No Thoroughfare (with Wilkie Collins) [1867]

by Charles Dickens

But, the simple pleasures and small jests of Cripple Corner were not destined to have a long life. Underlying them from the first was a serious matter, which every member of the patriarchal family knew of, but which, by tacit agreement, all forbore to speak of. Mr. Wilding’s health was in a bad way.

He might have overcome the shock he had sustained in the one great affection of his life, or he might have overcome his consciousness of being in the enjoyment of another man’s property; but the two together were too much for him. A man haunted by twin ghosts, he became deeply depressed. The inseparable spectres sat at the board with him, ate from his platter, drank from his cup, and stood by his bedside at night. When he recalled his supposed mother’s love, he felt as though he had stolen it. When he rallied a little under the respect and attachment of his dependants, he felt as though he were even fraudulent in making them happy, for that should have been the unknown man’s duty and gratification.

Gradually, under the pressure of his brooding mind, his body stooped, his step lost its elasticity, his eyes were seldom lifted from the ground. He knew he could not help the deplorable mistake that had been made, but he knew he could not mend it; for the days and weeks went by, and no one claimed his name or his possessions. And now there began to creep over him a cloudy consciousness of often-recurring confusion in his head. He would unaccountably lose, sometimes whole hours, sometimes a whole day and night. Once, his remembrance stopped as he sat at the head of the dinner-table, and was blank until daybreak. Another time, it stopped as he was beating time to their singing, and went on again when he and his partner were walking in the courtyard by the light of the moon, half the night later. He asked Vendale (always full of consideration, work, and help) how this was? Vendale only replied, “You have not been quite well; that’s all.” He looked for explanation into the faces of his people. But they would put it off with “Glad to see you looking so much better, sir;” or “Hope you’re doing nicely now, sir;” in which was no information at all.

At length, when the partnership was but five months old, Walter Wilding took to his bed, and his housekeeper became his nurse.

“Lying here, perhaps you will not mind my calling you Sally, Mrs. Goldstraw?” said the poor wine-merchant.

“It sounds more natural to me, sir, than any other name, and I like it better.”

“Thank you, Sally. I think, Sally, I must of late have been subject to fits. Is that so, Sally? Don’t mind telling me now.”

“It has happened, sir.”

“Ah! That is the explanation!” he quietly remarked. “Mr. Obenreizer, Sally, talks of the world being so small that it is not strange how often the same people come together, and come together at various places, and in various stages of life. But it does seem strange, Sally, that I should, as I may say, come round to the Foundling to die.”

He extended his hand to her, and she gently took it.

“You are not going to die, dear Mr. Wilding.”

“So Mr. Bintrey said, but I think he was wrong. The old child- feeling is coming back upon me, Sally. The old hush and rest, as I used to fall asleep.”

After an interval he said, in a placid voice, “Please kiss me, Nurse,” and, it was evident, believed himself to be lying in the old Dormitory.

As she had been used to bend over the fatherless and motherless children, Sally bent over the fatherless and motherless man, and put her lips to his forehead, murmuring:

“God bless you!”

“God bless you!” he replied, in the same tone.

After another interval, he opened his eyes in his own character, and said: “Don’t move me, Sally, because of what I am going to say; I lie quite easily. I think my time is come, I don’t know how it may appear to you, Sally, but —”

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