The Woman Thou Gavest Me
MARTIN CONRAD TO THE AUTHOR
HERE are the Memoranda we have talked about. Do as you like with them. Alter, amend, add to or take away from them, exactly as you think best. They were written in the first instance for my own eye alone, and hence they take much for granted which may need explanation before they can be put to the more general uses you have designed for them. Make such explanation in any way you consider suitable. It is my wish that in this matter your judgement should be accepted as mine. The deep feeling you could not conceal when I told you the story of my dear one’s life gives me confidence in your discretion.
Whatever the immediate effect may be, I feel that in the end I shall be justified fully justified in allowing the public to look for a little while into the sacred confessional of my darling’s stainless heart.
I heard her voice again to-day. She was right love is immortal. God bless her! My ever lovely and beloved one!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The name Raa (of Celtic origin with many variations among Celtic races) is pronounced Rah in Ellan.
THE FIRST PART: MY GIRLHOOD
“Out of the depths, Lord, out of the depths,” begins the most beautiful of the services of our church, and it is out of the depths of my life that I must bring the incidents of this story.
I was an unwanted child unwanted as a girl at all events. Father Dan Donovan, our parish priest, told me all about it. I was born in October. It had been raining heavily all day long. The rain was beating hard against the front of our house and running in rivers down the window-panes. Towards four in the afternoon the wind rose and then the yellow leaves of the chestnuts in the long drive rustled noisily, and the sea, which is a mile away, moaned like a dog in pain.
In my father’s room, on the ground floor, Father Dan sat by the fire, fingering his beads and listening to every sound that came from my mother’s room, which was immediately overhead. My father himself, with his heavy step that made the house tremble, was tramping to and fro, from the window to the ingle, from the ingle to the opposite wall. Sometimes Aunt Bridget came down to say that everything was going on well, and at intervals of half an hour Doctor Conrad entered in his noiseless way and sat in silence by the fire, took a few puffs from a long clay pipe and then returned to his charge upstairs.
My father’s impatience was consuming him.
“It’s long,” he said, searching the doctor’s face.
“Don’t worry above all don’t worry,” said Father Dan.
“There’s no need,” said Doctor Conrad.
“Then hustle back and get it over,” said my father. “It will be five hundred dollars to you if this comes off all right.”
I think my father was a great man at that time. I think he is still a great man. Hard and cruel as he may have been to me, I feel bound to say that for him. J f he had been born a king, he would have made his nation feared and perhaps respected throughout the world. He was born a peasant, the poorest of peasants, a crofter. The little homestead of his family, with its whitewashed walls and straw-thatched roof, still stands on the bleak ayre-lands of Ellan, like a herd of mottled cattle crouching together in a storm.
His own father had been a wild creature, full of daring dreams, and the chief of them had centred in himself. Although brought up in a mud cabin, and known as Daniel Neale, he believed that he belonged by lineal descent to the highest aristocracy of his island, the O’Neills of the Mansion House (commonly called the Big House) and the Barons of Castle Raa. To prove his claim he spent his days in searching the registers of the parish churches, and his nights in talking loudly in the village inn. Half in jest and half in earnest, people called him “Neale the Lord.” One day he was brought home dead, killed in a drunken quarrel with Captain O’Neill, a dissolute braggart, who had struck him over the temple with a stick. His wife, my grandmother, hung a herring net across the only room of her house to hide his body from the children who slept in the other bed.
There were six of them, and after the death of her husband she had to fend for all. The little croft was hungry land, and to make a sufficient living she used to weed for her more prosperous neighbours. It was ill-paid labour ninepence a day fine days and sixpence all weathers, with a can of milk twice a week and a lump of butter thrown in now and then. The ways were hard and the children were the first to feel them. Five of them died. “They weren’t willing to stay with me,” she used to say. My father alone was left to her, and he was another Daniel. As he grew up he was a great help to his mother. I feel sure he loved her. Difficult as it may be to believe it now, I really and truly think that his natural disposition was lovable and generous to begin with.
There is a story of his boyhood which it would be wrong of me not to tell. His mother and he had been up in the mountains cutting gorse and ling, which with turf from the Curragh used to be the crofter’s only fuel. They were dragging down a prickly pile of it by a straw rope when, dipping into the high road by a bridge, they crossed the path of a splendid carriage which swirled suddenly out of the drive of the Big House behind two high-spirited bays driven by an English coachman in gorgeous livery. The horses reared and shied at the bundle of kindling, whereupon a gentleman inside the carriage leaned out and swore, and then the brutal coachman, lashing out at the bare-headed woman with his whip, struck the boy on his naked legs.
At the next moment the carriage had gone. It had belonged to the head of the O’Neills, Lord Raa of Castle Raa, whose nearest kinsman, Captain ‘Neill, had killed my grandfather, so my poor grandmother said nothing. But her little son, as soon as his smarting legs would allow, wiped his eyes with his ragged sleeve and said:
“Never mind, mammy. You shall have a carriage of your own when I am a man, and then nobody shall never lash you.”
His mother died. He was twenty years of age at that time, a large-limbed, lusty-lunged fellow, almost destitute of education but with a big brain and an unconquerable will; so he strapped his chest and emigrated to America. What work he found at first I never rightly knew. I can only remember to have heard that it was something dangerous to human life and that the hands above him dropped off rapidly. Within two years he was a foreman. Within five years he was a partner. In ten years he was a rich man. At the end of five-and-twenty years he was a millionaire, controlling trusts and corporations and carrying out great combines.
I once heard him say that the money tumbled into his chest like crushed oats out of a crown shaft, but what happened at last was never fully explained to me. Something I heard of a collision with the law and of a forced assignment of his interests. All that is material to my story is that at forty-five years of age he returned to Ellan. He was then a changed man, with a hard tongue, a stern mouth, and a masterful lift of the eyebrows. His passion for wealth had left its mark upon him, but the whole island went down before his face like a flood, and the people who had made game of his father came crawling to his feet like cockroaches.
The first thing he did on coming home was to buy up his mother’s croft, re-thatch the old house, and put in a poor person to take care of it.
“Guess it may come handy some day, ” he said.
His next act was worthy of the son of “Neale the Lord.” Finding that Captain O’Neill had fallen deeply into debt, he bought up the braggart’s mortgages, turned him out of the Big House, and took up his own abode in it.
Twelve months later he made amends, after his own manner, by marrying one of the Captain’s daughters. There were two of them. Isabel, the elder, was a gentle and beautiful girl, very delicate, very timid, and most sweet when most submissive, like the woodland herbs which give out their sweetest fragrance when they are trodden on and crushed. Bridget, the younger, was rather homely, rather common, proud of her strength of mind and will.
To the deep chagrin of the younger sister, my father selected the elder one. I have never heard that my mother’s wishes were consulted. Her father and my father dealt with the marriage as a question of business, and that was an end of the matter. On the wedding day my father did two things that were highly significant. He signed the parish register in the name of Daniel O’Neill by right of Letters Patent; and on taking his bride back to her early home, he hoisted over the tower of his chill grey house the stars and stripes of his once adopted country stitched to the flag of his native island. He had talked less than “Neale the Lord,” but he had thought and acted more.
Two years passed without offspring, and my father made no disguise of his disappointment, which almost amounted to disgust. Hitherto he had occupied himself with improvements in his house and estate, but now his restless energies required a wider field, and he began to look about him. Ellan was then a primitive place, and its inhabitants, half landsmen, half seamen, were a simple pious race living in a sweet poverty which rarely descended into want. But my father had magnificent schemes for it. By push, energy and enterprise he would galvanise the island into new life, build hotels, theatres, casinos, drinking halls and dancing palaces, lay out race-courses, construct electric railways to the tops of the mountains, and otherwise transform the place into a holiday resort for the people of the United Kingdom.
“We’ll just sail in and make this old island hum,” he said, and a number of his neighbours, nothing loth to be made rich by magic advocates, bankers and insular councillors joined hands with him in his adventurous schemes.
But hardly had he begun when a startling incident happened. The old Lord Raa of Castle Raa, head of the ‘Neills, the same that had sworn at my grandmother, after many years in which he had lived a bad life abroad where he had contracted fatal maladies, returned to Ellan to die. Being a bachelor, his heir would have been Captain O’Neill, but my mother’s father had died during the previous winter, and in the absence of direct male issue it seemed likely that both title and inheritance (which, by the conditions of an old Patent, might have descended to the nearest living male through the female line) would go to a distant relative, a boy, fourteen years of age, a Protestant, who was then at school at Eton.
More than ever now my father chewed the cud of his great disappointment. But it is the unexpected that oftenest happens, and one day in the spring, Doctor Conrad, being called to see my mother, who was indisposed, announced that she was about to bear a child.
My father’s delight was almost delirious, though at first his happiness was tempered by the fear that the child that was to be born to him might not prove a boy. Even this danger disappeared from his mind after a time, and before long his vanity and his unconquerable will had so triumphed over his common sense that he began to speak of his unborn child as a son, just as if the birth of a male child had been prearranged. With my mother, with Doctor Conrad, and above all with Father Dan, he sometimes went the length of discussing his son’s name. It was to be Hugh, because that had been the name of the heads of the O’Neills through all the ages, as far back as the legendary days in which, as it was believed, they had been the Kings of Ellan.
My mother was no less overjoyed. She had justified herself at last, and if she was happy enough at the beginning in the tingling delight of the woman who is about to know the sweetest of human joys, the joy of bearing a child, she acquiesced at length in the accepted idea that her child would be a boy. Perhaps she was moved to this merely by a desire to submit to her husband ‘s will, and to realise his hopes and expectations. Or perhaps she had another reason, a secret reason, a reason that came of her own weakness and timidity as a woman, namely, that the man child to be born of her would be strong and brave and free.
All went well down to the end of autumn, and then alarming news came from Castle Raa. The old lord had developed some further malady and was believed to be sinking rapidly. Doctor Conrad was consulted and he gave it as his opinion that the patient could not live beyond the year. This threw my father into a fever of anxiety. Sending for his advocate, he took counsel both with him and with Father Dan.
“Come now, let us get the hang of this business,” he said; and when he realised that (according to the terms of the ancient Patent) the old lord died before his child was born, his high-built hopes would be in the dust, his eagerness became a consuming fire.
For the first time in his life his excitement took forms of religion and benevolence. He promised that if everything went well he would give a new altar to Our Lady’s Chapel in the parish church of St. Mary, a ton of coals to every poor person within a radius of five miles, and a supper to every inhabitant of the neighbouring village who was more than sixty years of age. It was even rumoured that he went so far in secret as to provide funds for the fireworks with which some of his flatterers were to celebrate the forthcoming event, and that one form of illumination was a gigantic frame which, set upon the Sky Hill, immediately in front of our house, was intended to display in brilliant lights the glowing words “God Bless the Happy Heir.” Certainly the birth was to be announced by the ringing of the big bell of the tower as signal to the country round about that the appointed festivities might begin.
Day by day through September into October, news came from Castle Raa by secret channels. Morning by morning, Doctor Conrad was sent for to see my mother. Never had the sun looked down on a more gruesome spectacle. It was a race between the angel of death and the angel of life, with my father’s masterful soul between, struggling to keep back the one and to hasten on the other.
My father’s impatience affected everybody about him. Especially it communicated itself to the person chiefly concerned. The result was just what might have been expected. My mother was brought to bed prematurely, a full month before her time.
BY six o’clock the wind had risen to the force of a hurricane. The last of the withered leaves of the trees in the drive had fallen and the bare branches were beating together like bundles of rods. The sea was louder than ever, and the bell on St. Mary’s Rock, a mile away from the shore, was tolling like a knell under the surging of the waves. Sometimes the clashing of the rain against the window-panes was like the wash of billows over the port-holes of a ship at sea.
“Pity for the poor folk with their fireworks,” said Father Dan.
“They’ll eat their suppers for all that,” said my father.
It was now dark, but my father would not allow the lamps to be lighted. There was therefore no light in his gaunt room except a sullen glow from the fire of peat and logs. Sometimes, in a momentary lull of the storm, an intermittent moan would come from the room above, followed by a dull hum of voices.
“Guess it can ‘t be long now.” my father would say.
“Praise the Lord,” Father Dan would answer.
By seven the storm was at its height. The roaring of the wind in the wide chimney was as loud as thunder. Save for this the thunderous noise of the sea served to drown all sounds on the land. Nevertheless, in the midst of the clamour a loud rapping was heard at the front door. One of the maid-servants would have answered it, but my father called her back and, taking up a lantern, went to the door himself. As quietly as he could for the rush of wind without, he opened it, and pulling it after him, he stepped into the porch.
A man in livery was there on horseback, with another saddled horse beside him. He was drenched through, but steaming with sweat as if he had ridden long and hard. Shouting above the roar of the storm, he said:
“Doctor Conrad is here, is he?”
“He is what of it?” said my father.
“Tell him he’s wanted and must come away with me at once.”
“Who says he must?”
“Lord Raa, His lordship is dangerously ill. He wishes to see the doctor immediately.”
I think my father must then have gone through a moment of fierce conflict between his desire to keep the old lord alive and his hope of the immediate birth of his offspring. But his choice was quickly made.
“Tell the lord,” he cried, “that a woman is here in childbirth, and until she’s delivered the doctor cannot come to him.”
“But I’ve brought a horse, and the doctor is to go back with me.”
“Give the lord my message and say it is Daniel O’Neill who sends it.”
“But his lordship is dying and unless the doctor is there to tap him, he may not live till morning.”
“Unless the doctor is here to deliver my wife, my child may be dead before midnight.”
“What is the birth of your child to the death of his lordship?” cried the man; but, before the words were well out of his mouth, my father, in his great strength, had laid hold of the reins and swung both horse and rider round about.
“Get yourself to the other side of my gate, or I’ll fling you into the road,” he cried; and then, returning to the porch, he re-entered the house and clashed the door behind him.
Father Dan used to say that for some moments more the groom from Castle Raa could be heard shouting the name of the doctor to the lighted windows of my mother’s room. But his voice was swirled away in the whistling of the wind, and after a while the hoofs of his horses went champing over the gravel in the direction of the gate.
When my father returned to his room, shaking the rain from his hair and beard, he was fuming with indignation. Perhaps a memory of forty years ago was seething in his excited brain.
“The old scoundrel,” he said. “He ‘d like it, wouldn’t he? They’d all like it! Which of them wants a son of mine amongst them?”
The roaring night outside became yet more terrible. So loud was the noise from the shore that it was almost as if a wild beast were trying to liberate itself from the womb of the sea. At one moment Aunt Bridget came downstairs to say that the storm was frightening my mother. All the servants of the house were gathered in the hall, full of fear, and telling each other superstitious stories.
Suddenly there came a lull. Rain and wind seemed to cease in an instant. The clamour of the sea became less and the tolling of the bell on St. Mary’s Rock died away in the distance. It was almost as if the world, which had been whirling through space, suddenly stood still.
In that moment of silence a deeper moan than usual came from the room overhead. My father dropped into a chair, clasped his hands and closed his eyes. Father Dan rattled his pearl beads and moved his lips, but uttered no sound.
Then a faint sound came from the room overhead. My father opened his eyes and listened. Father Dan held his breath. The sound was repeated, but louder, clearer, shriller than before. There could be no mistaking it now. It was Nature’s eternal signal that out of the womb of silence a living soul had been born into the world.
“It’s over,” said my father.
“Glory be to God and all the Saints!” said Father Dan.
“That’ll beat ‘em,” cried my father, and he leapt to his feet and laughed.
Going to the door of the room, he flung it open. The servants in the hall were now whispering eagerly, and one of them, the gardener, Tom Dug, commonly called Tommy the Mate, stepped out and asked if he ought to ring the big bell.
“Certainly,” said my father. “Isn’t that what you’ve been standing by for?”
A few minutes later the bell of the tower began to ring, and it was followed almost immediately by the bell of our parish church, which rang out a merry peal.
“That’ll beat ‘em, I say,” cried my father, and laughing in his triumph he tramped the flagged floor with a firmer step than ever.
All at once the crying of the child ceased and there was a confused rumble of voices overhead. My father stopped, his face straightened, and his voice, which had rung out like a horn, wheezed back like a whistle.
“What’s going doing? Where’s Conrad? Why doesn’t Conrad come to me?”
“Don’t worry. He’ll be down presently,” said Father Dan.
A few minutes passed, in which nothing was said and nothing heard, and then, unable to bear the suspense any longer, my father went to the foot of the staircase and shouted the doctor’s name.
A moment later the doctor’s footsteps were heard on the stone stairs. They were hesitating, halting, dragging footsteps. Then the doctor entered my father’s room. Even in the sullen light of the peat fire his face was white, ashen white. He did not speak at first, and there was an instant of silence, dead silence. Then my father said:
‘Well, what is it?”
“It is . . .”
“Speak man! . . . Do you mean it is . . . dead?”
“No! Oh no! Not that.”
“It is a girl.”
“A girl. . . . Did you say a girl?”
“My God!” said my father, and he dropped back into the chair. His lips were parted and his eyes which had been blazing with joy, became fixed on the dying fire in a stupid stare.
Father Dan tried to console him. There were thistles in everybody’s crop, and after all it was a good thing to have begotten a girl. Girls were the flowers of life, the joy and comfort of man in his earthly pilgrimage, and many a father who bemoaned his fate when a daughter had been born to him, had lived to thank the Lord for her.
All this time the joy bells had been ringing, and now the room began to be illuminated by fitful flashes of variegated light from the firework- frame on the top of Sky Hill, which (as well as it could for the rain that had soaked it) was sputtering out its mocking legend, “God Bless the Happy Heir.”
In his soft Irish voice, which was like a river running over smooth stones, Father Dan went on with his comforting.
“Yes, women are the salt of the earth, God bless them, and when I think of what they suffer that the world may go on, that the generations may not fail, I feel as if I want to go down on my knees and kiss the feet of the first woman I meet in the street. “What would the world be without women? Think of St. Theresa! Think of the Blessed Margaret Mary. Think of the Holy Virgin herself. . . .”
“Oh, stow this stuff,” cried my father, and leaping to his feet, he began to curse and swear.
“Stop that accursed bell! Is the fool going to ring for ever? Put out those damnable lights, too. Put them out. Are the devils of hell trying to laugh at me?”
With that, and an oath at himself for his folly, my father strode out of the room.
My mother had heard him. Through the unceiled timbers of the floor between them the words of his rage had reached her. She was ashamed. She felt as if she were a guilty thing, and with a low cry of pain she turned to the wall and fainted.
The old lord died the same night. Somewhere, towards the dead reaches of the dawn his wicked spirit went to its reckoning, and a month afterwards the new Lord Raa, a boy in an Eton jacket, came over to take possession of his inheritance.
But long before that my father, scoring out his disappointment like an account that was closed, had got to work with his advocates, bankers and insular councillors on his great schemes for galvanising the old island into new life.
OUT of the mist and veil of my own memory, as distinguished from Father Dan’s, there comes first the recollection of a big room containing a big bed, a big wardrobe, a big dressing table, a big praying-stool with an image of Our Lady on the wall above it, and an open window to which a sparrow used to come in the mornings and chirp.
When I came to recognise and to classify I realised that this was my mother’s room, and that the sweet somebody who used to catch me up in her arms when I went tottering on voyages of discovery round the vast place was my mother herself, and that she would comfort me when I fell, and stroke my head with her thin white hand, while she sang softly and rocked me to and fro.
As I have no recollection of ever having seen my mother in any other part of our house, or indeed in any other place except our carriage when we drove out in the sunshine, I conclude that from the time of my birth she had been an invalid.
Certainly the faces which first emerge from the islands of my memory are the cheerful and sunny ones of Doctor Conrad and Father Dan. I recall the soft voice of the one as he used to enter our room after breakfast saying, “How are we this morning ma’am?” And I remember the still softer voice of the other as he said “And how is my daughter to-day?”
I loved both of them, but especially Father Dan, who used to call me his Nanny and say I was the plague and pet of his life, being as full of mischief as a goat. He must have been an old child himself, for I have clear recollection of how, immediately after confessing my mother, he would go down on all fours with me on the floor and play at hide-and-seek around the legs of Ihe big bed, amid squeals and squeaks of laughter. I remember, too, that he wore a long sack coat which buttoned close at the neck and hung loose at the skirts, where there were two large vertical pockets, and that these pockets were my cupboards and drawers, for I put my toys and my doll and even the remnants of my cakes into them to be kept in safe custody until wanted again.
My mother called me Mally veen (Mary dear) and out of love of her only child she must have weaned me late, for I have vague memories of her soft white breasts filled with milk. I slept in a little wickerwork cot placed near her bed, so that she could reach me if I uncovered myself in the night. She used to say I was like a bird, having something birdlike in my small dark head and the way I held it up. Certainly I remember myself as a swift little thing, always darting to and fro on tiptoe, and chirping about our chill and rather cheerless house.
If I was like a bird my mother was like a flower. Her head, which was small and fair, and her face, which was nearly always tinged with colour, drooped forward from her delicate body like a rose from its stalk. She was generally dressed in black, I remember, but she wore a white lace collar as well as a coif such as we see in old pictures, and when I call her back to my mind, with her large liquid eyes and her sweet soft mouth, I think it cannot be my affection alone, or the magic of my childish memory, which makes me think, after all these years and all the countries I have travelled in, and all the women I have seen, that my darling mother, though so little known and so little loved, was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Even yet I cannot but wonder that other people, my father especially, did not see her with my eyes. I think he was fond of her after his own fashion, but there was a kind of involuntary contempt in his affection, which could not conceal itself from my quick little eyes. She was visibly afraid of him, and was always nervous and timid when he came into our room with his customary salutation,
“How now, Isabel? And how’s this child of yours?”
