字体设置:

It was no unfit messenger of death, who had disturbed the quiet of the matron's room.

Her body was bent by age; her limbs trembled with palsy; her face, distorted into a mumbling leer, resembled more the grotesque shaping of some wild pencil, than the work of Nature's hand. Alas!

How few of Nature's faces are left alone to gladden us with their beauty!

The cares, and sorrows, and hungerings, of the world, change them as they change hearts; and it is only when those passions sleep, and have lost their hold for ever, that the troubled clouds pass off, and leave Heaven's surface clear.

It is a common thing for the countenances of the dead, even in that fixed and rigid state, to subside into the long-forgotten expression of sleeping infancy, and settle into the very look of early life; so calm, so peaceful, do they grow again, that those who knew them in their happy childhood, kneel by the coffin's side in awe, and see the Angel even upon earth. The old crone tottered along the passages, and up the stairs, muttering some indistinct answers to the chidings of her companion; being at length compelled to pause for breath, she gave the light into her hand, and remained behind to follow as she might: while the more nimble superior made her way to the room where the sick woman lay. It was a bare garret-room, with a dim light burning at the farther end.

There was another old woman watching by the bed; the parish apothecary's apprentice was standing by the fire, making a toothpick out of a quill. 'Cold night, Mrs. Corney,' said this young gentleman, as the matron entered. 'Very cold, indeed, sir,' replied the mistress, in her most civil tones, and dropping a curtsey as she spoke. 'You should get better coals out of your contractors,' said the apothecary's deputy, breaking a lump on the top of the fire with the rusty poker; 'these are not at all the sort of thing for a cold night.' 'They're the board's choosing, sir,' returned the matron. 'The least they could do, would be to keep us pretty warm:

for our places are hard enough.' The conversation was here interrupted by a moan from the sick woman. 'Oh!' said the young mag, turning his face towards the bed, as if he had previously quite forgotten the patient, 'it's all U.P. there, Mrs. Corney.' 'It is, is it, sir?' asked the matron. 'If she lasts a couple of hours, I shall be surprised,' said the apothecary's apprentice, intent upon the toothpick's point. 'It's a break-up of the system altogether.

Is she dozing, old lady?' The attendant stooped over the bed, to ascertain; and nodded in the affirmative. 'Then perhaps she'll go off in that way, if you don't make a row,' said the young man.

'Put the light on the floor.

She won't see it there.' The attendant did as she was told:

shaking her head meanwhile, to intimate that the woman would not die so easily; having done so, she resumed her seat by the side of the other nurse, who had by this time returned.

The mistress, with an expression of impatience, wrapped herself in her shawl, and sat at the foot of the bed. The apothecary's apprentice, having completed the manufacture of the toothpick, planted himself in front of the fire and made good use of it for ten minutes or so:

when apparently growing rather dull, he wished Mrs. Corney joy of her job, and took himself off on tiptoe. 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 waxwork.

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 snuff-box, 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.' She clutched the matron by the arm, and forcing her into a chair by the bedside, was about to speak, when looking round, she caught sight of the two old women bending forward in the attitude of eager listeners. 'Turn them away,' said the woman, drowsily; 'make haste! make haste!' The two old crones, chiming in together, began pouring out many piteous lamentations that the poor dear was too far gone to know her best friends; and were uttering sundry protestations that they would never leave her, when the superior pushed them from the room, closed the door, and returned to the bedside.

On being excluded, the old ladies changed their tone, and cried through the keyhole that old Sally was drunk; which, indeed, was not unlikely; since, in addition to a moderate dose of opium prescribed by the apothecary, she was labouring under the effects of a final taste of gin-and-water which had been privily administered, in the openness of their hearts, by the worthy old ladies themselves. 'Now listen to me,' said the dying woman aloud, as if making a great effort to revive one latent spark of energy.

'In this very room--in this very bed--I once nursed a pretty young creetur', that was brought into the house with her feet cut and bruised with walking, and all soiled with dust and blood.

She gave birth to a boy, and died.

Let me think--what was the year again!' 'Never mind the year,' said the impatient auditor; 'what about her?' 'Ay,' murmured the sick woman, relapsing into her former drowsy state, 'what about her?--what about--I know!' she cried, jumping fiercely up: her face flushed, and her eyes starting from her head--'I robbed her, so I did!

She wasn't cold--I tell you she wasn't cold, when I stole it!' 'Stole what, for God's sake?' cried the matron, with a gesture as if she would call for help. '_It_!' replied the woman, laying her hand over the other's mouth. 'The only thing she had.

