DICKY, the one-legged crossingsweeper, quite contrary to his usual habits, was spending the evening at home.
He sat beside his wife’s bed, with a pathetically injured expression on his weather-beaten face, for she was dying. There was nothing he could think of that had not been done for her, and yet she was dying.
He had even bought hera little bunch of grapes in the market on the way home. He knew she had always had a fancy for them, though he had never thought of buying them for her before.
'’Ave a grape, me gal!’ he had said, displaying his gift with self-conscious gratification; and she had not cared to disappoint him. So he had spent an unprofitable half-hour in removing the pips from the little skinny green bags, with clumsy, patient fingers. It seemed to him as if she had quite enjoyed them, until he discovered that they were all collecting in a little heap in a handkerchief under the pillow. He had been very cross with her then over her willful deception, and she had cried. And he had kissed her. He did not remember having kissed her before since they were married. She was not pleasant to kiss at all. He noticed how dark and shriveled her skin was, almost like the leather on his own boot. They had told him her inside was eaten away with cancer. Bah! it made him feel quite sick.
That doctor was a fraud. He had been coming regularly every day, and what good had he done her? Those parish doctors that you did n’t have to pay for were no class. She was dying, after all. He began to think what it would be like in Gutter-garten without her. He would have to make his own tea and frizzle his own bacon when he came in. Who would do his washing? He found himself suddenly wondering how one made a bed, or cleaned out a room. These things had always happened in his home somehow. Perhaps they would not happen any more. He had often envied his wife sitting at home by the fire all day while he shivered in the wind-swept street or shoveled up the greasy mud while the rain drenched his poor deformed body through his thin, ragged clothes. Perhaps she had been busy, after all. Who would mend for him now, and patiently patch those frayed and threadbare trousers through another winter? A wave of intensely real emotion shuddered through the heart of the crossing-sweeper as he looked at the pitiful, twisted face of his dying wife.
And then suddenly he remembered that there were other women in Guttergarten. Women who could be kissed and even ‘treated’; gorgeous women, some of them, with big eyes and saucy tongues. He supposed any woman would do all those little things in his home just like his wife. She was dying. Well, let her die then — the sooner the better, for he knew her pains were cruel, He found himself hoping that it would happen very soon. Perhaps if the Gutter Parson came she would die quicker. It was his business to start people on the last journey. That was one of the things they kept him for. Anyway, it was right for her to see the priest, ofcourse. He had never been a religious man himself; still, so far as he could remember, he had not gone to bed without saying a ‘Glory be’ since he was a little lad at the Sunday School. He called loudly up the stairs of the Gutter-castle for the Elder Lizzie, who ‘did’ for him and the sick wife just now.
‘ I ’ve now took a fancy into me ’ead to have the priest fetched to my gal!’ he explained.
The Elder Lizzie gave him an incredulous stare. Then she lifted a corner of her apron to one eye and wiped it slowly.
‘Wot?’ she asked, still staring.
Dicky repeated his information. ‘I’ve a fancy as my gal should ’ave the priest fetched to ’er!’
Lizzie dropped the corner of her apron abruptly, and her eyes grew round and dry.
‘Yer devil!’ she said; ‘yer must be a-wishin’ of she to die; and after all me trouble, too. I’m sure I’ve treated ’er as fair as me own sister. I ’ll fetch the priest me very self, and me prayer is you’ll be done in yer eye. There’s many a sick creature ’e’s put on their pore legs again, just when they thought they was gone!’
Dicky went back to his watch beside the sick-bed. The Gutter Parson would be here presently. He was known to be very prompt on such occasions, but the crossing-sweeper was feeling a little queer inside. It was tiresome, that way the women had of knowing just what you would never have thought of tell-, ing any one. Women were mean things; perhaps, after all, those other women, with bold eyes and lips he could kiss, would not do for him so quietly as this poor dying creature had done. But he was sure it was right for the priest to be fetched. He was not a religious man, no one could laugh at him for that. He had never been to church for what he could get, like some others. But the children had been regularly to Sunday school.
Perhaps he trusted more than knew to his nightly repetition ‘Glory be!’ Anyhow he did feel certain that when his last moment came, he would expect the Gutter Parson see him safely through. He had not thought at all what would happen if he died suddenly in a fit or by accident. He could not think of such things. God would be kind to the last to the one-legged crossing-sweeper. And yet Dicky knew that he was, at the bottom of his heart, looking forward to this visit with dim apprehension. Nobody knew what nonsense the Elder Lizzie might have been talking, as she hurried the Gutter Parson to obey his summons. Perhaps when they arrived he would tell the gentleman that his wife was better. A new idea suddenly came to him: perhaps the dying woman would not want to see the priest at all. In the meantime he felt that, he wanted to be kind to her.
She was sitting up with a bundle of pillows behind her, and her head sunk forward on her shrunken breast. Now and then she stretched out a lean hand and groped about with it in the darkness which had gathered round her,and sometimes her blackened lips moved feebly: '’Elp me!’
‘ I am ’elping yer, me gal,’said Dicky tenderly. ‘Wot can I do for yer?’
‘I wants me Communion on Thursday!’ whispered the sick woman.
Dicky remembered suddenly that she had often slipped out on Sunday mornings early; he had thought she used to buy the meat then. If he known she was going to church there would have been a row. So, after all, she had deceived him. She had not been a good wife to him. She was dying, — the sooner the better.