From my earliest childhood I noticed that he always spoke of me as if I had been my mother’s child, not his, and perhaps this affected my feeling for him from the first.
I was in terror of his loud voice and rough manner, the big bearded man with the iron grey head and the smell of the fresh air about his thick serge clothes. It was almost as if I had conceived this fear before my birth, and had brought it out of the tremulous silence of my mother’s womb.
My earliest recollections are of his muffled shout from the room below, “Keep your child quiet, will you?” when I was disturbing him over his papers by leaping and skipping about the floor. If he came upstairs when I was in bed I would dive under the bedclothes, as a duck dives under water, and only come to the surface when he was gone. I am sure I never kissed my father or climbed on to his knee, and that during his short visits to our room I used to hold my breath and hide my head behind my mother’s gown.
I think my mother must have suffered both from my fear of my father and from my father’s indifference to me, for she made many efforts to reconcile him to my existence. Some of her innocent schemes, as I recall them now, seem very sweet but very pitiful. She took pride, for instance, in my hair, which was jet black even when I was a child, and she used to part it in the middle and brush it smooth over my forehead in the manner of the Madonna, and one day, when my father was with us, she drew me forward and said:
“Don’t you think our Mary is going to be very pretty? A little like the pictures of Our Lady, perhaps don’t you think so, Daniel?”
“Whereupon my father laughed rather derisively and answered:
“Pretty, is she? Like the Virgin, eh? Well, well!”
I was always fond of music, and my mother used to teach me to sing to a little upright piano which she was allowed to keep in her room, and on another day she said:
“Do you know our Mary has such a beautiful voice, dear? So sweet and pure that when I close my eyes I could almost think it is an angel singing.”
Whereupon my father laughed as before, and answered:
“A voice, has she? Like an angel’s, is it? What next, I wonder?”
My mother made most of my clothes. There was no need for her to do so, but in the absence of household duties I suppose it stimulated the tenderness which all mothers feel in covering the little limbs they love; and one day, having made a velvet frock for me, from a design in an old pattern book of coloured prints, which left the legs and neck and arms very bare, she said:
“Isn’t our Mary a little lady? But she will always look like a lady, whatever she is dressed in.”
And then my father laughed still more contemptuously and replied,
“Her grandmother weeded turnips in the fields though ninepence a day dry days, and sixpence all weathers.”
My mother was deeply religious, never allowing a day to pass without kneeling on her prayer-stool before the image of the Virgin, and one day I heard her tell my father that when I was a little mite, scarcely able to speak, she found me kneeling in my cot with my doll perched up before me, moving my lips as if saying my prayers and looking up at the ceiling with a rapt expression.
“But she has always had such big, beautiful, religious eyes, and I shouldn’t wonder if she becomes a Nun some day!”
“A nun, eh? Maybe so. But I take no stock in the nun business anyway,” said my father.
Whereupon my mother’s lips moved as if she were saying “No, dearest,” but her dear, sweet pride was crushed and she could go no farther.
THERE was a whole colony on the ground floor of our house who, like my father, could not reconcile themselves to my existence, and the head of them was Aunt Bridget.
She had been married, soon after the- marriage of my mother, to one Colonel MacLeod, a middle-aged officer on half-pay, a widower, a Belfast Irishman, and a tavern companion of my maternal grandfather. But the Colonel had died within a year, leaving Aunt Bridget with one child of her own, a girl, as well as a daughter of his wife by the former marriage. As this happened about the time of my birth, when it became obvious that my mother was to be an invalid, my father invited Aunt Bridget to come to his house as housekeeper, and she came, and brought her children with her.
Her rule from the outset had been as hard as might have been expected from one w r ho prided herself on her self-command a quality that covered everybody, including my mother and me, and was only subject to softening in favour of her own offspring.
Aunt Bridget’s own daughter, a year older than myself, was a fair child with light grey eyes, round cheeks of the colour of ripe apples, and long yellow hair that was carefully combed and curled. Her name was Betsy, which was extended by her mother to Betsy Beauty. She was usually dressed in a muslin frock with a sash of light blue ribbon, and being understood to be delicate was constantly indulged and nearly always eating, and giving herself generally the airs of the daughter of the house.
Aunt Bridget’s step- daughter, ten years older, was a gaunt, ungainly girl with red hair and irregular features. Her name was Nessy, and, having an instinctive sense of her dependent position, she was very humble and subservient and, as Tommy the Mate used to say, “as smooth as an old threepenny bit” to the ruling powers, which always meant my Aunt, but spiteful, insolent, and acrid to anybody who was outside my Aunt’s favour, which usually meant me.
Between my cousin and myself there were constant feuds, in which Nessy MacLeod never failed to take the side of Betsy Beauty, while my poor mother became a target for the shafts of Aunt Bridget, who said I was a wilful, wicked, underhand little vixen, and no wonder, seeing how disgracefully I was indulged, and how shockingly I was being brought up.
These skirmishes went on for a considerable time without consequences, but they came at last to a foolish climax which led to serious results.
Even my mother’s life had its gleams of sunshine, and flowers were a constant joy to her. Old Tommy, the gardener, was aware of this, and every morning sent up a bunch of them, freshly cut and wet with the dew. But one day in the spring he could not do so, being out in the dubs of the Curragh, cutting peat for the fires. Therefore I undertook to supply the deficiency, having already, with the large solemnity of six, begun to consider it my duty to take charge of my mother.
“Never mind, mammy, I’ll setch some slowers sor you,” I said (every / being an s in those days), and armed with a pair of scissors I skipped down to the garden.
I had chosen a bed of annuals because they were bright and fragrant, and was beginning to cut some “gilvers” when Nessy MacLeod, who had been watching from a window, came bouncing down me.
“Mary O’Neill, how dare you?” cried Nessy. “You wilful, wicked, underhand little vixen, what will your Aunt Bridget say? Don’t you know this is Betsy Beauty’s bed, and nobody else is to touch it?”
I began to excuse myself on the ground of my mother and Tommy the Mate, but Nessy would hear no such explanation.
“Your mamma has nothing to do with it. You know quite well that your Aunt Bridget manages everything in this house, and nothing can be done without her.”
Small as I was that was too much for me. Somewhere in my little heart there had long been a secret pang of mortified pride how born I do not know at seeing Aunt Bridget take the place of my mother, and now, choking with vexation but without saying a word, I swept off the heads of all the flowers in the bed, and with my arms full of them ten times more than I wanted I sailed back to my mother’s room.
Inside two minutes there was a fearful tumult. I thought I was doomed to punishment when I heard the big bunch of keys, which Aunt Bridget kept suspended from her waist, come jingling up the stairs, but it was my poor mother who paid the penalty.
“Isabel,” cried Aunt Bridget, “I hope you are satisfied with your child at last.”
“What has Mary been doing now, dear?” said my mother.
“Don’t ask me what she has been doing. You know quite well, or if you don’t you ought to.”
My mother glanced at the flowers and she seemed to understand what had happened, for her face fell and she said submissively,
“Mary has done wrong, but I am sure she is sorry and will never do it again.”
“Sorry, indeed!” cried my Aunt. “Not she sorry. And she’ll do it again at the very next opportunity. The vixen! The little wilful, underhand vixen! But what wonder if children go wrong when their own mothers neglect to correct them.”
“I daresay you are quite right, dear Bridget you are always right,” said my mother in a low, grave voice. “But then I ‘m not very well, and Mary is all I have, you know.”
My mother was in tears by this time, but Aunt Bridget was not content with her triumph. Sweeping downstairs she carried her complaint to my father, who ordered that I was to be taken out of my mother’s charge on the ground that she was incapable of attending to my upbringing a task which, being assigned to my Aunt Bridget, provided that I should henceforward live on the ground floor and eat oaten cake and barley bonnag and sleep alone in the cold room over the hall while Betsy Beauty ate wheaten bread and apple tart and slept with her mother in the room over the kitchen in which they always kept a fire.
THE altered arrangements were a cause of grief to my mother, but I am bound to confess that for me they had certain compensations. One of them was the greater ease with which I could slip out to Tommy the Mate, who had been a sailor before he was a gardener, and was still a fine old salt, with grizzled beard and shaggy eyebrows, and a merry twinkle in what he called his “starboard” eye.
I think Tommy was one of the few about my father ‘s house who were really fond of me. but perhaps that was mainly because he loathed Aunt Bridget. He used to call her the Big Woman, meaning that she was the master and mistress of everything and everybody about the place. “When he was told of any special piece of her tyranny to servant or farmhand he used to say: “Aw, well, she’ll die for all”; and when he heard how she had separated me from my mother, who had nothing else to love or live for, he spat sideways out of his mouth and said:
“Our Big Woman is a wicked devil, I’m thinking, and I wouldn’t trust [shouldn’t wonder] but she’ll burn in hell.”
What definite idea I attached to this denunciation I do not now recall, but I remember that it impressed me deeply, and that many a night afterwards, during the miserable half-hours before I fell asleep with my head under the clothes in the cold bedroom over the hall to which (as Nessy MacLeod had told me) the bad fairies came for bad children, I repeated the strange words again and again.
Another compensation was the greater opportunity I had for cultivating an acquaintance which I had recently made with the doctor’s son, when he came with his father on visits to my mother. As soon as the hoofs of the horse were heard on the gravel, and before the bell could be rung, I used to dart away on tiptoe, fly through the porch, climb into the gig and help the boy to hold the reins while his father was upstairs.
This led to what I thought a great discovery. It was about my mother. I had always known my mother was sick, but now I got a “skute” (as old Tommy used to say) into the cause of .her illness. It was a matter of milk. The doctor’s boy had heard his father saying so. If my mother could only have milk morning, noon and night, every day and all day, “there wouldn ‘t be nothing the matter with her.”
This, too, impressed me deeply, and the form it took in my mind was that “mammy wasn’t sed enough,” a conclusion that gained colour from the fact that I saw Betsy Beauty perched up in a high chair in the dining-room twice or thrice a day, drinking nice warm milk fresh from the cow. We had three cows, I remember, and to correct the mischief of my mother’s illness, I determined that henceforth she should not have merely more of our milk she should have all of it.
Losing no time in carrying my intentions into effect, I crept into the dairy as soon as the dairymaid had brought in the afternoon’s milking. There it was, still frothing and bubbling in three great bowls, and taking up the first of them in my little thin arms goodness knows how I made straight for my mother ‘s room.
But hardly had I climbed half-way up the stairs, puffing and panting under my burden, when I met Nessy MacLeod coming down, and she fell on me with her usual reproaches.
“Mary O ‘Neill, you wilful, underhand little vixen, whatever are you doing with the milk?”
Being in no mood for explanations I tried to push past, but Nessy prevented me.
“No, indeed, you shan’t go a step further. What will your Aunt Bridget say? Take the milk back, miss, this very minute.”
Nessy ‘s loud protest brought Betsy Beauty out of the dining-room, and in a moment my cousin, looking more than ever like a painted doll in her white muslin dress with a large blue bow in her yellow hair, had run upstairs to assist her step-sister.
I was now between the two, the one above and the other below, and they laid hold of my bowl to take it from me. They tugged and I resisted and there was a struggle in which the milk was in danger of being spilled.
“She ‘s a stubborn little thing and she ought to be whipped,” cried Nessy.
“She ‘s stealing my milk, and I’ll tell mamma,” said Betsy.
“Tell her then,” I cried, and in a burst of anger at finding myself unable to recover control of my bowl I swept it round and flung its contents over my cousin’s head, thereby drenching her with the frothing milk and making the staircase to run like a river of whitewash.
Of course there was a fearful clamour. Betsy Beauty shrieked and Nessy bellowed, whereupon Aunt Bridget came racing from her parlour, while my mother, white and trembling, halted to the door of her room.
“Mally, Mally, what have you done?” cried my mother, but Aunt Bridget found no need of questions. After running upstairs to her dripping daughter, wiping her down with a handkerchief, calling her “my poor darling,” and saying, “Didn’t I tell you to have nothing more to do with that little vixen?” she fell on my mother with bitter upbraidings.
“Isabel, I hope you see now what your minx of a child is the little spiteful fury!”
By this time I had dropped my empty bowl on the stairs and taken refuge behind my mother’s gown, but I heard her timid voice trying to excuse me, and saying something about my cousin and a childish quarrel.
“Childish quarrel, indeed!” cried my Aunt; “there ‘s nothing childish about that little imp, nothing. And what’s more, I shall be obliged to you, Isabel, if you will never again have the assurance to speak of my Betsy Beauty in the same breath with a child of yours.”
That was more than I could bear. My little heart was afire at the humiliation put upon my mother. So stepping out to the head of the stairs, I shouted down in my shrillest treble:
“Your Betsy Beauty is a wicked devil, and I wouldn’t trust but she’ll burn in hell!”
Never, to the last hour of my life, shall I forget the effect of that pronouncement. One moment Aunt Bridget stood speechless in the middle of the stairs, as if all breath had been broken out of her. Then, ghastly white and without a word, she came flying up at me, and, before I could recover my usual refuge, she caught me, slapped me on the cheek and boxed both my ears.
I do not remember if I cried, but I know my mother did, and that in the midst of the general tumult my father came out of his room and demanded in a loud voice, which seemed to shake the whole house, to be told what was going on.
Aunt Bridget told him, with various embellishments, which my mother did not attempt to correct, and then, knowing she was in the wrong, she began to wipe her eyes with her wet handkerchief, and to say she could not live any longer where a child was encouraged to insult her.
“I have to leave this house I have to leave it to-morrow,” she said.
“You don’t have to do no such thing,” cried my father. “But I’m just crazy to see if a man can’t be captain in his own claim. These children must go to school. They must all go the darned lot of ‘em.”
BEFORE I speak of what happened at school, I must say how and when I first became known to the doctor’s boy.
It was during the previous Christmastide. On Christmas Eve I awoke in the dead of night with the sense of awakening in another world. The church-bells were ringing, and there was singing outside our house, under the window of my mother’s room. After listening for a little while I made my voice as soft as I could and said:
“Mamma, what is it?”
“Hush, dear! It is the Waits. Lie still and listen,” said my mother.
I lay as long as my patience would permit, and then creeping over to the window I saw a circle of men and women, with lanterns, and the frosty air smoking about their red faces. After a while they stopped singing, and then the chain of our front door rattled, and I heard my father’s loud voice asking the singers into the house.
They came in, and when I was back in bed, I heard them talking and then laughing in the room below, with Aunt Bridget louder than all the rest, and when I asked what she was doing my mother told me she was serving out bunloaf and sherry-wine.
I fell asleep before the incident was over, but as soon as I awoke in the morning I conceived the idea of singing the Waits myself. Being an artful little thing I knew that my plan would be opposed, so I said nothing about it, but I got my mother to play and sing the carol I had heard overnight, until my quick ear had mastered both tune and words, and when darkness fell on Christmas night I proceeded to carry out my intention.
In the heat of my impatience I forgot to put on cloak or hat, and stealing out of the house I found myself in the carriage drive with nothing on but a pair of thin slippers and the velvet frock that left my neck and arms so bare. It was snowing, and the snow-flakes were whirling round me and making me dizzy, for in the light from my mother’s window they seemed to come up from the ground as well as down from the sky.
When I got out of the light of the window, it was very dark, and I could only see that the chestnuts in the drive seemed to have white blankets on them which looked as if they had been hung out to dry. It was a long time before I got to the gate, and then I had begun to be nervous and to have half a mind to turn back. But the thought of the bunloaf and the sherry-wine buoyed me up, and presently I found myself on the high road, crossing a bridge and turning down a lane that led to the sea, whose moaning a mile away was the only sound I could hear.
I knew quite well where I was going to. I was going to the doctor’s house. It was called Sunny Lodge, and it was on the edge of Yellow Gorse Farm. I had seen it more than once when I had driven out in the carriage with my mother, and had thought how sweet it looked with its whitewashed walls and brown thatched roof and the red and white roses which grew over the porch.
I was fearfully cold before I got there. The snow was in my slippers and down my neck and among the thickening masses of my hair. At one moment I came upon some sheep and lambs that were sheltering under a hedge, and they bleated in the silence of the night.
But at last I saw the warm red windows of the doctor’s cottage, and coming to the wicket gate, I pushed it open though it was clogged with snow, and stepped up to the porch. My teeth were now chattering with cold, but as well as I could I began to sing, and in my thin and creachy voice I had got as far as:
“Ch’ist was born in Bef-lem,
Ch’ist was born in Bef-lem,
Ch’ist was born in Bef-lem,
An’ in a manger laid. . . .”
when I heard a rumbling noise inside the house.
Immediately afterwards the door was opened upon me, and a woman whom I knew to be the doctor’s wife looked down into my face with an expression of bewilderment, and then cried:
“Goodness gracious me, doctor if it isn’t little Mary O’Neill, God bless her!”
“Bring her in at once, then,” said the voice of Doctor Conrad from within, and at the next moment I found myself in a sort of kitchen-parlour which was warm with a glowing turf fire that had a kettle singing over it, and cosy and bright with a ragwork hearth-rug, a dresser full of blue pottery and a sofa settle covered with red cloth.
I suppose the sudden change to a warm room must have caused me to faint, for I have no recollection of what happened next, except that I was sitting on somebody’s lap and that she was calling me boght millish (little sweet) and veg-veen (little dear) while she rubbed my half-frozen limbs and did other things that were, I am sure, all womanly and good.
When I came to myself Doctor Conrad was saying I would have to sleep there that night, and he must go over to the Big House and tell my mother what had happened. He went, and by the time he came back, I had been bathed in a dolly-tub placed in front of the fire, and was being carried upstairs (in a nightdress many sizes too large for me) to a little dimity-white bedroom, where the sweet smelling “scraas” under the sloping thatch of the roof came down almost to my face.
I know nothing of what happened during the night, except that I was feeling very hot, and that as often as I opened my eyes the doctor’s wife was leaning over me and speaking in a soft voice that seemed far away. But next day I felt cooler and then Aunt Bridget came in her satin mantle and big black hat, and said something, while standing at the end of my bed, about people paying the penalty when they did things that were sly and underhand.
Towards evening I was much easier, and when the doctor came in to see me at night he said:
“How are we this evening? Ah, better, I see. Distinctly better!”
And then turning to his wife he said:
“No need to stay up with her to-night, Christian Ann.”
“But won’t the boght millish be afraid to be left alone?” she asked.
I said I shouldn’t, and she kissed me and told me to knock at the wall if I wanted anything. And then, with her husband’s arm about her waist, the good soul left me to myself .
I don’t know how I knew, but I did know that that house was a home of love. I don’t know how I knew, but I did know, that that sweet woman, who had been the daughter of a well-to-do man, had chosen the doctor out of all the men in the world when he was only a medical student fresh from Germany or Switzerland. I don’t know how I knew, but I did know, that leaving father and mother and a sheltered home she had followed her young husband when he first came to Ellan without friends or connections, and though poor then and poor still, she had never regretted it. I don’t know how I knew, but I did know, that all this was the opposite of what had happened to my own dear mother, who having everything yet had nothing, while this good creature having nothing yet had all.
WHEN I awoke next morning the sun was shining, and, after my hair had been brushed smooth over my forehead, I was sitting up in bed, eating for breakfast the smallest of bantam eggs with the smallest of silver spoons, when the door opened with a bang and a small figure tumbled into my room.
It was a boy, two years older than myself. He wore a grey Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, but the peculiarity of his dress was a white felt hat of enormous size, which, being soiled and turned down in the brim, and having a hole in the crown with a crop of his brown hair sticking through it, gave him the appearance of a damaged mushroom.
Except that on entering he tipped up his head so that I saw his face, which was far from beautiful and yet had two big blue eyes as blue as the bluest sea he took no notice of my presence, but tossed a somersault in the middle of the floor, screwed his legs over the back of a chair, vaulted over a table and finally stood on his hands with his legs against the wall opposite to my bed, and his inverted countenance close to the carpet.
In this position, in which he was clearly making a point of remaining as long as possible, while his face grew very red, we held our first conversation. I had hitherto sat propped up as quiet as a mouse, but now I said:
“Little boy, what’s your name?”
“Mart,” was the answer.
“Where do you come from?”
I cannot remember that this intelligence astonished me, for when the inverted face had become scarlet, and the legs went down and the head came up, and my visitor tossed several somersaults over the end of my bed, to the danger of my breakfast tray, and then, without a word more, tumbled out of the room, I was still watching in astonishment.
I did not know at that time that these were the ways which since the beginning of the world have always been employed by savages and boys when they desire to commend themselves to the female of their kind, so that when the doctor’s wife came smiling upstairs I asked her if the little boy who had been to see me was not quite well.
“Bless you, yes, dear, but that’s his way,” she said, and then she told me all about him.
His name was Martin Conrad and he was her only child. His hat, which had awakened my interest, was an old one of his father’s, and it was the last thing he took off when he undressed for bed at night and the first thing he put on in the morning. When the hole came into its crown his mother had tried to hide it away but he had always found it, and when she threw it into the river he had fished it out again.
