The dying father.
Stephen stepped over the threshold into a low, dark room, which was filled with smoke, from a sudden gust of the wind as it swept over the roof of the hut. On one side of the grate, which was made of some half-hoops of iron fastened into the rock, there was a very aged man, childish and blind with years, who was crouching towards the fire, and talking and chuckling to himself. A girl, about a year older than Stephen, sat in a rocking-chair, and swung to and fro as she knitted away fast and diligently at a thick grey stocking. In the corner nearest to the fireplace there stood a pallet-bed, hardly raised above the earthen floor, to which Stephen hastened immediately, with an anxious look at the thin, white face of his father lying upon the pillow. Beside the sick man there lay a little child fast asleep, with her hand clasping one of her father’s fingers; and though James Fern was shaking and trembling with a violent fit of coughing from the sudden gust of smoke, he took care not to loose the hold of those tiny fingers.
‘Poor little Nan!’ he whispered to Stephen, as soon as he could speak. ’I’ve been thinking all day of her and thee, lad, till I’m nigh heart-broken.’
‘Do you feel worse, father?’ asked Stephen anxiously.
‘I’m drawing nearer the end,’ answered James Fern,—’nearer the end every hour; and I don’t know for certain what the end will be. I’m repenting; but I can’t undo the mischief I’ve done; I must leave that behind me. If I’d been anything like a decent father, I should have left you comfortable, instead of poor beggars. And what is to become of my poor lass here? See how fast she clips my hand, as if she was afeared I was going to leave her! Oh, Stephen, my lad, what will you all do?’
‘Father,’ said Stephen, in a quiet and firm voice, ’I’m getting six shillings a week wages, and we can live on very little. We haven’t got any rent to pay, and only ourselves and grandfather to keep, and Martha is as good as a woman grown. We’ll manage, father, and take care of little Nan.’
‘Stephen and I are not bad, father,’ added Martha, speaking up proudly; ’I am not like Black Bess of Botfield. Mother always told me I was to do my duty; and I always do it. I can wash, and sew, and iron, and bake, and knit. Why, often and often we’ve had no more than Stephen’s earnings, when you’ve been to the Red Lion on reckoning nights.’
‘Hush, hush, Martha!’ whispered Stephen.
‘No, it’s true,’ groaned the dying father; ’God Almighty, have mercy on me! Stephen, hearken to me, and thee too, Martha, while I tell you about this place, and what you are to do when I’m gone.’
He paused for a minute or two, looking earnestly at the crouching old man in the chimney-corner.
‘Grandfather’s quite simple,’ he said, ’and he’s dark, too, and doesn’t know what any one is saying. But I know thee’lt be good to him, Stephen. Hearken, children: your poor old grandfather was once in jail, and was sent across the seas, for a thief.’