There was a rattling in her throat as she breathed, but in her glazing eyes a gleam like passion leaped, and gasping, she dragged nearer.
“’Tis not fair,” she cried. “If I—if I could lay my hand upon thy mouth—and stop thy breathing—thou poor thing, ’twould be fairer—but—I have no strength.”
She gathered all her dying will and brought her hand up to the infant’s mouth. A wild look was on her poor, small face, she panted and fell forward on its breast, the rattle in her throat growing louder. The child awakened, opening great black eyes, and with her dying weakness its new-born life struggled. Her cold hand lay upon I its mouth, and her head upon its body, for she was too far gone to move if she had willed to do so. But the tiny creature’s strength was marvellous. It gasped, it fought, its little limbs struggled beneath her, it writhed until the cold hand fell away, and then, its baby mouth set free, it fell a-shrieking. Its cries were not like those of a new-born thing, but fierce and shrill, and even held the sound of infant passion. ’Twas not a thing to let its life go easily, ’twas of those born to do battle.
Its lusty screaming pierced her ear perhaps—she drew a long, slow breath, and then another, and another still—the last one trembled and stopped short, and the last cinder fell dead from the fire.
* * * * *
When the nurse came bustling and fretting back, the chamber was cold as the grave’s self—there were only dead embers on the hearth, the new-born child’s cries filled all the desolate air, and my lady was lying stone dead, her poor head resting on her offspring’s feet, the while her open glazed eyes seemed to stare at it as if in asking Fate some awful question.
CHAPTER II—In which Sir Jeoffry encounters his offspring
In a remote wing of the house, in barren, ill-kept rooms, the poor infants of the dead lady had struggled through their brief lives, and given them up, one after the other. Sir Jeoffry had not wished to see them, nor had he done so, but upon the rarest occasions, and then nearly always by some untoward accident. The six who had died, even their mother had scarcely wept for; her weeping had been that they should have been fated to come into the world, and when they went out of it she knew she need not mourn their going as untimely. The two who had not perished, she had regarded sadly day by day, seeing they had no beauty and that their faces promised none. Naught but great beauty would have excused their existence in their father’s eyes, as beauty might have helped them to good matches which would have rid him of them. But ’twas the sad ill fortune of the children Anne and Barbara to have been treated by Nature in a way but niggardly. They were pale young misses, with insignificant faces and snub noses, resembling an aunt who died a spinster, as they themselves seemed most likely to. Sir Jeoffry could not bear the sight of them, and they fled at the sound of his footsteps, if it so happened that by chance they heard it, huddling together in corners, and slinking behind doors or anything big enough to hide them. They had no playthings and no companions and no pleasures but such as the innocent invention of childhood contrives for itself.