The Woman Thou Gavest Me (Fifth Part: I Become a Mother)
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The name Raa (of Celtic origin with many variations among Celtic races) is pronounced Rah in Ellan.
FIFTH PART: I BECOME A MOTHER
NEXT morning, at half-past eight, my Martin left me.
“We were standing together in the boudoir between the table and the fire, which was burning briskly, for the sultry weather had gone in the night, and the autumn air was keen, though the early sun was shining.
At the last moment he was unwilling to go, and it was as much as I could do to persuade him. Perhaps it is one of the mysteries which God alone can read that our positions seemed to have been reversed since the day before.
He was confused, agitated, and full of self reproaches, while I felt no fear and no remorse, but only an indescribable joy, as if a new and gracious life had suddenly dawned on me.
“I don’t feel that I can leave England now,” he said.
“You can and you must,” I answered, and then I spoke of his expedition as a great work which it was impossible to put off.
“Somebody else must do it, then,” he said.
“Nobody else can, or shall,” I replied.
“But our lives are for ever joined together now, and everything else must go by the board.”
“Nothing shall go by the board for my sake, Martin. I refuse and forbid it.”
Everything had been arranged, everything settled, great sums of money had been subscribed out of faith in him, and him only, and a large company, was ready and waiting to sail under his command. He was the Man of Destiny, therefore nothing – nothing whatever must keep him back.
“Then if I must go, you must go too,” he said. “I mean you must go with me to London and wait there until I return.”
“That is impossible,” I answered.
The eyes of the world were on him now, and the heart of the world was with him. If I did what he desired it would reflect dishonour on his name, and he should not suffer for my sake under any circumstances.
“But think what may happen to you while I am away,” he said.
“Nothing will happen while you are away, Martin.”
“But how can you be so sure of the future when God alone knows what it is to be?”
“Then God will provide for it,” I said, and with that last answer he had to be satisfied.
“You must take a letter from me at all events,” said Martin, and sitting at my desk he began to write one.
It is amazing to me now when I come to think of it that I could have been so confident of myself and so indifferent to consequences. But I was thinking of one thing only that Martin must go on his great errand, finish his great work and win his great reward, without making any sacrifice for me.
After a few minutes he rose from the desk and handed me his letter.
“Here it is,” he said. “If the worst comes to the worst you may find it of some use some day.”
I took it and doubled it and continued to hold it in my hand.
“Aren’t you going to look at it!” he said.
“Not even to see whom it is written to?”
“That is unnecessary.”
I thought I knew it was written to my husband or my father, and it did not matter to me which, for I had determined not to use it.
“It is open won’t you see what it says?”
“That is unnecessary also.”
I thought I knew that Martin had tried to take everything upon himself, and I was resolved that he should not do so.
He looked at me with that worshipful expression which, seen in the eyes of the man who loves her, makes a woman proud to be alive.
“I feel as if I want to kiss the hem of your dress, Mary,” he said, and after that there was a moment of heavenly silence.
It was now half-past eight the hour when the motor-car had been ordered round to take him to the town and though I felt as if I could shed drops of my blood to keep back the finger of my cuckoo clock I pointed it out and said it was time for him to go.
I think our parting was the most beautiful moment of all my life.
We were standing a little apart, for though I wanted to throw my arms about his neck at that last instant I would not allow myself to do so, because I knew that that would make it the harder for him to go.
I could see, too, that he was trying not to make it harder for me, so we stood in silence for a moment while my bosom heaved and his breath came quick.
Then he took my right hand in both of his hands and said:
“There is a bond between us now which can never be broken.”
“Never,” I answered.
“Whatever happens to either of us we belong to each other for ever.”
“For ever and ever,” I replied.
I felt his hands tighten at that, and after another moment of silence, he said:
“I may be a long time away, Mary.”
“I can wait.”
“Down there a man has to meet many dangers.”
“You will come back. Providence will take care of you.”
“I think it will. I feel I shall. But if I don’t . . .”
I knew what he was trying to say. A shadow seemed to pass between us. My throat grew thick, and for a moment I could not speak. But then I heard myself say:
“Love is stronger than death; many waters cannot quench it.”
His hands quivered, his whole body trembled, and I thought he was going to clasp me to his breast as before, but he only drew down my forehead with his hot hand and kissed it.
That was all, but a blinding mist seemed to pass before my eyes, and when it cleared the door of the room was open and my Martin was gone.
I stood where he had left me and listened.
I heard his strong step on the stone flags of the hall he was going out at the porch.
I heard the metallic clashing of the door of the automobile he was already in the car.
I heard the throb of the motor and ruckling of the gravel of the path he was moving away.
I heard the dying down of the engine and the soft roll of
the rubber wheels I was alone.
For some moments after that the world seemed empty and void. But the feeling passed, and when I recovered my strength I found Martin’s letter in my moist left hand.
Then I knelt before the fire, and putting the letter into the flames I burnt it.
WITHIN two hours of Martin’s departure I had regained complete possession of myself and was feeling more happy than I had ever felt before.
The tormenting compunctions of the past months were gone. It was just as if I had obeyed some higher law of my being and had become a freer and purer woman.
My heart leapt within me and to give free rein to the riot of my joy I put on my hat and cloak to go into the glen.
Crossing the garden I came upon Tommy the Mate, who told me there had been a terrific thunderstorm during the night, with torrential rain, which had torn up all the foreign plants in his flower-beds.
“It will do good, though,” said the old man. “Clane out some of their dirty ould drains, I’m thinkin’.”
Then he spoke of Martin, whom he had seen off, saying he would surely come back.
“‘Deed he will though. A boy like yander wasn’t born to lave his bark in the ice and snow. . . . Not if his anchor’s at home, anyway” with a “glime” in my direction.
How the glen sang to me that morning! The great cathedral of nature seemed to ring with music the rustling of the leaves overhead, the ticking of the insects underfoot, the bleating of the sheep, the lowing of the cattle, the light chanting of the stream, the deep organ-song of the sea, and then the swelling and soaring Gloria in my own bosom, which shot up out of my heart like a lark out of the grass in the morning.
I wanted to run, I wanted to shout, and when I came to the paths where Martin and I had walked together I wanted silly aa it sounds to say so to go down on my knees and kiss the very turf which his feet had trod.
I took lunch in the boudoir as before, but I did not feel as if I were alone, for I had only to close my eyes and Martin, from the other side of the table, seemed to be looking across at me. And neither did I feel that the room was full of dead laughter, for our living voices seemed to be ringing in it still.
After tea I read again my only love-letter, revelling in the dear delightful errors in spelling which made it Martin’s and nobody else’s, and then I observed for the first time what was said about “the boys of Blackwater,” and their intention of “getting up a spree.”
This suggested that perhaps Martin had not yet left the island but was remaining for the evening steamer, in order to be present at some sort of celebrations to be given in his honour.
So at seven o’clock it was dark by that time I was down at the Quay, sitting in our covered automobile, which had been drawn up in a sheltered and hidden part of the pier, almost opposite the outgoing steamer.
Shall I ever forget the scene that followed?