She wanted clothes to keep her warm, and food to eat; but she had kept it safe, and had it in her bosom.

It was gold, I tell you!

Rich gold, that might have saved her life!' 'Gold!' echoed the matron, bending eagerly over the woman as she fell back.

'Go on, go on--yes--what of it?

Who was the mother? When was it?' 'She charge me to keep it safe,' replied the woman with a groan, 'and trusted me as the only woman about her.

I stole it in my heart when she first showed it me hanging round her neck; and the child's death, perhaps, is on me besides!

They would have treated him better, if they had known it all!' 'Known what?' asked the other.

'Speak!' 'The boy grew so like his mother,' said the woman, rambling on, and not heeding the question, 'that I could never forget it when I saw his face.

Poor girl! poor girl!

She was so young, too! Such a gentle lamb!

Wait; there's more to tell.

I have not told you all, have I?' 'No, no,' replied the matron, inclining her head to catch the words, as they came more faintly from the dying woman.

'Be quick, or it may be too late!' 'The mother,' said the woman, making a more violent effort than before; 'the mother, when the pains of death first came upon her, whispered in my ear that if her baby was born alive, and thrived, the day might come when it would not feel so much disgraced to hear its poor young mother named. "And oh, kind Heaven!" she said, folding her thin hands together, "whether it be boy or girl, raise up some friends for it in this troubled world, and take pity upon a lonely desolate child, abandoned to its mercy!"' 'The boy's name?' demanded the matron. 'They _called_ him Oliver,' replied the woman, feebly.

'The gold I stole was--' 'Yes, yes--what?' cried the other. She was bending eagerly over the woman to hear her reply; but drew back, instinctively, as she once again rose, slowly and stiffly, into a sitting posture; then, clutching the coverlid with both hands, muttered some indistinct sounds in her throat, and fell lifeless on the bed.

* 'Stone dead!' said one of the old women, hurrying in as soon as the door was opened. 'And nothing to tell, after all,' rejoined the matron, walking carelessly away. The two crones, to all appearance, too busily occupied in the preparations for their dreadful duties to make any reply, were left alone, hovering about the body.

(叙述一件非常乏味的事,本章虽然很短,但在这部传记中却相当重要。)

女总管房间里的谧宁气氛被那个老婆子打破了,老太婆担任报丧人倒是再合适不过了,因为她上了年纪而且弯腰驼背,瘫软的手脚直打哆嗦,脸歪嘴瘪,还老是咕咕哝哝地翻白眼,看她那个样子,与其说是造化之功,还不如说像是一个信笔涂抹出来的怪物。

哀哉!出自造化的姣好面孔留下来供我们欣赏的是多么稀少。世间的操劳、悲哀、饥饿,可以改变人们的心灵,也会改变人们的面容。只有当种种烦恼逝去,永远失去了它们的控制力时,翻覆汹涌的云层才会消散,留下清朗的天颜。死者的面容即便已经完全僵化,也往往会现出久已被人忘怀的那种熟睡中的婴儿的表情,恢复初生时的模样。这些面容又一次变得那样平静,那样温和,一些从欢乐的童年时代就了解他们的人在灵柩旁边肃然跪下,仿佛看见了天使下凡。

于瘪老太婆磕磕绊绊地穿过走廊,登上楼梯,嘴里嘟嘟哝哝,含混不清地回答女总管的责骂。她终于撑不住了,便停下来喘口气,把灯递到柯尼太太手里,自己在后边歇一歇,再尽力跟上去,她的上司越发显得敏捷了,照直走进患病的妇人住的屋子。

这是一间空荡荡的阁楼,前边尽头处点着一盏昏暗的灯。另外一个老太婆守候在床边,教区药剂师的徒弟站在火炉旁,正在把一支羽毛削成牙签。

“柯尼太太,晚上真够冷的。”女总管走进门去,这位年轻绅士说道。

“确实很冷,先生。”柯尼太太操着最谦和的腔调回答,一边说,一边行了个屈膝礼。

“你们应当要承包商提供稍好一点的煤,”代理药剂师抓起锈迹斑斑的火钳,将炉子上的一大块煤敲碎。“这种东西根本对付不了一个寒冷的夜晚。”

“那是理事会选购的,先生,”女总管答道,“他们至少应该让我们过得相当暖和,我们这些地方够糟糕的了。”

生病的女人发出一声呻吟,打断了他们的谈话。

“哟。”年轻人朝床边转过脸去,似乎他先前已经把患者完全忘记了。“柯尼太太,没指望了。”

“没指望了,先生,是吗?”女总管问道。

“她要是拖得过两小时,我才会觉得奇怪呢,”见习药剂师说话时一门心思全放在牙签的尖头上。“整个系统崩溃了。老太婆,她是在打瞌睡吧?”

