He is not ill, you know, but he is not very strong, and has exerted himself too much lately.' Poor thing! The tears that streamed through her fingers, as she turned aside, as if to adjust her close widow's cap, too plainly showed how fruitless was the attempt to deceive herself.
We sat down by the head of the sofa, but said nothing, for we saw the breath of life was passing gently but rapidly from the young form before us. At every respiration, his heart beat more slowly.
The boy placed one hand in ours, grasped his mother's arm with the other, drew her hastily towards him, and fervently kissed her cheek. There was a pause. He sunk back upon his pillow, and looked long and earnestly in his mother's face.
'William, William!' murmured the mother, after a long interval, 'don't look at me so--speak to me, dear!'
The boy smiled languidly, but an instant afterwards his features resolved into the same cold, solemn gaze.
'William, dear William! rouse yourself; don't look at me so, love-- pray don't! Oh, my God! what shall I do!' cried the widow, clasping her hands in agony--'my dear boy! he is dying!' The boy raised himself by a violent effort, and folded his hands together-- 'Mother! dear, dear mother, bury me in the open fields--anywhere but in these dreadful streets. I should like to be where you can see my grave, but not in these close crowded streets; they have killed me; kiss me again, mother; put your arm round my neck--'
He fell back, and a strange expression stole upon his features; not of pain or suffering, but an indescribable fixing of every line and muscle.
The boy was dead.
CHAPTER I--THE STREETS--MORNING
The appearance presented by the streets of London an hour before sunrise, on a summer's morning, is most striking even to the few whose unfortunate pursuits of pleasure, or scarcely less unfortunate pursuits of business, cause them to be well acquainted with the scene. There is an air of cold, solitary desolation about the noiseless streets which we are accustomed to see thronged at other times by a busy, eager crowd, and over the quiet, closely- shut buildings, which throughout the day are swarming with life and bustle, that is very impressive.
The last drunken man, who shall find his way home before sunlight, has just staggered heavily along, roaring out the burden of the drinking song of the previous night: the last houseless vagrant whom penury and police have left in the streets, has coiled up his chilly limbs in some paved comer, to dream of food and warmth. The drunken, the dissipated, and the wretched have disappeared; the more sober and orderly part of the population have not yet awakened to the labours of the day, and the stillness of death is over the streets; its very hue seems to be imparted to them, cold and lifeless as they look in the grey, sombre light of daybreak. The coach-stands in the larger thoroughfares are deserted: the night- houses are closed; and the chosen promenades of profligate misery are empty.
An occasional policeman may alone be seen at the street corners, listlessly gazing on the deserted prospect before him; and now and then a rakish-looking cat runs stealthily across the road and descends his own area with as much caution and slyness--bounding first on the water-butt, then on the dust-hole, and then alighting on the flag-stones--as if he were conscious that his character depended on his gallantry of the preceding night escaping public observation. A partially opened bedroom-window here and there, bespeaks the heat of the weather, and the uneasy slumbers of its occupant; and the dim scanty flicker of the rushlight, through the window-blind, denotes the chamber of watching or sickness. With these few exceptions, the streets present no signs of life, nor the houses of habitation.
An hour wears away; the spires of the churches and roofs of the principal buildings are faintly tinged with the light of the rising sun; and the streets, by almost imperceptible degrees, begin to resume their bustle and animation.