He was the strangest boy, full of the funniest fancies. He used to say that before he was born he lived in a tree and was the fellow who turned on the rain. It was with difficulty that he could be educated, and every morning on being awakened, he said he was “sorry he ever started this going to school.” As a consequence he could not read or write as well as other boys of his age, and his grammar was still that of the peasant people with whom he loved to associate.
Chief among these was our gardener, old Tommy the Mate, who lived in a mud cabin on the shore and passed the doctor’s house on his way to work. Long ago Tommy had told the boy a tremendous story. It was about Arctic exploration and an expedition he had joined in search of Franklin. This had made an overpowering impression on Martin, who for months afterwards would stand waiting at the gate until Tommy was going by, and then say:
“Been to the North Pole to-day, Tommy?”
Whereupon Tommy’s “starboard eye” would blink and he would answer:
“Not to-day boy. I don’t go to the North Pole more nor twice a day now.”
“Don’t you, though?” the boy would say, and this would happen every morning.
But later on Martin conceived the idea that the North Pole was the locality immediately surrounding his father’s house, and every day he would set out on voyages of exploration over the garden, the road and the shore, finding, by his own account, a vast world of mysterious things and undiscovered places. By some means nobody knew how the boy who could not learn his lessons studied his father’s German atlas, and there was not a name in it north of Spitzbergen which he had not got by heart. He transferred them all to Ellan, so that the Sky Hill became Greenland, and the Black Head became Franz Josef Land, and the Nun ‘s Well became Behring Strait, and Martha’s Gullet became New Siberia, and St. Mary ‘s Rock, with the bell anchored on it, became the pivot of the earth itself.
He could swim like a fish and climb a rock like a lizard, and he kept a log-book, on the back pages of the Doctor’s book of visits, which he called his “diarrhea.” And now if you lost him you had only to look up to the ridge of the roof, or perhaps on to the chimney stack, which he called his crow’s nest, and there you found him, spying through his father’s telescope and crying out:
”Look-out ahead! Ice floes from eighty-six latitude fourteen point north, five knots to the larboard bow.”
His mother laughed until she cried when she told me all this, but there is no solemnity like that of a child, and to me it was a marvellous story. I conceived a deep admiration for the doctor’s boy, and saw myself with eyes of worship walking reverently by his side. I suppose my poor lonely heart was hungering after comradeship, for being a sentimental little ninny I decided to offer myself to the doctor’s boy as his sister.
The opportunity was dreadfully long in coming. It did not come until the next morning, when the door of my room flew open with a yet louder bang than before, and the boy entered in a soap-box on wheels, supposed to be a sledge, and drawn by a dog, an Irish terrier, which being red had been called William Rufus. His hat was tied over his ears with a tape from his mother’s apron, and he wore a long pair of his father’s knitted stockings which covered his boots and came up to his thighs.
He did not at first take any more notice of me than on the previous day, but steering his sledge round the room he shouted to his dog that the chair by the side of my bed was a glacier and the sheep-skin rug was floating ice.
After a while we began to talk, and then, thinking my time had come, I tried to approach my subject. Being such a clever little woman I went artfully to work, speaking first about my father, my mother, my cousin, Nessy MacLeod, and even Aunt Bridget, with the intention of showing how rich I was in relations, so that he might see how poor he was himself.
I felt myself a bit of a hypocrite in all this, but the doctor’s boy did not know that, and I noticed that as I passed my people in review he only said “Is she any good?” or “Is he a stunner?”
At length my great moment came and with a fluttering heart I took it.
“Haven’t you got a sister?” I said.
“Not me!” said the doctor’s boy, with a dig of emphasis on the last word which cut me to the quick.
“Wouldn’t you like to have one?”
“Sisters isn’t no good,” said the doctor’s boy, and he instanced “chaps” at school Jimmy Christopher and others whose sisters were afraid of everything lobsters and crabs and even the sea.
I knew I was as timid as a hare myself, but my lonely little heart was beginning to bleed, and as well as I could for my throat which was choking me, I said:
“I’m not afraid of the sea not crabs neither.”
In a moment the big mushroom hat was tipped aside and the sea-blue eyes looked aslant at me.
“Isn’t you, though?”
That did it. I could see it did. And when a minute afterwards, I invited the doctor ‘s boy into bed, he came in, stockings and all, and sat by my right side, while William Rufus, who had formed an instant attachment for me, lay on my left with his muzzle on my lap.
Later the same day, my bedroom door being open, so that I might call downstairs to the kitchen, I heard the doctor’s boy telling his mother what I was. I was a “stunner.”
FROM that day forward the doctor’s boy considered that I belonged to him, but not until I was sent to school, with my cousin and her stepsister, did he feel called upon to claim his property, It was a mixed day-school in the village, and it was controlled by a Board which had the village butcher as its chairman. The only teacher was a tall woman of thirty, who plaited her hair, which was of the colour of flax, into a ridiculous-looking crown on the top of her head. But her expression, I remember, was one of perpetual severity, and when she spoke through her thin lips she clipped her words with great rapidity, as if they had been rolls of bread which were being chopped in a charity school.
Afterwards I heard that she owed her position to Aunt Bridget, who had exercised her influence through the chairman, by means of his account with the Big House. Perhaps she thought it her duty to display her gratitude. Certainly she lost no time in showing me that my character had gone to school before me, for in order that I might be directly under her eye, she placed me in the last seat in the lowest class, although my mother’s daily teaching would have entitled me to go higher.
I dare say I was, as Father Dan used to say, as full of mischief as a goat, and I know I was a chatterbox, but I do not think I deserved the fate that followed.
One day, not more than a week after we had been sent to school, I held my slate in front of my face while I whispered something to the girl beside and the girl behind me. Both began to titter.
“Silence!” cried the schoolmistress, who was sitting at her desk, but I went on whispering and the girls began to choke with laughter.
I think the schoolmistress must have thought I was saying something about herself making game, perhaps, of her personal appearance for after a moment she said, in her rapid accents:
“Mary O’Neill, please repeat what you have just been saying.”
I held my slate yet closer to my face and made no answer.
“Don’t you hear, miss? Speak! You’ve a tongue in your head, haven’t you?”
But still I did not answer, and then the schoolmistress said:
“Mary O’Neill, come forward.”
She had commanded me like a dog, and like a dog I was about to obey when I caught sight of Betsy Beauty’s face, which, beaming with satisfaction, seemed to be saying: “Now, we shall see.”
I would not stir after that, and the schoolmistress, leaving her desk, came towards me, and looking darkly into my face, said:
“You wilful little vixen, do you think you can trifle with me? Come out, miss, this very moment.”
I knew where that language came from, so I made no movement.
“Don’t you hear? Or do you suppose that because you are pampered and spoiled by a foolish person at home, you can defy me?”
That reflection on my mother settled everything. I sat as rigid as a rock.
Then pale as a whitewashed wall, and with her thin lips tightly compressed, the schoolmistress took hold of me to drag me out of my seat, but with my little nervous fingers I clung to the desk in front of me, and as often as she tore one of my hands open the other fixed itself afresh.
“You minx! We’ll see who’s mistress here. . . . Will none of you big girls come and help me?”
With the utmost alacrity one big girl from a back bench came rushing to the schoolmistress’ assistance. It was Nessy MacLeod, and together, after a fierce struggle, they tore me from my desk, like an ivy branch from a tree, and dragged me into the open space in front of the classes. By this time the schoolmistress ‘ hands, and I think her neck were scratched, and from that cause also she was quivering with passion.
“Stand there, miss,” she said, “and move from that spot at your peril.”
My own fury was now spent, and in the dead silence which had fallen on the entire school, I was beginning to feel the shame of my ignominious position.
“Children,” cried the schoolmistress, addressing the whole of the scholars, “put down your slates and listen.”
Then, as soon as she had recovered her breath she said, standing by my side and pointing down to me:
“This child came to school with the character of a wilful, wicked little vixen, and she has not belied her character. By gross disobedience she has brought herself to where you see her. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child. ‘ is a scriptural maxim, and the foolish parents who ruin their children by over-indulgence deserve all that comes to them. But there is no reason why other people should suffer, and, small as this child is she has made the life of her excellent aunt intolerable by her unlovable, unsociable, and unchildlike disposition. Children, she was sent to school to be corrected of her faults, and I order you to stop your lessons while she is publicly punished. . . .”
With this parade of the spirit of justice, the schoolmistress stepped back and left me. I knew what she was doing she was taking her cane out of her desk which stood by the wall. I heard the desk opened with an impatient clash and then closed with an angry bang. I was as sure as if I had had eyes in the back of my head, that the schoolmistress was holding the cane in both hands and bending it to see if it was lithe and limber.
I felt utterly humiliated. Standing there with all eyes upon me I was conscious of the worst pain that enters into a child’s experience the pain of knowing that other children are looking upon her degradation. I thought of Aunt Bridget and my little heart choked with anger. Then I thought of my mother and my throat throbbed with shame. I remembered what my mother had said of her little Mary being always a little lady, and I felt crushed at the thought that I was about to be whipped before 1 all the village children.
At home I had been protected if only by my mother’s tears, but here I was alone, and felt myself to be so little and helpless. But just as my lip was beginning to drop, at the thought of what my mother would suffer if she saw me in this position of infamy, and I was about to cry out to the schoolmistress: “Don’t beat me! Oh! please don’t beat me!” a strange thing happened, which turned my shame into surprise and triumph.
Through the mist which had gathered before my eyes I saw a boy coming out of the boys ‘ class at the end of the long room. It was Martin Conrad, and I remember that he rolled as he walked like old Tommy the gardener. Everybody saw him, and the schoolmistress said in her sharp voice:
“Martin Conrad, what right have you to leave your place without permission? Go back, sir, this very moment.”
Instead of going back Martin came on, and as he did so he dragged his big soft hat out of the belt of his Norfolk jacket and with both hands pulled it down hard on his head.
“Go back, sir!” cried the schoolmistress, and I saw her step towards him with the cane poised and switching in the air. as if about to strike.
The boy said nothing, but just shaking himself like a big dog he dropped his head and butted at the schoolmistress as she approached him, struck her somewhere in the waist and sent her staggering and gasping against the wall.
Then, without a word, he took my hand, as something that belonged to him, and before the schoolmistress could recover her breath, or the scholars awake from their astonishment, he marched me, as if his little stocky figure had been sixteen feet tall, in stately silence out of the school.
I WAS never sent back to school, and I heard that Martin, by order of the butcher, was publicly expelled. This was a cause of distress to our mothers, who thought the future of our lives had been permanently darkened, but I cannot say that it ever stood between us and our sunshine. On the contrary it occurred that Aunt Bridget having washed her hands of me, and Martin’s father being unable to make up his mind what to do with him we found ourselves for some time at large and were nothing loth to take advantage of our liberty, until a day came which brought a great disaster.
One morning I found Martin with old Tommy the Mate in his potting-shed, deep in the discussion of their usual subject the perils and pains of Arctic exploration, when you have little food in your wallet and not too much in your stomach.
“But you has lots of things when you gets there hams and flitches and oranges and things hasn’t you?” said Martin.
“Never a ha’p’orth,” said Tommy. “Nothing but glory. You just takes your Alping stock and your sleeping sack and your bit o ‘ biscuit and away you go over crevaxes deeper nor Martha’s gullet and mountains higher nor Mount Blank and never think o’ nothing but doing something that nobody’s never done before. My goodness, yes, boy, that’s the way of it when you ‘re out asploring. ‘ Glory ‘s waiting for me ‘ says you, and on you go.”
At that great word I saw Martin’s blue eyes glisten like the sea when the sun is shining on it; and then, seeing me for the first time, he turned back to old Tommy and said:
“I s’pose you lets women go with you when you’re out asploring women and girls?”
“Never a woman,” said Tommy.
“Not never not if they’re stunners?” said Martin.
“Well,” says Tommy, glancing down at me, while his starboard eye twinkled, “I won’t say never not if they’re stunners.”
Next day Martin, attended by William Rufus, arrived at our house with a big corn sack on his shoulder, a long broom-handle in his hand, a lemonade bottle half filled with milk, a large sea biscuit and a small Union Jack which came from the confectioner’s on the occasion of his last birthday.
“Glory’s waiting for me come along, shipmate,” he said in a mysterious whisper, and without a word of inquiry, I obeyed.
He gave me the biscuit and I put it in the pocket of my frock, and the bottle of milk, and I tied it to my belt, and then off we went, with the dog bounding before us.
I knew he was going to the sea, and my heart was in my mouth, for of all the things I was afraid of I feared the sea most a terror born with me, perhaps, on the fearful night of my birth. But I had to live up to the character I had given myself when Martin became my brother, and the one dread of my life was that, finding me as timid as other girls, he might want me no more.
“We reached the sea by a little bay, called Murphy’s Mouth, which had a mud cabin that stood back to the cliff and a small boat that was moored to a post on the shore. Both belonged to Tommy the Mate, who was a “widow man” living alone, and therefore there were none to see us when we launched the boat and set out on our voyage. It was then two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was shining, and the tide, which was at the turn, was beginning to flow.
I had never been in a boat before, but I dared not say anything about that, and after Martin had fixed the bow oar for me and taken the stroke himself, I spluttered and plunged and made many blunders. I had never been on the sea either, and almost as soon as we shot clear of the shore and were lifted on to the big waves, I began to feel dizzy, and dropped my oar, with the result that it slipped through the rollocks and was washed away. Martin saw what had happened as we swung round to his rowing, but when I expected him to scold me, he only said:
“Never mind, shipmate! I was just thinking we would do better with one,” and, shipping his own oar in the stern of the boat, he began to scull.
My throat was hurting me, and partly from shame and partly from fear, I now sat forward, with William Rufus on my lap, and said as little as possible. But Martin was in high spirits, and while his stout little body rolled to the rocking of the boat he whistled and sang and shouted messages to me over his shoulder.
“My gracious! Isn’t this what you call ripping?” he cried, and though my teeth were chattering, I answered that it was.
“Some girls Jimmy Christopher’s sister and Nessy MacLeod and Betsy Beauty would be frightened to come asploring, wouldn’t they?”
“Wouldn’t they?” I said, and I laughed, though I was trembling down to the soles of my shoes.
We must have been half an hour out, and the shore seemed so far away that Murphy’s Mouth and Tommy’s cabin and even the trees of the Big House looked like something I had seen through the wrong end of a telescope, when he turned his head, with a wild light in his eyes, and said:
“See the North Pole out yonder?”
“Don’t I?” I answered, though I was such a practical little person, and had not an ounce of “dream” in me.
I knew quite well where he was going to. He was going to St. Mary’s Rock, and of all the places on land or sea, it was the place I was most afraid of, being so big and frowning, an ugly black mass, standing twenty to thirty feet out of the water, draped like a coffin in a pall, with long fronds of seaweed, and covered, save at high water, by a multitude of hungry sea-fowl.
A white cloud of the birds rose from their sleep as we approached, and wheeled and whistled and screamed and beat their wings over our heads. I wanted to scream too, but Martin said:
“My gracious, isn’t this splendiferous?”
“Isn’t it?” I answered, and, little hypocrite that I was, I began to sing.
I remember that I sang one of Tommy’s sailor-songs, “Sally” because its jolly doggerel was set to such a jaunty tune
“Oh Sally’s the gel for me,
Our Sally’s the gel for me,
I’ll marry the gel that I love best
When I come back from sea.”
My pretence of happiness was shortlived, for at the next moment I made another mistake. Drawing up his boat to a ledge of the rock, and laying hold of our painter, Martin leapt ashore, and then held out his hand to me to follow him, but in fear of a big wave I held back when I ought to have jumped, and he was -drenched from head to foot. I was ashamed, and thought he would have scolded me, but he only shook himself and said:
“That’s nothing! We don’t mind a bit of wet when we’re out asploring.”
My throat was hurting me again and I could not speak, but without waiting for me to answer he coiled the rope about my right arm, and told me to stay where I was, and hold fast to the boat, while he climbed the rock and took possession of it in the name of the king.
“Do or die we allus does that when we’re out asploring,” he said, and with his sack over his shoulder, his broom-handle in his hand and his little Union Jack sticking out of the hole in the crown of his hat, he clambered up the crag and disappeared over the top of it.
Being left alone, for the dog had followed him, my nervousness increased tenfold, and thinking at last that the rising tide was about to submerge the ledge on which I stood, I tried in my fright to climb the cliff. But hardly had I taken three steps when my foot slipped and I clutched the seaweed to save myself from falling, with the result that the boat’s rope slid from my arm, and went rip-rip-ripping down the rock until it fell with a splash into the sea.
I saw what I had done, and I screamed, and then Martin’s head appeared after a moment on the ledge above me. But it was too late for him to do anything, for the boat had already drifted six yards away, and just when I thought he would have shrieked at me for cutting off our only connection with the shore, he said:
“Never mind, shipmate! We allus expecs to lose a boat or two when we’re out asploring.”
I was silent from shame, but Martin, having hauled me up the rock by help of the broom handle, rattled away as if nothing had happened pointing proudly to a rust-eaten triangle with a bell suspended inside of it and his little flag floating on top.
“But, oh dear, what are we to do now?” I whimpered.
“Don ‘t you worrit about that,” he said. “We’ll just signal back to the next base we call them bases when we’re out asploring.”
I understood from this that he was going to ring the bell which, being heard on the land, would bring somebody to our relief. But the bell was big, only meant to be put in motion on stormy nights by the shock and surging of an angry sea, and when Martin had tied a string to its tongue it was a feeble sound he struck from it.
Half an hour passed, an hour, two hours, and still I saw nothing on the water but our own empty boat rocking its way back to the shore.
“Will they ever come?” I faltered.
“Rather! Just you wait and you’ll see them coming. And when they take us ashore there’ll be crowds and crowds with bugles and bands and things to take us home. My goodness, yes,” he said, with the same wild look, “hundreds and tons of them!”
But the sun set over the sea behind us, the land in front grew dim, the moaning tide rose around the quaking rock and even the screaming sea-fowl deserted us, and still there was no sign of relief. My heart was quivering through my clothes by this time, but Martin, who had whistled and sung, began to talk about being hungry.
“My goodness yes, I’m that hungry I could eat. … I could eat a dog we allus eats our dogs when we’re out asploring.”
This reminded me of the biscuit, but putting my hand to the pocket of my frock I found to my dismay that it was gone, having fallen out, perhaps, when I slipped in my climbing. My lip fell and I looked up at him with eyes of fear, but he only said:
“No matter! We never minds a bit of hungry when we’re out asploring.”
I did not know then, what now I know, that my little boy who could not learn his lessons and had always been in disgrace, was a born gentleman, but my throat was thick and my eyes were swimming and to hide my emotion I pretended to be ill.
“I know,” said Martin. “Dizzingtory! [dysentery]. We allus has dizzingtory when we’re out asploring.”
There was one infallible cure for that, though milk!
“I allus drinks a drink of milk, and away goes the dizzingtory in a jiffy.”
This recalled the bottle, but when I twisted it round on my belt, hoping to make amends for the lost biscuit, I found to my confusion that it had suffered from the same misadventure, being cracked in the bottom, and every drop of the contents gone.
That was the last straw, and the tears leapt to my eyes, but Martin went on whistling and singing and ringing the big bell as if nothing had happened.
The darkness deepened, the breath of night came sweeping over the sea, the boom of the billows on the rock became still more terrible, and I began to shiver.
“The sack!” cried Martin. “We allus sleeps in sacks when we’re out asploring.”
I let him do what he liked with me now, but when he had packed me up in the sack, and put me to lie at the foot of the triangle, telling me I was as right as ninepence, I began to think of something I had read in a storybook, and half choking with sobs I said:
“What now, shipmate?”
“It’s all my fault . . . and I’m just as frightened as Jimmy Christopher’s sister and Nessy MacLeod and Betsy Beauty . . . and I’m not a stunner . . . and you’ll have to give me up … and leave me here and save yourself and . . .”
But Martin stopped me with a shout and a crack of laughter.
“Not me! Not much! We never leaves a pal when we’re out asploring. Long as we lives we never does it. Not never!”
That finished me. I blubbered like a baby, and William Rufus, who was sitting by my side, lifted his nose and joined in my howling.
What happened next I never rightly knew. I was only aware, though my back was to him, that Martin, impatient of his string, had leapt up to the bell and was swinging his little body from the tongue to make a louder clamour. One loud clang I heard, and then came a crash and a crack, and then silence.
“What is it?” I cried, but at first there was no answer.
“Have you hurt yourself?”
And then through the thunderous boom of the rising sea on the rock, came the breaking voice of my boy (he had broken his right arm) mingled with the sobs which his unconquered and unconquerable little soul was struggling to suppress
“We nerer minds a bit of hurt … we never minds nothing when we’re out asploring!”
Meantime on shore there was a great commotion. My father was railing at Aunt Bridget, who was upbraiding my mother, who was crying for Father Dan, who was flying off for Doctor Conrad, who was putting his horse into his gig and scouring the parish in search of the two lost children.
But Tommy the Mate, who remembered the conversation in the potting-shed and thought he heard the tinkle of a bell at sea, hurried off to the shore, where he found his boat bobbing on the beach, and thereby came to his own conclusions.
