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He strikes into that path, and walks up to the wicket. By the light of a lamp near it, he sees that the woman is of a haggard appearance, and that her weazen chin is resting on her hands, and that her eyes are staring - with an unwinking, blind sort of steadfastness - before her.
Always kindly, but moved to be unusually kind this evening, and having bestowed kind words on most of the children and aged people he has met, he at once bends down, and speaks to this woman.
'Are you ill?'
'No, deary,' she answers, without looking at him, and with no departure from her strange blind stare.
'Are you blind?'
'Are you lost, homeless, faint? What is the matter, that you stay here in the cold so long, without moving?'
By slow and stiff efforts, she appears to contract her vision until it can rest upon him; and then a curious film passes over her, and she begins to shake.
He straightens himself, recoils a step, and looks down at her in a dread amazement; for he seems to know her.
'Good Heaven!' he thinks, next moment. 'Like Jack that night!'
As he looks down at her, she looks up at him, and whimpers: 'My lungs is weakly; my lungs is dreffle bad. Poor me, poor me, my cough is rattling dry!' and coughs in confirmation horribly.
'Where do you come from?'
'Come from London, deary.' (Her cough still rending her.)
'Where are you going to?'
'Back to London, deary. I came here, looking for a needle in a haystack, and I ain't found it. Look'ee, deary; give me three-and- sixpence, and don't you be afeard for me. I'll get back to London then, and trouble no one. I'm in a business. - Ah, me! It's slack, it's slack, and times is very bad! - but I can make a shift to live by it.'
'Do you eat opium?'
'Smokes it,' she replies with difficulty, still racked by her cough. 'Give me three-and-sixpence, and I'll lay it out well, and get back. If you don't give me three-and-sixpence, don't give me a brass farden. And if you do give me three-and-sixpence, deary, I'll tell you something.'
He counts the money from his pocket, and puts it in her hand. She instantly clutches it tight, and rises to her feet with a croaking laugh of satisfaction.
'Bless ye! Hark'ee, dear genl'mn. What's your Chris'en name?'
'Edwin, Edwin, Edwin,' she repeats, trailing off into a drowsy repetition of the word; and then asks suddenly: 'Is the short of that name Eddy?'
'It is sometimes called so,' he replies, with the colour starting to his face.
'Don't sweethearts call it so?' she asks, pondering.
'How should I know?'
'Haven't you a sweetheart, upon your soul?'
She is moving away, with another 'Bless ye, and thank'ee, deary!' when he adds: 'You were to tell me something; you may as well do so.'
'So I was, so I was. Well, then. Whisper. You be thankful that your name ain't Ned.'
He looks at her quite steadily, as he asks: 'Why?'
'Because it's a bad name to have just now.'
'How a bad name?'
'A threatened name. A dangerous name.'
'The proverb says that threatened men live long,' he tells her, lightly.
'Then Ned - so threatened is he, wherever he may be while I am a- talking to you, deary - should live to all eternity!' replies the woman.
She has leaned forward to say it in his ear, with her forefinger shaking before his eyes, and now huddles herself together, and with another 'Bless ye, and thank'ee!' goes away in the direction of the Travellers' Lodging House.
This is not an inspiriting close to a dull day. Alone, in a sequestered place, surrounded by vestiges of old time and decay, it rather has a tendency to call a shudder into being. He makes for the better-lighted streets, and resolves as he walks on to say nothing of this to-night, but to mention it to Jack (who alone calls him Ned), as an odd coincidence, to-morrow; of course only as a coincidence, and not as anything better worth remembering.
Still, it holds to him, as many things much better worth remembering never did. He has another mile or so, to linger out before the dinner-hour; and, when he walks over the bridge and by the river, the woman's words are in the rising wind, in the angry sky, in the troubled water, in the flickering lights. There is some solemn echo of them even in the Cathedral chime, which strikes a sudden surprise to his heart as he turns in under the archway of the gatehouse.
And so HE goes up the postern stair.
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The Mystery of Edwin Drood -- by Charles DickensBottom Content goes here. Wikipedia content requires these links..... Wikipedia content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.