Mrs. Slater could venture no denial; indeed, Henry’s attitude aroused once again in her mind her earlier suspicions. She had all the reverence of her class for her son’s “oddness.” He knew more than ordinary mortal folk, and could see farther; he saw beyond Mrs. Carter’s red cheeks and shining black hair, and the fact that he was, as a rule, tractable to cheerful kindness, made his rejection the more remarkable. But it might, nevertheless, be that the black things in Mrs. Carter’s past were the marks impressed upon Henry’s sensitive intelligence; and that he had not, as yet, perceived the new Mrs. Carter growing in grace now day by day.
“’E’ll get over ’is fancy, bless ’is ’eart.” Mrs. Slater pursued then her work of redemption.
On a certain evening in November, Mrs. Carter, coming in to see her friend, invited sympathy for a very bad cold.
“Drippin’ and runnin’ at the nose I’ve been all day, my dear. Awake all night I was with it, and ’tain’t often that I’ve one, but when I do it’s somethin’ cruel.” It seemed to be better this evening, Mrs. Slater thought, but when she congratulated her friend on this, Mrs. Carter, shaking her head, remarked that it had left the nose and travelled into the throat and ears. “Once it’s earache, and I’m done,” she said. Horrible pictures she drew of this earache, and it presently became clear that Mrs. Carter was in perfect terror of a night made sleepless with pain. Once, it seemed, had Mrs. Carter tried to commit suicide by hanging herself to a nail in a door, so maddening had the torture been. Luckily (Mrs. Carter thanked Heaven) the nail had been dragged from the door by her weight—“not that I was anything very ’eavy, you understand.” Finally, it appeared that only one thing in the world could be relied upon to stay the fiend.
Mrs. Carter produced from her pocket a bottle of whisky.
Upon that it followed that, since her reformation, Mrs. Carter had come to loathe the very smell of whisky, and as for the taste of it! But rather than be driven by flaming agony down the long stony passages of a sleepless night—anything.
It was here, of course, that Mrs. Slater should have protested, but, in her heart, she was afraid of her friend, and afraid of herself. Mrs. Carter’s company had, of late, been pleasant to her. She had been strengthened in her own resolves towards a fine life by the sight of Mrs. Carter’s struggle in that direction, and that good woman’s genial amiability (when it was so obvious from her appearance that she could be far otherwise) flattered Mrs. Slater’s sense of power. No, she could not now bear to let Mrs. Carter go.
She said, therefore, nothing to her friend about the whisky, and on that evening Mrs. Carter did take the “veriest sip.” But the cold continued—it continued in a marvellous and terrible manner. It seemed “to ’ave taken right ’old of ’er system.”