By the light of a lantern he pulled out to St. Mary’s Rock, and there, guided by the howling of the dog, he came upon the great little explorers, hardly more than three feet above high water, lying together in the corn sack, locked in each other’s arms and fast asleep.
There were no crowds and bands of music waiting for us when Tommy brought us ashore, and after leaving Martin with his broken limb in his mother ‘s arms at the gate of Sunny Lodge, he took me over to the Presbytery in order that Father Dan might carry me home and so stand between me and my father’s wrath and Aunt Bridget’s birch.
Unhappily there was no need for this precaution. The Big House, when we reached it, was in great confusion. My mother had broken a blood vessel.
DURING the fortnight in which my mother was confined to bed I was her constant companion and attendant. With the mighty eagerness of a child who knew nothing of what the solemn time foreboded I flew about the house on tiptoe, fetching my mother’s medicine and her milk and the ice to cool it, and always praising myself for my industry and thinking I was quite indispensable.
“You couldn’t do without your little Mally, could you, mammy?” I would say, and my mother would smooth my hair lovingly with her thin white hand and answer:
“No, indeed, I couldn’t do without my little Mally.” And then my little bird-like beak would rise proudly in the air.
All this tune I saw nothing of Martin, and only heard through Doctor Conrad in his conversations with my mother, that the boy’s broken arm had been set, and that as soon as it was better, he was to be sent to King George’s College, which was at the other end of Ellan. What was to be done with myself I never inquired, being so satisfied that my mother could not get on without me.
I was partly aware that big letters, bearing foreign postage-stamps and seals and coats of arms, with pictures of crosses and hearts, were coming to our house. I was also aware that at intervals, while my mother was in bed, there was the sound of voices, as if in eager and sometimes heated conference, in the room below, and that my mother would raise her pale face from her pillow and stop my chattering with “Hush!” when my father’s voice was louder and sterner than usual. But it never occurred to me to connect these incidents with myself, until the afternoon of the day on which my mother got up for the first time.
She was sitting before the fire, for autumn was stealing on, and I was bustling about her, fixing the rug about her knees and telling her if she wanted anything she was to be sure and call her little Mally, when a timid knock came to the door and Father Dan entered the room. I can see his fair head and short figure still, and hear his soft Irish voice, as he stepped forward and said:
“Now don’t worry,. my daughter. Above all, don’t worry.”
By long experience my mother knew this for a sign of the dear Father’s own perturbation, and I saw her lower lip tremble as she asked:
“Hadn’t Mary better run down to the garden?”
“No! Oh no!” said Father Dan. “It is about Mary I come to speak, so our little pet may as well remain.”
Then at a signal from my mother I went over to her and stood by her side, and she embraced my waist with a trembling arm, while the Father took a seat by her side, and, fumbling the little silver cross on his chain, delivered his message.
After long and anxious thought and he might say prayer it had been decided that I should be sent away to a Convent. It was to be a Convent of the Sacred Heart in Borne. He was to take me to Rome himself and see me safely settled there. And they (meaning my father and Aunt Bridget) had promised him faithfully promised him that when the holidays came round he should be sent to bring me home again. So there was nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, nothing to … to …
My mother listened as long as she could, and then her beautiful white face distorted by pain she broke in on the Father’s message with a cry of protest.
“But she is so young! Such a child! Only seven years old! How can any one think of sending such a little one away from home?”
Father Dan tried to pacify her. It was true I was very young, but then the Reverend Mother was such a good woman. She would love me and care for me as if I were her own child. And then the good nuns, God bless their holy souls . . .
“But Mary is all I have,” cried my mother, “and if they take her away from me I shall be broken-hearted. At such a time too! How cruel they are! They know quite well what the doctor says. Can’t they wait a little longer?”
I could see that Father Dan was arguing against himself, for his eyes filled as he said:
“It’s hard, I know it’s hard for you, my daughter. But perhaps it’s best for the child that she should go away from home perhaps it’s all God’s blessed and holy will. Remember there’s a certain person here who isn’t kind to our little innocent, and is making her a cause of trouble. Not that I think she is actuated by evil intentions . . .”
“But she is, she is,” cried my mother, who was growing more and more excited.
“Then all the more reason why Mary should go to the Convent for a time at all events.”
My mother began to waver, and she said:
“Let her be sent to a Convent in the island then.”
“I thought of that, but there isn’t one,” said Father Dan.
“Then . . . then . . . then take her to the Presbytery,” said my mother. “Dear, dear Father,” she pleaded, “let her live with you, and have somebody to teach her, and then she can come to see me every day, or twice a week, or even once a week I am not unreasonable.”
“It would be beautiful,” said Father Dan, reaching over to touch my arm. “To have our little Mary in my dull old house would be like having the sun there always. But there are reasons why a young girl should not be brought up in the home of a priest, so it is better that our little precious should go to Rome.”
My mother was breaking down and Father Dan followed up his advantage.
“Then wisha, my daughter, think what a good thing it will be for the child. She will be one of the children of the Infant Jesus first, then a child of Mary, and then of the Sacred Heart itself. And then remember, Rome! The holy city! The city of the Holy Father! Why, who knows, she may even see himself some day!”
“Yes, yes, I know,” said my mother, and then turning with her melting eyes to me she said:
“Would my Mary like to go leaving her mamma but coming home in the holidays would she?”
I was going to say I would not, because mamma could not possibly get on without me, but before I could reply Aunt Bridget, with her bunch of keys at her waist, came jingling into the room, and catching my mother’s last words, said, in her harsh, high-pitched voice.
“Isabel! You astonish me! To defer to the will of a child! Such a child too! So stubborn and spoiled and self-willed! If we say it is good for her to go she must go!”
I could feel through my mother’s arm, which was still about my waist, that she was trembling from head to foot, but at first she did not speak and Aunt Bridget, in her peremptory way, went on:
“We say it is good for you, too, Isabel, if she is not to hasten your death by preying on your nerves and causing you to break more blood vessels. So we are consulting your welfare as well as the girl’s in sending her away.”
My mother’s timid soul could bear no more. I think it must have been the only moment of anger her gentle spirit ever knew, but, gathering all her strength, she turned upon Aunt Bridget in ungovernable excitement.
“Bridget,” she said, “you are doing nothing of the kind. You know you are not. You are only trying to separate me from my child and my child from me. When you came to my house I thought you would be kinder to my child than anybody else, but you have not been, you have been cruel to her, and shut your heart against her, and while I have been helpless here, and in bed, you have never shown her one moment of love and kindness. No, you have no feeling except for your own, and it never occurs to you that having brought your own child into my house you are trying to turn my child out of it.”
“So that’s how you look at it, is it?” said Aunt Bridget, with a flash of her cold grey eyes. “I thought I came to this house your house as you call it only out of the best intentions, just to spare you trouble when you were ill and unable to attend to your duties as a wife. But because I correct your child when she is wilful and sly and wicked. . . . ”
“Correct your own child, Bridget O’Neill!” cried my mother, “and leave mine to me. She’s all I have and it isn’t long I shall have her. You know quite well how much she has cost me, and that I haven ‘t had a very happy married life, but instead of helping me with her father . . . ”
“Say no more,” said Aunt Bridget, “we don’t want you to hurt yourself again, and to allow this ill-conditioned child to be the cause of another hemorrhage.”
“Bridget O’Neill,” cried my mother, rising up from her chair, “you are a hard-hearted woman with a bad disposition. You know as well as I do that it wasn’t Mary who made me ill, but you you, who reproached me and taunted me about my child until my heart itself had to bleed. For seven years you have been doing that, and now you are disposing of my darling over my head without consulting me. Has a mother no rights in her own child the child she has suffered for, and loved and lived for that other people who care nothing for it should take it away from her and send it into a foreign country where she may never see it again? But you shall not do that! No, you shall not! As long as there ‘s breath in my body you shall not do it, and if you attempt . . .”
In her wild excitement my mother had lifted one of her trembling hands into Aunt Bridget’s face while the other was still clasped about me, when suddenly, with a look of fear on her face, she stopped speaking. She had heard a heavy step on the stairs. It was my father. He entered the room with his knotty forehead more compressed than usual and said:
“What’s this she shall not do?”
My mother dropped back into her seat in silence, and Aunt Bridget, wiping her eyes on her black apron she only wept when my father was present proceeded to explain.
“It seems I am a hard-hearted woman with a bad disposition and though I’ve been up early and late and made myself a servant for seven years I’m only in this house to turn my sister ‘s child out of it. It seems too, that we have no business none of us have to say what ought to be done for this girl her mother being the only person who has any rights in the child, and if we attempt . . .”
In his anger and impatience my father could listen no longer and in his loud voice he said:
“Since when has a father lost control of his own daughter? He has to provide f 01 her, hasn’t he? If she wants anything it’s to him she has to look for it, isn’t it? That’s the law I guess, eh? Always has been, all the world over. Then what’s all this hustling about?”
My mother made a feeble effort to answer him.
“I was only saying, Daniel . . .”
“You were saying something foolish and stupid. I reckon a man can do what he likes with his own, can’t he? If this girl is my child and I say she is to go somewhere, she is to go.” And saying this my father brought down his thick hand with a thump on to a table.
It was the first time he had laid claim to me, and perhaps that acted on my mother, as she said, submissively:
“Very well, dear. You know best what is best for Mary, and if you say you and Bridget and . . . and Father Dan . . .”
“I do say, and that’s enough. So just go to work and fix up this Convent scheme without future notice. And hark here, let me see for the future if a man can’t have peace from these two-cent trifles for his important business.”
My mother was crushed. Her lips moved again, but she said nothing aloud, and my father turned on his heel, and left the room, shaking the floor at every step under the weight of his sixteen stone. At the next moment, Aunt Bridget, jingling her keys, went tripping after him.
Hardly had they gone when my mother broke into a long fit of coughing, and when it was over she lay back exhausted, with her white face and her tired eyes turned upwards. Then I clasped her about the neck, and Father Dan, whose cheeks were wet with tears patted her drooping hand.
My darling mother! Never once have I thought of her without the greatest affection, but now that I know for myself what she must have suffered I love best to think of her as she was that day my sweet, beautiful, timid angel standing up for one brief moment, not only against Aunt Bridget, but against the cruelty of all the ages, in the divine right of her outraged motherhood.
MY mother’s submission was complete. Within twenty-four hours she was busy preparing clothes for my journey to Rome. The old coloured pattern book was brought out again, material was sent for, a sewing-maid was engaged from the village, and above all, in my view, an order was dispatched to Blackwater for a small squirrel-skin scarf, a large squirrel-skin muff, and a close-fitting squirrel-skin hat with a feather on the side of it.
A child’s heart is a running brook, and it would wrong the truth to say that I grieved much in the midst of these busy preparations. On the contrary I felt a sort of pride in them, poor innocent that I was, as in something that gave me a certain high superiority over Betsy Beauty and Nessy MacLeod, and entitled me to treat them with condescension.
Father Dan, who came more frequently than ever, fostered this feeling without intending to do so, by telling me, whenever we were alone, that I must be a good girl to everybody now, and especially to my mother.
“My little woman would be sorry to worry mamma, wouldn’t she?” he would whisper, and when I answered that I would be sorrier than sorry, he would say:
“Wisha then, she must be brave. She must keep up. She must not grieve about going away or cry when the time comes for parting.”
I said “yes ” and “yes” to all this, feeling very confidential and courageous, but I dare say the good Father gave the same counsel to my mother also, for she and I had many games of make-believe, I remember, in which we laughed and chattered and sang, though I do not think I ever suspected that the part we played was easier to me than to her.
It dawned on me at last, though, when in the middle of the night, near to the time of my going away, I was awakened by a bad fit of my mother’s coughing, and heard her say to herself in. the deep breathing that followed:
“My poor child! What is to become of her?”
Nevertheless all went well down to the day of my departure. It had been arranged that I was to sail to Liverpool by the first of the two daily steamers, and without any awakening I leapt out of bed at the first sign of daylight. So great was my delight that I began to dance in my nightdress to an invisible skipping rope, forgetting my father, who always rose at dawn and was at breakfast in the room below.
My mother and I breakfasted in bed, and then there was great commotion. It chiefly consisted for me in putting on my new clothes, including my furs, and then turning round and round on tiptoe and smiling at myself in a mirror. I was doing this while my mother was telling me to write to her as often as I was allowed, and while she knelt at her prayer-stool, which she used as a desk, to make a copy of the address for my letters.
Then I noticed that the first line of her superscription “Mrs. Daniel O’Neill” was blurred by the tears that were dropping from her eyes, and my throat began to hurt me dreadfully. But I remembered what Father Dan had told me to do, so I said:
“Never mind, mammy. Don’t worry I’ll be home for the holidays.”
Soon afterwards we heard the carriage wheels passing under the window, and then Father Dan came up in a white knitted muffler, and with a funny bag which he used for his surplice at funerals, and said, through a little cloud of white breath, that everything was ready.
I saw that my mother was turning round and taking out her pocket-handkerchief, and I was snuffling a little myself, but at a sign from Father Dan, who was standing at the threshold, I squeezed back the water in my eyes and cried:
“Good-bye mammy. I’ll be back for Christmas,” and then darted across to the door.
I was just passing through it when I heard my mother say “Mary” in a strange low voice, and I turned and saw her I can see her still with her beautiful pale face all broken up, and her arms held out to me.
Then I rushed back to her, and she clasped me to her breast, crying, “Mally veen! My Mally veen!” and I could feel her heart beating through her dress and hear the husky rattle in her throat, and then all our poor little game of make-believe broke down utterly.
At the next moment my father was calling upstairs that I should be late for the steamer, so my mother dried her own eyes and then mine, and let me go.
Father Dan was gone when I reached the head of the stairs, but seeing Nessy MacLeod and Betsy Beauty at the bottom of them I soon recovered my composure, and sailing down in my finery I passed them in stately silence with my little bird-like head in the air.
I intended to do the same with Aunt Bridget, who was standing with a shawl over her shoulders by the open door, but she touched me and said:
“Aren’t you going to kiss me good-bye, then?”
“No,” I answered, drawing my little body to its utmost height.
“And why not?”
“Because you’ve been unkind to mamma and cruel to me,
and because you think there’s nobody but Betsy Beauty.
And I’ll tell them at the Convent that you are making mamma ill, and you ‘re as bad as … as bad as the bad women in the Bible!”
“My gracious!” said Aunt Bridget, and she tried to laugh, but I could see that her face became as white as a white-washed wall. This did not trouble me in the least until I reached the carriage, when Father Dan, who was sitting inside, said:
“My little Mary won’t leave home like that without kissing her aunt and saying good-bye to her cousins.”
So I returned and shook hands with Nessy MacLeod and Betsy Beauty, and lifted my little face to my Aunt Bridget.
“That’s better,” she said, after she had kissed me, but when I had passed her my quick little ear caught the words:
“Good thing she’s going, though.”
During this time my father, with the morning mist playing like hoar-frost about his iron-grey hair, had been tramping the gravel and saying the horses were getting cold, so without more ado he bundled me into the carriage and banged the door on me.
But hardly had we started when Father Dan, who was blinking his little eyes and pretending to blow his nose on his coloured print handkerchief, said, “Look!” and pointed up to my mother’s room.
There she was again, waving and kissing her hand to me through her open window, and she continued to do so until we swirled round some trees and I lost the sight of her.
“What happened in my mother’s room when her window was closed I do not know, but I well remember that, creeping into a corner of the carriage, I forgot all about the glory and grandeur of going away, and that it did* not help me to remember -when half way down the drive a boy with a dog darted from under the chestnuts and raced alongside of us.
It was Martin, and though his right arm was in a sling, he leapt up to the step and held on to the open window by his left hand while he pushed his head into the carriage and made signs to me to take out of his mouth a big red apple which he held in his teeth by the stalk. I took it, and then he dropped to the ground, without uttering a word, and I could laugh now to think of the gruesome expression of his face with its lagging lower lip and bloodshot eyes. I had no temptation to do so then, however, and least of all when I looked back and saw his little one-armed figure in the big mushroom hat, standing on the top of the high wall of the bridge, with William Rufus beside him.
We reached Blackwater in good time for the boat, and when the funnels had ceased trumpeting and we were well away, I saw that we were sitting in one of two private cabins on the upper deck; and then Father Dan told me that the other was occupied by the young Lord Raa, and his guardian, and that they were going up together for the first time to Oxford.
I am sure this did not interest me in the least at that moment, so false is it that fate forewarns us when momentous events are about to occur. And now that I had time to think, a dreadful truth was beginning to dawn on me, so that when Father Dan, who was much excited, went off to pay his respects to the great people, I crudled up in the corner of the cabin that was nearest to the door and told myself that after all I had been turned out of my father’s house, and would never see my mother and Martin any more.
I was sitting so, with my hands in my big muff and my face to the stern, making the tiniest occasional sniff as the mountains of my home faded away in the sunlight, which was now tipping the hilltops with a feathery crest, when my cabin was darkened by somebody who stood in the doorway.
It was a tall boy, almost a man, and I knew in a moment who he was. He was the young Lord Raa. And at first I thought how handsome and well dressed he was as he looked down at me and smiled. After a moment he stepped into the cabin and sat in front of me and said:
“So you are little Mary O’Neill, are you!”
I did not speak. I was thinking he was not so very handsome after all, having two big front teeth like Betsy Beauty.
“The girl who ought to have been a boy and put my nose out, eh?”
Still I did not speak. I was thinking his voice was like Nessy MacLeod’s shrill and harsh and grating.
“Poor little mite! Going all the way to Rome to a Convent, isn’t she?”
Even yet I did not speak. I was thinking his eyes were like Aunt Bridget’s cold and grey and piercing.
“So silent and demure, though! Quite a little nun already! A deuced pretty one, too, if anybody asks me.”
I was beginning to have a great contempt for him.
“Where did you get those big angel eyes from? Stole them from some picture of the Madonna, I’ll swear.”
By this time I had concluded that he was not worth speaking to, so I turned my head and I was looking back at the sea, when I heard him say:
“I suppose you are going to give me a kiss, you nice little woman, aren’t you?”
“Oh, but you must we are relations, you know.”
He laughed at that, and rising from his seat, he reached over to kiss me, whereupon I drew one of my hands out of my muff and doubling my little mittened fist, I struck him in the face.
Being, as I afterwards learned, a young autocrat, much indulged by servants and generally tyrannising over them, he was surprised and angry.
“The spitfire!” he said. “Who would have believed it? The face of a nun and the temper of a devil! But you’ll have to make amends for this, my lady.”
With that he went away and I saw no more of him until the steamer was drawing up at the landing stage at Liverpool, and then, while the passengers were gathering up their luggage, he came back with Father Dan, and the tall sallow man who was his guardian, and said:
“Going to give me that kiss to make amends, or are you to owe me a grudge for the rest of your life, my lady?”
“My little Mary couldn’t owe a grudge to anybody,” said Father Dan, “She’ll Mss his lordship and make amends; I’m certain.”
And then I did to the young Lord Raa what I had done to Aunt Bridget I held up my face and he kissed me.
It was a little, simple, trivial incident, but it led with other things to the most lamentable fact of my life, and when I think of it I sometimes wonder how it comes to pass that He who numbers the flowers of the field and counts the sparrows as they fall has no handwriting with which to warn His children that their footsteps may not fail.
OF our journey to Rome nothing remains to me but the memory of sleeping in different beds in different towns, of trains screaming through tunnels and slowing down in glass-roofed railway stations, of endless crowds of people moving here and there in a sort of maze, nothing but this, and the sense of being very little and very helpless and of having to be careful not to lose sight of Father Dan, for fear of being lost until the afternoon of the fourth day after we left home.
We were then crossing a wide rolling plain that was almost destitute of trees, and looked, from the moving train, like green billows of the sea with grass growing over them. Father Dan was reading his breviary for the following day, not knowing what he would have to do in it, when the sun set in a great blaze of red beyond the horizon, and then suddenly a big round black ball, like a captive balloon, seemed to rise in the midst of the glory.
I called Father Dan’s attention to this, and in a moment he was fearfully excited.
“Don ‘t worry, my child,” he cried, while tears of joy sprang to his eyes. “Do you know what that is? That’s the dome of St. Peter ‘s! Rome, my child, Rome!”
It was nine o’clock when we arrived at our destination, and in the midst of a great confusion I walked by Father Dan’s side and held on to his vertical pocket, while he carried his own bag, and a basket of mine, down the crowded platform to an open cab outside the station.
Then Father Dan wiped his forehead with his print handkerchief and I sat close up to him, and the driver cracked his long whip and shouted at the pedestrians while we rattled on and on over stony streets, which seemed to be full of statues and fountains that were lit up by a great white light that was not moonlight and yet looked like it.
But at last we stopped at a little door of a big house which seemed to stand, with a church beside it, on a high shelf overlooking the city, for I could see many domes like that of St. Peter lying below us.
A grill in the little door was first opened and then a lady in a black habit, with a black band round her forehead and white bands down each side of her face, opened the door itself, and asked us to step in, and when we had done so, she took us down a long passage into a warm room, where another lady, dressed in the same way, only a little grander, sat in a big red arm-chair.
Father Dan, who was still wearing his knitted muffler, bowed very low to this lady, calling her the Reverend Mother Magdalene, and she answered him in English but with a funny sound which I afterwards knew to be a foreign accent.
