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They had quarrelled in girlhood, and mutually declared their intention never to speak to each other again, wetting and drying their forefingers to the accompaniment of an ancient childish incantation, and while they lived on the paternal farm they kept their foolish oath with the stubbornness of a slow country stock, despite the alternate coaxing and chastisement of their parents, notwithstanding the perpetual everyday contact of their lives, through every vicissitude of season and weather, of sowing and reaping, of sun and shade, of joy and sorrow.
Death and misfortune did not reconcile them, and when their father died and the old farm was sold up, they travelled to London in the same silence, by the same train, in search of similar situations. Service separated them for years, though there was only a stone’s throw between them. They often stared at each other in the streets.
Honor, the elder, married a local artisan, and two and a half years later, Mercy, the younger, married a fellow-workman of Honor’s husband. The two husbands were friends, and often visited each other’s houses, which were on opposite sides of the same sordid street, and the wives made them welcome. Neither Honor nor Mercy suffered an allusion to their breach; it was understood that their silence must be received in silence. Each of the children had a quiverful of children who played and quarrelled together in the streets and in one another’s houses, but not even the street affrays and mutual grievances of the children could provoke the mothers to words. They stood at their doors in impotent fury, almost bursting with the torture of keeping their mouths shut against the effervescence of angry speech. When either lost a child the other watched the funeral from her window, dumb as the mutes.
The years rolled on, and still the river of silence flowed between their lives. Their good looks faded, the burden of life and child-bearing was heavy upon them. Grey hairs streaked their brown tresses, then brown hairs streaked their grey tresses. The puckers of age replaced the dimples of youth. The years rolled on, and Death grew busy among the families. Honor’s husband died, and Mercy lost a son, who died a week after his wife. Cholera took several of the younger children. But the sisters themselves lived on, bent and shrivelled by toil and sorrow, even more than by the slow frost of the years.
Then one day Mercy took to her death-bed. An internal disease, too long neglected, would carry her off within a week. So the doctor told Jim, Mercy’s husband.
Through him, the news travelled to Honor’s eldest son, who still lived with her. By the evening it reached Honor.
She went upstairs abruptly when her son told her, leaving him wondering at her stony aspect. When she came down she was bonneted and shawled. He was filled with joyous amaze to see her hobble across the street and for the first time in her life pass over her sister Mercy’s threshold.