First, came a band of music playing one of our native songs, which was about a lamb that had been lost in the snow, and how the Big Man of the Farm went out in search of it, and found it and brought it home in his arms.
Then came a double row of young men carrying flags and banners fine, clean-limbed lads such as make a woman’s heart leap to look at them.
Then came Martin in a jaunting car with a cheering crowd alongside of him, trying to look cheerful but finding it fearfully hard to do so.
And then and this touched me most of all a double line of girls in knitted woollen caps (such as men wear in frozen regions) over their heads and down the sides of their comely faces.
I was crying like a child at the sight of it all, but none the less I was supremely happy.
When the procession reached the gangway Martin disappeared into the steamer, and then the bandsmen ranged themselves in front of it, and struck up another song:
“Come back to Erin, mavourneen, mavourneen,
Come back, aroon, to the land of your birth.“
In another moment every voice in the crowd seemed to take up the refrain.
That brought Martin on to the captain’s bridge, where he stood bareheaded, struggling to smile.
By tills time the last of the ship’s bells had rung, the funnels were belching, and the captain’s voice was calling on the piermen to clear away.
At last the hawsers were thrown off and the steamer started, but, with Martin still standing bareheaded on the bridge, the people rushed to the end of the pier to see the last of him.
There they sang again, louder than ever, the girls’ clear voices above all the rest, as the ship sailed out into the dark sea.
“Come back to Erin, mavourneen, mavourneen,
Come back, aroon, to the land of your birth.“
As well as I could, for the mist in my eyes was blinding me, I watched the steamer until she slid behind the headland of the bay, round the revolving light that stands on the point of it stretching my neck through the window of the car, while the fresh wind from the sea smote my hot face and the salt air licked my parched lips. And then I fell back in my seat and cried for sheer joy of the love that was shown to Martin.
The crowd was returning down the pier by this time, like a black river running in the darkness and rumbling over rugged stones, and I heard their voices as they passed the ear.
One voice a female voice said:
“Well, what do you think of our Martin Conrad!”
And then another voice a male voice answered:
“By God he’s a Man!”
Within a few minutes the pier was deserted, and the chauffeur was saying:
“Home, my lady?”
“Home,” I answered.
Seeing Martin off had been too much like watching the life-boat on a dark and stormy night, when the lights dip behind a monstrous wave and for some breathless moments you fear they will never rise.
But as we drove up the head I caught the lights of the steamer again now far out at sea, and well I knew that as surely as my Martin was there he was thinking of me and looking back towards the house in which he had left me behind him.
When we reached the Castle I found to my surprise that every window was ablaze.
The thrum of the automobile brought Price into the hall.
She told me that the yachting party had come back, and were now in their bedrooms dressing for dinner.
As I went upstairs to my own apartments I heard trills of laughter from behind several of the closed doors, mingled with the muffled humming of various music-hall ditties.
And then suddenly a new spirit seemed to take possession of me, and I knew that I had become another woman.
Memorandum of Martin Conrad
My darling was right. For a long hour after leaving Blackwater I continued to stand on the captain’s bridge, looking back at the lighted windows of the house above Port Raa, and asking myself the question which for sixteen months thereafter was to haunt me day and night Why had I left her behind me?
In spite of all her importunities, all her sweet unselfish thought of my own aims and interests, all her confidence in herself, all her brave determination to share responsibility for whatever the future might have in store for us Why had I left her behind me?
The woman God gave me was mine why had I left her in the house of a man who, notwithstanding his infidelities and brutalities, had a right in the eyes of the law, the church, and the world to call her his wife and to treat her accordingly?
Let me make no pretence of a penitence I did not feel. Never for one moment did I reproach myself for what had happened. Never for the shadow of a moment did I reproach her. She had given herself to me of her queenly right and sovereign grace as every good woman in the world must give herself to the man she loves if their union is to be pure and true.
But why did I not see then, as I see now, that it is the law of Nature the cruel and at the same time the glorious law of Nature that the woman shall bear the burden, the woman shall pay the price?
It is over now, and though many a time since my sweet girl has said out of her stainless heart that everything has worked out for the best, and suffering is God’s salt for keeping our souls alive, when I think of what she went through ..or me, while I was out of all reach and sight, I know I shall never forgive myself for leaving her behind never, never, never.
[END OP MARTIN CONRAD’S MEMORANDUM]
As this will be the last time I shall have to speak of my husband’s guests, I wish to repeat that I am trying to describe them without malice exactly as they were selfish, cruel, ill-mannered, and insincere.
The dinner-bell rang while I was dressing, and on going downstairs a few minutes afterwards I found that there had been no attempt to wait for me.
Already the whole party were assembled at the table, my husband being at the foot of it, and Alma (incredible as it may seem) in the place of the hostess at the head.
This, in my altered mood, was more than I could bear, so, while the company made some attempt to welcome me with rather crude salutations, and old Mrs. Lier cried, “Come along here, my pore dear, and tell me how you’ve gotten on while we’ve been away” (indicating an empty seat by her side), I walked boldly up to Alma, put my hand on the back of her chair and said, “If you please.”
Alma looked surprised. But after a moment she carried off the difficult situation by taking the seat which had been reserved for me beside her mother, by congratulating me on my improved appearance and herself on relief from the necessity of filling my place and discharging my responsible duties.
My husband, with the rest of the company, had looked up at the awkward incident, and I thought I saw by his curious grimace that he supposed my father (of whom he was always in fear) had told me to assert myself. But Alma, with surer instinct, was clearly thinking of Martin, and almost immediately she began to speak of him.
“So your great friend has just gone, dearest. The servants are crazy about him. We’ve missed him again, you see. Too bad! I hope you gave him our regrets and excuses did you?”
The evil one must have taken hold of me by this time, for I said:
“I certainly did not, Alma.”
“Why not, my love?”
“Because we have a saying in our island that it’s only the ass that eats the cushag” – a bitter weed that grows in barren places.
Alma joined in the general laughter which followed this rather intemperate reply, and then led off the conversation on the incidents of the cruise.
I gathered that, encouraged by her success in capturing the Bishop by her entertainment, she had set herself to capture the “aristocracy” of our island by inviting them to a dance on the yacht, while it lay at anchor off Holmtown, and the humour of the moment was to play battledore and shuttle-cock with the grotesque efforts of our great people (the same that had figured at my wedding) to grovel before my husband and his guests.
“I say, Jimmy,” cried. Mr. Vivian in his shrill treble, “do you remember the old gal in the gauze who etc. . . . ”
“But do you remember,” cried Mr. Eastcliff, “the High Bailiff or Bum Bailiff with the bottle-nose who etc. . . .?”
“Killing, wasn’t it, Vivian?” said one of the ladies.
“Perfectly killing,” said everybody.
This shocking exhibition of bad manners had not gone on very long before I became aware that it was being improvised for my benefit.
After Alma had admitted that the Bishop was a “great flirt” of hers, and Mr. Vivian, amid shouts of laughter, had christened him her “crush,” she turned to me and said, with her smiling face slightly drawn down on one side:
“Mary, my love, you will certainly agree that your islanders who do not eat cushags, poor dears, are the funniest people alive as guests.”
