The Silent Sisters by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Literature

They had quarrelled in girlhood, and mutually declared their intention never to speak to each other again, wetting and drying their forefingers to the accompaniment of an ancient childish incantation, and while they lived on the paternal farm they kept their foolish oath with the stubbornness of a slow country stock, despite the alternate coaxing and chastisement of their parents, notwithstanding the perpetual everyday contact of their lives, through every vicissitude of season and weather, of sowing and reaping, of sun and shade, of joy and sorrow.

Death and misfortune did not reconcile them, and when their father died and the old farm was sold up, they travelled to London in the same silence, by the same train, in search of similar situations. Service separated them for years, though there was only a stone’s throw between them. They often stared at each other in the streets.

Honor, the elder, married a local artisan, and two and a half years later, Mercy, the younger, married a fellow-workman of Honor’s husband. The two husbands were friends, and often visited each other’s houses, which were on opposite sides of the same sordid street, and the wives made them welcome. Neither Honor nor Mercy suffered an allusion to their breach; it was understood that their silence must be received in silence. Each of the children had a quiverful of children who played and quarrelled together in the streets and in one another’s houses, but not even the street affrays and mutual grievances of the children could provoke the mothers to words. They stood at their doors in impotent fury, almost bursting with the torture of keeping their mouths shut against the effervescence of angry speech. When either lost a child the other watched the funeral from her window, dumb as the mutes.

The years rolled on, and still the river of silence flowed between their lives. Their good looks faded, the burden of life and child-bearing was heavy upon them. Grey hairs streaked their brown tresses, then brown hairs streaked their grey tresses. The puckers of age replaced the dimples of youth. The years rolled on, and Death grew busy among the families. Honor’s husband died, and Mercy lost a son, who died a week after his wife. Cholera took several of the younger children. But the sisters themselves lived on, bent and shrivelled by toil and sorrow, even more than by the slow frost of the years.

Then one day Mercy took to her death-bed. An internal disease, too long neglected, would carry her off within a week. So the doctor told Jim, Mercy’s husband.

Through him, the news travelled to Honor’s eldest son, who still lived with her. By the evening it reached Honor.

She went upstairs abruptly when her son told her, leaving him wondering at her stony aspect. When she came down she was bonneted and shawled. He was filled with joyous amaze to see her hobble across the street and for the first time in her life pass over her sister Mercy’s threshold.

As Honor entered the sick-room, with pursed lips, a light leapt into the wasted, wrinkled countenance of the dying creature. She raised herself slightly in bed, her lips parted, then shut tightly, and her face darkened.

Honor turned angrily to Mercy’s husband, who hung about impotently. “Why did you let her run down so low?” she said.

“I didn’t know,” the old man stammered, taken aback by her presence even more than by her question. “She was always a woman to say nothin’.”

Honor put him impatiently aside and examined the medicine bottle on the bedside table.

“Isn’t it time she took her dose?”

“I dessay.”

Honor snorted wrathfully. “What’s the use of a man?” she inquired, as she carefully measured out the fluid and put it to her sister’s lips, which opened to receive it, and then closed tightly again.

“How is your wife feeling now?” Honor asked after a pause.

“How are you, now, Mercy?” asked the old man awkwardly.

The old woman shook her head. “I’m a-goin’ fast, Jim,” she grumbled weakly, and a tear of self-pity trickled down her parchment cheek.

“What rubbidge she do talk!” cried Honor, sharply. “Why d’ye stand there like a tailor’s dummy? Why don’t you tell her to cheer up?”

“Cheer up, Mercy,” quavered the old man, hoarsely.

But Mercy groaned instead, and turned fretfully on her other side, with her face to the wall.

“I’m too old, I’m too old,” she moaned, “this is the end o’ me.”

“Did you ever hear the like?” Honor asked Jim, angrily, as she smoothed his wife’s pillow. “She was always conceited about her age, settin’ herself up as the equals of her elders, and here am I, her elder sister, as carried her in my arms when I was five and she was two, still hale and strong, and with no mind for underground for many a day. Nigh three times her age I was once, mind you, and now she has the imperence to talk of dyin’ before me.”

She took off her bonnet and shawl. “Send one o’ the kids to tell my boy I’m stayin’ here,” she said, “and then just you get ’em all to bed–there’s too much noise about the house.”

The children, who were orphaned grandchildren of the dying woman, were sent to bed, and then Jim himself was packed off to refresh himself for the next day’s labours, for the poor old fellow still doddered about the workshop.

The silence of the sick-room spread over the whole house. About ten o’clock the doctor came again and instructed Honor how to alleviate the patient’s last hours. All night long she sat watching her dying sister, hand and eye alert to anticipate every wish. No word broke the awful stillness.