护士在床前俯身看了一下,肯定地点了点头。

“只要你们不惹出乱子,她或许就这样去了,”年轻人说道,“把灯放到地板上,那儿她看不见。”

护士照吩咐做了,与此同时,她摇了摇头,意思是这个女人不会那么轻易死的。办完事情,她又回到另一个看护身旁的座位上,她的这位同伴此时也已经回到房间里。柯尼太太一脸的不耐烦,裹了裹围巾,在床下首坐下来。

见习药剂师削好牙签,便一动不动地立在火炉前边,足足剔了十来分钟牙齿,然后也显得越来越不耐烦,他向柯尼太太说了声祝她工作愉快,蹑手蹑脚地出去了。

她们默不作声地坐了好一会,两个老太婆从床边站起来,蜷缩在炉火近旁,伸出皱巴巴的双手取暖。火苗把一团惨白的亮光投射到她们枯槁的脸上,将她俩那副丑八怪的样子照得更加狰狞可怕。她们将就着这种姿势,低声交谈起来。

“亲爱的安妮,我走了以后,她说了什么没有?”报丧的那一位问道。

“一个字也没说,”另一个回答,“有一阵子,她照着自己的胳臂又是扯又是拧,我把她的手逮住,没多久她就睡着了。她身上没多大力气,所以我轻轻松松就把她制服了。别看我也是吃教区的定量,再不济也敌得过一个老娘们——没错,没错。”

“大夫说过给她一点热葡萄酒,她喝了没有?”前一位问道。

“我本想给她灌下去,”另一个回答,“可她牙咬得紧绷绷的,手死死地抓住杯子,没法子,我只好把杯于缩回来,就那么把它给喝了,倒真不赖哩。”

两个丑八怪提心吊胆地回头看了一眼,断定没有人偷听,又往壁炉前凑了凑,开心地嘻嘻笑了起来。

“我心里有数,”先开口的那一位说,“她照样会来这一手,过后打个哈哈就算了事。”

“嗨,那是啊,”另一个答道,“她有一颗快活的心,好多好多漂亮的死人,跟蜡人一样清清爽爽,都是她送出门的。我这副老眼见得多了——嗨,这双老手还摸过呢。我给她打下手,总有几十回了吧。”

老太婆说着,哆哆嗦嗦地伸出手指,在面前洋洋得意晃了晃,又把手伸进衣袋胡乱摸了一气,掏出一个早已褪色的旧白铁鼻烟盒,往同伴伸过来的手心里抖出了几颗鼻烟粉末。两人正在受用,女总管本来一直在悻悻不止地等着那个生命垂危的妇人从昏迷中苏醒过来,这时也走过来,同她们一块儿烤火,她厉声问到底得等多久。

“夫人,要不了多久,”第二个老太婆抬起头来,望着病人的脸说。“我们谁也不会等不来死神的。别着急,别着急。死神很快就会上这儿来看我们大伙儿了。”

“住嘴,你这个疯疯癫癫的白痴。”女总管正颜厉色地说,“你,玛莎,给我说实话,她以前是不是这样?”

“常有的事。”第一个老太婆答道。

“不过再也不会这样了,”另一个补充说,“就是说,她顶多再醒来一回——您得留神,夫人,那也长不了。”

“管它长啊短的,”女总管暴躁地说,“她就是醒过来也看不见我在这儿,当心着点,你们俩,看你们还敢平白无故打搅我,给院里所有的老婆子送终压根儿不是我分内的事,我才——不说了。当心着点,你们这此鬼老婆子,真不识相。你们要是再敢糊弄我,我会立刻收拾你们的,话说在前头。”

她正想匆匆走出房间,两个妇人朝病床转过身去,忽然齐声大叫起来,柯尼太太不禁回头看了看。原来病人直挺挺地坐了起来,朝她们伸出胳臂。

“那是谁?”她用空洞的声音嚷道。

“嘘,嘘。”一个妇人俯身对她说,“躺下,躺下。”

“我再也不躺下了。”病人挣扎着说,“我一定要告诉她。上这边来。近一点。让我悄悄告诉你。”

