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. She said at intervals, 'Like Lilian, when her mother died and left her!' Why was her step so quick, her eye so wild, her love so fierce and terrible, whenever she repeated those words?
'But, it is Love,' said Trotty. 'It is Love. She'll never cease to love it. My poor Meg!'
She dressed the child next morning with unusual care--ah, vain expenditure of care upon such squalid robes!--and once more tried to find some means of life. It was the last day of the Old Year. She tried till night, and never broke her fast. She tried in vain.
She mingled with an abject crowd, who tarried in the snow, until it pleased some officer appointed to dispense the public charity (the lawful charity; not that once preached upon a Mount), to call them in, and question them, and say to this one, 'Go to such a place,' to that one, 'Come next week;' to make a football of another wretch, and pass him here and there, from hand to hand, from house to house, until he wearied and lay down to die; or started up and robbed, and so became a higher sort of criminal, whose claims allowed of no delay. Here, too, she failed.