Story type: Literature
Matilda Bent was dying; there was no doubt of that now, if there had been before. The gruff old physician–one of the many overworked and underpaid country doctors–shook his head and pushed by Joe Bent, her husband, as he passed through the room which served as dining-room, sitting-room, and parlor. The poor fellow slouched back to his chair by the stove as if dazed, and before he could speak again the doctor was gone.
Mrs. Ridings was just coming up the walk as the doctor stepped out of the door.
“Oh, doctor, how is she?”
“She is a dying woman, madam.”
“Oh, don’t say that, doctor! What’s the matter?”
“Then the news was true–“
“I don’t know anything of the news, Mrs. Ridings, but Mrs. Bent is dying from the effects of a cancer primarily, which she has had for years–since her last child, which died in infancy, you remember.”
“But, doctor, she never told me–“
“Neither did she tell me. But no matter now. I have done all I can for her. If you can make death any easier for her, go and do it. You will find some opiate powders there with directions. Keep the pain down at all hazards. Don’t let her suffer; that is useless. She is likely to last a day or two; but if any change comes to-night, send for me.”
When the good matron entered the dowdy, suffocating little room where Matilda Bent lay gasping for breath, she was sick for a moment with sympathetic pain. There the dying woman lay, her world narrowed to four close walls, propped up on the pillows near the one little window. Her eyes seemed very large and bright, and the brow, made prominent by the sinking away of the cheeks, gave evidence that it was an uncommon woman who lay there quietly waiting the death angel.
She smiled, and lifted her eyebrows in a ghastly way.
“Oh, Marthy!” she breathed.
“Matildy, I didn’t know you was so bad or I’d ‘a’ come before. Why didn’t you let me know?” said Mrs. Ridings, kneeling by the bed and taking the ghostly hands of the sufferer in her own warm and soft palms. She shuddered as she kissed the thin lips.
“I think you’ll soon be around ag’in,” she added, in the customary mockery of an attempt at cheer. The other woman started slightly, turned her head, and gazed on her old friend long and intently. The hollowness of her neighbor’s words stung her.
“I hope not, Marthy–I’m ready to go. I want to go. I don’t care to live.”
The two women communed by looking for a long time in each other’s eyes, as if to get at the very secretest desires and hopes of the heart. Tears fell from Martha’s eyes upon the cold and nerveless hands of her friend–poor, faithful hands, hacked and knotted and worn by thirty years of ceaseless daily toil. They lay there motionless upon the coverlet, pathetic protest for all the world to see.
“Oh, Matildy, I wish I could do something for you! I want to help you so! I feel so bad that I didn’t come before! Ain’t they somethin’?”
“Yes, Marthy–jest set there–till I die–it won’t be long,” whispered the pale lips. The sufferer, as usual, was calmer than her visitor, and her eyes were thoughtful.
“I will! I will! But oh, must you go? Can’t somethin’ be done? Don’t yo’ want the minister to be sent for?”
“No, I’m all ready. I ain’t afraid to die. I ain’t worth savin’ now. Oh, Marthy, I never thought I’d come to this–did you? I never thought I’d die–so early in life–and die–unsatisfied.”
She lifted her head a little as she gasped out these words with an intensity of utterance that thrilled her hearer–a powerful, penetrating earnestness that burned like fire.
“Are you satisfied?” pursued the steady lips. “My life’s a failure, Marthy–I’ve known it all along–all but my children. Oh, Marthy, what’ll become o’ them? This is a hard world.”
The amazed Martha could only chafe the hands, and note sorrowfully the frightful changes in the face of her friend. The weirdly calm, slow voice began to shake a little.
“I’m dyin’, Marthy, without ever gittin’ to the sunny place we girls–used to think–we’d git to, by-an’-by. I’ve been a-gittin’ deeper ‘n’ deeper–in the shade–till it’s most dark. They ain’t been no rest–n’r hope f’r me, Marthy–none. I ain’t–“
“There, there, Tillie, don’t talk so–don’t, dear! Try to think how bright it’ll be over there–“
“I don’t know nawthin’ about over there; I’m talkin’ about here. I ain’t had no chance here, Marthy.”
“He will heal all your care–“
“He can’t wipe out my sufferin’s here.”
“Yes, He can, and He will. He can wipe away every tear and heal every wound.”
“No–he–can’t. God Himself can’t wipe out what has been. Oh, Mattie, if I was only there!–in the past–if I was only young and purty ag’in! You know how tall I was! How we used to run–oh, Mattie, if I was only there! The world was all bright then–wasn’t it? We didn’t expect–to work all our days. Life looked like a meadow, full of daisies and pinks, and the nicest ones and the sweetest birds were just a little ways on–where the sun was–it didn’t look–wasn’t we happy?”
“Yes, yes, dear. But you mustn’t talk so much.” The good woman thought Matilda’s mind was wandering. “Don’t you want some med’cine? Is your fever risin’?”
“But the daisies and pinks all turned to weeds,” she went on, waiting a little, “when we picked ’em. An’ the sunny place–has been always behind me, and the dark before me. Oh, if I was only there–in the sun–where the pinks and daisies are!”
“You mustn’t talk so, Mattie! Think about your children! You ain’t sorry y’had them? They’ve been a comfort to y’? You ain’t sorry you had ’em?”
“I ain’t glad,” was the unhesitating reply of the failing woman; and then she went on, in growing excitement: “They’ll haf to grow old jest as I have–git bent and gray, an’ die. They ain’t be’n much comfort to me: the boys are like their father, and Julyie’s weak. They ain’t no happiness–for such as me and them.”