“Not funnier,” I answered, “than the people who laugh at them as hosts.”
It was not easy to laugh at that, so to cover Alma’s confusion the men turned the talk to their usual topic, horses and dogs, and I heard a great deal about “laying on the hounds,” which culminated in a rather vulgar story of how a beater who “wasn’t nippy on his pins” had been “peppered from behind,” whereupon he had “bellowed like a bull” until “soothed down by a sov.”
I cannot say how long the talk would have continued in this manner if old Mrs. Lier, addressing herself to me, had not struck a serious subject.
It was about Alma’s dog, which was dead. The poor wheezy spaniel had died in the course of the cruise, though what the cause of its death was nobody knew, unless it had been fretting for its mistress during the period of quarantine which the absurd regulations of government had required on our return from abroad.
The dog having died at sea, I presumed it had been buried there, but no, that seemed to shock the company as an unfeeling supposition. The ship’s carpenter had made a coffin for it a beautiful one of mahogany with a plate-glass inset at the head, and a gilt-lettered inscription below, giving the dog’s name, Pine, and its age, three.
In this condition it had been brought ashore, and was now lying in a kind of state in Alma’s dressing-room. But to-morrow it was to be buried in the grounds, probably in the glen, to which the company, all dressed in black, were to follow in procession as at a human funeral.
I was choking with anger and horror at the recital of these incredible arrangements, and at the close of it I said in a clear, emphatic voice:
“I must ask you to be good enough not to do that, please.”
“Why not, my dear?” said Alma.
“Because I do not wish and cannot permit it,” I answered.
There was an awkward pause after this unexpected pronouncement, and when the conversation was resumed my quick ears (which have not always added to my happiness) caught the half -smothered words:
“Getting a bit sidey, isn’t she?”
Nevertheless, when I rose to leave the dining-room, Alma wound her arm round my waist, called me her “dear little nun,” and carried me off to the hall.
There we sat about the big open fire, and after a while the talk became as free as it often is among fashionable ladies of a certain class.
Mr. Eastcliff’s Camilla told a slightly indelicate anecdote of a “dresser” she had had at the theatre, and then another young woman (the same who “adored the men who went to the deuce for a woman”) repeated the terms of an advertisement she had seen in a Church newspaper: “A parlour-maid wants a situation in a family where a footman is kept.”
The laughter which followed this story was loud enough, but it was redoubled when Alma’s mother, from the depths of an arm-chair, said, with her usual solemnity, that she “didn’t see nothing to laugh at” in that, and “the pore girl hadn’t no such thought as they had.”
Again I was choking with indignation, and in order to assert myself once for all I said:
“Ladies, I will ask you to discontinue this kind of conversation. I don’t like it.”
At last the climax came.
About ten days after Martin left me I received a telegram, which had been put ashore at Southampton, saying, “Good-bye! God bless you!” and next day there came a newspaper containing an account of his last night at Tilbury.
He had given a dinner to a number of his friends, including his old commander and his wife, several other explorers who happened to be in London, a Cabinet Minister, and the proprietor of the journal which had promoted his expedition.
They had dined in the saloon of the “Scotia” (how vividly I remembered it!), finishing up the evening with a dance on deck in the moonlight; and when the time came to break up, Martin had made one of his sentimental little speeches (all heart and not too much grammar), in which he said that in starting out for another siege of the South Pole he “couldn’t help thinking, with a bit of a pain under the third button of his double-breasted waistcoat, of the dear ones they were leaving behind, and of the unknown regions whither they were tending where dancing would be forgotten.”
I need not say how this moved me, being where I was, in that uncongenial company; but by some mischance I left the paper which contained it on the table in the drawing-room, and on going downstairs after breakfast next morning I found Alma stretched out in a rocking-chair before the fire in the hall, smoking a cigarette and reading the report aloud in a mock heroic tone to a number of the men, including my husband, whose fat body (he was growing corpulent) was shaking with laughter.
It was as much as I could do to control an impulse to jump down and flare out at them, but, being lightly shod, I was standing quietly in their midst before they were aware of my presence.
“Ah,” said Alma, with the sweetest and most insincere of her smiles, “we were just enjoying the beautiful account of your friend’s last night in England.”
“So I see,” I said, and, boiling with anger underneath, I quietly took the paper out of her hand between the tips of my thumb and first finger (as if the contamination of her touch had made it unclean) and carried it to the fire and burnt it.
This semed to be the end of all things. The tall Mr. Eastcliff went over to the open door and said:
“Deuced fine day for a motor drive, isn’t it?”
That gentleman had hitherto shown no alacrity in establishing the truth of Alma ‘s excuse for the cruise on the ground of his visit to “his friend who had taken a shoot in Skye;” but now he found himself too deeply interested in the Inverness Meeting to remain longer, while the rest of the party bcame so absorbed in the Perth and Ayr races, salmon-fishing on the Tay, and stag-shooting in the deer-forests of Invercauld, that within a week thereafter I had said good-bye to all of them.
All save Alma.
I was returning from the hall after the departure of a group of my guests when Alma followed me to my room and said:
“My dear, sweet girl, I want you to do me the greatest kindness.”
She had to take her mother to New York shortly; but as “that dear old dunce” was the worst of all possible sailors, it would be necessary to wait for the largest of all possible steamers, and as the largest steamers sailed from Liverpool, and Ellan was so near to that port, perhaps I would not mind . . . just for a week or two longer. . . .
What could I say? What I did say was what I had said before, with equal weakness and indiscretion, but less than equal danger. A word, half a word, and almost before it was spoken, Alma’s arms were about my neck and she was calling me her “dearest, sweetest, kindest friend in the world.”
My maid Price was present at this interview, and hardly had Alma left the boudoir when she was twitching at my arm and whispering in my ear:
“My lady, my lady, don’t you see what the woman wants? She’s watching you.”
MY husband was the next to go.
He made excuse of his Parliamentary duties. He might be three or four weeks away, but meantime Alma would be with me, and in any case I was not the sort of person to feel lonely.
Never having heard before of any devotion to his duty as a peer, I asked if that was all that was taking him to London.
“Perhaps not all,” he answered, and then, with a twang of voice and a twitch of feature, he said:
“I’m getting sick of this God-forsaken place, and then . . . to tell you the truth, your own behaviour is beginning to raw me.”
With my husband’s departure my triumphal course seemed to come to a close. Left alone with Alma, I became as weak and irresolute as before and began to brood upon Price’s warning.
My maid had found a fierce delight in my efforts to assert myself as mistress in my husband’s house, but now (taking her former advantage) she was for ever harping upon my foolishness in allowing Alma to remain in it.
“She’s deceiving you, my lady,” said Price. “Her waiting for a steamer indeed! Not a bit of her. If your ladyship will not fly out at me again and pack me off bag and baggage, I’ll tell you what’s she’s waiting for.”
“She’s waiting for . . . she thinks . . . she fancies . . . well, to tell you the honest truth, my lady, the bad-minded thing suspects that something is going to happen to your ladyship, and she’s just waiting for the chance of telling his lordship.”
