The Countess had left, but alas, the bills she had contributed to swell still remained; so did the exiguity of the children’s clothing, which also was partly an indirect consequence of her presence; and so, too, did the coolness and alienation in the parishioners, which could not at once vanish before the fact of her departure. The Rev. Amos was not exculpated—the past was not expunged. But what was worse than all, Milly’s health gave frequent cause for alarm, and the prospect of baby’s birth was overshadowed by more than the usual fears. The birth came prematurely, about six weeks after the Countess’s departure, but Mr. Brand gave favourable reports to all inquirers on the following day, which was Saturday. On Sunday, after morning service, Mrs. Hackit called at the Vicarage to inquire how Mrs. Barton was, and was invited up-stairs to see her. Milly lay placid and lovely in her feebleness, and held out her hand to Mrs. Hackit with a beaming smile. It was very pleasant to her to see her old friend unreserved and cordial once more. The seven months’ baby was very tiny and very red, but ’handsome is that handsome does’—he was pronounced to be ‘doing well’, and Mrs. Hackit went home gladdened at heart to think that the perilous hour was over.
The following Wednesday, when Mr. and Mrs. Hackit were seated comfortably by their bright hearth, enjoying the long afternoon afforded by an early dinner, Rachel, the housemaid, came in and said,—’If you please ’m, the shepherd says, have you heard as Mrs. Barton’s wuss, and not expected to live?’
Mrs. Hackit turned pale, and hurried out to question the shepherd, who, she found, had heard the sad news at an ale-house in the village. Mr. Hackit followed her out and said, ’Thee’dst better have the pony-chaise, and go directly.’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs. Hackit, too much overcome to utter any exclamations. ‘Rachel, come an’ help me on wi’ my things.’
When her husband was wrapping her cloak round her feet in the pony-chaise, she said,—’If I don’t come home to-night, I shall send back the pony-chaise, and you’ll know I’m wanted there.’
It was a bright frosty day, and by the time Mrs. Hackit arrived at the Vicarage, the sun was near its setting. There was a carriage and pair standing at the gate, which she recognized as Dr Madeley’s, the physician from Rotherby. She entered at the kitchen door that she might avoid knocking, and quietly question Nanny. No one was in the kitchen, but, passing on, she saw the sitting-room door open, and Nanny, with Walter in her arms, removing the knives and forks, which had been laid for dinner three hours ago.
‘Master says he can’t eat no dinner,’ was Nanny’s first word. ’He’s never tasted nothin’ sin’ yesterday mornin’, but a cup o’ tea.’
‘When was your missis took worse?’
‘O’ Monday night. They sent for Dr Madeley i’ the middle o’ the day yisterday, an’ he’s here again now.’