I remember that I thought she was very beautiful, nearly as beautiful as my mother, and when Father Dan told me to kiss her hand I did so, and then she put me to sit in a chair and looked at me.
“What is her age?” she asked, whereupon Father Dan said he thought I would be eight that month, which was right, being October.
“Small, isn’t she?” said the lady, and then Father Dan said something about poor mamma which I cannot remember.
After that they talked about other things, and I looked at the pictures on the walls pictures of Saints and Popes and, above all, a picture of Jesus with His heart open in His bosom.
“The child will be hungry,” said the lady. “She must have something to eat before she goes to bed the other children have gone already.”
Then she rang a hand-bell, and when the first lady came back she said:
“Ask Sister Angela to come to me immediately.”
A few minutes later Sister Angela came into the room, and she was quite young, almost a girl, with such a sweet sad face that I loved her instantly.
“This is little Mary O’Neill. Take her to the Refectory and give her whatever she wants, and don ‘t leave her until she is quiet and comfortable.”
“Very well, Mother,” said Sister Angela, and taking my hand she whispered: “Come, Mary, you look tired.”
I rose to go with her, but at the same moment Father Dan rose too, and I heard him say he must lose no time in finding an hotel, for his Bishop had given him only one day to remain in Rome, and he had to catch an early train home the following morning.
This fell on me like a thunderbolt. I hardly know what I had led myself to expect, but certainly the idea of being left alone in Rome had never once occurred to me.
My little heart was fluttering, and dropping the Sister’s hand I stepped back and took Father Dan ‘s and said:
“You are not going to leave your little Mary are you, Father?”
It was harder for the dear Father than for me, for I remember that, fearfully flurried, he stammered in a thick voice something about the Reverend Mother taking good care of me, and how he was sure to come back at Christmas, according to my father’s faithful promise, to take me home for the holidays.
After that Sister Angela led me, sniffing a little still, to the Refectory, which was a large, echoing room, with rows of plain deal tables and forms, ranged in front of a reading desk that had another and much larger- picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall above it. Only one gasket was burning, and I sat under it to eat my supper, and after I had taken a basin of soup I felt more comforted.
Then Sister Angela lit a lamp and taking my hand she led me up a stone staircase to the Dormitory, which was a similar room, but not so silent, because it was full of beds, and the breathing of the girls, who were all asleep, made it sound like the watchmaker’s shop in our village, only more church-like and solemn.
My bed was near to the door, and after Sister Angela had helped me to undress, and tucked me in, she made her voice very low, and said I would be quite comfortable now, and she was sure I was going to be a good little girl and a dear child of the Infant Jesus; and then I could not help taking my arms out again and clasping her round the neck and drawing her head down and kissing her.
After that she took the lamp and went away to a cubicle which was partitioned off the end of the Dormitory and there I could see her prepare to go to bed herself taking the white bands off her cheeks and the black band off her forehead, and letting her long light hair fall in beautiful wavy masses about her face, which made her look so sweet and home like.
But oh, I was so lonely! Never in my life since no, not even when I was in my lowest depths have I felt so little and helpless and alone. After the Sister had gone to bed and everything was quiet in the Dormitory save for the breathing of the girls all strangers to me and I to them from mere loneliness I covered up my head in the clothes just as I used to do when I was a little thing and my father came into my mother’s room.
I try not to think bitterly of my father, but even yet I am at a loss to know how he could have cast me away so lightly. Was it merely that he wanted peace for his business and saw no chance of securing it in his own home except by removing the chief cause of Aunt Bridget’s jealousy? Or was it that his old grudge against Fate for making me a girl made him wish to rid himself of the sight of me?
I do not know. I cannot say. But in either case I try in vain to see how he could have thought he had a right, caring nothing for me, to tear me from the mother who loved me and had paid for me so dear; or how he could have believed that because he was my father, charged with the care of my poor little body, he had control over the little bleeding heart which was not his to make to suffer.
He is my father God help me to think the best of him.
AT half past six in the morning I was awakened by the loud ringing of the getting-up bell, and as soon as I could rouse myself from the deep sleep of childhood I saw that a middle-aged nun with a severe face was saying a prayer, and that all the girls in the dormitory were kneeling in their beds while they made the responses.
A few minutes later, when the girls were chattering and laughing as they dressed, making the room tingle with twittering sounds like a tree full of linnets in the spring, a big girl came up to me and said:
“I am Mildred Bankes and Sister Angela says I am to look after you to-day.”
She was about fifteen years of age, and had a long plain-featured face which reminded me of one of my father’s horses that was badly used by the farm boys; but there was something sweet in her smile that made me like her instantly.
She helped me to dress in my brown velvet frock, but said that one of her first duties would be to take me to the lay sisters who made the black habits which all the girls in the convent wore.
It was still so early that the darkness of the room was just broken by pale shafts of light from the windows, but I could see that the children of my own age were only seven or eight altogether, while the majority of the girls were several years older, and Mildred explained this by telling me that the children of the Infant Jesus, like myself, were so few that they had been put into the dormitory of the children of the Sacred Heart.
In a quarter of an hour everybody was washed and dressed, and then, at a word from Sister Angela, the girls went leaping and laughing downstairs to the Meeting Room, which was a large hall, with a platform at the farther end of it and another picture of the Sacred Heart, pierced with sharp thorns, on the wall.
The Reverend Mother was there with the other nuns of the Convent, all pale-faced and slow eyed women wearing rosaries, and she said a long prayer, to which the scholars (there were seventy or eighty altogether) made responses, and then there was silence for five minutes, which were supposed to be devoted to meditation, although I could not help seeing that some of the big girls were whispering to each other while their heads were down.
After that, and Mass in the Church, we went scurrying away to the Refectory, which was now warm, with the steam from our breakfast and bubbling with cheerful voices, making a noise that was like water boiling in a saucepan.
I was so absorbed by all I saw that I forgot to eat until Mildred nudged me to do so, and even when my spoon was half way to my mouth something happened which brought it down again.
At the tinkle of a hand-bell one of the big girls had stepped up to the reading-desk and begun to read from a book which I afterwards knew to be “The Imitation of Christ.” She was about sixteen years of age, and her face was so vivid that I could not take my eyes off it.
Her complexion was fair and her hair was auburn, but her eyes were so dark and searching that when she raised her head, as she often did, they seemed to look through and through you.
“Who is she?” I whispered.
“Alma Lier,” Mildred whispered back, and when breakfast was over, and we were trooping off to lessons, she told me something about her.
Alma was an American. Her father was very rich and his home was in New York. But her mother lived in Paris, though she was staying at an hotel in Rome at present, and sometimes she came in a carriage to take her daughter for a drive.
Alma was the cleverest girl in the school too, and sometimes at the end of terms, when parents and friends came to the Convent and one of the Cardinals distributed the prizes, she had so many books to take away that she could hardly carry them down from the platform.
I listened to this with admiring awe, thinking Alma the most wonderful and worshipful of all creatures, and when I remember it now, after all these years, and the bitter experiences which have come with them, I hardly know whether to laugh or cry at the thought that such was the impression she first made on me.
My class was with the youngest of the children, and Sister Angela was my teacher. She was so sweet to me that her encouragement was like a kiss and her reproof like a caress; but I could think of nothing but Alma, and at noon, when the bell rang for lunch and Mildred took me back to the Refectory, I wondered if the same girl would read again.
She did, but this time in a foreign language, French as Mildred whispered from the letters of the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque and my admiration for Alma went up tenfold. I wondered if it could possibly occur that I should ever come to know her.
There is no worship like that of a child, and life for me, which had seemed so cold and dark the day before, became warm and bright with a new splendour.
I was impatient of everything that took me away from the opportunity of meeting with Alma the visit to the lay-sisters to be measured for my new black clothes, the three o’clock “rosary,” when the nuns walked with their classes in the sunshine, and, above all, the voluntary visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the Church of the Convent, which seemed to me large and gorgeous, though divided across the middle by an open bronze screen, called a Cancello the inner half, as Mildred whispered, being for the inmates of the school, while the outer half was for the congregation which came on Sunday to Benediction.
But at four o ‘clock we had dinner, when Alma read again this time in Italian from the writings of Saint Francis of Sales and then, to my infinite delight, came a long recreation, when all the girls scampered out into the Convent garden, which was still bright with afternoon sunshine and as merry with laughter and shouts as the seashore on a windy summer morning.
The garden was a large bare enclosure, bounded on two sides by the convent buildings and on the other two by a yellow wall and an avenue made by a line of stone pines with heads like open umbrellas, but it had no other foliage except an old tree which reminded me of Tommy the Mate, haying gnarled and sprawling limbs, and standing like a weather-beaten old sailor, four-square in the middle.
A number of the girls were singing and dancing around this tree, and I felt so happy just then that I should have loved to join them, but I was consumed by a desire to come to close quarters with the object of my devotion, so I looked eagerly about me and asked Mildred if Alma was likely to be there.
“Sure to be,” said Mildred, and hardly were the words out of her mouth when Alma herself came straight down in our direction, surrounded by a group of admiring girls, who were hanging on to her and laughing at everything she said.
My heart began to thump, and without knowing what I was doing I stopped dead short, while Mildred went on a pace or two ahead of me.
Then I noticed that Alma had stopped too, and that her great searching eyes were looking down at me. In my nervousness, I tried to smile, but Alma continued to stare, and at length, in the tone of one who had accidentally turned up something with her toe that was little and ridiculous, she said:
“Goodness, girls, what ‘s this?”
Then she burst into a fit of laughter, in which the other girls joined, and looking me up and down they all laughed together.
I knew what they were laughing at the clothes my mother had made for me and I had felt so proud of. That burnt me like iron, and I think my lip must have dropped, but Alma showed no mercy.
“Dare say the little doll thinks herself pretty, though,” she said. And then she passed on, and the girls with her, and as they went off they looked back over their shoulders and laughed again.
Never since has any human creature not even Alma herself made me suffer more than I suffered at that moment. My throat felt tight, tears leapt to my eyes, disappointment, humiliation, and shame swept over me like a flood, and I stood squeezing my little handkerchief in my hand and feeling as if I could have died.
At the next moment Mildred stepped back to me, and putting her arm about my waist she said:
“Never mind, Mary. She’s a heartless thing. Don’t have anything to do with her.”
But all the sunshine had gone out of the day for me now and I cried for hours. I was still crying, silently but bitterly, when, at eight o’clock, we were saying the night prayers, and I saw Alma, who was in the opposite benches, whispering to one of the girls who sat next to her and then looking straight across at me.
And at nine o’clock when we went to bed I was crying more than ever, so that after the good-night-bell had been rung and the lights had been put down, Sister Angela, not knowing the cause of my sorrow, stepped up to my bed before going down stairs for her own studies, and whispered:
“You mustn’t fret for home, Mary. You will soon get used to it.”
But hardly had I been left alone, with the dull pain I could find no ease for, when somebody touched me on the shoulder, and, looking up, I saw a girl in her nightdress standing beside me. It was Alma and she said:
“Say, little girl, is your name O’Neill?”
Trembling with nervousness I answered that it was.
“Do you belong to the O’Neills of Ellan?”
Still trembling I told her that I did.
“My!” she said in quite another tone, and then I saw that by some means I had begun to look different in her eyes.
After a moment she sat on the side of my bed and asked questions about my home if it was not large and very old, with big stone staircases, and great open fireplaces, and broad terraces, and beautiful walks going down to the sea.
I was so filled with the joy of finding myself looking grand in Alma’s eyes that I answered “yes” and “yes” without thinking too closely about her questions, and my tears were all brushed away when she said:
“I knew somebody who lived in your house once, and I’ll tell her all about you.”
She stayed a few moments longer, and when going off she whispered:
“Hope you don’t feel badly about my laughing in the garden to-day. I didn’t mean a thing. But if any of the girls laugh again just say you ‘re Alma Lier ‘s friend and she’s going to take care of you.”
I could hardly believe my ears. Some great new splendour had suddenly dawned upon me and I was very happy.
I did not know then that the house which Alma had been talking of was not my father’s house, but Castle Raa. I did not know then that the person who had lived there was her mother, and that in her comely and reckless youth she had been something to the bad Lord Raa who had lashed my father and sworn at my grandmother.
I did not know anything that was dead and buried in the past, or shrouded and veiled in the future. I only knew that Alma had called herself my friend and promised to take care of me. So with a glad heart I went to sleep.
ALMA kept her word, though perhaps her method of protection was such as would have commended itself only to the heart of a child.
It consisted in calling me Margaret Mary after our patron saint of the Sacred Heart, in taking me round the garden during recreation as if I had been a pet poodle, and, above all, in making my bed the scene of the conversaziones which some of the girls held at night when they were supposed to be asleep.
The secrecy of these gatherings flattered me, and when the unclouded moon, in the depths of the deep blue Italian sky, looked in on my group of girls in their nightdresses, bunched together on my bed, with my own little body between, I had a feeling of dignity as well as solemnity and awe.
Of course Alma was the chip f spokeswoman at these whispered conferences. Sometimes she told us of her drives into the Borghese Gardens, where she saw the King and Queen, or to the Hunt on the Campagna, where she met the flower of the aristocracy, or to the Pincio, where the Municipal band played in the pavilion, while ladies sat in their carriages in the sunshine, and officers in blue cloaks saluted them and smiled.
Sometimes she indicated her intentions for the future, which was certainly not to be devoted to retreats and novenas, or to witness another black dress as long as she lived, and if she married (which was uncertain) it was not to be to an American, but to a Frenchman, because Frenchmen had “family” and “blood,” or perhaps to an Englishman, if he was a member of the House of Lords, in which case she would attend all the race-meetings and Coronations, and take tea at the Carlton,
where she would eat meringues glaces every day and have as many eclairs as she liked.
And sometimes she would tell us the stories of the novels which she bribed one of the washing-women to smuggle into the convent stories of ladies and their lovers, and of intoxicating dreams of kissing and fondling, at which the bigger girls, with far-off suggestions of sexual mysteries still unexplored, would laugh and shudder, and then Alma would say:
“But hush, girls! Margaret Mary will be shocked.”
Occasionally these conferences would be interrupted by Mildred’s voice from the other end of the dormitory, where she would raise her head from her pillow and say:
“Alma Lier, you ought to be ashamed of yourself keeping that child up when she ought to be asleep, instead of listening to your wicked stories.”
“Helloa, Mother Mildred, is that you?” Alma would answer, and then the girls would laugh, and Mildred was supposed to be covered with confusion.
One night Sister Angela’s footsteps were heard on the stairs, and then the girls flew back to their beds, where, with the furtive instinct of their age and sex, they pretended to be sleeping soundly when the Sister entered the room. But the Sister was not deceived, and walking up the aisle between the beds she said in an angry tone:
“Alma Lier, if this ever occurs again I’ll step down to the Reverend Mother and tell her all about you.”
Little as I was, I saw that between Alma and Sister Angela there was a secret feud, which must soon break into open rupture, but for my own part I was entirely happy, being still proud of Alma’s protection and only feeling any misgivings when Mildred’s melancholy eyes were looking at me.
Thus week followed week until we were close upon Christmas, and the girls, who were to be permitted to go home before the Feast, began to count the days to the holidays. I counted them too, and when anybody talked of her brother I thought of Martin Conrad, though his faithful little figure was fading away from me, and when anybody spoke of her parents I remembered my mother, for whom my affection never failed.
But, within a week from the time for breaking up, the Reverend Mother sent for me, and with a sinking heart I went to her room, knowing well what she was going to say.
“You are not to go home for the holidays this time, my child. You are to remain here, and Sister Angela is to stay to take care of you.”
She had a letter from Father Dan, telling her that my mother was still unwell, and for this and other reasons it was considered best that I should not return at Christmas.
Father Dan had written a letter to me also, beginning, “My dear daughter in Jesus” and ending “Yours in Xt,” saying it was not his fault that he could not fulfil his promise, but my father was much from home now-a-days and Aunt Bridget was more difficult than ever, so perhaps I should be happier at the Convent.
It was a bitter blow, though the bitterest part of it lay in the fear that the girls would think I was of so little importance to my people that they did not care to see me.
But the girls were too eager about their own concerns to care much about me, and even on the very last day and at the very last moment, when everything was bustle and joy, and boxes were being carried downstairs, and everybody was kissing everybody else and wishing each other a Happy Christmas, and then flying away like mad things, and I alone was being left, Alma herself, before she stepped into a carriage in which a stout lady wearing furs was waiting to receive her, only said:
“By-by, Margaret Mary! Take care of Sister Angela.”
Next day the Reverend Mother went off to her cottage at Nemi, and the other nuns and novices to their friends in the country, and then Sister Angela and I were alone in the big empty echoing convent save for two elderly lay Sisters, who cooked and cleaned for us, and the Chaplain, who lived by himself in a little white hut like a cell which stood at the farthest corner of the garden.
We moved our quarters to a room in the front of the house, so as to look out over the city, and down into the piazza which was full of traffic, and after a while we had many cheerful hours together.
During the days before Christmas we spent our mornings in visiting the churches and basilicas where there were little illuminated models of the Nativity, with the Virgin and the Infant Jesus in the stable among the straw. The afternoons we spent at home in the garden, where the Chaplain, in his black soutane and biretta, was always sitting under the old tree, reading his breviary.
His name was Father Giovanni and he was a tall young man with a long, thin, pale face, and when Sister Angela first took me up to him she said:
“This is our Margaret Mary.”
Then his sad face broke into warm sunshine, and he stroked my head, and sent me away to skip with my skipping-rope, while he and Sister Angela sat together under the tree, and afterwards walked to and fro in the avenue between the stone pines and the wall, until they came to his cell in the corner, where she craned her neck at the open door as if she would have liked to go in and make things more tidy and comfortable.
On Christmas Day we had currant cake in honour of the feast, and Sister Angela asked Father Giovanni to come to tea, and he came, and was quite cheerful, so that when the Sister, who was also very happy, signalled to me to take some mistletoe from the bottom of a picture I held it over his head and kissed him from behind. Then he snatched me up in his arms and kissed me back, and we had a great romp round the chairs and tables.
But the Ave Maria began to ring from the churches, and Father Giovanni (according to the rule of our Convent) having to go, he kissed me again, and then I said:
“Why don’t you kiss Sister Angela too?”
At that they only looked at each other and laughed, but after a moment he kissed her hand, and then she went downstairs to see him out into the garden.
When she came back her eyes were sparkling and her cheeks were flushed, and, that night, when she took away her black and white whimple and gorget on going to bed, she stood before a looking-glass and wound her beautiful light hair round her finger and curled it over her forehead in the way it was worn by the ladies we saw in the streets.
I think it was two nights later that she told me I was to go to bed early because Father Giovanni was not well and she would have to go over to see him.
She went, and I got into bed, but I could not sleep, and while I lay waiting for Sister Angela I listened to some men who as they crossed the piazza were singing, in tremulous voices, to their mandolines and guitars, what I believed to be love songs, for I had begun to learn Italian.
“Oil bella Napoli. Oh suol beato
Onde soiridere volla il creato.”
It was late when Sister Angela came back and then she was breathing hard as if she had been running. I asked if Father Giovanni’s sickness was worse, and she said no, it was better, and I was to say nothing about it. But she could not rest and at last she said:
“Didn’t we forget to say our prayers, Mary?”
So I got up again and Sister Angela said one of the beautiful prayers out of our prayer-book. But her voice was very low and when she came to the words:
“O Father of all mankind, forgive all sinners who repent of their sins,” she broke down altogether.
I thought she was ill, but she said it was only a cold she had caught in crossing the garden and I was to go to sleep like a good girl and think no more about her.
But in the middle of the night I awoke, and Sister Angela was crying.
MOST of the girls were depressed when they returned to school, but Alma was in high spirits, and on the first night of the term she crept over to my bed and asked what we had been doing during the holidays.
“Not a thing, eh?”
I answered that we had done lots of things and been very happy.
“Happy? In this gloomy old convent? You and Sister Angela alone?”
I told her we had two lay sisters and then there was Father Giovanni.
“Father Giovanni? That serious old cross-bones?”
I said he was not always serious, and that on Christmas Day he had come to tea and kissed me under the mistletoe.
“Kissed you under the mistletoe!” said Alma, and then she whispered eagerly,
“He didn’t kiss Sister Angela, did he?”
I suppose I was nattered by her interest, and this loosened my tongue, for I answered:
“He kissed her hand, though.”
“Kissed her hand? My! … Of course she was very angry . . . wasn’t she angry?”
I answered no, and in my simplicity I proceeded to prove this by explaining that Sister Angela had taken Father Giovanni down to the door, and when he was ill she had nursed him.
“Nursed him? In his own house, you mean?”
“Yes, at night, too, and she stayed until he was better, and caught a cold coming back.”
“Well, I never!” said Alma, and I remember that I was very pleased with myself during this interview, for by the moonlight which was then shining into the room, I could see that Alma’s eyes were sparkling.
The next night we recommenced our conferences in bed, when Alma told us all about her holiday, which she had spent “way up in St. Moritz,” among deep snow and thick ice, skating, bobbing, lugging, and above all riding astride, and dragging a man on skis behind her.
“Such lots of fun,” she said. And the best of it was at night when there were dances and fancy-dress balls with company which included all the smart people in Europe, and men who gave a girl such a good time if she happened to be pretty and was likely to have a dot.
