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The morning found her afoot again, but fast declining as to the clearness of her thoughts, though not as to the steadiness of her purpose. Comprehending that her strength was quitting her, and that the struggle of her life was almost ended, she could neither reason out the means of getting back to her protectors, nor even form the idea. The overmastering dread, and the proud stubborn resolution it engendered in her to die undegraded, were the two distinct impressions left in her failing mind. Supported only by a sense that she was bent on conquering in her life-long fight, she went on.
The time was come, now, when the wants of this little life were passing away from her. She could not have swallowed food, though a table had been spread for her in the next field. The day was cold and wet, but she scarcely knew it. She crept on, poor soul, like a criminal afraid of being taken, and felt little beyond the terror of falling down while it was yet daylight, and being found alive. She had no fear that she would live through another night.
Sewn in the breast of her gown, the money to pay for her burial was still intact. If she could wear through the day, and then lie down to die under cover of the darkness, she would die independent. If she were captured previously, the money would be taken from her as a pauper who had no right to it, and she would be carried to the accursed workhouse. Gaining her end, the letter would be found in her breast, along with the money, and the gentlefolks would say when it was given back to them, 'She prized it, did old Betty Higden; she was true to it; and while she lived, she would never let it be disgraced by falling into the hands of those that she held in horror.' Most illogical, inconsequential, and light- headed, this; but travellers in the valley of the shadow of death are apt to be light-headed; and worn-out old people of low estate have a trick of reasoning as indifferently as they live, and doubtless would appreciate our Poor Law more philosophically on an income of ten thousand a year.
So, keeping to byways, and shunning human approach, this troublesome old woman hid herself, and fared on all through the dreary day. Yet so unlike was she to vagrant hiders in general, that sometimes, as the day advanced, there was a bright fire in her eyes, and a quicker beating at her feeble heart, as though she said exultingly, 'The Lord will see me through it!'
By what visionary hands she was led along upon that journey of escape from the Samaritan; by what voices, hushed in the grave, she seemed to be addressed; how she fancied the dead child in her arms again, and times innumerable adjusted her shawl to keep it warm; what infinite variety of forms of tower and roof and steeple the trees took; how many furious horsemen rode at her, crying, 'There she goes! Stop! Stop, Betty Higden!' and melted away as they came close; be these things left untold. Faring on and hiding, hiding and faring on, the poor harmless creature, as though she were a Murderess and the whole country were up after her, wore out the day, and gained the night.
'Water-meadows, or such like,' she had sometimes murmured, on the day's pilgrimage, when she had raised her head and taken any note of the real objects about her. There now arose in the darkness, a great building, full of lighted windows. Smoke was issuing from a high chimney in the rear of it, and there was the sound of a water-wheel at the side. Between her and the building, lay a piece of water, in which the lighted windows were reflected, and on its nearest margin was a plantation of trees. 'I humbly thank the Power and the Glory,' said Betty Higden, holding up her withered hands, 'that I have come to my journey's end!'
She crept among the trees to the trunk of a tree whence she could see, beyond some intervening trees and branches, the lighted windows, both in their reality and their reflection in the water. She placed her orderly little basket at her side, and sank upon the ground, supporting herself against the tree. It brought to her mind the foot of the Cross, and she committed herself to Him who died upon it. Her strength held out to enable her to arrange the letter in her breast, so as that it could be seen that she had a paper there. It had held out for this, and it departed when this was done.
'I am safe here,' was her last benumbed thought. 'When I am found dead at the foot of the Cross, it will be by some of my own sort; some of the working people who work among the lights yonder. I cannot see the lighted windows now, but they are there. I am thankful for all!'
The darkness gone, and a face bending down.
'It cannot be the boofer lady?'
'I don't understand what you say. Let me wet your lips again with this brandy. I have been away to fetch it. Did you think that I was long gone?'
It is as the face of a woman, shaded by a quantity of rich dark hair. It is the earnest face of a woman who is young and handsome. But all is over with me on earth, and this must be an Angel.
'Have I been long dead?'
'I don't understand what you say. Let me wet your lips again. I hurried all I could, and brought no one back with me, lest you should die of the shock of strangers.'
'Am I not dead?'
'I cannot understand what you say. Your voice is so low and broken that I cannot hear you. Do you hear me?'
'Do you mean Yes?'
'I was coming from my work just now, along the path outside (I was up with the night-hands last night), and I heard a groan, and found you lying here.'
'What work, deary?'
'Did you ask what work? At the paper-mill.'
'Where is it?'
'Your face is turned up to the sky, and you can't see it. It is close by. You can see my face, here, between you and the sky?'
'Dare I lift you?'
'Not even lift your head to get it on my arm? I will do it by very gentle degrees. You shall hardly feel it.'
'Not yet. Paper. Letter.'
'This paper in your breast?'
'Let me wet your lips again. Am I to open it? To read it?'
She reads it with surprise, and looks down with a new expression and an added interest on the motionless face she kneels beside.
'I know these names. I have heard them often.'
'Will you send it, my dear?'
'I cannot understand you. Let me wet your lips again, and your forehead. There. O poor thing, poor thing!' These words through her fast-dropping tears. 'What was it that you asked me? Wait till I bring my ear quite close.'
'Will you send it, my dear?'
'Will I send it to the writers? Is that your wish? Yes, certainly.'
'You'll not give it up to any one but them?'
'As you must grow old in time, and come to your dying hour, my dear, you'll not give it up to any one but them?'
'No. Most solemnly.'
'Never to the Parish!' with a convulsed struggle.
'No. Most solemnly.'
'Nor let the Parish touch me, not yet so much as look at me!' with another struggle.
A look of thankfulness and triumph lights the worn old face.
The eyes, which have been darkly fixed upon the sky, turn with meaning in them towards the compassionate face from which the tears are dropping, and a smile is on the aged lips as they ask:
'What is your name, my dear?'
'My name is Lizzie Hexam.'
'I must be sore disfigured. Are you afraid to kiss me?'
The answer is, the ready pressure of her lips upon the cold but smiling mouth.
'Bless ye! NOW lift me, my love.'
Lizzie Hexam very softly raised the weather-stained grey head, and lifted her as high as Heaven.
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Our Mutual Friend -- by Charles Dickens