“If that’s the case,” observed Wood, “I’m surprised you should like to have such a frightful picture constantly in view as that over the chimney-piece.”
“I’d good reasons for placing it there, Sir; but don’t question me about them now, or you’ll drive me mad,” returned Mrs. Sheppard wildly.
“Well, well, we’ll say no more about it,” replied Wood; “and, by way of changing the subject, let me advise you on no account to fly to strong waters for consolation, Joan. One nail drives out another, it’s true; but the worst nail you can employ is a coffin-nail. Gin Lane’s the nearest road to the churchyard.”
“It may be; but if it shortens the distance and lightens the journey, I care not,” retorted the widow, who seemed by this reproach to be roused into sudden eloquence. “To those who, like me, have never been able to get out of the dark and dreary paths of life, the grave is indeed a refuge, and the sooner they reach it the better. The spirit I drink may be poison,—it may kill me,—perhaps it is killing me:—but so would hunger, cold, misery,—so would my own thoughts. I should have gone mad without it. Gin is the poor man’s friend,—his sole set-off against the rich man’s luxury. It comforts him when he is most forlorn. It may be treacherous, it may lay up a store of future woe; but it insures present happiness, and that is sufficient. When I have traversed the streets a houseless wanderer, driven with curses from every door where I have solicited alms, and with blows from every gateway where I have sought shelter,—when I have crept into some deserted building, and stretched my wearied limbs upon a bulk, in the vain hope of repose,—or, worse than all, when, frenzied with want, I have yielded to horrible temptation, and earned a meal in the only way I could earn one,—when I have felt, at times like these, my heart sink within me, I have drank of this drink, and have at once forgotten my cares, my poverty, my guilt. Old thoughts, old feelings, old faces, and old scenes have returned to me, and I have fancied myself happy,—as happy as I am now.” And she burst into a wild hysterical laugh.
“Poor creature!” ejaculated Wood. “Do you call this frantic glee happiness?”
“It’s all the happiness I have known for years,” returned the widow, becoming suddenly calm, “and it’s short-lived enough, as you perceive. I tell you what, Mr. Wood,” added she in a hollow voice, and with a ghastly look, “gin may bring ruin; but as long as poverty, vice, and ill-usage exist, it will be drunk.”
“God forbid!” exclaimed Wood, fervently; and, as if afraid of prolonging the interview, he added, with some precipitation, “But I must be going: I’ve stayed here too long already. You shall hear from me to-morrow.”
“Stay!” said Mrs. Sheppard, again arresting his departure. “I’ve just recollected that my husband left a key with me, which he charged me to give you when I could find an opportunity.”