She paused for breath, and Mrs. Ridings, not knowing what to say, did better than speak. She fell to stroking the poor face and the hands, getting more restless each moment. It was as if Matilda Fletcher had been silent so long, had borne so much without complaint, that now it burst from her in a torrent not to be stayed. All her most secret doubts and her sweetest hopes seemed trembling on her lips or surging in her brain, racking her poor, emaciated frame for utterence. Now that death was sure, she was determined to rid her bosom of its perilous stuff. Martha was appalled.
“I used to think–that when I got married I’d be perfectly happy; but I never have been happy sence. It was the beginning of trouble to me. I never found things better than they looked; they was always worse. I’ve gone further an’ further from the sunshiny meadow, an’ the birds an’ flowers–and I’ll never git back to ’em again, never!” She ended with a sob and a low wail.
Her face was horrifying with its intensity of pathetic regret. Her straining, wide-open eyes seemed to be seeing those sunny spots in the meadow.
“Mattie, sometimes when I’m asleep I think I am back there ag’in–and you girls are there–an’ we’re pullin’ off the leaves of the wild sunflower–‘rich man, poor man, beggar man’–and I hear you all laugh when I pull off the last leaf; and then I come to myself–and I’m an old, dried-up woman, dyin’–unsatisfied!”
“I’ve felt that way a little myself, Matildy,” confessed the watcher, in a scared whisper.
“I knew it, Mattie; I knew you’d know how I felt. Things have been better for you. You ain’t had to live in an old log house all your life, an’ work yourself to skin an’ bone for a man you don’t respect nor like.”
“Matildy Bent, take that back! Take it back, for mercy sake! Don’t you dare die thinkin’ that–don’t you dare!”
Bent, hearing her voice rising, came to the door, and the wife, recognizing his step, cried out:
“Don’t let him in! Don’t! I can’t bear him–keep him out; I don’t want to see him ag’in.”
“Who do you mean? Not Joe?”
Had the dying woman confessed to murder, good Martha could not have been more shocked. She could not understand this terrible revulsion in feeling, for she herself had been absolutely loyal to her husband through all the trials which had come upon them.
But she met Bent at the threshold, and, closing the door, went out with him into the summer kitchen, where the rest of the family were sitting. A gloomy silence fell on them all after the greetings were over. The men were smoking; all were seated in chairs tipped back against the wall. Joe Bent, a smallish man, with a weak, good-natured face, asked, in a hoarse whisper:
“How is she, Mis’ Ridings?”
“She seems quite strong, Mr. Bent. I think you had all better go to bed; if I want you, I can call you. Doctor give me directions.”
“All right,” responded the relieved man. “I’ll sleep on the lounge in the other room. If you want me, just rap on the door.”
When, after making other arrangements, Martha went back to the bedroom, she was startled to hear the sick woman muttering to herself, or perhaps because she had forgotten Martha’s absence.
“But the shadows on the meadow didn’t stay; they passed on, and then the sun was all the brighter on the flowers. We used to string sweet-williams on spears of grass–don’t you remember?”
Martha gave her a drink of the opiate in the glass, adjusted her on the pillow, and threw open the window, even to the point of removing the screen, and the gibbous moon flooded the room with light. She did not light a lamp, for its flame would heat the room. Besides, the moonlight was sufficient. It fell on the face of the sick woman till she looked like a thing of marble–all but her dark eyes.
“Does the moon hurt you, Tilly? Shall I put down the curtain?”
The woman heard with difficulty, and when the question was repeated, said slowly:
“No, I like it.” After a little: “Don’t you remember, Mattie, how beautiful the moonlight seemed? It seemed to promise happiness–and love–but it never come for us. It makes me dream of the past now–just as it did of the future then; an’ the whip-poor-wills, too–“
The night was perfectly beautiful, such a night as makes dying an infinite sorrow. The summer was at its liberalest. Innumerable insects of the nocturnal sort were singing in unison with the frogs in the pools. A whip-poor-will called, and its neighbor answered like an echo. The leaves of the trees, glossy from the late rain, moved musically to the light west wind, and the exquisite perfume of many flowers came in on the breeze.
When the failing woman sank into silence, Martha leaned her elbow on the window-sill, and, gazing far into the great deeps of space, gave herself up to unwonted musings upon the problems of human life. She sighed deeply at times. She found herself at moments in the almost terrifying position of a human soul in space. Not a wife, not a mother, but just a soul facing the questions which harass philosophers. As she realized her condition of mind she apprehended something of the thinking of the woman on the bed. Matilda had gone beyond–or far back–of the wife and mother.
The hours wore on; the dying woman stirred uneasily now and then, whispering a word or phrase which related to her girlhood–never to her later life. Once she said:
“Mother, hold me. I’m so tired.”
Martha took the thin form in her arms, and, laying her head close beside the sunken cheek, sang, in half breath, a lullaby till the sufferer grew quiet again.
The lustrous moon passed over the house, leaving the room dark, and still the patient watcher sat beside the bed, listening to the slow breathing of the dying one. The cool air grew almost chill; the east began to lighten, and with the coming light the tide of life sank in the dying body. The head, hitherto restlessly turning, ceased to move. The eyes grew quiet and began to soften like a sleeper’s.
“How are you now, dear?” asked the watcher several times, bending over the bed, and bathing back the straying hair.
“I’m tired–tired, mother–turn me,” she murmured drowsily, with heavy lids drooping.
Martha patted the pillows once again, and turned her friend’s face to the wall. The poor, tortured, restless brain slowly stopped its grinding whirl, and the thin limbs, heavy with years of hopeless toil, straightened out in an endless sleep.
Matilda Fletcher had found rest.