‘Ter-morrer,’ said Dicky. ‘ We need n’t wait till Thursday.’
‘Thursday,’ whined the sick woman; ‘I said Thursday.’
It was the Gutter Parson who stood suddenly near him at the bedside and startled Dicky. So he had come, and he had walked in just as if the place belonged to him. The crossing-sweeper would have liked to swear, but he did not. He looked up once at that quiet, kindly face, the face of a strong man with two legs and a mind that was not shifty like his own, and he did not look again.
He had never got out of his own room quite so quickly before since the amputation of his left leg, but he had been glad to go when the priest had asked to be left alone with the dying woman. He felt like a stranger in there, with his own wife and the Gutter Parson both talking about things he did not understand. He began to wish he had gone with her to buy the meat on Sundays.
When he was called back again into the room he came creeping and looking curiously about him. The Gutter Parson was putting a violet ribbon into his pocket.
‘I’ll bring you the Blessed Sacrament to-morrow.’ he promised.
‘Thursday; I said Thursday!’ muttered the sick woman.
The Gutter Parson looked dubious, for it seemed scarcely possible that the withered shrunken body lying there on the bed could imprison a human soul so long.
‘Well, Thursday,’ he agreed reluctantly; and Dicky was alone on the doorstep.
When he went back to the bedside his wife was whispering feebly.
‘Is it Thursday yet?’ she asked.
All that night and all the next day the question was perpetually on her lips: ‘Is it Thursday yet?’
Dicky was feeling vaguely uneasy. What would happen on Thursday? He did not want to be so near to God. He did not want them to bring God to his home. Dicky had always had pleasantly dim ideas about God before. Somewhere or other in a big place called heaven he believed that God sat on a big throne. But this was so real and so near, he would have liked to run away, only some dim suggestion of loyalty held him chained to that awful, mysterious, muttering figure on his bed who called to him so often to ‘’elp’ her, and who was waiting like himself for Thursday.
At last the day came. Dicky woke up in the gray dawn wondering what was the matter. Suddenly he remembered. It was Thursday.
‘Yus, ’t is!’ he answered as he caught sight of the pale lips moving beside him.
The day grew slowly, while the sick woman waited joyfully and Dick shuddered.
‘I ain’t done nothin’ wrong to nobody!’ he kept assuring himself.
At seven o’clock the Elder Lizzie appeared, and exiled him. Her preparations took a long time, and later on a stranger came to assist her. Presently the bell in the little mission chapel began to ring and he heard the dying woman ask if it were Thursday.
Perhaps they had not answered her; he crept into the room and looking fearfully round, ‘It’s Thursday!’ he said in a trembling voice.
‘Ain’t ’e comin’ soon?’asked the sick woman, with a little despairing cry.
Dick thought it would be soon. He watched the two candles on the whitespread table. They were guttering in a cold unnatural draught that stirred through the room. He put out a hesitating hand to close the window and saw that it was fastened. A great dread took possession of him and suddenly he dropped on his knees and realized that he was caught in a trap. There was no time for him to escape now; if he lifted his bowed head for an instant he knew that he would meet the Face of God and die.
For this little stuffy, familiar room, with its scanty, hired furniture for which he paid tenpence a night, with Sundays thrown in, had at that moment become the holiest spot in Gutter-garten.
‘O Gawd, don’t come into my ’ouse! ’ whined the miserable Dicky.
But he knew that He had come, and even then he was groveling in the dust before the Mysterious Prisoner of the Pyx.
The awful reality of this Presence was so different from Dick’s ordinary dim conception of the far-away God who could be forgotten and even blasphemed .
Oh, if only he could get away! But he would never be able to get away again — he would never be able to forget.
Dicky was nursing a whining, cowardly heart, and praying for the withdrawal of that intensely real and dreadful thing.
But that did not happen, even with the Gutter Priest’s own intention.
‘Behold the Lamb of God!’
Within that white circle the burning Heart of God throbbed through the stillness of the little room and scorched the shrinking soul of Dicky. But the bowed body on the bed, with its stiffened, discolored lips and its sightless eyes, had lost the power to become the tabernacle of the Host and its doors were shut fast against the approaching Guest.
The blood was surging in Dicky’s veins and singing in his ears, but he dared not lift his head. He heard them laying the body down flat in the bed. One of the pillows slipped to the floor beside him. He heard his wife speak in a voice that did not belong to her at all. She was dying, and they were her last words. He listened eagerly for them.
‘Put me out straight!’ she muttered.
‘She’s thinking of her coffin, pore dear,’ explained the Elder Lizzie; '’er was always thoughtful up to the last!’
Then she pulled out those crumpled, twisted limbs tenderly, and whispered into the dying ear, ‘Don’ fret yer, me gal, yer’ll make a lovely corpse!’
The Gutter Parson was saying a prayer, and before he had quite finished, the Elder Lizzie crept behind Dicky and flung up the window.
Five minutes later, the little room held only himself and something hidden away under a sheet on the bed.
The crossing-sweeper got up slowly. The little candles were still smoking on the white-spread table, but the air was empty. He knew that he was changed, though he had only very vague ideas how the change would declare itself. He might join the Salvation Army or he might get drunk. In the meantime he would kneel down on the dirty floor and say a ‘Glory be!’ before that little throne where the Terrible One had rested.