The strain beat me at last. I fetched a loud yell to give myself courage, and, reaching for the cord, pulled up the blind as fast as it would go.
The face on the pillow was that of an old man—a face waxen and peaceful, with quiet lines about the mouth and eyes, and long lines of grey hair falling back from the temples. The body was turned a little on one side, and one hand lay outside the bedclothes in a very natural manner. But there were two big dark stains on the pillow and coverlet.
Then I knew I was face to face with the real householder, and it flashed on me that I had been indiscreet in taking service as his butler, and that I knew the face his ex-butler wore.
And, being by this time awake to the responsibilities of the post, I quitted it three steps at a time, not once looking behind me. Outside the house the storm had died down, and white daylight was gleaming over the sodden moors. But my bones were cold, and I ran faster and faster.
“So you reckon I’ve got to die?”
The room was mean, but not without distinction. The meanness lay in lime-washed walls, scant fittings, and uncovered boards; the distinction came of ample proportions and something of durability in the furniture. Rooms, like human faces, reflect their histories; and that generation after generation of the same family had here struggled to birth or death was written in this chamber unmistakably. The candle-light, twinkling on the face of a dark wardrobe near the door, lit up its rough inscription, “S.T. and M.T., MDCLXVII”; the straight-backed oaken chairs might well claim an equal age; and the bed in the corner was a spacious four-poster, pillared in smooth mahogany and curtained in faded green damask.
In the shadow of this bed lay the man who had spoken. A single candle stood on a tall chest at his left hand, and its ray, filtering through the thin green curtain, emphasised the hue of death on his face. The features were pinched, and very old. His tone held neither complaint nor passion: it was matter-of-fact even, as of one whose talk is merely a concession to good manners. There was the faintest interrogation in it; no more.
After a minute or so, getting no reply, he added more querulously—
“I reckon you might answer, ’Lizabeth. Do ’ee think I’ve got to die?”
’Lizabeth, who stood by the uncurtained window, staring into the blackness without, barely turned her head to answer—
“Doctor said so, did he?”
’Lizabeth, still with her back towards him, nodded. For a minute or two there was silence.
“I don’t feel like dyin’; but doctor ought to know. Seemed to me ’twas harder, an’—an’ more important. This sort o’ dyin’ don’t seem o’ much account.”
“That’s it. I reckon, though, ’twould be other if I had a family round the bed. But there ain’t none o’ the boys left to stand by me now. It’s hard.”