shall pass between us. Remain here, if you please; I have something to suggest in your own interests. Wait, and compose yourself."
The purpose which had taken a foremost place in Emily's mind rested on the firm foundation of her love and pity for her aunt.
Now that she had regained the power to think, she felt a hateful doubt pressed on her by Mrs. Mosey's disclosures. Having taken for granted that there was a foundation in truth for what she herself had heard in her aunt's room, could she reasonably resist the conclusion that there must be a foundation in truth for what Mrs. Mosey had heard, under similar circumstances?
There was but one way of escaping from this dilemma--and Emily deliberately took it. She turned her back on her own convictions; and persuaded herself that she had been in the wrong, when she had attached importance to anything that her aunt had said, under the influence of delirium. Having adopted this conclusion, she resolved to face the prospect of a night's solitude by the death-bed--rather than permit Mrs. Mosey to have a second opportunity of drawing her own inferences from what she might hear in Miss Letitia's room.
"Do you mean to keep me waiting much longer, miss?"
"Not a moment longer, now you are composed again," Emily answered. "I have been thinking of what has happened; and I fail to see any necessity for putting off your departure until the doctor comes to-morrow morning. There is really no objection to your leaving me to-night."
"I beg your pardon, miss; there is an objection. I have already told you I can't reconcile it to my conscience to leave you here by yourself. I am not an inhuman woman," said Mrs. Mosey, putting her handkerchief to her eyes--smitten with pity for herself.
Emily tried the effect of a conciliatory reply. "I am grateful for your kindness in offering to stay with me," she said.
"Very good of you, I'm sure," Mrs. Mosey answered ironically. "But for all that, you persist in sending me away."
"I persist in thinking that there is no necessity for my keeping you here until to-morrow."
"Oh, have it your own way! I am not reduced to forcing my company on anybody."
Mrs. Mosey put her handkerchief in her pocket, and asserted her dignity. With head erect and slowly-marching steps she walked out of the room. Emily was left in the cottage, alone with her dying aunt.
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