Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Her Last Half-Crown
By Dr. John Brown (18101882)
From Horæ Subsecivæ
HUGH MILLER, the geologist, journalist, and man of genius, was sitting in his newspaper office late one dreary winter night. The clerks had all left, and he was preparing to go, when a quick rap came to the door. He said Come in, and in looking towards the entrance, saw a little ragged child all wet with sleet. Are ye Hugh Miller? Yes. Mary Duff wants ye. What does she want? Shes deeing. Some misty recollection of the name made him at once set out, and with his well-known plaid and stick, he was soon striding after the child, who trotted through the now deserted High Street, into the Canongate. By the time he got to the Old Playhouse Close, Hugh had revived his memory of Mary Duff; a lively girl who had been bred up beside him in Cromarty. The last time he had seen her was at a brother masons marriage, where Mary was best maid, and he best man. He seemed still to see her bright, young, careless face, her tidy shortgown, and her dark eyes, and to hear her bantering, merry tongue.
Down the close went the ragged little woman, and up an outside stair, Hugh keeping near her with difficulty; in the passage she held out her hand and touched him; taking it in his great palm, he felt that she wanted a thumb. Finding her way like a cat through the darkness, she opened a door, and saying, Thats her! vanished. By the light of a dying fire he saw lying in the corner of the large empty room something like a womans clothes, and on drawing nearer became aware of a thin pale face and two dark eyes looking keenly but helplessly up at him. The eyes were plainly Mary Duffs, though he could recognise no other feature. She wept silently, gazing steadily at him. Are you Mary Duff? Its a thats o me, Hugh. She then tried to speak to him, something plainly of great urgency, but she couldnt; and seeing that she was very ill, and was making herself worse, he put half-a-crown into her feverish hand, and said he would call again in the morning. He could get no information about her from the neighbours: they were surly or asleep.
When he returned next morning, the little girl met him at the stair-head, and said, Shes deid. He went in and found that it was true; there she lay, the fire out, her face placid, and the likeness to her maiden self restored. Hugh thought he would have known her now, even with those bright black eyes closed as they were, in æternum.
Seeking out a neighbour, he said he would like to bury Mary Duff, and arranged for a funeral with an undertaker in the close. Little seemed to be known of the poor outcast, except that she was a licht, or as Solomon would have said, a strange woman. Did she drink? Whiles.
On the day of the funeral one or two residents in the close accompanied him to the Canongate Churchyard. He observed a decent-looking little old woman watching them, and following at a distance, though the day was wet and bitter. After the grave was filled, and he had taken off his hat, as the men finished their business by putting on and slapping the sod, he saw this old woman remaining; she came up and curtseying, said, Ye wad ken that lass, sir? Yes; I knew her when she was young. The woman then burst into tears, and told Hugh that she keepit a bit shop at the close-mooth, and Mary dealt wi me, and aye paid reglar, and I was feared she was dead, for she had been a month awin me half-a-crown: and then with a look and voice of awe, she told him how on the night he was sent for, and immediately after he had left she had been awakened by some one in her room; and by her bright firefor she was a bein well-to-do bodyshe had seen the wasted dying creature, who came forward and said, Wasnt it half-a-crown? Yes. There it is, and putting it under the bolster, vanished!
Poor Mary Duff, her life had been a sad one since the day when she had stood side by side with Hugh at the wedding of their friends. Her father died not long after, and her mother supplanted her in the affections of the man to whom she had given her heart. The shock made home intolerable. She fled from it blighted and embittered, and after a life of shame and misery, crept into the corner of her room to die alone.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.