All this time, she was in want: languishing away, in dire and pining want. With the baby in her arms, she wandered here and there, in quest of occupation; and with its thin face lying in her lap, and looking up in hers, did any work for any wretched sum; a day and night of labour for as many farthings as there were figures on the dial. If she had quarrelled with it; if she had neglected it; if she had looked upon it with a moment's hate; if, in the frenzy of an instant, she had struck it! No. His comfort was, She loved it always.
She told no one of her extremity, and wandered abroad in the day lest she should be questioned by her only friend: for any help she received from her hands, occasioned fresh disputes between the good woman and her husband; and it was new bitterness to be the daily cause of strife and discord, where she owed so much.
She loved it still. She loved it more and more. But a change fell on the aspect of her love. One night.
She was singing faintly to it in its sleep, and walking to and fro to hush it, when her door was softly opened, and a man looked in.
'For the last time,' he said.
'For the last time.'
He listened like a man pursued: and spoke in whispers.
'Margaret, my race is nearly run. I couldn't finish it, without a parting word with you. Without one grateful word.'
'What have you done?' she asked: regarding him with terror.
He looked at her, but gave no answer.
After a short silence, he made a gesture with his hand, as if he set her question by; as if he brushed it aside; and said:
'It's long ago, Margaret, now: but that night is as fresh in my memory as ever 'twas. We little thought, then,' he added, looking round, 'that we should ever meet like this. Your child, Margaret? Let me have it in my arms. Let me hold your child.'
He put his hat upon the floor, and took it. And he trembled as he took it, from head to foot.
'Is it a girl?'
He put his hand before its little face.
'See how weak I'm grown, Margaret, when I want the courage to look at it! Let her be, a moment. I won't hurt her. It's long ago, but--What's her name?'
'Margaret,' she answered, quickly.
'I'm glad of that,' he said. 'I'm glad of that!' He seemed to breathe more freely; and after pausing for an instant, took away his hand, and looked upon the infant's face. But covered it again, immediately.
'Margaret!' he said; and gave her back the child. 'It's Lilian's.'
'I held the same face in my arms when Lilian's mother died and left her.'
'When Lilian's mother died and left her!' she repeated, wildly.
'How shrill you speak! Why do you fix your eyes upon me so? Margaret!'
She sunk down in a chair, and pressed the infant to her breast, and wept over it. Sometimes, she released it from her embrace, to look anxiously in its face: then strained it to her bosom again. At those times, when she gazed upon it, then it was that something fierce and terrible began to mingle with her love. Then it was that her old father quailed.
'Follow her!' was sounded through the house. 'Learn it, from the creature dearest to your heart!'
'Margaret,' said Fern, bending over her, and kissing her upon the brow: 'I thank you for the last time. Good night. Good bye! Put your hand in mine, and tell me you'll forget me from this hour, and try to think the end of me was here.'
'What have you done?' she asked again.
'There'll be a Fire to-night,' he said, removing from her. 'There'll be Fires this winter-time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North, and South. When you see the distant sky red, they'll be blazing. When you see the distant sky red, think of me no more; or, if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me, and think you see its flames reflected in the clouds. Good night. Good bye!' She called to him; but he was gone. She sat down stupefied, until her infant roused her to a sense of hunger, cold, and darkness. She paced the room with it the livelong night, hushing it and soothing it.