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Idolatry eBook

Julian Hawthorne
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 231 pages of information about Idolatry.

XX.

Between waking and sleeping.

There was an old woman in the house who went by the name of Nurse; her duties being to cook the meals and preserve a sort of order in such of the rooms as were occupied by the family.  Since the greater part of the house was uninhabited, and there were only two mouths to feed beside her own, Nurse was not without leisure moments.  How were they employed?

Not in gossiping, for she had no cronies.  Not in millinery and dressmaking, for there were no admiring eyes to reward such labors.  Not in gadding, for she might not pass the imprisoning wall.  Not even in reading, perhaps because she was not much of a proficient in that art.

The truth is that—­to the outward eye at least—­she was uniformly idle.  For years past she had spent many hours of each night in the corner of the kitchen fireplace, which was as large, roomy, and smoke-seasoned as any in story-books or mediaeval halls.  Here sat she, winter and summer, her body bent forward over her knees, her disfigured face supported on one hand, while the other lay across her breast.  This was her common position, and she seldom moved to change it.  She hummed tunes to herself sometimes,—­not hymn tunes,—­but never was heard to utter an articulate word.  Often you might have thought her asleep,—­but no! when you least expected it a shining black eye was fixed oh you; an eye which, two hundred years ago, would have convicted its owner of witchcraft.  It was the only bright thing about the poor woman.

Whenever the master of the house came to the kitchen, Nurse’s witch-eye followed him animal-like; no movement of his, no expression, seemed to escape it.  A curious observer might sometimes have remarked in her, during the few moments after the man’s entrance, a muffled agitation, an irregularity of the breath, an obscure anxiety and suspense.  This, however, would soon subside, and rarely recur during his stay.  The phenomenon had been observable daily for nearly a score of years, yet nothing had meantime happened to explain or justify it.  Had an original dread—­groundless or not—­prolonged its phantom existence precisely because it had never met with justification?

Often for weeks at a time, complete silence would obtain between master and Nurse.  He would enter and ramble hither and thither the ample kitchen; eat what had been prepared for him, and be off again without a word or glance of acknowledgment.  Or, again, pacing irregularly to and fro before the fireplace, he would pour forth long disjointed rhapsodies, wild speculations, hopes, and misgivings; his mood changing from solemn to gay, and round through gusty passion to morbid gloom.  But never did he address his words to Nurse so much as to himself or to some imaginary interlocutor; and she for her part never answered him a syllable, but sat in silence through it all. 

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