她一把抓住女总管的肩膀,按进床边的一把椅子里,刚要开日,又扭头看了一眼,发现那两个老太婆正朝前躬着身子,姿势很像一班心情急迫的听众。

“把她们撵走,”病人昏昏沉沉地说,“快啊,快啊。”

两个干瘪老太婆一起大放悲声,开始倾吐无数可怜巴巴的哀叹,苦命的好人竟然病得连自己最知心的朋友都不认识了,她俩作出种种保证,表示自己绝对不会离开她的。这时,她俩的上司把两个人推了出去,关上房门,又回到床边。两个老太婆被赶出来以后,腔调也变了,她俩透过锁眼直嚷嚷,说老沙丽喝醉了,这一点的确不是不可能的,除了药剂师给她开的一剂用量适中的鸦片而外,她正在最后一次品尝的掺水杜松子酒的效力下受煎熬,那是这两个可敬的老太婆出于一片好心,背地里让她喝下去的。

“现在你听着,”濒临死亡的妇人大声地说,好像正在拚命挣扎,企图重新点燃一颗即将熄灭的生命火花。“就在这间屋子——就在这张床上——我伺候过一个可爱的人儿,她给带进济贫院来的时候,脚上因为走路弄得全是伤痕,糊满了尘土和血迹。她生下来一个男孩,就死了。让我想想——那又是哪一年。”

“管它哪一年,”那位心情不好的听众说道,“她怎么了?”

“唉,”病人喃喃地说,又恢复了先前昏昏欲睡的状况,“她怎么了?——她怎——我想起来了。”她喊叫起来,身体剧烈地抖动着,脸上腾起一团红晕,两只眼睛凸了出来——“我偷了她的东西,是我偷的。她身子还没冷——我跟你说,我把那东西偷走的时候,她还没变冷呢。”

“看在上帝分上,偷了什么?”女总管大喊大叫,样子像是在喊救命。

“这个!”病人用手捂住对放方的嘴,回答说。“她唯一的东西了。她需要衣裳挡挡风寒,需要东西吃,她却把这个保存得稳稳当当,放在心口上。我告诉你,这可是金的。值钱的金子,可以用来保住她的命。”

“金子!”女总管应声说道,病人向后倒去,她急不可待地跟着俯下身来。“说啊,说啊——是啊——是什么东西?那个当妈的是谁?什么时候的事?”

“她嘱咐我好好保存着,”病人呻吟了一声,答道,“她托付了我,我是唯一在她身边的女人。她头一回把挂在脖子上的这个东西拿给我看的时候,我就已经在心里把它偷走了。那孩子的死,或许,也是由于我呢。他们要是知道这一切,兴许会对孩子好一些。”

“知道什么?”对方问道,“说啊。”

“孩子长得真像他母亲,”病人絮絮叨叨地说,没有理会这个问题。“我一看到他的脸,就再也忘不了了。苦命的姑娘。苦命的姑娘。她还那么年轻。多温驯的一只小羊羔啊。等等,要说的还多着呢。我还没全部告诉你吧,是不是?”

“没有,没有,”女总管一边回答,一边低下头,全力捕捉这个垂死的妇人说出的每一个字,她的话音已经越来越低微。“快,来不及了。”

“那个当妈的,”病人说话比先前更吃力了,“那个当妈的,死亡的痛苦一来到她身上,她就凑在我耳边小声说,只要她的宝宝活着生下来,还能长大的话,那一天总会来的,到时候他听到人家提起自己苦命的小妈妈是不会感到丢脸的。‘噢,仁慈的上帝啊!’她两只瘦丁丁的手交叉在一块儿,说,‘不管是男孩还是姑娘,在这个乱糟糟的世道上,你总得替这孩子安排几个好人,你得可怜一个孤苦伶丁的孩子,不能扔下不管啊!”’

“那孩子叫什么名字?”

“他们叫他奥立弗,”病人有气无力地回答,“我把金首饰给偷走了,是——”

“对呀,对呀——是什么东西?”对方大叫一声。

她急迫地向老太婆弯下腰来,想听到她的回答,又本能地缩了回去。老婆子再一次缓慢而僵硬地坐起来,双手紧紧抓住床单,喉咙里咕嘟咕嘟地发出几声含混不清的声音,倒在床上不动了。

“死硬啦。”门一打开,两个老妇人冲了进来,其中一个说道。

“总归到底,什么也没说。”女总管应了一句,漫不经心地走了出去。

两个老太婆显然正忙着准备履行自己那份可怕的职责,什么也顾不上答理,她们留下来,在尸体周围徘徊着。