I began to feel ill. A dim, vague, uneasy presentiment of coming trouble took frequent possession of my mind.
I tried to suppress it. I struggled to strangle it as an ugly monster created by the nervous strain I had been going through, and for a time I succeeded in doing so. I had told Martin that nothing would happen during his absence, and I compelled myself to believe that nothing would or could.
Weeks passed; the weather changed; the golden hue of autumn gave place to a chilly greyness; the sky became sad with winterly clouds; the land became soggy with frequent rains; the trees showed their bare black boughs; the withered leaves drifted along the roads before blustering winds that came up from the sea; the evenings grew long and the mornings dreary; but still Alma, with her mother, remained at Castle Raa.
I began to be afraid of her. Something of the half-hypnotic spell which she had exercised over me when I was a child asserted itself again, but now it seemed to me to be always evil and sometimes almost demoniacal.
I had a feeling that she was watching me day and night. Occasionally, when she thought I was looking down, I caught the vivid gaze of her coal-black eyes looking across at me through her long sable-coloured eyelashes.
Her conversation was as sweet and suave as ever, but I found myself creeping away from her and even shrinking from her touch.
More than once I remembered what Martin in his blunt way had said of her: “I hate that woman; she’s like a snake; I want to put my foot on it.”
The feeling that I was alone in this great gaunt house with a woman who was waiting and watching to do me a mischief, that she might step into my shoes, was preying upon my health and spirits.
Sometimes I had sensations of faintness and exhaustion for which I could not account. Looking into my glass in the morning, I saw that my nose was becoming pinched, my cheeks thin, and my whole face not merely pale, but grey.
Alma saw these changes in my appearance, and in the over-sweet tones of her succulent voice she constantly offered me her sympathy. I always declined it, protesting that I was perfectly well, but none the less I shrank within myself and became more and more unhappy.
So fierce a strain could not last very long, and the climax came about three weeks after my husband had left for London.
I was rising from breakfast with Alma and her mother when I was suddenly seized with giddiness, and, after staggering for a moment, I fainted right away.
On recovering consciousness I found myself stretched out on the floor with Alma and her mother leaning over me.
Never to the last hour of my life shall I forget the look in Alma ‘s eyes as I opened my own. With her upper lip sucked in and her lower one slightly set forward she was giving her mother a quick side-glance of evil triumph.
I was overwhelmed with confusion. I thought I might have been speaking as I was coming to, mentioning a name perhaps, out of that dim and sacred chamber of the unconscious soul into which God alone should see. I noticed, too, that my bodice had been unhooked at the back so as to leave it loose over my bosom.
As soon as Alma saw that my eyes were open, she put her arm under my head and began to pour out a flood of honeyed words into my ears.
“My dear, sweet darling,” she said, “you scared us to death. We must send for a doctor immediately your own doctor, you know.”
I tried to say there was no necessity, but she would not listen.
“Such a seizure may be of no consequence, my love. I trust it isn’t. But on the other hand, it may be a serious matter, and it is my duty, dearest, my duty to your husband, to discover the cause of it.”
I knew quite well what Alma was thinking of, yet I could not say more without strengthening her suspicions, so I asked for Price, who helped me up to my room, where I sat on the edge of the bed while she gave me brandy and other restoratives.
That was the beginning of the end. I needed no doctor to say what had befallen me. It was something more stupendous for me than the removal of mountains or the stopping of the everlasting coming and going of the sea.
The greatest of the mysteries of womanhood, the most sacred, the most divine, the mighty mystery of a new life had come to me as it comes to other women. Yet how had it come? Like a lowering thunderstorm.
That golden hour of her sex, which ought to be the sweetest and most joyful in a woman’s life the hour when she goes with a proud and swelling heart to the one she loves, the one who loves her, and with her arms about his neck and her face hidden in his breast whispers her great new secret, and he clasps her more fondly than ever to his heart, because another and closer union has bound them together that golden hour had come to me, and there was none to share it.
God! God! How proudly I had been holding up my head! How I had been trampling on the conventions of morality, the canons of law, and even the sacraments of religion, thinking Nature, which had made our hearts what they are, did not mean a woman to be ashamed of her purest instincts!
And now Nature herself had risen up to condemn me, and before long the whole world would be joining in her cry.
If Martin had been there at that moment I do not think I should have cared what people might think or say of a woman in my condition. But he was separated from me by this time by thousands of miles of sea, and was going deeper and deeper even’ day into the dark Antarctic night.
How weak I felt, how little, how helpless! Never for a moment did I blame Martin. But I was alone with my responsibility, I was still living in my husband’s house, and worst of all another woman knew my secret.
EARLY next day Doctor Conrad came to see me. I thought it significant that he came in my father’s big motor-car a car of great speed and power.
I was in my dressing-gown before the fire in the boudoir, and at the first glance of his cheerful face under his iron-grey head I knew what Alma had said in the letter which had summoned him.
In his soft voice he asked me a few questions, and though I could have wished to conceal the truth I dared not. I noticed that his face brightened at each of my replies, and at the end of them he said:
“There is nothing to be alarmed at. We shall be better than ever by-and-by.”
Then in his sweet and delicate way (as if he were saying something that would be very grateful) he told me what I knew already, and I listened with my head down and my face towards the fire.
He must have been disappointed at the sad way I received his news, for he proceeded to talk of my general health, saying the great thing in such a case as mine was to be cheerful, to keep a good heart, and to look hopefully to the future.
“You must have pleasant surroundings and the society of agreeable people old friends, old schoolfellows, familiar and happy faces.”
I said “Yes” and “Yes,” knowing only too well how impossible it all was; and then his talk turned on general topics my father, whose condition made his face very grave, and then his wife, Christian Ann, whose name caused his gentle old eyes to gleam with sunshine.
She had charged him with a message to me.
“Tell her,” she had said, “I shall never forget what she did for me in the autumn, and whiles and whiles I’m thanking God for her.”
That cut me to the quick, but I was nearly torn to pieces by what came next.
“Christian Ann told me to say too that Sunny Lodge is longing for you. ‘She’s a great lady now,’ said she, ‘but maybe great ladies have their troubles same as ourselves, poor things, and if she ever wants to rest her sweet head in a poor woman’s bed, Mary O’Neill’s little room is always waiting for her.'”
“God bless her!” I said it was all I could say and then, to my great relief, he talked on other subjects.
The one thing I was afraid of was that he might speak of Martin. Heaven alone, which looks into the deep places of a woman’s heart in her hour of sorest trial, knows why I was in such dread that he might do so, but sure I am that if he had mentioned Martin at that moment I should have screamed.
When he rose to go he repeated his warnings.
“You’ll remember what I said about being bright and cheerful?”
“And keeping happy and agreeable faces about you?”
Hardly had he left the room when Alma came sweeping into it, full of her warmest and insincerest congratulations.
“There!” she cried, with all the bitter honey of her tongue. “Wasn’t I right in sending for the doctor? Such news, too! Oh, happy, happy you! But I must not keep you now, dearest. You’ll be just crazy to write to your husband and tell him all about it.”