Alma had talked so eagerly and the girls had listened so intently, that nobody was aware that Sister Angela had returned to the room until she stepped forward and said:
“Alma Lier, I’m ashamed of you. Go back to your bed, miss, this very minute.”
The other girls crept away and I half covered my face with my bed-clothes, but Alma stood up to Sister Angela and answered her back.
“Go to bed yourself, and don’t speak to me like that, or you’ll pay for your presumption.”
“Pay? Presumption? You insolent thing, you are corrupting the whole school and are an utter disgrace to it. I warned you that I would tell the Reverend Mother what you are, and now I’ve a great mind to do it.”
“Do it. I dare you to do it. Do it to-night, and tomorrow morning I will do something.”
“What will you do, you brazen hussy?” said Sister Angela, but I could see that her lip was trembling.
“Never mind what. If I’m a hussy I ‘m not a hypocrite, and as for corrupting the school, and being a disgrace to it, I’ll leave the Reverend Mother to say who is doing that.”
Low as the light was I could see that Sister Angela was deadly pale. There was a moment of silence in which I thought she glanced in my direction, and then stammering something which I did not hear, she left the dormitory.
It was long before she returned, and when she did so I saw her creep into her cubicle and sit there for quite a great time before going to bed. My heart was thumping hard, for I had a vague feeling that I had been partly to blame for what had occurred, but after a while I fell asleep and remembered no more until I was awakened in the middle of the night by somebody kissing me in my sleep.
It was Sister Angela, and she was turning away, but I called her back, and she knelt by my bed and whispered:
“Hush! I know what has happened, but I don’t blame you for it.”
I noticed that she was wearing her out-door cloak, and that she was breathing rapidly, just as she did on the night she came from the chaplain’s quarters, and when I asked if she was going anywhere she said yes, and if I ever heard anything against Sister Angela I was to think the best of her.
“But you are so good . . .”
“No, I am not good. I am very wicked. I should never have thought of being a nun, but I ‘m glad now that I ‘m only a novice and have never taken the vows.”
After that she told me to go to sleep, and then she kissed me again, and I thought she was going to cry, but she rose hurriedly and left the room.
Next morning after the getting-up bell had been rung, and I had roused myself to full consciousness, I found that four or five nuns were standing together near the door of the dormitory talking about something that had happened during the night Sister Angela had gone!
Half an hour afterwards when, full of this exciting event, the girls went bustling down to the Meeting Room they found the nuns in great agitation over an incident of still deeper gravity Father Giovanni also had disappeared!
A convent school is like a shell on the shore of a creek, always rumbling with the rumour of the little sea it lives under; and by noon the girls, who had been palpitating with curiosity, thought they knew everything that had happened how at four in the morning Father Giovanni and Sister Angela had been seen to come out of the little door which connected the garden with the street; how at seven they had entered a clothing emporium in the Corso, where going in at one door as priest and nun they had come out at another as ordinary civilians; how at eight they had taken the first train to Civita Vecchia, arriving in tune to catch a steamer sailing at ten, and how they were now on their way to England.
By some mysterious instinct of their sex the girls had gathered with glistening eyes in front of the chaplain’s deserted quarters, where Alma leaned against the wall with her insteps crossed and while the others talked she smiled, as much as to say, “I told you so.”
As for me I was utterly wretched, and being now quite certain that I was the sole cause of Sister Angela ‘s misfortune, I was sitting under the tree in the middle of the garden, when Alma, surrounded by her usual group of girls, came down on me.
“What’s this?” she said. “Margaret Mary crying? Feeling badly for Sister Angela, is she? Why, you little silly, you needn’t cry for her. She’s having the time of her life, she is!”
At this the girls laughed and shuddered, as they used to do when Alma told them stories, but just at that moment the nun with the stern face (she was the Mother of the Novices) came up and said, solemnly:
“Almna Lier, the Reverend Mother wishes to speak to you.”
“To me?” said Alma, in a tone of surprise, but at the next moment she went off jauntily.
Hours passed and Anna did not return, and nothing occurred until afternoon “rosary,” when the Mother of the Novices came again and taking me by the hand said:
“Come with me, my child.”
I knew quite well where we were going to, and my lip was trembling when we entered the Reverend Mother’s room, for Alma was there, sitting by the stove, and close beside her, with an angry look, was the stout lady in furs whom I had seen in the carriage at the beginning of the holidays.
“Don ‘t be afraid,” said the Reverend Mother, and drawing me to her side she asked me to tell her what I had told Alma about Sister Angela.
I repeated our conversation as nearly as I could remember it, and more than once Alma nodded her head as if in assent, but the Reverend Mother’s face grew darker at every word and, seeing this, I said:
“But if Sister Angela did anything wrong I ‘m sure she was very sorry, for when she came back she said her prayers, and when she got to ‘Father of all mankind, forgive all sinners . . .”
“Yes, yes, that will do,” said the Reverend Mother, and then she handed me back to the Mother of the Novices, telling her to warn me to say nothing to the other children.
Alma did not return to us at dinner, or at recreation, or at chapel (when another chaplain said vespers), or even at nine o’clock, when we went to bed. But next morning, almost as soon as the Mother of the Novices had left the dormitory, she burst into the room saying:
“I’m leaving this silly old convent, girls. Mother has brought the carriage, and I’ve only come to gather up my belongings.”
Nobody spoke, and while she wrapped up her brushes and combs in her nightdress, she joked about Sister Angela and Father Giovanni and then about Mildred Bankes, whom she called “Reverend Mother Mildred,” saying it would be her turn next.
Then she tipped up her mattress, and taking a novel from under it she threw the book on to my bed, saying:
“Margaret Mary will have to be your story-teller now. By-by, girls!”
Nobody laughed. For the first tune Alma’s humour had failed her, and when we went downstairs to the Meeting Room it was with sedate and quiet steps.
The nuns were all there, with their rosaries and crosses, looking as calm as if nothing had occurred, but the girls were thinking of Alma, and when, after prayers, during the five minutes of silence for meditation, we heard the wheels of a carriage going off outside, we knew what had happened Alma had gone.
We were rising to go to Mass when the Reverend Mother said,
“Children, I have a word to say to you. You all know that one of our novices has left us. You also know that one of our scholars has just gone. It is my wish that you should forget both of them, and I shall look upon it as an act of disobedience if any girl in the Convent ever mentions their names again.”
All that day I was in deep distress, and when, night coming, I took my troubles to bed, telling myself I had now lost Alma also, and it was all my fault, somebody put her arms about me in the darkness and whispered:
“Mary O’Neill, are you awake?”
It was Mildred, and I suppose my snuffling answered her, for she said:
“You mustn’t cry for Alma Lier. She was no friend of yours, and it was the best thing that ever happened to you when she was turned out of the convent.”
A CHILD lives from hour to hour, and almost at the same moment that my heart was made desolate by the loss of my two friends it was quickened to a new interest.
Immediately after the departure of Sister Angela and Alma we were all gathered in the Meeting Room for our weekly rehearsal of the music of the Benediction the girls, the novices, the nuns, the Reverend Mother, and a Maestro from the Pope’s choir, a short fat man, who wore a black soutane and a short lace tippet.
Benediction was the only service of our church which I knew, being the one my mother loved best and could do most of for herself in the solitude of her invalid room, but the form used in the Convent differed from that to which I had been accustomed, and even the Tantum, ergo and the Salutaris Hostia I could not sing.
On this occasion a litany was added which I had heard before, and then came a hymn of the Blessed Virgin which I remembered well. My mother sang it herself and taught me to sing it, so that when the Maestro, swinging his little ivory baton, began in his alto voice
“Ave maris stella,
Dei Mater alma”
I joined in with the rest, but sang in English instead of Latin.
Of all appeals to the memory that of music is the strongest, and after a moment I forgot that I was at school in Rome, being back in my mother’s room in Ellan, standing by her piano and singing while she played. I think I must have let my little voice go, just as I used to do at home, when it rang up to the wooden rafters, for utterly lost to my surroundings I had got as far as
“Virgin of all virgins,
To thy shelter take us”
when suddenly I became aware that I alone was singing, the children about me being silent, and even the Maestro ‘s baton slowing down. Then I saw that all eyes were turned in my direction, and overwhelmed with confusion I stopped, for my voice broke and slittered into silence.
“Go on, little angel,” said the Maestro, but I was trembling all over by this time and could not utter a sound.
Nevertheless the Reverend Mother said: “Let Mary ‘Neill sing the hymn in church in future.”
As soon as I had conquered my nervousness at singing in the presence of the girls, I did so, singing the first line of each verse alone, and I remember to have heard that the congregations on Sunday afternoons grew larger and larger, until, within a few weeks, the church was densely crowded.
Perhaps my childish heart was stirred by vanity in all this, for I remember that ladies in beautiful dresses would crowd to the bronze screen that separate J us from the public and whisper among themselves, “Which is she?” “The little one in the green scarf with the big eyes!” “God bless her!”
But surely it was a good thing that at length life had begun to have a certain joy for me, for as time went on I became absorbed in the life of the Convent, and particularly in the services of the church, so that home itself began to fade away, and when the holidays came round and excuses were received for not sending for me, the pain of my disappointment became less and less until at last it disappeared altogether.
If ever a child loved her mother I did, and there were moments when I reproached myself with not thinking of her for a whole day. These were the moments when a letter came from Father Dan, telling me she was less well than before and her spark of life had to be coaxed and trimmed or it would splutter out altogether.
But the effect of such warnings was wiped away when my mother wrote herself, saying I was to be happy as she was happy, because she knew that though so long separated we should soon be together, and the time would not seem long.
Not understanding the deeper meaning that lay behind words like these, I was nothing loath to put aside the thought of home until little by little it faded away from me in the distance, just as the island itself had done on the day when I sailed out with Martin Conrad on our great voyage of exploration to St. Mary’s Rock.
Thus two years and a half passed since I arrived in Rome before the great fact befell me which was to wipe all other facts out of my remembrance.
It was Holy Week, the season of all seasons for devotion to the Sacred Heart, and our Convent was palpitating with the joy of its spiritual duties, the many offices, the masses for the repose of the souls in Purgatory, the preparations for Tenebrae, with the chanting of the Miserere, and for Holy Saturday and Easter Day, with the singing of the Gloria and the return of the Alleluia.
But beyond all this for me were the arrangements for my first confession, which, coming a little late, I made with ten or twelve other girls of my sodality, feeling so faint when I took my turn and knelt by the grating, and heard the whispering voice within, like something from the unseen, something supernatural, something divine, that I forgot all I had come to say and the priest had to prompt me.
And beyond that again were the arrangements for my first communion, which was to take place on Easter morning, when I was to walk in procession with the other girls, dressed all in white, behind a gilded figure of the Virgin, singing “Ave maris stella, ” through the piazza into the church, where one of the Cardinals, in the presence of the fathers and mothers of the other children, was to put the Holy Wafer on our tongues and we were to know for the first time the joy of communion with our Lord.
But that was not to be for me.
On the morning of Holy Wednesday the blow fell. The luminous grey of the Italian dawn was filtering through the windows of the dormitory, like the light in a tomb, and a multitude of little birds on the old tree in the garden were making a noise like water falling on small stones in a fountain, when the Mother of the Novices came to my bedside and said:
“You are to go to the Reverend Mother as soon as possible, my child.”
Her voice, usually severe, was so soft that I knew something had happened, and when I went downstairs I also knew, before the Reverend Mother had spoken, what she was going to say.
“Mary,” she said, “I am sorry to tell you that your mother is ill.”
I listened intently, fearing that worse would follow.
“She is very ill very seriously ill, and she wishes to see you. Therefore you are to go home immediately.”
The tears sprang to my eyes, and the Reverend Mother drew me to her side and laid my head on her breast and comforted me, saying my dear mother had lived the life of a good Christian and could safely trust in the redeeming blood of our Blessed Saviour. But I thought she must have some knowledge of the conditions of my life at home, for she told me that whatever happened I was to come back to her.
“Tell your father you wish to come back to me,” she said, and then she explained the arrangements that were being made for my journey.
I was to travel alone by the Paris express which left Rome at six o’clock that evening. The Mother of the Novices was to put me in a sleeping car and see that the greatest care would be taken of me until I arrived at Calais, where Father Donovan was to meet the train and take me home.
I cried a great deal, I remember, but everybody in the Convent was kind, and when, of my own choice, I returned to the girls at recreation, the sinister sense of dignity which by some strange irony of fate comes to all children when the Angel of Death is hovering over them, came to me also poor, helpless innocent and I felt a certain distinction in my sorrow.
At five o ‘clock the omnibus of the Convent had been brought round to the door, and I was seated in one corner of it, with the Mother of the Novices in front of me, when Mildred Bankes came running breathlessly downstairs to say that the Reverend Mother had given her permission to see me off.
Half an hour later Mildred and I were sitting in a compartment of the Wagon-Lit, while the Mother was talking to the conductor on the platform.
Mildred, whose eyes were wet, was saying something about herself which seems pitiful enough now in the light of what has happened since.
She was to leave the Convent soon, and before I returned to it she would be gone. She was poor and an orphan, both her parents being dead, and if she had her own way she would become a nun. In any case our circumstances would be so different, our ways of life so far apart, that we might never meet again; but if …
Before she had finished a bell rang on the platform, and a moment or two afterwards the train slid out of the station.
Then for the first time I began to realise the weight of the blow that had fallen on me. I was sitting alone in my big compartment, we were running into the Campagna, the heavens were ablaze with the glory of the sunset, which was like fields of glistening fire, but darkness seemed to have fallen on all the world.
EARLY on Good Friday I arrived at Calais. It was a misty, rimy, clammy morning, and a thick fog was lying over the Channel.
Almost before the train stopped I saw Father Dan, with his coat collar turned up, waiting for me on the platform. I could see that he was greatly moved at the sight of me, but was trying hard to maintain his composure.
“Now don’t worry, my child, don’t worry,” he said. “It will be all ri . . . But how well you are looking! And how you have grown! And how glad your poor mother will be to see you!”
I tried to ask how she was. “Is she . . .”
“Yes, thank God, she’s alive, and while there’s life there’s hope.”
We travelled straight through without stopping and arrived at Blackwater at seven the same evening. There we took train, for railways were running in Ellan now, and down the sweet valleys that used to be green with grass, and through the little crofts that used to be red with fuchsia, there was a long raw welt of upturned earth.
At the station of our village my father’s carriage was waiting for us and a strange footman shrugged his shoulders in answer to some whispered question of Father Dan’s, and from that I gathered that my mother’s condition was unchanged.
We reached home at dusk, just as somebody was lighting a line of new electric lamps that had been set up in the drive to show the way for the carriage under the chestnuts in which the rooks used to build and caw.
I knew the turn of the path from which the house could be first seen, and I looked for it, remembering the last glimpse I had of my mother at her window. Father Dan looked, too, but for another reason to see if the blinds were down.
Aunt Bridget was in the hall, and when Father Dan, who had grown more and more excited as we approached the end of our journey, asked how my mother was now, poor thing, she answered:
“Worse; distinctly worse; past recognising anybody; so all this trouble and expense has been wasted.”
As she had barely recognised me I ran upstairs with a timid and quiet step and without waiting to take off my outer clothes made my way to my mother’s bedroom.
I remember the heavy atmosphere of the room as I opened the door. I remember the sense I had of its being lower and smaller than I thought. I remember the black four-foot bedstead with the rosary hanging on a brass nail at the pillow end. I remember my little cot which still stood in the same place and contained some of the clothes I had worn as a child, and even some of the toys I had played with.
A strange woman, in the costume of a nurse, turned to look at me as I entered, but I did not at first see my mother, and when at length I did see her, with her eyes closed, she looked so white and small as to be almost hidden in the big white bed.
Presently Father Dan came in, followed by Doctor Conrad and Aunt Bridget, and finally my father, who was in his shirt sleeves and had a pen in his ear, I remember.
Then Father Dan, who was trembling very much, took me by the hand and led me to my mother’s side, where stooping over her, and making his voice very low, yet speaking as one who was calling into a long tunnel, he said:
“My daughter! My daughter! Here is our little Mary. She has come home to see you.”
Never shall I forget what followed. First, my mother’s long lashes parted and she looked at me with a dazed expression as if still in a sort of dream. Then her big eyes began to blaze like torches in dark hollows, and then (though they had thought her strength was gone and her voice would never be heard again) she raised herself in her bed, stretched out her arms to me, and cried in loud strong tones:
“Mally veen! My Mally veen!”
How long I lay with my arms about my mother, and my mother ‘s arms about me I do not know. I only know that over my head I heard Father Dan saying, as if speaking to a child:
“You are happy now, are you not?”
“Yes, yes, I am happy now,” my mother answered.
“You have everything you want?”
Then came my father’s voice, saying:
“Well, you’ve got your girl, Isabel. You wanted her, so we sent for her, and here she is.”
“You have been very good to me, Daniel,” said my mother, who was kissing my forehead and crying in her joy.
When I raised my head I found Father Dan in great excitement.
“Did you see that then?” he was saying to Doctor Conrad.
“I would have gone on my knees all the way to Blackwater to see it.”
“I couldn’t have believed it possible,” the Doctor replied.
“Ah, what children we are, entirely. God confounds all our reckoning. We can’t count with His miracles. And the greatest of all miracles is a mother’s love for her child.”
“Let us leave her now, though,” said the Doctor. “She’s like herself again, but still . . .”
“Yes, let us leave them together,” whispered Father Dan, and having swept everybody out before him (I thought Aunt Bridget went away ashamed) he stepped off himself on tiptoe, as if treading on holy ground.
Then my mother, who was holding my hand and sometimes putting it to her lips, said:
“Tell me everything that has happened.”
As soon as my little tongue was loosed I told her all about my life at the Convent about the Reverend Mother and the nuns and the novices and the girls (all except Sister Angela and Alma) and the singing of the hymn to the Virgin talking on and on and on, without observing that, after a while, my mother’s eyes had closed again, and that her hand had become cold and moist.
At length she said: “Is it getting dark, Mary?”
I told her it was night and the lamp was burning.
“Is it going out then?” she asked, and when I answered that it was not she did not seem to hear, so I stopped talking, and for some time there was silence in which I heard nothing but the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece, the barking of a sheep dog a long way off, and the husky breathing in my mother’s throat.
I was beginning to be afraid when the nurse returned. She was going to speak quite cheerfully, but after a glance at my mother she went out quickly and came back in a moment with Doctor Conrad and Father Dan.
I heard the doctor say something about a change, whereupon Father Dan hurried away, and in a moment there was much confusion. The nurse spoke of taking me to another room but the doctor said:
“No, our little woman will be brave,” and then leading me aside he whispered that God was sending for my mother and I must be quiet and not cry.
Partly undressing I climbed into my cot and lay still for the next half hour, while the doctor held his hand on my mother’s pulse and the nurse spread a linen cloth over a table and put four or five lighted candles on it.
I remember that I was thinking that if “God sending for my mother” meant that she was to be put into a box and buried under the ground it was terrible and cruel, and perhaps if I prayed to our Lady He would not find it in His heart to do so. I was trying to do this, beginning under my breath, “O Holy Virgin, thou art so lovely, thou art so gracious . . .” when the nurse said:
“Here they are back again.”
Then I heard footsteps outside, and going to the window I saw a sight not unlike that which I had seen on the night of the Waits.
A group of men were coming towards the house, with Father Dan in the middle of them. Father Dan, with his coat hung over his arms like a cloak, was carrying something white in both hands, and the men were carrying torches to light him on his way.
I knew what it was it was the Blessed Sacrament, which they were bringing to my mother, and when Father Dan had come into the room, saying “Peace be to this house,” and laid a little white box on the table, and thrown off his coat, he was wearing his priest’s vestments underneath.
Then the whole of my father’s household all except my father himself came into my mother’s room, including Aunt Bridget, who sat with folded arms in the darkness by the wall, and the servants, who knelt in a group by the door.
Father Dan roused my mother by calling to her again, and after she had opened her eyes he began to read. Sometimes his voice seemed to be choked with sobs, as if the heart of the man were suffering, and sometimes it pealed out loudly as if the soul of the priest were inspiring him.
After Communion he gave my mother Extreme Unction anointing the sweet eyes which had seen no evil, the dear lips which had uttered no wrong, and the feet which had walked in the ways of God.
All this time there was a solemn hush in the house like that of a church no sound within except my father’s measured tread in the room below, and none without except the muffled murmur which the sea makes when it is far away and going out.
When all was over my mother seemed more at ease, and after asking for me and being told I was in the cot, she said:
“You must all go and rest. Mary and I will be quite right now.”
A few minutes afterwards my mother and I were alone once more, and then she called me into her bed and clasped her arms about me and I lay with my face hidden in her neck.
What happened thereafter seems to be too sacred to write of, almost too sacred to think about, yet it is all as a memory of yesterday, while other events of my life have floated away to the ocean of things that are forgotten and lost.
“Listen, darling,” she said, and then, speaking in whispers, she told me. she had heard all I had said about the Convent, and wondered if I would not like to live there always, becoming one of the good and holy nuns.
I must have made some kind of protest, for she went on to say how hard the world was to a woman and how difficult she had found it.
“Not that your father has been to blame you must never think that, Mary, yet still . . . ”
But tears from her tender heart were stealing down her face and she had to stop.
