THERE was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of a corpse. He had often said to me: “I am not long for this world,” and I had thought his words idle. Now I knew they were true. Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.
Old Cotter was sitting at the fire, smoking, when I came downstairs to supper. While my aunt was ladling out my stirabout he said, as if returning to some former remark of his:
“No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly… but there was something queer… there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion….”
He began to puff at his pipe, no doubt arranging his opinion in his mind. Tiresome old fool! When we knew him first he used to be rather interesting, talking of faints and worms; but I soon grew tired of him and his endless stories about the distillery.
“I have my own theory about it,” he said. “I think it was one of those… peculiar cases…. But it’s hard to say….”
He began to puff again at his pipe without giving us his theory. My uncle saw me staring and said to me:
“Well, so your old friend is gone, you’ll be sorry to hear.”
“Who?” said I.
“Is he dead?”
“Mr. Cotter here has just told us. He was passing by the house.”
I knew that I was under observation so I continued eating as if the news had not interested me. My uncle explained to old Cotter.
“The youngster and he were great friends. The old chap taught him a great deal, mind you; and they say he had a great wish for him.”
“God have mercy on his soul,” said my aunt piously.
Old Cotter looked at me for a while. I felt that his little beady black eyes were examining me but I would not satisfy him by looking up from my plate. He returned to his pipe and finally spat rudely into the grate.
“I wouldn’t like children of mine,” he said, “to have too much to say to a man like that.”
“How do you mean, Mr. Cotter?” asked my aunt.
“What I mean is,” said old Cotter, “it’s bad for children. My idea is: let a young lad run about and play with young lads of his own age and not be… Am I right, Jack?”
“That’s my principle, too,” said my uncle. “Let him learn to box his corner. That’s what I’m always saying to that Rosicrucian there: take exercise. Why, when I was a nipper every morning of my life I had a cold bath, winter and summer. And that’s what stands to me now. Education is all very fine and large…. Mr. Cotter might take a pick of that leg mutton,” he added to my aunt.
“No, no, not for me,” said old Cotter.
My aunt brought the dish from the safe and put it on the table.
“But why do you think it’s not good for children, Mr. Cotter?” she asked.
“It’s bad for children,” said old Cotter, “because their minds are so impressionable. When children see things like that, you know, it has an effect….”
I crammed my mouth with stirabout for fear I might give utterance to my anger. Tiresome old red-nosed imbecile!
It was late when I fell asleep. Though I was angry with old Cotter for alluding to me as a child, I puzzled my head to extract meaning from his unfinished sentences. In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It murmured; and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.