In the troubled twilight of a March evening, an old man, whose equipment and bearing suggested that he was fresh from travel, walked slowly across Brampton Road; and by the graveyard of St. Joseph's Church stood for a moment looking about him. His age could not be far from seventy, but, despite the stoop of his shoulders, he gave little sign of falling under the burden of years; his sober, light step indicated character rather than bodily feebleness and his grasp of a stout stick was not such as which calls for need of support.
His attire was neither that of a man of leisure, nor of a kind usually worn by mechanics, he wore a garment which was something like a fisherman's guernsey. His trousers were old, shabby and flapping in the harsh wind that blew; his boots reached almost to his knees; for head covering he had a small cloth which he tied around like a bandanna.
To say that his aspect was venerable wouldn't serve to be wholly accurate, for there was too much of the past struggle and present anxiety in his countenance to permit full expression. It was a fine face and might have been distinctly noble, but circumstances were marred by Nature. Providence was equally to be blamed. He had long, thin white hair; his beard was short and grizzled. In his left hand he carried a bundle, which probably contained clothing.
The burial ground by which he paused seemed eerie at this time, but circumstances had made him too strong to be deterred by such trivialities.
The small trees that grew about it shivered in their leaflessness; most of the stones leaned this way or that, emblems of neglect, and certain cats and dogs were prowling or sporting among the graves. At this corner the east wind blew with malice such as it never holds itself where ever poorly clad people are to be pierced; it swept before it clouds of dust, mingled with light refuse from the streets. Above the shapeless, crooked houses, night was signalling a murky approach; a threat of sleet or maybe snow.
The old man had fixed his eyes absently on the inscription of a gravestone near him; a lean cat springing out between the iron railings seemed to recall his attention, and with a slight sigh he went forward along a narrow street. And on every side was the voice full evidence of toil and poverty; a pang of disgust and sorrow gripped his heart as he looked about him. Already he had seen a severed dog's head rotting in the gutter, its protruding tongue swollen with lice; half-naked infants throwing cobble stones at each other, their haggard faces distorted by rage and glee; he saw a host of spectres staring out of broken windows, their eyes hollow; their sex indeterminate, their flesh scarcely less grey than the rags that clothe them.
A disturbing number of them seemed to be housed underground, in basements accessible only by obscure stairwells or, in some cases, rickety ladders. Wet washing hung from window to window, speckled with soot; here and there a tattered bed sheet flaps in the breeze, like a flag whose distinguishing marks are marks of faded bloodstain brown.
Something more than pain came to the old man's face as he looked and pondered ; his lips trembled like those of one in anger, and his eyes had a stern resentful gleaming. He walked on a few paces, then suddenly stopped where a woman was standing at an open door.
'I ask your pardon', he addressed her courteously, ' but do you by any chance know of an old woman by the name of Greta here about?'
The woman replied with a brief negative; she smiled at the appearance of the questioner, and with a vulgar instinct, looked about for someone to share her amusement. With no one in her sight she turned round to face the man but he had already left, leaving her standing bemused and indignant.
The sky grew darker, painted blue on blue, one stroke at a time, into deeper and deeper shades of night. As the night grew deeper, his resolve grew weaker; and with an explosive sigh he threw the bundle on an old cart, laid on it and within minutes was fast asleep. The icy blasts of cold wind pierced his bones and prevented him from walking any further.
It began to snow, slowly at first; and then the flakes fell fast and thick, soon covering the ground some inches deep and spreading abroad a solemn stillness. The silence was broken at intervals by the chattering of the old man's teeth while snoring. All else was quiet, save for the creaking of crickets which resumed as soon the the snoring died away.
Suddenly, a light appeared in one of the windows of the house in front of where he was sleeping. A clamor was heard, followed by the breaking of glass and a faint shriek of a woman.
The old man woke up with a start and sat bolt-upright, straining his ears to hear the source of the sound.
"Greta", cried the old man, and as if filled with a sudden burst of energy, stood up from the cart, picked up his bundle and walked toward the house.
The only light, in which his feeble,old eyes allowed him to observe the decrepit dwelling in which he was about to enter, emanated from inside the house; and the old man found comfort in the sound of a fire burning inside the hearth.
The dilapidated little wooden house itself looked as if it might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt district, and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, it brought the old man to the conclusion that this must have been some sort of a tavern at some point in time.
He knocked on the door which was instantly replied by something hitting the door, which broke on impact, probably a glass. The bang which resulted from it made him recoil in horror; but he straightened up and advanced once more.
Upon nearing the door, he peered closely to realize that the door was partially open; so he pushed open the door which creaked loudly and immediately swerved to the right to avoid the jar that was hurled at him.
"Who goes there?" bellowed an old, feeble voice of a woman. ''Filthy rats!" she exclaimed, and dropping the block she was holding in her hands, sunk in her armchair and started singing in a hoarse voice :
"When the sun refuses to shine,
when the sun refuses to shine,
O Lord, i want to be in that number,
When the Sain...wh..you filthy mongrel! Come back here!"
With surprising alacrity, she picked the poker from the hearth and pointed it at him, who had maintained his position this whole time.
"You can't hurt me. You..y..you can't." she whispered and broke into sobs.
The light from the fire was sufficient for him to study her face.
It was a masterpiece, as if crafted by the very hands of Michelangelo. There were a row of innumerable creases on her forehead, an intricate pattern of wrinkles on her face which blended when she spoke.
Oh, if only she smiled; what a delight that would be. The blue eyes, of all, set her apart. Like two sapphires on a beach.
The emaciated hands that held the poker trembled as she sobbed until they were clasped by his hands, which caused her to look up.
He beamed at her, expecting her to scream in delight, smile at him, give some indication that he had returned, but alas, all he got was a blank tear-strained face, lost in the abyss of waiting.
Those three seconds felt like eternity. Silence reigned supreme in the room, save for the fire crackling in the hearth. If only it was him, instead of the log, burning in the hearth, then maybe there would have been far more embers to provide warmth for this poor soul.
He couldn't take it , and rivulets of tears rolled down his cheeks and fell on her hands when she suddenly raised them and placed them on his face, studying every crease, every border, every ridge on it till a smile started to dance on her lips as she wiped the tears from his eyes.
A smile is enough to rejuvenate a dying heart, they say.
But alas, that too disappeared from her face as quickly as it had come, and the heart turned cold.
The same passive, dejected expression wore on her face as she sat down in her armchair and stared abstractedly at the fire.
The old man's face was contorted with emotions he himself could not perceive.
Agony, confusion, fear, despair.
Those sockets are empty, what could she be staring into?
If only I could pull out my eyes and give them to her so that she could see me!
All sorts of thoughts swirled in his mind as he racked his brain for solutions.
He shook his head in shame and looked at her and found to his surprise that her head was lying limp on one side and her face was white as snow.
The old man recoiled in horror with his heart in his throat. He wanted to shout for help but his lungs ached and heart pounded until his legs gave way and he fell to the floor, lying unconscious.
Silence reigned in the room once more.
It was only pierced by the crackling of the fire in the hearth and the sighing of the wind outside. A perfect harmony.
What serenity must Death enjoy, being the king of the immortals.