Even yet I had not realised all that the solemn time foreboded, for I said something about staying with my mother; and then in her sweet voice, she told me nervously, breaking the news to me gently, that she was going to leave me, that she was going to heaven, but she would think of me when she was there, and if God permitted she would watch over me, or, if that might not be, she would ask our Lady to do so.
“So you see we shall never be parted, never really. We shall always be together. Something tells me that wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I shall know all about it.”
This comforted me, and I think it comforted my mother also, though God knows if it would have done so, if, with her dying eyes, she could have seen what was waiting for her child.
It fills my heart brimful to think of what happened next.
She told me to say a De Profundis for her sometimes, and to think of her when I sang the hymn to the Virgin. Then she kissed me and told me to go to sleep, saying she was going to sleep too, and if it should prove to be the eternal sleep, it would be only like going to sleep at night and awaking in the morning, and then we should be together again, and “the time between would not seem long.”
“So good-night, darling, and God bless you,” she said.
And as well as I could I answered her “Good-night!”
“When I awoke from the profound slumber of childhood it was noon of the next day and the sun was shining. Doctor Conrad was lifting me out of bed, and Father Dan, who had just thrown open the window, was saying in a tremulous voice:
“Your dear mother has gone to God.”
I began to cry, but he checked me and said:
“Don’t call her back. She’s on her way to God’s beautiful Paradise after all her suffering. Let her go!”
So I lost her, my mother, my saint, my angel.
It was Easter Eve, and the church bells were ringing the Gloria.
AFTER my mother’s death there was no place left for me in my father’s house.
Betsy Beauty (who was now called Miss Betsy and gave herself more than ever the airs of the daughter of the family) occupied half her days with the governess who had been engaged to teach her, and the other half in driving, dressed in beautiful clothes, to the houses of the gentry round about.
Nessy MacLeod, called the young mistress, had become my father’s secretary, and spent most of her time in his private room, a privilege which enlarged her pride without improving her manners.
Martin Conrad I did not see, for in reward for some success at school the doctor had allowed him to spend his Easter holidays in London in order to look at Nansen’s ship, the Pram, which had just then arrived in the Thames.
Hence it happened that though home made a certain tug at me, with its familiar sights and sounds, and more than once I turned with timid steps towards my father’s busy room, intending to say, “Please, father, don’t send me back to school,’* I made no demur when, six or seven days after the funeral, Aunt Bridget began to prepare for my departure.
“There’s odds of women,” said Tommy the Mate, when I went into the garden to say good-bye to him. “They’re like sheep ‘s broth, is women. If there’s a head and a heart in them they’re good, and if there isn’t you might as well be supping hot water. Our Big Woman is hot water but she’ll die for all.”
Within a fortnight I was back at the Convent, and there the Reverend Mother atoned to me for every neglect.
“I knew you would come back to me,” she said, and from that hour onward she seemed to be trying to make up to me for the mother I had lost.
I became deeply devoted to her. As a consequence her spirit became my spirit, and, little by little, the religious side of the life of the Convent took complete possession of me.
At first I loved the church and its services because the Reverend Mother loved them, and perhaps also for the sake of the music, the incense, the flowers and the lights on the altar; but after I had taken my communion, the mysteries of our religion took hold of me the Confessional with its sense of cleansing and the unutterable sweetness of the Mass.
For a long time there was nothing to disturb this religious side of my mind. My father never sent for me, and as often as the holidays came round the Reverend Mother took me with her to her country home at Nemi.
That was a beautiful place a sweet white cottage, some twenty kilometres from Rome, at the foot of Monte Cavo, in the middle of the remains of a mediaeval village which contained a castle and a monastery, and had a little blue lake lying like an emerald among the green and red of the grass and poppies in the valley below.
In the hot months of summer the place was like a Paradise to me, with its roses growing wild by the wayside; its green lizards running on the rocks; its goats; its sheep; its vineyards; its brown-faced boys in velvet, and its gleesome girls in smart red petticoats and gorgeous outside stays; its shrines and its blazing sunsets, which seemed to girdle the heavens with quivering bands of purple and gold.
Years went by without my being aware of their going, for after a while I became entirely happy.
I heard frequently from home. Occasionally it was from Betsy Beauty, who had not much to say beyond stories of balls at Government House, where she had danced with the young Lord Raa, and of hunts at which she had ridden with him. More rarely it was from Aunt Bridget, who usually began by complaining of the ever-increasing cost of my convent clothes and ended with accounts of her daughter’s last new costume and how well she looked in it.
Prom Nessy MacLeod and my father I never heard at all, but Father Dan was my constant correspondent and he told me everything.
First of my father himself that he had carried out many of his great enterprises, his marine works, electric railways, drinking and dancing palaces, which had brought tens of thousands of visitors and hundreds of thousands of pounds to Ellan, though the good Father doubted the advantage of such innovations and lamented the decline of piety which had followed on the lust for wealth.
Next of Aunt Bridget that she was bringing up her daughter in the ways of worldly vanity and cherishing a serpent in her bosom (meaning Nessy MacLeod) who would poison her heart some day.
Next, of Tommy the Mate that he sent his “best respec’s” to the “lil-missy” but thought she was well out of the way of the Big Woman who “was getting that highty-tighty” that “you couldn’t say Tom to a cat before her but she was agate of you to make it Thomas.”
Then of Martin Conrad that he was at college “studying for a doctor,” but his heart was still at the North Pole and he was “like a sea-gull in the nest of a wood pigeon,” always longing to be out on the wild waves.
Finally of the young Lord Raa that the devil’s dues must be in the man, for after being “sent down” from Oxford he had wasted his substance in riotous living in London, and his guardian had been heard to say he must many a rich wife soon or his estates would go to the hammer.
Such was the substance of the news that reached me over a period of six years. Yet welcome as were Father Dan’s letters the life they described seemed less and less important to me as time went on, for the outer world was slipping away from me altogether and I was becoming more and more immersed in my spiritual exercises.
I spent much of my time reading religious books the life of Saint Teresa, the meditations of Saint Francis of Sales, and, above all, the letters and prayers of our Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, whose love of the Sacred Heart was like a flaming torch to my excited spirit.
The soul of Rome, too, seemed to enter into my soul not the new Rome, for of that I knew nothing, but the old Rome, the holy city, that could speak to me in the silence of the night within the walls of my convent-school, with its bells of the Dominican and Franciscan monasteries on either side, its stories of miracles performed on the sick and dying by the various shrines of the Madonna, its accounts of the vast multitudes of the faithful who came from all ends of the earth to the ceremonials at St. Peter’s, and, above all, its sense of the immediate presence of the Pope, half a mile away, the Vicar and mouthpiece of God Himself.
The end of it all was that I wished to become a nun. I said nothing of my desire to anybody, not even to the Reverend Mother, but day by day my resolution grew.
Perhaps it was natural that the orphaned and homeless girl should plunge with all this passion into the aurora of a new spiritual life; but when I think how my nature was made for love, human love, the love of husband and children, I cannot but wonder with a thrill of the heart whether my mother in heaven, who, while she was on earth, had fought so hard with my father for the body of her child, was now fighting with him for her soul.
I was just eighteen years of age when my desire to become a nun reached its highest point, and then received its final overthrow.
Mildred Bankes, who had returned to Rome, and was living as a novice with the Little Sisters of the Poor, was about to make her vows, and the Reverend Mother took me to see the ceremony.
Never shall I forget the effect of it. The sweet summer morning, tingling with snow-white sunshine, the little white chapel in the garden of the Convent, covered with flowers, the altar with its lighted tapers, the friends from without clad in gay costumes as for a festival, the bishop in his bright vestments, and then, Mildred herself, dressed as a bride in a beautiful white gown with a long white veil and attended by other novices as bridesmaids.
It was just like a marriage to look upon, except for the absence of a visible bridegroom, the invisible one being Christ. And the taking of the vows was like a marriage service too only more solemn and sacred and touching the bride receiving the ring on her finger, and promising to serve and worship her celestial lover from that day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as life should last and through the eternity that was to follow it.
I cried all through the ceremony for sheer joy of its loveliness; and when it was over and we went into the refectory, and Mildred told me she was returning to England to work among the fallen girls of London, I vowed in my heart, though I hardly understood what she was going to do, that I would follow her example.
It was something of a jar to go back into the streets, so full of noise and bustle; and all the way home with the Reverend Mother I was forming the resolution of telling her that very night that I meant to be a nun, for, stirred to the depths of my soul by what I had seen and remembering what my poor mother had wished for me, I determined that no other life would I live under any circumstances.
Then came the shock.
As we drew up at our door a postman was delivering letters. One of them was for the Reverend Mother and I saw in a moment that it was in my father’s handwriting. She read it in silence, and in silence she handed it to me. It ran:
“I have come to Rome to take back my daughter. I believe her education will now be finished, and I reckon the time has arrived to prepare her for the change in life that is before her.
“The Bishop of our diocese has come with me, and we propose to pay our respects to you at ten o’clock prompt tomorrow morning.
I SAW, as by a flash of light, what was before me, and my whole soul rose in rebellion against it. That my father after all the years during which he had neglected me, should come to me now, when my plans were formed, and change the whole current of my life, was an outrage an iniquity. It might be his right his natural right but if so his natural right was a spiritual wrong and I would resist it to my last breath and my last hour I would resist it.
Such were the brave thoughts with which I passed that night, but at ten o ‘clock next morning, when I was summoned to meet my father himself, it was on trembling limbs and with a quivering heart that I went down to the Reverend Mother’s room.
Except that his hair was whiter than before my father was not much changed. He rose as I entered, saying, “Here she is herself,” and when I went up to him he put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my face.
“Quite a little Italian woman grown! Like your mother though,” he said, and then speaking over my head to the Bishop, who sat on the other side of the room, he added:
“Guess this will do, Bishop, eh?”
“Perfectly,” said the Bishop.
I was colouring in confusion at the continued scrutiny, with a feeling of being looked over for some unexplained purpose, when the Reverend Mother called me, and turning to go to her I saw, by the look of pain on her face that she, too, had been hurt by it.
She put me to sit on a stool by the side of her chair, and taking my right hand she laid it in her lap and held it there during the whole of the interview.
The Bishop, whom I had never seen before, was the first to speak. He was a type of the fashionable ecclesiastic, suave, smiling, faultlessly dressed in silk soutane and silver buckled shoes, and wearing a heavy gold chain with a jewelled cross.
“Reverend Mother,” he said, “you would gather from Mr. O’Neill’s letter that he wishes to remove his daughter immediately I presume there will be no difficulty in his doing so?”
The Reverend Mother did not speak, but I think she must have bent her head.
“Naturally,” said the Bishop, “there will be a certain delay while suitable clothes are being made for her, but I have no doubt you will give Mr. O’Neill your help in these preparations.”
My head was down, and I did not see if the Reverend Mother bowed again. But the two gentlemen, apparently satisfied with her silence, began to talk of the best date for my removal, and just when I was quivering with fear that without a word of protest I was to be taken away, the Reverend Mother said:
“You are aware that this child” here she patted my trembling hand “has been with me for ten years?”
“I am given to understand so.”
“And that during that time she has only once been home?”
“I was not aware but no doubt it is as you say.”
“In short, that during the greater part of her life she has been left to my undivided care?”
“You have been very good to her, very, and I’m sure her family are extremely grateful.”
“In that case, Monsignor, doesn’t it seem to you that I am entitled to know why she is being so suddenly taken away from me, and what is the change in life which Mr. O’Neill referred to in his letter?”
The smile which had been playing upon the Bishop’s face was smitten away from it by that question, and he looked anxiously across at my father.
“Tell her,” said my father, and then, while my heart thumped in my bosom and the Reverend Mother stroked my hand to compose me, the Bishop gave a brief explanation.
The time had not come when it would be prudent to be more definite, but he might say that Mr. O’Neill was trying to arrange a happy and enviable future for his daughter, and therefore he wished her to return home to prepare for it.
“Does that mean marriage?” said the Reverend Mother.
“It may be so. I am not quite prepared to . . .”
“And that a husband has already been found for her?”
“That too perhaps. I will not say . . .”
“Monsignor,” said the Reverend Mother, sitting up with dignity, “is that fair?”
“Is it fair that after ten years in which her father has done nothing for her, he should determine what her life is to be, without regard to her wish and will?”
I raised my eyes and saw that the Bishop looked aghast.
“Reverend Mother, you surprise me,” he said. “Since when has a father ceased to be the natural guardian of his child? Has he not been so since the beginning of the world? Doesn’t the Church itself build its laws on that foundation?”
“Does it?” said the Reverend Mother shortly. And then (I could feel her hand trembling as she spoke): “Some of its servants do, I know. But when did the Church say that anybody no matter who a father or anybody else should take the soul of another, and control it and govern it, and put it in prison? . . .”
“My good lady,” said the Bishop, “would you call it putting the girl in prison to marry her into an illustrious family, to give her an historic name, to surround her with the dignity and distinction . . .”
“Bishop,” said my father, raising his hand, “I guess it’s my right to butt in here, isn’t it?”
I saw that my father’s face had been darkening while the Reverend Mother spoke, and now, rolling his heavy body in his chair so as to face her, he said:
“Excuse me, ma’am, but when you say I’ve done nothing for my gel here I suppose you’ll allow I’ve kept her and educated her?”
“You’ve kept and educated your dogs and horses, also, I dare say, but do you claim the same rights over a human being?”
“I do, ma’am I think I do. And when the human being happens to be my own daughter I don’t allow that anybody else has anything to say.”
“If her mother were alive would she have nothing to say?”
I thought my father winced at that word, but he answered:
“Her mother would agree to anything I thought best.”
“Her mother, so far as I can see, was a most unselfish, most submissive, most unhappy woman,” said the Reverend Mother.
My father glanced quickly at me and then, after a moment, he said:
“I’m obliged to you, ma’am, much obliged. But as I’m not a man to throw words away I’ll ask you to tell me what all this means. Does it mean that you’ve made plans of your own for my daughter without consulting me?”
“Then perhaps it means that the gel herself . . .”
“That may be so or not I cannot say. But when you sent your daughter to a convent-school . . .”
“Wrong, ma ‘am, wrong for once. It was my wife ‘a sister who thinks the gel disobedient and rebellious and unruly …”
“Then your wife’s sister is either a very stupid or a very
“I have known your daughter longer than she has, and there isn’t a word of truth in what she says.”
It was as much as I could do not to fall on the Reverend Mother ‘s neck, but I clung to her hand with a convulsive grasp.
“May be so, ma’am, may be no,” said my father. “But when you talk about my sending my daughter to a convent-school I would have you know that I ‘ve been so busy with my business . . .”
“That you haven’t had time to take care of the most precious thing God gave you.”
“Ma’am,” said my father, rising to his feet, “may I ask what right you have to speak to me as if . . .”
“The right of one who for ten years has been a mother to your motherless child, sir, while you have neglected and forgotten her.”
At that my father, whose bushy eyebrows were heavily contracted, turned to the Bishop.
“Bishop,” he said, “is this what I ‘ve been paying my money for? Ten years’ fees, and middling high ones too, I’m thinking?”
And then the Bishop, apparently hoping to make peace, said suavely:
“But aren’t we crossing the river before we reach the bridge? The girl herself may have no such objections. . . . Have you?” he asked, turning to me.
I was trembling more than ever now, and at first I could not reply.
“Don’t you wish to go back home with your father?”
“No, sir,” I answered.
“And why not, please?”
“Because my father’s home is no home to me because my aunt has always been unkind to me, and because my father has never cared for me or protected me, and because . . .”
“Well, what else?”
“Because . . . because I wish to become a nun.”
There was silence for a moment, and then my father broke into bitter laughter.
“So that’s it, is it? I thought as much. You want to go into partnership with the Mother in the nun business, eh?”
“My mother wished me to become a nun, and I wish it myself, sir.”
“Your mother was a baby that’s what she was.”
“My mother was an angel, sir,” I said, bridling up, “and when she was dying she hoped I should become a nun, and I can never become anything else under any circumstance.”
“Bah!” said my father, with a contemptuous lift of the hand, and then turning to the Reverend Mother he said:
“Hark here, ma’am. There’s an easy way and a hard way in most everything. I take the easy way first, and if it won’t work I take the hard way next, and then it’s stiff pulling for the people who pull against me. I came to Rome to take my daughter home. I don’t feel called upon to explain why I want to take her home, or what I ‘m going to do with her when I get her there. I believe I’ve got the rights of a father to do what I mean to do, and that it will be an ugly business for anybody who aids and abets my daughter in resisting her father’s will. So I’ll leave her here a week longer, and when I come back, I’ll expect her to be ready and waiting and willing ready and waiting and willing, mind you to go along with me.”
After saying this my father faced about and with his heavy flat step went out of the room, whereupon the Bishop bowed to the Reverend Mother and followed him.
My heart was by this time in fierce rebellion all that the pacifying life of the convent-school had done for me in ten years being suddenly swept away and I cried:
“I won’t do it! I won’t do it!”
But I had seen that the Reverend Mother’s face had suddenly become very white while my father spoke to her at the end and now she said, in a timid, almost frightened tone:
“Mary, well go out to Nemi to-day. I have something to say to you.”
IN the late afternoon of the same day we were sitting together for the last time on the terrace of the Reverend Mother’s villa.
It was a peaceful evening, a sweet and holy time. Not a leaf was stirring, not a breath of wind was in the air; but the voice of a young boy, singing a love-song, came np from somewhere among the rocky ledges of the vineyards below, and while the bell of the monastic church behind us was ringing the Ave Maria, the far-off bell of the convent church at Gonzano was answering from the other side of the lake like angels calling to each other from long distances in the sky.
“Mary,” said the Reverend Mother, “I want to tell yon a story. It is the story of my own life mine and my sister’s and my father’s.”
I was sitting by her side and she was holding my hand in her lap, and patting it, as she had done during the interview of the morning.
“They say the reason so few women become nuns is that a woman is too attached to her home to enter the holy life until she has suffered shipwreck in the world. That may be so with most women. It was not so with me.
“My father was what is called a self-made man. But his fortune did not content him. He wanted to found a family. If he had had a son this might have been easy. Having only two daughters, he saw no way but that of marrying one of us into the Italian nobility.
“My sister was the first to disappoint him. She fell in love with a young Roman musician. The first time the young man asked for my sister he was contemptuously refused; the second time he was insulted; the third time he was flung out of the house. His nature was headstrong and passionate, and so was my father’s. If either had been different the result might not have been the same. Yet who knows? “Who can say?”
The Reverend Mother paused for a moment. The boy’s voice in the vineyard was going on.
“To remove my sister from the scene of temptation my father took her from Rome to our villa in the hills above Albano. But the young musician followed her. Since my father would not permit him to marry her he was determined that she should fly with him, and when she hesitated to do so he threatened her. If she did not meet him at a certain hour on a certain night my father would be dead in the morning.”
The Reverend Mother paused again. The boy’s voice had ceased; the daylight was dying out.
“My sister could not bring herself to sacrifice either her father or her lover. Hence she saw only one way left to sacrifice herself.”
The Reverend Mother patted my hand. “Isn’t that what women in tragic circumstances are always doing?” she said.
“By some excuse I don’t know what she persuaded our father to change rooms with her that night he going upstairs to her bedroom in the tower, and she to his on the ground floor at the back, opening on to the garden and the pine forest that goes up the hill.
“What happened after that nobody ever knew exactly. In the middle of the night the servants heard two pistol shots, and next morning my sister was found dead shot to the heart through an open window as she lay in my father’s bed.
“The authorities tried in vain to trace the criminal. Only one person had any idea of his identity. That was my father, and in his fierce anger he asked himself what he ought to do in order to punish the man who had killed his daughter.
“Then a strange thing happened. On the day before the funeral the young musician walked into my father’s room. His face was white and wasted, and his eyes were red and swollen. He had come to ask if he might be allowed to be one of those to carry the coffin. My father consented. ‘I’ll leave him alone,’ he thought. ‘The man is punished enough.’
“All the people of Albano came to the funeral and there was not a dry eye as the cortege passed from our chapel to the grave. Everybody knew the story of my sister’s hopeless love, but only two in the world knew the secret of her tragic death her young lover, who was sobbing aloud as he staggered along with her body on his shoulder, and her old father, who was walking bareheaded and in silence, behind him.”
My heart was beating audibly and the Reverend Mother stroked my hand to compose me perhaps to compose herself also. It was now quite dark, the stars were coming out, and the bells of the two monasteries on opposite sides of the lake were ringing the first hour of night.
“That’s my sister’s story, Mary,” said the Reverend Mother after a while, “and the moral of my own is the same, though the incidents are different.
“I was now my father’s only child and all his remaining hopes centred in me. So he set himself to find a husband for me before the time came when I should form an attachment for myself. His choice fell on a middle-aged Roman noble of distinguished but impoverished family.
“He has a great name; you will have a great fortune what more do you want?” said my father.
“”We were back in Rome by this time, and there at school or elsewhere I had formed the conviction that a girl must passionately love the man she marries, and I did not love the Roman noble. I had also been led to believe that a girl should be the first and only passion of the man who marries her, and, young as I was, I knew that my middle-aged lover had had other domestic relations.
“Consequently I demurred, but my father threatened and stormed, and then, remembering my sister’s fate, I pretended to agree, and I was formally engaged.