The first thing in the morning, Mercy’s married daughter, the only child of hers living in London, arrived to nurse her mother. But Honor indignantly refused to be dispossessed.

“A nice daughter you are,” she said, “to leave your mother lay a day and a night without a sight o’ your ugly face.”

“I had to look after the good man, and the little ‘uns,” the daughter pleaded.

“Then what do you mean by desertin’ them now?” the irate old woman retorted. “First you deserts your mother, and then your husband and children. You must go back to them as needs your care. I carried your mother in my arms before you was born, and if she wants anybody else now to look after her, let her just tell me so, and I’ll be off in a brace o’ shakes.”

She looked defiantly at the yellow, dried-up creature in the bed. Mercy’s withered lips twitched, but no sound came from them. Jim, strung up by the situation, took the word. “You can’t do no good up here, the doctor says. You might look after the kids downstairs a bit, when you can spare an hour, and I’ve got to go to the shop. I’ll send you a telegraph if there’s a change,” he whispered to the daughter, and she, not wholly discontented to return to her living interests, kissed her mother, lingered a little, and then stole quietly away.

All that day the old women remained together in solemn silence, broken only by the doctor’s visit. He reported that Mercy might last a couple of days more. In the evening Jim replaced his sister-in-law, who slept perforce. At midnight she reappeared and sent him to bed. The sufferer tossed about restlessly. At half-past two she awoke, and Honor fed her with some broth, as she would have fed a baby. Mercy, indeed, looked scarcely bigger than an infant, and Honor only had the advantage of her by being puffed out with clothes. A church clock in the distance struck three. Then the silence fell deeper. The watcher drowsed, the lamp flickered, tossing her shadow about the walls as if she, too, were turning feverishly from side to side. A strange ticking made itself heard in the wainscoting. Mercy sat up with a scream of terror. “Jim!” she shrieked, “Jim!”

Honor started up, opened her mouth to cry “Hush!” then checked herself, suddenly frozen.

“Jim,” cried the dying woman, “listen! Is that the death spider?”

Honor listened, her blood curdling. Then she went towards the door and opened it. “Jim,” she said, in low tones, speaking towards the landing, “tell her it’s nothing, it’s only a mouse. She was always a nervous little thing.” And she closed the door softly, and pressing her trembling sister tenderly back on the pillow, tucked her up snugly in the blanket.

Next morning, when Jim was really present, the patient begged pathetically to have a grandchild with her in the room, day and night. “Don’t leave me alone again,” she quavered, “don’t leave me alone with not a soul to talk to.” Honor winced, but said nothing.

The youngest child, who did not have to go to school, was brought–a pretty little boy with brown curls, which the sun, streaming through the panes, turned to gold. The morning passed slowly. About noon Mercy took the child’s hand, and smoothed his curls.

“My sister Honor had golden curls like that,” she whispered.

“They were in the family, Bobby,” Honor answered. “Your granny had them, too, when she was a girl.”

There was a long pause. Mercy’s eyes were half-glazed. But her vision was inward now.

“The mignonette will be growin’ in the gardens, Bobby,” she murmured.

“Yes, Bobby, and the heart’s-ease,” said Honor, softly. “We lived in the country, you know, Bobby.”

“There is flowers in the country,” Bobby declared gravely.

“Yes, and trees,” said Honor. “I wonder if your granny remembers when we were larruped for stealin’ apples.”

“Ay, that I do, Bobby, he, he,” croaked the dying creature, with a burst of enthusiasm. “We was a pair o’ tomboys. The farmer he ran after us cryin’ ‘Ye! ye!’ but we wouldn’t take no gar. He, he, he!”

Honor wept at the laughter. The native idiom, unheard for half a century, made her face shine under the tears. “Don’t let your granny excite herself, Bobby. Let me give her her drink.” She moved the boy aside, and Mercy’s lips automatically opened to the draught.

“Tom was wi’ us, Bobby,” she gurgled, still vibrating with amusement, “and he tumbled over on the heather. He, he!”

“Tom is dead this forty year, Bobby,” whispered Honor.

Mercy’s head fell back, and an expression of supreme exhaustion came over the face. Half an hour passed. Bobby was called down to dinner. The doctor had been sent for. The silent sisters were alone. Suddenly Mercy sat up with a jerk.

“It be growin’ dark, Tom,” she said hoarsely, “‘haint it time to call the cattle home from the ma’shes?”

“She’s talkin’ rubbidge again,” said Honor, chokingly. “Tell her she’s in London, Bobby.”

A wave of intelligence traversed the sallow face. Still sitting up, Mercy bent towards the side of the bed. “Ah, is Honor still there? Kiss me–Bobby.” Her hands groped blindly. Honor bent down and the old women’s withered lips met.

And in that kiss Mercy passed away into the greater Silence.

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