Alma’s mother was the next to visit me. The comfortable old soul, redolent of perfume and glittering with diamonds, began by congratulating herself on her perspicacity.
“I knew it,” she said. “When I saw as how you were so and so, I said to Alma as I was sure you were that way. ‘Impossible,’ said Alma, but it’s us married women to know, isn’t it?”
After that, and some homely counsel out of her own experience to take my breakfast in bed in future, avoiding tea, &c., she told me how fortunate I was to have Alma in the house at such a moment.
“The doctor says you’re to be kept bright and cheerful, and she’s such a happy heart, is Alma. So crazy about you too! You wouldn’t believe it, but she’s actually talking of staying with you until the December sailing, at all events.”
The prospect of having Alma two months longer, to probe my secret soul as with a red-hot iron, seemed enough to destroy me, but my martyrdom had only begun.
Next day, Aunt Bridget came, and the bright glitter of the usually cold grey eyes behind her gold-rimmed spectacles told me at a glance that her visit was not an unselfish one.
“There now,” she said, “you’ve got to thank me for this. Didn’t I give you good advice when I told you to be a little blind? It’s the only way with husbands. When Conrad came home with the news I said, ‘Betsy, I must get away to the poor girl straight.’ To be sure I had enough on my hands already, but I couldn’t leave you to strangers, could I?”
Hearing no response to this question, Aunt Bridget went on to say that what was coming would be a bond between me and my husband.
“It always is. It was in my case, anyway. The old colonel didn’t behave very well after our marriage, and times and times I was telling myself I had made a rue bargain; but when Betsy came I thought, ‘I might have done better, but I might have done worse, and he’s the father of my offspring, anyway.”
Hearing no response to this either, Aunt Bridget went on to talk of Alma and her mother. Was not this the woman I suspected with my husband the young one with the big eyes and “the quality toss with her?” Then why did I have a person like that about the house?
“If you need bright and cheerful company, what’s amiss with your aunt and your first cousin? Some people are selfish, but I thank the saints I don’t know what selfishness is. I’m willing to do for you what I did for your poor mother, and I can’t say more than that, can I?”
I must have made some kind of response, for Aunt Bridget went on to say it might be a sacrifice, but then she wouldn’t be sorry to leave the Big House either.
“I’m twenty years there, and now I’m to be a servant to my own stepchild. Dear heart knows if I can bear it much longer. The way that Nessy is carrying on with your father is something shocking. I do believe she’ll marry the man some day.”
To escape from a painful topic I asked after my father’s health.
“Worse and worse, but Conrad’s news was like laughing-gas to the man. He would have come with me to-day, but the doctor wouldn’t hear of it. He’ll come soon though, and meantime he’s talking and talking about a great entertainment.”
“To celebrate the forthcoming event, of course, though nobody is to know that except ourselves, it seems. Just a house-warming in honour of your coming home after your marriage that’s all it’s to be on the outside, anyway.”
I made some cry of pain, and Aunt Bridget said:
“Oh, I know what you’re going to say why doesn’t he wait? I’ll tell you why if you’ll promise not to whisper a word to any one. Your father is a sick man, my dear. Let him say what he likes when Conrad talks about cancer, he knows Death’s hand is over him. And thinking it may fall before your time has come, he wants to take time by the forelock and see a sort of fulfilment of the hope of his life and you know
what that is.”
It was terrible. The position in which I stood towards my father was now so tragic that (wicked as it was) I prayed with all my heart that I might never look upon his face again.
I was compelled to do so. Three days after Aunt Bridget’s visit my father came to see me. The day was fine and I was walking on the lawn when his big car came rolling up the drive.
I was shocked to see the change in him. His face was ghastly white, his lips were blue, his massive and powerful head seemed to have sunk into his shoulders, and his limbs were so thin that his clothes seemed to hang on them; but the stern mouth was there still, and so was the masterful lift of the eyebrows.
Coming over to meet me with an uncertain step, he said:
“Old Conrad was for keeping me in bed, but I couldn’t take rest without putting a sight on you.”
After that, and some plain speech out of the primitive man he always was and will be (about it’s being good for a woman to have children because it saved her from “losing her stomach” over imaginary grievances), he led me, with the same half-contemptuous tenderness which he used to show to my mother, back to the house and into the drawing-room.
Alma and her mother were there, the one writing at a desk, the other knitting on the sofa, and they rose as my father entered, but he waved them back to their places.
“Set down, ma’am. Take your seat, mother. I’m only here for a minute to talk to my gel about her great reception.”
“Reception?” said Alma.
“Hasn’t she told you about it?” he said, and being answered that I had not, he gave a rough outline of his project, whereupon Alma, whose former attitude towards my father had changed to one of flattery and subservience, lifted her hands and cried:
“How splendid! Such an inspiration! Only think, my love, you were to be kept bright and cheerful, and what could be better for that purpose?”
In the torment of my soul I urged one objection after another it would be expensive, we could not afford it.
“Who asks you to afford it? It’s my affair, isn’t it?” said my father.
I was unwell, and therefore unable to undertake the hard work of such an entertainment but that was the worst of excuses, for Alma jumped in with an offer of assistance.
“My dearest child,” she said, “you know how happy I shall be to help you. In fact, I’ll do all the work and you shall have all the glory.”
“There you are, then,” cried my father, slapping me on the shoulder, and then, turning to Alma, he told her to set to work without a day’s delay.
“Let everything be done correct even if it costs me a bit of money.”
“A rael big thing, ma’am, such as nobody has ever seen before.”
“Yes indeed, sir.”
“Ask all the big people on the island Nessy MacLeod shall send you a list of them.”
“I will, sir.”
“That’ll do for the present I guess I must be going now, or old Conrad will be agate of me. So long, gel, so long.”
I was silenced, I was helpless, I was ashamed.
I did not know then, what now I know, that, besides the desire of celebrating the forthcoming birth of an heir, my father had another and still more secret object that of throwing dust in the eyes of his advocates, bankers, and insular councillors, who (having expected him to make money for them by magic) were beginning to whisper that all was not well with his financial schemes.
I did not know then, what now I know, that my father was at that moment the most tragic figure in Ellan except myself, and that, shattered in health and shaken in fortune, he was indulging in this wild extravagance equally to assert his solvency and to gratify his lifelong passion under the very wing of Death.
But oh, my wild woe, my frantic prayers! It was almost as if Satan himself were torturing me.
The one terror of the next few days was that my husband might return home, for I knew that at the first moment of his arrival the whole world of make-believe which my father and Alma were setting up around me would tumble about my head like a pack of cards.
He did not come, but he wrote. After saying that his political duties would keep him in London a little longer, he said:
“I hear that your father is getting you to give a great reception in honour of our home-coming. But why now, instead of three months ago? Do you know the reason?”
As I read these last words I felt an icy numbness creeping up from my feet to my heart. My position was becoming intolerable. The conviction was being forced upon me that I had no right in my husband’s house.
It made no difference that my husband’s house was mine also, in the sense that it could not exist without me I had no right to be there.
It made no difference that my marriage had been no marriage I had no right to be there.
