‘In passing through a narrow back lane,’ said Mr Maurice, after relating several tales of minor importance, ’I paused to look upon a low building, so old that one corner of it was sunken so much as to give it a tottering appearance, and if possible it was more dark and dismal than the others. It seemed to be occupied by several families, for a little gray smoke went straggling up from two or three crumbling chimneys, but the rooms were all on the ground floor. As I stood gazing at it, I was startled by a boy (about your age, Harry, or a little older perhaps) who came bounding from the door, and grasping my coat untreated me to go in and see his grandfather.’
‘Did you go, father?’ inquired Effie, ‘wasn’t you afraid?’
‘Afraid! what had he to be afraid of?’ exclaimed her brother, ’I should just as lief go as not.’ Yet, notwithstanding the little boy’s vaunt there was a slight tremor on his lip, and his large blue eyes grew larger still and darker where they were dark, while the whites became unusually prominent.
‘Of course I went,’ resumed Mr Maurice, in a sad tone, ’and a fearful spectacle did I behold. I had expected to see some poor widow, worn out by toil and suffering, perchance by anguish and anxiety, dying alone, or a family of helpless ones, such as I had often visited, or a drunken husband. I had often glanced at guilt and crime, but never would my imagination have pictured the scene before me. The room was dark and loathsome, containing but few articles of furniture, and those battered and defaced by age, and with a rickety bed in one corner, on which lay stretched in mortal agony the figure of a wrinkled, gray-haired old man, apparently approaching the final struggle. O my children, poverty, loneliness, want, are the portion of many on this fair, beautiful earth, but such utter wretchedness as appeared in that man’s face, can only be the result of crime.’ Mr Maurice was evidently deeply affected, and his wife and children were for a moment silent.
‘Was he dying, father?’ at length Harry ventured to inquire, in a subdued tone.
’He seemed very weak, except now and then when he was seized with convulsions, and then he would writhe and throw himself about, and it was more than I could do to keep him on his bed—I do not think it possible for him to survive till morning.’
‘Didn’t he say anything, father?’
’It was a long time before he said anything, but after I had succeeded in warming some liquid, which I found in an old broken cup, over the decayed fire, I gave him a little of it, and in time he became much calmer. Between his paroxysms of pain, I induced him to give some account of himself, and the circumstances that brought him to his present situation, and what think you was the prime moving cause of all this wretchedness?’
‘I suspect he was very poor,’ said Effie.