There was no answer. So, with the conventional construction of silence, we entered. Her looks showed how ill she was. We adjusted her bed-clothes, and darkened the room, and did what we could for her—noting, beside, what her comfort chiefly required. She did not answer any questions. She did not thank us. I should almost have fancied that she had not perceived our presence, had I not observed her dark, sunken eyes once or twice turned up towards my face, with a dismal look of wonder and enquiry.
The girl was very ill, and we went every day to see her. Sometimes she would answer our questions—sometimes not. Thoughtful, observant, surly, she seemed; and as people like to be thanked, I sometimes wonder that we continued to throw our bread upon these ungrateful waters. Milly was specially impatient under this treatment, and protested against it, and finally refused to accompany me into poor Beauty’s bed-room.
‘I think, my good Meg,’ said I one day, as I stood by her bed—she was now recovering with the sure reascent of youth—’that you ought to thank Miss Milly.’
‘I’ll not thank her,’ said Beauty, doggedly.
‘Very well, Meg; I only thought I’d ask you, for I think you ought.’
As I spoke, she very gently took just the tip of my finger, which hung close to her coverlet, in her fingers, and drew it beneath, and before I was aware, burying her head in the clothes, she suddenly clasped my hand in both hers to her lips, and kissed it passionately, again and again, sobbing. I felt her tears.
I tried to withdraw my hand, but she held it with an angry pull, continuing to weep and kiss it.
‘Do you wish to say anything, my poor Meg?’ I asked.
‘Nout, Miss,’ she sobbed gently; and she continued to kiss my hand and weep. But suddenly she said, ‘I won’t thank Milly, for it’s a’ you; it baint her, she hadn’t the thought—no, no, it’s a’ you, Miss. I cried hearty in the dark last night, thinkin’ o’ the apples, and the way I knocked them awa’ wi’ a pur o’ my foot, the day father rapped me ower the head wi’ his stick; it was kind o’ you and very bad o’ me. I wish you’d beat me, Miss; ye’re better to me than father or mother—better to me than a’; an’ I wish I could die for you, Miss, for I’m not fit to look at you.’
I was surprised. I began to cry. I could have hugged poor Meg.
I did not know her history. I have never learned it since. She used to talk with the most utter self-abasement before me. It was no religious feeling—it was a kind of expression of her love and worship of me—all the more strange that she was naturally very proud. There was nothing she would not have borne from me except the slightest suspicion of her entire devotion, or that she could in the most trifling way wrong or deceive me.