It made no difference that the man I had married was an utterly bad husband I had no right to be there.
It made no difference that I was not really an adulterous wife I had no right to be there.
Meanwhile Price, my maid, but my only real friend in Castle Raa, with the liberty I allowed her, was unconsciously increasing my torture. Every night as she combed out my hair she gave me her opinion of my attitude towards Alma, and one night she said:
“Didn’t I tell you she was only watching,you, my lady? The nasty-minded thing is making mischief with his lordship. She’s writing to him every day. . . . How do I know? Oh, I don’t keep my eyes and my ears open downstairs for nothing. You’ll have no peace of your life, my lady, until you turn that woman out of the house.”
Then in a fit of despair, hardly knowing what I was doing, I covered my face with my hands and said:
“I had better turn myself out instead, perhaps.”
The combing of my hair suddenly stopped, and at the next moment I heard Price saying in a voice which seemed to come from a long way off:
”Goodness gracious me! Is it like that, my lady?”
ALMA was as good as her word.
She did everything without consulting me fixed the date of the reception for a month after the day of my father’s visit, and sent out invitations to all “the insular gentry” included in the lists which came from Nessy MacLeod in her stiff and formal handwriting.
These lists came morning after morning, until the invitations issued reached the grand total of five hundred.
As the rooms of the Castle were not large enough to accommodate so many guests, Alma proposed to erect a temporary pavilion. My father agreed, and within a week hundreds of workmen from Blackwater were setting up a vast wooden structure, in the form of the Colosseum, on the headlands beyond the garden where Martin and I had walked together.
While the work went on my father’s feverish pride seemed to increase. I heard of messages to Alma saying that no money was to be spared. The reception was to surpass in grandeur any fete ever held in Ellan. Not knowing what high stakes my father was playing for, I was frightened by this extravagance, and from that cause alone I wished to escape from the sight of it.
I could not escape.
I felt sure that Alma hated me with an implacable hatred, and that she was trying to drive me away, thinking that would be the easiest means to gain her own ends. For this reason, among others, the woman in me would not let me fly, so I remained and went through a purgatory of suffering.
Price, too, who had reconciled herself to my revelation, was always urging me to remain, saying:
“Why should you go, my lady? You are your husband’s wife, aren’t you? Fight it out, I say. Ladies do so every day. Why shouldn’t you?”
Before long the whole island seemed to be astir about our reception. Every day the insular newspapers devoted columns to the event, giving elaborate accounts of what limitless wealth could accomplish for a single night’s entertainment. In these descriptions there was much eulogy of my father as “the uncrowned king of Ellan,” as well as praise of Alma, who was ”displaying such daring originality,” but little or no mention of myself.
Nevertheless everybody seemed to understand the inner meaning of the forthcoming reception, and in the primitive candour of our insular manners some of the visits I received were painfully embarrassing.
One of the first to come was my father’s advocate, Mr. Curphy, who smiled his usual bland smile and combed his long beard while he thanked me for acting on his advice not to allow a fit of pique to break up a marriage which was so suitable from points of property and position.
“How happy your father must be to see the fulfilment of his hopes,” he said. “Just when his health is failing him, too! How good! How gratifying!”
The next to come was the Bishop, who, smooth and suave as ever, congratulated me on putting aside all thoughts of divorce, so that the object of my marriage might be fulfilled and a good Catholic become the heir of Castle Raa.
More delicate, but also more distressing, was a letter from Father Dan, saying he had been forbidden my husband’s house and therefore could not visit me, but having heard an angel’s whisper of the sweet joy that was coming to me, he prayed the Lord and His Holy Mother to carry me safely through.
“I have said a rosary for you every day since you were here, my dear child, that you might be saved from a great temptation. And now I know you have been, and the sacrament of your holy marriage has fulfilled its mission, as I always knew it would. So God bless you, my daughter, and keep you pure and fit for eternal union with that blessed saint, your mother, whom the Lord has made His own.”
More than ever after this letter I felt that I must fly from my husband’s house, but, thinking of Alma, my wounded pride, my outraged vanity (as I say, the woman in me), would not let me go.
Three weeks passed.
The pavilion had been built and was being hung with gaily painted bannerets to give the effect of the Colosseum as seen at sunset. A covered corridor connecting the theatre with the house was being lined with immense hydrangeas and lit from the roof by lamps that resembled stars.
A few days before the day fixed for the event Alma, who had been too much occupied to see me every day in the boudoir to which I confined myself, came up to give me my instructions.
The entertainment was to begin at ten o’clock. I was to be dressed as Cleopatra and to receive my guests in the drawing-room. At the sound of a fanfare of trumpets I was to go into the theatre preceded by a line of pages, and accompanied by my husband. After we had taken our places in a private box a great ballet, brought specially from a London music-hall, was to give a performance lasting until midnight. Then there was to be a cotillon, led by Alma herself with my husband, and after supper the dancing was to be resumed and kept up until sunrise, when a basketful of butterflies and doves (sent from the South of France) were to be liberated from cages, and to rise in a multi-coloured cloud through the sunlit space.
I was sick and ashamed when I thought of this vain and gaudy scene and the object which I supposed it was intended to serve.
The end of it all was that I wrote to my father, concealing the real cause of my suffering, but telling him he could not possibly be aware of what was being done in his name and with his money, and begging him to put an end to the entertainment altogether.
The only answer I received was a visit from Nessy MacLeod. I can see her still as she came into my room, the tall gaunt figure with red hair and irregular features.
“Cousin Mary,” she said, seating herself stiffly on the only stiff-backed chair, and speaking in an impassive tone, “your letter has been received, but your father has not seen it, his health being such as makes it highly undesirable that he should be disturbed by unnecessary worries.”
I answered with some warmth that my letter had not been unnecessary, but urgent and important, and if she persisted in withholding it from my father I should deliver it myself.
“Cousin Mary,” said Nessy, “I know perfectly what your letter is, having opened and read it, and while I am as little as yourself in sympathy with what is going on here, I happen to know that your father has set his heart on this entertainment, and therefore I do not choose that it shall be put off.”
I replied hotly that in opening my letter to my father she had taken an unwarrantable liberty, and then (losing myself a little) I asked her by what right did she, who had entered my father’s house as a dependent, dare to keep his daughter’s letter from him.
”Cousin Mary,” said Nessy, in the same impassive tone, “you were always self-willed, selfish, and most insulting as a child, and I am sorry to see that neither marriage nor education at a convent has chastened your ungovernable temper. But I have told you that I do not choose that you shall injure your father’s health by disturbing his plans, and you shall certainly not do so.”
“Then take care,” I answered, “that in protecting my father’s health you do not destroy it altogether.”
In spite of her cold and savourless nature, she understood my meaning, for after a moment of silence she said:
“Cousin Mary, you may do exactly as you please. Your conduct in the future, whatever it may be, will be no affair of mine, and I shall not consider that I am in any way responsible for it.”
At last I began to receive anonymous letters. They came from various parts of Ellan and appeared to be in different handwritings. Some of them advised me to fly from the island, and others enclosed a list of steamers’ sailings.
