The Three Sisters / Night Watches, Part 6.

Produced by David Widger

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Thirty years ago on a wet autumn evening the household of Mallett’s Lodge was gathered round the death-bed of Ursula Mallow, the eldest of the three sisters who inhabited it. The dingy moth-eaten curtains of the old wooden bedstead were drawn apart, the light of a smoking oil-lamp falling upon the hopeless countenance of the dying woman as she turned her dull eyes upon her sisters. The room was in silence except for an occasional sob from the youngest sister, Eunice. Outside the rain fell steadily over the steaming marshes.

“Nothing is to be changed, Tabitha,” gasped Ursula to the other sister, who bore a striking likeness to her although her expression was harder and colder; “this room is to be locked up and never opened.”

“Very well,” said Tabitha brusquely, “though I don’t see how it can matter to you then.”

“It does matter,” said her sister with startling energy. “How do you know, how do I know that I may not sometimes visit it? I have lived in this house so long I am certain that I shall see it again. I will come back. Come back to watch over you both and see that no harm befalls you.”

“You are talking wildly,” said Tabitha, by no means moved at her sister’s solicitude for her welfare. “Your mind is wandering; you know that I have no faith in such things.”

Ursula sighed, and beckoning to Eunice, who was weeping silently at the bedside, placed her feeble arms around her neck and kissed her.

“Do not weep, dear,” she said feebly. “Perhaps it is best so. A lonely woman’s life is scarce worth living. We have no hopes, no aspirations; other women have had happy husbands and children, but we in this forgotten place have grown old together. I go first, but you must soon follow.”

Tabitha, comfortably conscious of only forty years and an iron frame, shrugged her shoulders and smiled grimly.

“I go first,” repeated Ursula in a new and strange voice as her heavy eyes slowly closed, “but I will come for each of you in turn, when your lease of life runs out. At that moment I will be with you to lead your steps whither I now go.”

As she spoke the flickering lamp went out suddenly as though extinguished by a rapid hand, and the room was left in utter darkness. A strange suffocating noise issued from the bed, and when the trembling women had relighted the lamp, all that was left of Ursula Mallow was ready for the grave.

That night the survivors passed together. The dead woman had been a firm believer in the existence of that shadowy borderland which is said to form an unhallowed link between the living and the dead, and even the stolid Tabitha, slightly unnerved by the events of the night, was not free from certain apprehensions that she might have been right.

With the bright morning their fears disappeared. The sun stole in at the window, and seeing the poor earth-worn face on the pillow so touched it and glorified it that only its goodness and weakness were seen, and the beholders came to wonder how they could ever have felt any dread of aught so calm and peaceful. A day or two passed, and the body was transferred to a massive coffin long regarded as the finest piece of work of its kind ever turned out of the village carpenter’s workshop. Then a slow and melancholy cortege headed by four bearers wound its solemn way across the marshes to the family vault in the grey old church, and all that was left of Ursula was placed by the father and mother who had taken that self-same journey some thirty years before.

To Eunice as they toiled slowly home the day seemed strange and Sabbath- like, the flat prospect of marsh wilder and more forlorn than usual, the roar of the sea more depressing. Tabitha had no such fancies. The bulk of the dead woman’s property had been left to Eunice, and her avaricious soul was sorely troubled and her proper sisterly feelings of regret for the deceased sadly interfered with in consequence.

“What are you going to do with all that money, Eunice?” she asked as they sat at their quiet tea.

“I shall leave it as it stands,” said Eunice slowly. “We have both got sufficient to live upon, and I shall devote the income from it to supporting some beds in a children’s hospital.”

“If Ursula had wished it to go to a hospital,” said Tabitha in her deep tones, “she would have left the money to it herself. I wonder you do not respect her wishes more.”

“What else can I do with it then?” inquired Eunice.

“Save it,” said the other with gleaming eyes, “save it.”

Eunice shook her head.

“No,” said she, “it shall go to the sick children, but the principal I will not touch, and if I die before you it shall become yours and you can do what you like with it.”

“Very well,” said Tabitha, smothering her anger by a strong effort; “I don’t believe that was what Ursula meant you to do with it, and I don’t believe she will rest quietly in the grave while you squander the money she stored so carefully.”

“What do you mean?” asked Eunice with pale lips. “You are trying to frighten me; I thought that you did not believe in such things.”

Tabitha made no answer, and to avoid the anxious inquiring gaze of her sister, drew her chair to the fire, and folding her gaunt arms, composed herself for a nap.

For some time life went on quietly in the old house. The room of the dead woman, in accordance with her last desire, was kept firmly locked, its dirty windows forming a strange contrast to the prim cleanliness of the others. Tabitha, never very talkative, became more taciturn than ever, and stalked about the house and the neglected garden like an unquiet spirit, her brow roughened into the deep wrinkles suggestive of much thought. As the winter came on, bringing with it the long dark evenings, the old house became more lonely than ever, and an air of mystery and dread seemed to hang over it and brood in its empty rooms and dark corridors. The deep silence of night was broken by strange noises for which neither the wind nor the rats could be held accountable. Old Martha, seated in her distant kitchen, heard strange sounds upon the stairs, and once, upon hurrying to them, fancied that she saw a dark figure squatting upon the landing, though a subsequent search with candle and spectacles failed to discover anything. Eunice was disturbed by several vague incidents, and, as she suffered from a complaint of the heart, rendered very ill by them. Even Tabitha admitted a strangeness about the house, but, confident in her piety and virtue, took no heed of it, her mind being fully employed in another direction.

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