“I never meant to keep my promise, and I began to think out schemes by which to escape from it. Only one way seemed open to me then, and cherishing the thought of it in secret, I waited and watched and made preparations for carrying out my purpose.
“At length the moment came to me. It was mid-Lent, and a masked ball was given by my fiance’s friends in one of the old Roman palaces. I can see it still the great hall, ablaze with glowing frescoes, beautiful Venetian candelabras, gilded furniture, red and yellow damask and velvet, and then the throng of handsome men in many uniforms and beautiful women with rows of pearls falling from their naked throats.
“I had dressed myself as a Bacchante in a white tunic embroidered in gold, with bracelets on my bare arms, a tiger-skin band over my forehead, and a cluster of grapes in my hair.
“I danced every dance, I remember, most of them with my middle-aged lover, and I suppose no one seemed so gay and happy and heedless. At three o’clock in the morning I returned home in my father’s carriage. At six I had entered a convent.
“Nobody in the outer world ever knew what had become of me, and neither did I know what happened at home after I left it. The rule of the convent was very strict. Sometimes, after morning prayers, the Superior would say, ‘The mother of one of you is dead pray for her soul,’ and that was all we ever heard of the world outside.
“But nature is a mighty thing, my child, and after five years I became restless and unhappy. I began to have misgivings about my vocation, but the Mother, who was wise and human, saw what was going on in my heart. ‘You are thinking about your father,’ she said, ‘that he is growing old, and needing a daughter to take care of him. Go out, and nurse him, and then come back to your cell and pray.’
“I went, but when I reached my father’s house a great shock awaited me. A strange man was in the porter’s lodge, and our beautiful palace was let out in apartments. My father was dead three years dead and buried. After my disappearance he had shut himself up in his shame and grief, for, little as I had suspected it and hard and cruel as I had thought him, he had really and truly loved me. During his last days his mind had failed him and he had given away all his fortune scattered it, no one knew how, as something that was quite useless and then he died, alone and broken-hearted.”
That was the end of the Reverend Mother ‘s narrative. She did not try to explain or justify or condemn her own or her sister’s conduct, neither did she attempt to apply the moral of her story to my own circumstances. She left me to do that for myself.
I had been spell-bound while she spoke, creeping closer and closer to her until my head was on her breast.
For some time longer we sat like this in the soft Italian night, while the fire-flies came out in clouds among the unseen flowers of the garden and the dark air seemed to be alive with sparks of light.
When the time came to go to bed the Reverend Mother took me to my room, and after some cheerful words she left me. But hardly had I lain down, shaken to the heart’s core by what I had heard, and telling myself that the obedience of a daughter to her father, whatever he might demand of her, was an everlasting and irreversible duty, imposed by no human law-giver, and that marriage was a necessity, which was forced upon most women by a mysterious and unyielding law of God, when the door opened and the Reverend Mother, with a lamp in her hand, came in again.
“Mary,” she said, “I forgot to tell you that I am leaving the Sacred Heart. The Sisters of my old convent have asked me to go back as Superior. I have obtained permission to do so and am going shortly, so that in any case we should have been parted soon. It is the Convent of . . .”
Here she gave me the name of a private society of cloistered nuns in the heart of Rome.
“I hope you will write to me as often as possible, and come to see me whenever you can. . . . And if it should ever occur that . . . but no, I will not think of that. Marriage is a sacred tie, too, and under proper conditions God blesses and hallows it.”
With that she left me in the darkness. The church bell was ringing, the monks of the Passionist monastery were getting up for their midnight offices.
A WEEK later I was living with -my father in the Hotel Europa on the edge of the Piazza di Spagna.
He was kinder to me than he had ever been before, but he did not tell me what the plans were which he had formed for my future, and I was left to discover them for myself.
Our apartment was constantly visited by ecclesiastics Monsignori, Archbishops, even one of the Cardinals of the Propaganda, brought there by Bishop Walsh (the Bishop of our own diocese), and I could not help but hear portions of their conversation.
“It will be difficult, extremely difficult,” the Cardinal would say. “Such marriages are not encouraged by the Church, which holds that they are usually attended by the worst consequences to both wife and husband. Still under the exceptional circumstances that the bridegroom ‘s family was Catholic before it was Protestant it is possible, just possible …”
“Cardinal,” my father would answer, while his strong face was darkening, “excuse me, sir, but I’m kind of curious to get the hang of this business. Either it can be done or it can’t. If it can, we ’11 just sail in and do it. But if it can’t, I believe I ’11 go home quick and spend my money another way.”
Then there would be earnest assurances that in the end all would be right, only Rome moved slowly, and it would be necessary to have patience and wait.
My father waited three weeks, and meantime he occupied
himself in seeing the sights of the old city.
But the mighty remains which are the luminous light-houses of the past the Forum with the broken columns of its dead centuries; the Coliseum with its gigantic ruins, like the desolate crater of a moon; the Campagna with its hollow, crumbling tombs and shattered aqueducts, only vexed and irritated him.
“Guess if I had my way,” he said, “I would just clean out this old stone-yard of monuments to dead men, and make it more fit for living ones.”
At length the Bishop came to say that the necessary business had been completed, and that to mark its satisfactory settlement the Pope had signified his willingness to receive in private audience both my father and myself.
This threw me into a state of the greatest nervousness, for I had begun to realise that my father’s business concerned myself, so that when, early the following morning (clad according to instructions, my father in evening dress and I in a long black mantilla), we set out for the Vatican, I was in a condition of intense excitement.
What happened after we got out of the carriage at the bronze gate near St. Peter’s I can only describe from a vague and feverish memory. I remember going up a great staircase, past soldiers in many-coloured coats, into a vast corridor, where there were other soldiers in other costumes. I remember going on and on, through salon after salon, each larger and more luxurious than the last, and occupied by guards still more gorgeously dressed than the guards we had left behind. I remember coming at length to a door at which a Chamberlain, wearing a sword, knelt and knocked softly, and upon its being opened announced our names. And then I remember that after all this grandeur as of a mediaeval court I found myself in a plain room like a library with a simple white figure before me, and … I was in the presence of the Holy Father himself.
Can I ever forget that moment?
I had always been taught in the Convent to think of the Pope with a reverence only second to that which was due to the Saints, so at first I thought I should faint, and how I reached the Holy Father’s feet I do not know. I only know that he was very sweet and kind to me, holding out the delicate white hand on which he wore the fisherman’s emerald ring, and smoothing my head after I had kissed it.
When I recovered myself sufficiently to look up I saw that he was an old man, with a very pale and saintly face; and when he spoke it was in such a soft and fatherly voice that I loved and worshipped him.
“So this is the little lady,” he said, “who is to be the instrument in the hands of Providence in bringing back an erring family into the folds of Mother Church.”
Somebody answered him, and then he spoke to me about marriage, saying it was a holy state, instituted by the Almighty under a natural law and sanctioned by our divine Redeemer into the dignity of a Sacrament, so that those who entered it might live together in peace and love.
“It is a spiritual and sacred union, my child,” he said, “a type of the holy mystery of Christ’s relation to His Church.”
Then he told me I was to make the best possible preparation for marriage in order to obtain the abundant graces of God, and to approach the altar only after penance and communion.
“And when you leave the church, my daughter,” he said, “do not profane the day of your marriage by any sinful thought or act, but remember to bear yourself as if Jesus Christ Himself were with you, as He was at the marriage-feast in Cana of Galilee.”
Then he warned me that when I entered into the solemn contract of holy matrimony I was to do so in the full consciousness that it could not be broken but by death.
“Whom God has joined together let no man put asunder remember that, too, my daughter.”
Finally he said something about children that a Catholic marrying a person of another religion must not enter into any agreement whereby any of her children should be brought up in any other than the Catholic faith.
After that, and something said to my father which I cannot recall, he gave me his blessing, in words so beautiful and a voice so sweet that it fell on me like the soft breeze that comes out of the rising sun on a summer morning.
“May the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob be with you, my daughter. May your marriage be a yoke of love and peace, and may you see your children’s children to the third and fourth generation.”
Then he raised me to my feet, and at a touch from the Chamberlain, I backed out of the room.
When the door had closed on me I drew a deep breath, feeling as if I had come out of the Holy of Holies, and when I reached the Piazza of St. Peter’s and came again upon the sight and sound of common things the cabs and electric cars it was the same as if I had suddenly descended from heaven to earth.
After my audience with the Pope, following on the Reverend Mother’s story, all my objections to marriage had gone, and I wished to tell my father so, but an opportunity did not arise until late the same night and then it was he who was the first to speak.
Being in good spirits, after a dinner to the ecclesiastics, he said, as soon as his guests had gone speaking in the tone of one who believed he was doing a great thing for me –
“Mary, matters are not quite settled yet, but you might as well know right here what we ‘re trying to fix up for you.”
Then he told me.
I was to marry the young Lord Raa!
I was stunned. It was just as if the power of thought had been smitten out of me.
THAT night, and during the greater part of the following day, I felt, without quite knowing why, as if I were living under the dark cloud of a gathering thunderstorm. All my fear of the world, and my desire to escape from it, had fallen upon me afresh. Hence it was not altogether by the blind leading of fate that half an hour before Ave Maria I entered the church of the Convent which the Reverend Mother had given me the name of.
The church was empty when I pushed past the leather hanging that covered the door, but the sacristan was lighting the candles for Benediction, so I went up to the bronze screen, the Cancello, that divides the public part from the part occupied by the Sisters, and knelt on the nearest step.
After a while the church-bell rang overhead, and then (the congregation having gathered in the meantime) the nuns came in by way of a corridor which seemed to issue out of the darkness from under a figure of the Virgin and Child.
They were all in white, snow-white from head to foot, with a glimmer of blue scapular beneath their outer garment, and they wore long thick veils which entirely concealed their features when they entered but were raised when they reached their seats and faced the altar.
Familiar as I was with similar scenes this one moved me as I had never before been moved the silent white figures, with hands clasped on their breasts, coming in one by one with noiseless and unhurried footsteps, like a line of wraiths from another world.
But a still deeper emotion was to come to me.
As the last of the nuns entered, the Superior as I knew she would be, I recognised her instantly. It was my own Keverend Mother herself; and when, after kneeling to the altar, she came down to her seat nearest to the screen, immediately in front of the place where I knelt, I knew by the tremor of the clasped hands which held the rosary, that she had seen and recognised me.
I trembled and my heart thumped against my breast.
Then the priest entered and the Litany began. It was sung throughout. Almost the whole of the service was sung. Never had Benediction seemed so beautiful, so pathetic, so appealing, so irresistible.
By the time the Tantum ergo had been reached and the sweet female voices, over the soft swell of the organ, were rising to the vaulted roof in sorrowful reparation for the sins of all sinners in the world who did not pray for themselves, the religious life was calling to me as it had never called before.
“Come away from the world,” it seemed to say. “Obedience to your heavenly Father cancels all duty to your earthly one. Leave everything you fear behind you, and find peace and light and love.”
The service was over, the nuns had dropped their veils and gone out as slowly and noiselessly as they had come in (the last of them with her head down): the sacristan with his long rod was extinguishing the candles on the altar; the church was growing dark and a lay-sister in black was rattling a bunch of keys at the door behind me before I moved from my place beside the rails.
Then I awoke as from a dream, and looking longingly back at the dark corridor down which the nuns had disappeared, I was turning to go when I became aware that a young man was standing beside me and smiling into my face.
“Mally,” he said very softly, and he held out his hand.
Something in the voice made me giddy, something in the blue eyes made me tremble. I looked at him but did not speak.
“Don ‘t you know me, Mally?” he said.
I felt as if a rosy veil were falling over my face and neck. A flood of joy was sweeping through me. At last I knew who it was.
It was Martin Conrad, grown to be a man, a tall, powerful, manly man, but with the same face still an elusive ghost of the boy’s face I used to look up to and love.
A few minutes later we were out on the piazza in front of the church, and with a nervous rush of joyous words he was telling me what had brought him to Rome.
Having just ”scraped through” his examinations, and taken his degree couldn’t have done so if the examiners had not been ‘ ‘ jolly good ‘ ‘ to him he had heard that Lieut. . . . ; was going down to the great ice barrier that bounds the South Pole, to investigate the sources of winds and tides, so he had offered himself as doctor to the expedition and been accepted.
Sailing from the Thames ten days ago they had put into Naples that morning for coal, and taking advantage of the opportunity he had run up to Rome, remembering that I was at school here, but never expecting to see me, and coming upon me by the merest accident in the world something having said to him, “Let’s go in here and look at this queer old church.”
He had to leave to-morrow at two, though, having to sail the same night, but of course it would be luck to go farther south than Charcot and make another attack on the Antarctic night.
I could see that life was full of faith and hope and all good things for him, and remembering some episodes of the past I said:
“So you are going ‘asploring’ in earnest at last?”
“At last,” he answered, and we looked into each other’s eyes and laughed as we stood together on the church steps, with little tender waves of feeling from our childhood sweeping to our feet.
“And you?” he said. “You look just the same. I knew you instantly. Yet you are changed too. So grown and so . . . so wonderfully . . .”
I knew what he meant to say, and being too much of a child to pretend not to know, and too much of a woman (notwithstanding my nun-like impulses) not to find joy in it, I said I was glad.
“You’ve left the Convent, I see. When did that happen?”
I told him three weeks ago that my father had come for me and we were going back to Ellan.
“And then? What are you going to do then?” he asked.
For a moment I felt ashamed to answer, but at last I told him that I was going home to be married.
“Married? When? To whom?”
I said I did not know when, but it was to be to the young
“Raa? Did you say Raa? That . . . Good G – But surely you know . . .”
He did not finish what he was going to say, so I told him I did not know anything, not having seen Lord Raa since I came to school, and everything having been arranged for me by my father.
“Not seen him since . . . everything arranged by your father?”
Then he asked me abruptly where I was staying, and when I told him he said he would walk back with me to the hotel.
His manner had suddenly changed, and several times as we walked together up the Tritoni and along the Du Marcelli he began to say something and then stopped.
“Surely your father knows . . .”
“If he does, I cannot possibly understand . . .”
I did not pay as much attention to his broken exclamations as I should have done but for the surprise and confusion of coming so suddenly upon him again; and when, as we reached the hotel, he said:
“I wonder if your father will allow me to speak. . . .”
“I’m sure he’ll be delighted,” I said, and then, in my great impatience, I ran upstairs ahead of him and burst into my father ‘s room, crying:
“Father, whom do you think I have brought to see you look!”
To my concern and discomfiture my father’s reception of Martin was very cool, and at first he did not even seem to know him.
“You don’t remember me, sir?” said Martin.
“I ‘m afraid I can ‘t just place you,” said my father.
After I had made them known to each other they sat talking about the South Pole expedition, but it was a chill and cheerless interview, and after a few minutes Martin rose to go.
“I find it kind of hard to figure you fellows out,” said my father. “No money that I know of has ever been made in the Unknown, as you call it, and if you discover both Poles I don’t just see how they’re to be worth a two-cent stamp to you. But you know best, so good-bye and good luck to you!”
I went out to the lift with Martin, who asked if he could take me for a walk in the morning. I answered yes, and inquired what hour he would call for me.
“Twelve o’clock,” he replied, and I said that would suit me exactly.
The Bishop came to dine with us that night, and after dinner, when I had gone to the window to look out over the city for the three lights on the Loggia of the Vatican, he and my father talked together for a long time in a low tone.
They were still talking when I left them to go to bed.
AT breakfast next morning my father told me that something unexpected had occurred to require that we should return home immediately, and therefore he had sent over to Cook’s for seats by the noon express.
I was deeply disappointed, but I knew my father too well to demur, so I slipped away to my room and sent a letter to Martin, explaining the change in our plans and saying good-bye to him.
When we reached the station, however, I found Martin waiting on the platform in front of the compartment that was labelled with our name.
I thought my father was even more brusque with him than before, and the Bishop, who was to travel with us, was curt almost to rudeness. But Martin did not seem to mind that this morning, for his lower lip had the stiff setting which I had seen in it when he was a boy, and after I stepped into the carriage he stepped in after me, leaving the two men on the platform.
“Shall you be long away?” I asked.
“Too long unfortunately. Six months, nine perhaps twelve, worse luck! Wish I hadn’t to go at all,” he answered.
I was surprised and asked why, whereupon he stammered some excuse, and then said abruptly:
“I suppose you’ll not be married for some time at all events?”
I told him I did not know, everything depending on my father.
“Anyhow, you’ll see and hear for yourself when you reach home, and then perhaps you’ll . . .”
I answered that I should have to do what my father desired, being a girl, and therefore . . .
“But surely a girl has some rights of her own,” he said, and then I was silent and a little ashamed, having a sense of female helplessness which I had never felt before and could find no words for.
“I’ll write to your father,” he said, and just at that moment the bell rang, and my father came into the compartment, saying:
“Now then, young man, if you don’t want to be taken up to the North Pole instead of going down to the South one . . .”
“That’s all right, sir. Don’t you trouble about me. I can take care of myself,” said Martin.
Something in his tone must have said more than his words to my father and the Bishop, for I saw that they looked at each other with surprise.
Then the bell rang again, the engine throbbed, and Martin said, “Good-bye! Good-bye!”
While the train moved out of the station he stood bareheaded on the platform with such a woebegone face that looking back at him my throat began to hurt me as it used to do when I was a child.
I was very sad that day as we travelled north. My adopted country had become dear to me during my ten years’ exile from home, and I thought I was seeing the last of my beautiful Italy, crowned with sunshine and decked with flowers.
But there was another cause of my sadness, and that was the thought of Martin ‘s uneasiness about my marriage and the feeling that if he had anything to say to my father he ought to have said it then.
And there was yet another cause of which I was quite unconscious that like every other girl before love dawns on her, half of my nature was still asleep, the half that makes life lovely and the world dear.
To think that Martin Conrad was the one person who could have wakened my sleeping heart! That a word, a look, a smile from him that day could have changed the whole current of my life, and that . . .
But no, I will not reproach him. Have I not known since the day on St. Mary’s Rock that above all else he is a born gentleman?
And yet… And yet …
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
AND yet I was a fool, or in spite of everything I should have spoken to Daniel O’Neill before he left Rome. I should have said to him:
“Do you know that the man to whom you are going to marry your daughter is a profligate and a reprobate? If you do know this, are you deliberately selling her, body and soul, to gratify your lust of rank and power and all the rest of your rotten aspirations?”
That is what I ought to have done, but didn’t do. I was afraid of being thought to have personal motives of interfering where I wasn’t wanted, of butting in when I had no right.
Yet I felt I had a right, and I had half a mind to throw up everything and go back to Ellan. But the expedition was the big chance I had been looking forward to and I could not give it up.
So I resolved to write. But writing isn’t exactly my job, and it took me a fortnight to get anything done to my satisfaction. By that time we were at Port Said, and from there I posted three letters, the first to Daniel O’Neill, the second to Bishop Walsh, the third to Father Dan.
Would they reach in tune? If so, would they be read and considered or resented and destroyed?
I did not know. I could not guess. And then I was going down into the deep Antarctic night, where no sound from the living world could reach me.
What would happen before I could get back? Only God could say. M. C.
Nothing counted in the presence of our love. To be only we two together — that was everything. The world and the world’s laws, the Church and the Canons of the Church were blotted out, forgotten, lost.
Hall Caine’s 1913 novel about a conflict between marriage and love, The Woman Thou Gavest Me, is another of his great Manx novels, obvious even in spite of Caine’s attempt to veil the location through pseudonyms.
Having investigated the conflicts between passion, love and social mores in nearly all of his previous works, Caine used his last novel before the advent of World War One to investigate a topic sure to cause offence across wide sets of the public: marriage and the divorce laws. The plot centres on Mary O’Neill, who submissively agrees to the pressures of family and society to marry Lord Raa – an act that she regrets as he proves himself to be a cad, which is shown in stark contrast when Martin Conrad, her great love, returns into her life. The furore that was created upon the release of the novel was almost inevitable, but it only served to publicise the novel further and boost the sales of this best-selling novel.
Unlike his other works, The Woman Thou Gavest Me is startling in that Caine chooses the write the story in the first person, subtitling the novel: “The story of Mary O’Neill.” But for the extended section towards the close of The Deemster, no other Manx novel of Caine’s has a first-personal narrative. In addition to this, that he chose here to present the story in a woman’s voice is all the more startling. The effect is to give the novel a life and readability at times lacking in his other works, as it relieves some of the weight that his didacticism can sometimes cause.
This novel is often missed in surveys of Caine’s Manx novels due to there being no mention of the “Isle of Man” or anything “Manx” throughout. However, the names Caine substituted for the Isle of Man and its locations are so obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Island, its history and its language, it seems most unlikely that Caine could have expected anyone not to know where the novel was set. That it was on the island of Ellan, whose main town was Blackwater, where people affectionately refer to children as “bogh millish,” would not have fooled many, even off the Island. It is one of the book’s many pleasures today to decipher these Manx obscurities, although the novel itself deserves our attention in being another in the collection of great Manx novels written by Hall Caine, the Island’s greatest novelist.
Hall Caine is without a doubt the greatest novelist that the Isle of Man has ever known. He was the best-selling novelist on both sides of the Atlantic at the end of the 19th Century, writing novels such as The Manxman which grew comparisons to Tolstoy and earned him recognition from Royalty and Prime Ministers. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of Hall Caine in the literary history of the Isle of Man.