Only a woman who has been the victim of this species of cowardly torture can have any idea of the shame of it, and again and again I asked myself if I ought not to escape from my husband’s house before he returned.
But Price seemed to find a secret joy in the anonymous letters, saying she believed she knew the source of them; and one evening towards the end, she came running into my room with a shawl over her head, a look of triumph in her face, and an unopened letter in her hand.
“There!” she said. “It’s all up with Madame now. You’ve got the game in your own hands, my lady, and can send them all packing.”
The letter was addressed to my husband in London. Price had seized the arm of Alma’s maid in the act of posting it, and under threat of the law (not to speak of instant personal chastisement) the girl had confessed that both this letter and others had been written by our housekeeper under the inspiration of her mistress.
Without any compunction Price broke the seal of the intercepted letter and read it aloud to me. It was a shocking thing, accusing me with Martin, and taunting my husband with the falseness of the forthcoming entertainment.
Feeling too degraded to speak, I took the letter in silence out of my maid ‘s hands, and while I was in the act of locking it away in a drawer Alma came up with a telegram from my husband, saying he was leaving London by the early train the following morning and would arrive at Blackwater at half-past three in the afternoon.
“Dear old Jimmy!” she said, “what a surprise you have in store for him! But of course you’ve told him already, haven’t you? … No? Ah, I see, you’ve been saving it all up to tell him face to face. Oh, happy, happy you!”
It was too late to leave now. The hour of my trial had come. There was no possibility of escape. It was just as if Satan had been holding me in the net of my sin, so that I could not fly away.
At three o’clock next day (which was the day before the day fixed for the reception) I heard the motor-car going off to meet my husband at Blackwater. At four o ‘clock I heard it return. A few minutes afterwards I heard my husband’s voice in the hall. I thought he would come up to me directly, but he did not do so, and I did not attempt to go down. When, after a while, I asked what had become of him, I was told that he was in the library with Alma, and that they were alone.
Two hours passed.
To justify and fortify myself I thought how badly my husband had behaved to me. I remembered that he had married me from the most mercenary motives; that he had paid off his mistress with the money that came through me; that he had killed by cruelty the efforts I had made to love him; that he had humiliated me by gross infidelities committed on my honeymoon. I recalled the scenes in Rome, the scenes in Paris, and the insults I had received under my own roof.
It was all in vain. Whether God means it that the woman’s fault in breaking her marriage vows (whatever her sufferings and excuse) shall be greater than that of the man I do not know. I only know that I was trembling like a prisoner before her judge when, being dressed for dinner and waiting for the sound of the bell, I heard my husband’s footsteps approach my door.
I was standing by the fire at that moment, and I held on to the mantelpiece as my husband came into the room.
HE was very pale. The look of hardness, almost of brutality, which pierced his manner at normal moments had deepened, and I could see at a glance that he was nervous. His monocle dropped of itself from his slow grey eyes, and the white fat fingers which replaced it trembled.
Without shaking hands or offering any other sort of salutation he plunged immediately into the matter that was upper-most in his mind.
“I am still at a loss to account for this affair of your father’s,” he said. “Of course I know what it is supposed to be a reception in honour of our home-coming. That explanation may or may not be sufficient for these stupid islanders, but it’s rather too thin for me. Can you tell me what your father means by it?”
I knew he knew what my father meant, so I said, trembling like a sheep that walks up to a barking dog: “Hadn’t you better ask that question of my father himself?”
“Perhaps I should if he were here, but he isn’t, so I ask you. Your father is a strange man. There’s no knowing what crude things he will not do to gratify his primitive instincts. But he does not spend five or ten thousand pounds for nothing. He isn’t a fool exactly.”
“Thank you,” I said. I could not help it. It was forced out of me.
My husband flinched and looked at me. Then the bully in him, which always lay underneath, came uppermost.
“Look here, Mary,” he said. “I came for an explanation and I intend to have one. Your father may give this affair what gloss he pleases, but you must know as well as I do what rumour and report are saying, so we might as well speak plainly. Is it the fact that the doctor has made certain statements about your own condition, and that your father is giving this entertainment because . . . well, because he is expecting an heir?”
To my husband’s astonishment I answered:
“So you admit it? Then perhaps you’ll be good enough to tell me how that condition came about?”
Knowing he needed no explanation, I made no answer.
“Can’t you speak?” he said.
But still I remained silent.
“You know what our relations have been since our marriage, so I ask you again how does that condition come about?”
I was now trembling more than ever, but a kind of forced courage came to me and I said:
“Why do you ask? You seem to know already.”
“I know what anonymous letters have told me, if that’s what you mean. But I’m your husband and have a right to know from you. How does your condition come about, I ask you?”
I cannot say what impulse moved me at that moment unless it was the desire to make a clean breast and an end of everything, but, stepping to my desk, I took out of a drawer the letter which Price had intercepted and threw it on the table.
He took it up and read it, with the air of one to whom the contents were not news, and then asked how I came by it.
“It was taken out of the hands of a woman who was in the act of posting it,” I said. “She confessed that it was one of a number of such letters which had been inspired, if not written, by your friend Alma.”
“My friend Alma!”
“Yes, your friend Alma.”
His face assumed a frightful expression and he said:
“So that’s how it is to be, is it? In spite of the admission you have just made you wish to imply that this” (holding out the letter) “is a trumped-up affair, and that Alma is at the bottom of it. You’re going to brazen it out, are you, and shelter your condition under your position as a married woman?”
I was so taken by surprise by this infamous suggestion that I could not speak to deny it, and my husband went on to say:
“But it doesn’t matter a rush to me who is at the bottom of the accusation contained in this letter. There’s only one thing of any consequence is it true?”
My head was reeling, my eyes were dim, my palms were moist, I felt as if I were throwing myself over a precipice, but I answered:
“It is perfectly true.”
I think that was the last thing he expected. After a moment he said:
“Then you have broken your marriage vows is that it?”
“Yes, if you call it so.”
“Call it so? Call it so? Good heavens, what do you call it?”
I did not reply, and after another moment he said:
“But perhaps you wish me to understand that this man whom I was so foolish as to invite to my house abused my hospitality and betrayed my wife. Is that what you mean?”
“No,” I said. “He observed the laws of hospitality much better than you did, and if I am betrayed I betrayed myself.”
I shall never forget the look with which my husband received this confession. He drew himself up with the air of an injured man and said:
“What? You mean that you yourself . . . deliberately . . . Good God!”
He stopped for a moment and then said with a rush:
“I suppose you’ve not forgotten what happened at the time of our marriage . . . your resistance and the ridiculous compact I submitted to? Why did I submit? Because I thought your innocence, your convent-bred ideas, and your ignorance of the first conditions of matrimony. . . . But I’ve been fooled, for you now tell me . . . after all my complacency . . . that you have deliberately … In the name of God do you know what you are? There’s only one name for a woman who does what you’ve done. Do you want me to tell you what that name is?”
I was quivering with shame, but my mind, which was going at lightning speed, was thinking of London, of Cairo, of Rome, and of Paris.
“Why don’t you speak?” he cried, lifting his voice in his rage. “Don’t you understand what a letter like this is calling you?”
My heart choked. But the thought that came to me that, bad as his own life had been, he considered he had a right to treat me in this way because he was a man and I was a woman brought strength out of my weakness, so that when he went on to curse my Church and my religion, saying this was all that had come of “the mummery of my masses,” I fired up for a moment and said:
“You can spare yourself these blasphemies. If I have done wrong, it is I, and not my Church, that is to blame for it.”
“If you have done wrong!” he cried. “Damn it, have you lost all sense of a woman’s duty to her husband? While you have been married to me and I have been fool enough not to claim you as a wife because I thought you were only fit company for the saints and angels, you have been prostituting yourself to this blusterer, this …”
“That is a lie,” I said, stepping up to him in the middle of the floor. “It’s true that I am married to you, but he is my real husband and you . . . you are nothing to me at all.”
My husband stood for a moment with his mouth agape. Then he began to laugh loudly, derisively, mockingly.
“Nothing to you, am I? You don’t mind bearing my name, though, and when your time comes you’ll expect it to cover your disgrace.”
His face had become shockingly distorted. He was quivering with fury.
“That’s not the worst, either,” he cried. “It’s not enough that you should tell me to my face that somebody else is your real husband, but you must shunt your spurious offspring into my house. Isn’t that what it all comes to … all this damnable fuss of your father’s . . . that you are going to palm off on me and my name and family your own and this man’s . . . bastard?”
And with the last word, in the drunkenness of his rage, he lifted his arm and struck me with the back of his hand across the cheek.
The physical shock was fearful, but the moral infamy was a hundred-fold worse. I can truly say that not alone for myself did I suffer. When my mind, still going at lightning speed, thought of Martin, who loved me so tenderly, I felt crushed by my husband’s blow to the lowest depths of shame.
I must have screamed, though I did not know it, for at the next moment Price was in the room and I saw that the housekeeper (drawn perhaps, as before, by my husband’s loud voice) was on the landing outside the door. But even that did not serve to restrain him.
“No matter,” he said. “After what has passed you may not enjoy to-morrow’s ceremony. But you shall go through it! By heaven, you shall! And when it is over, I shall have something to say to your father.”
And with that he swung out of the room and went lunging down the stairs.
I was still standing in the middle of the floor, with the blow from my husband’s hand tingling on my cheek, when Price, after clashing the door in the face of the housekeeper, said, with her black eyes ablaze:
“Well, if ever I wanted to be a man before to-day!”
News of the scene went like wildfire through the house, and Alma’s mother came to comfort me. In her crude and blundering way she told me of a similar insult she had suffered at the hands of the “bad Lord Raa,” and how it had been the real reason of her going to America.
“Us married ladies have much to put up with. But cheer up, dearie. I guess you’ll have gotten over it by to-morrow morning.”
When she was gone I sat down before the fire. I did not cry. I felt as if I had reached a depth of suffering that was a thousand fathoms too deep for tears. I do not think I wept again for many months afterwards, and then it was a great joy, not a great grief, that brought me a burst of blessed tears.
But I could hear my dear good Price crying behind me, and when I said:
“Now you see for yourself that I cannot remain in this house any longer,” she answered, in a low voice:
“Yes, my lady.”
“I must go at once to-night if possible.”
“You shall. Leave everything to me, my lady.”
THE bell rang, but of course I did not go down to dinner.
As soon as Price had gone off to make the necessary arrangements I turned the key in the lock of my door, removed my evening gown, and began to dress for my flight.
My brain was numb, but I did my best to confront the new situation that was before me.
Hitherto I had been occupied with the problem of whether I should or should not leave my husband’s house; now I had to settle the question of where I was to go to.
I dared not think of home, for Nessy MacLeod and Aunt Bridget apart) the house of my father was the last place I could fly to at a moment when I was making dust and ashes of his lifelong expectations.
Neither dared I think of Sunny Lodge, although I remembered, with a tug of tenderness, Christian Ann’s last message about Mary O’Neill’s little room that was always waiting for me for I thought of how I had broken my pledge to her.
The only place I could think of was that which Martin had mentioned when he wished to carry me away London. In the mighty world of London I might hide myself from observation and wait until Martin returned from his expedition.
“Yes, yes, London,” I told myself in my breathless excitement, little knowing what London meant.
I began to select the clothes I was to carry with me and to wear on my journey. They must be plain, for I had to escape from a house in which unfriendly eyes would be watching me. They must be durable, for during my time of waiting I expected to be poor.
I hunted out some of the quaker-like costumes which had been made for me before my marriage; and when I had put them on I saw that they made a certain deduction from my appearance, but that did not matter to me now the only eyes I wished to look well in being down in the Antarctic seas.
Then I tried to think of practical matters how I was to live in London and how, in particular, I was to meet the situation that was before me. Surely never did a more helpless innocent confront such a serious problem. I was a woman, and for more than a year I had been a wife, but I had no more experience of the hard facts of material existence than a child.
I thought first of the bank-book which my father had sent me with authority to draw on his account. But it was then nine o’clock, the banks were closed for the day, and I knew enough of the world to see that if I attempted to cash a cheque in the morning my whereabouts would be traced. That must never happen, I must hide myself from everybody; therefore my bank-book was useless.
“Quite useless,” I thought, throwing it aside like so much waste paper.
I thought next of my jewels. But there I encountered a similar difficulty. The jewels which were really mine, having been bought by myself, had been gambled away by my husband at Monte Carlo. What remained were the family jewels which had come to me as Lady Raa; but that was a name I was never more to bear, a person I was never more to think about, so I could not permit myself to take anything that belonged to her.
The only thing left to me was my money. I had always kept a good deal of it about me, although the only use I had had for it was to put it in the plate at church, and to scatter it with foolish prodigality to the boys who tossed somersaults behind the carriage in the road.
Now I found it all over my room in my purse, in various drawers, and on the toilet-tray under my dressing-glass. Gathered together it counted up to twenty-eight pounds. I owed four pounds to Price, and having set them aside, I saw that I had twenty-four pounds left in notes, gold, and silver.
Being in the literal and unconventional sense utterly ignorant of the value of sixpence, I thought this a great sum, amply sufficient for all my needs, or at least until I secured employment for I had from the first some vague idea of earning my own living.
“Martin would like that,” I told myself, lifting my head with a thrill of pride.
Then I began to gather up the treasures which were inexpressibly more dear to me than all my other possessions.
One of them was a little miniature of my mother which Father Dan had given me for a wedding-present when (as I know now) he would rather have parted with his heart’s blood.
Another was a pearl rosary which the Reverend Mother had dropped over my arm the last time she kissed me on the forehead; and the last was my Martin’s misspelt love-letter, which was more precious to me than rubies.
Not for worlds, I thought, would I leave these behind me, or ever part with them under any circumstances.
Several times while I was busy with such preparations, growing more and more nervous every moment, Price came on tip-toe and tapped softly at my door.
Once it was to bring me some food and to tell me, with many winks (for the good soul herself was trembling with excitement), that everything was “as right as ninepence.” I should get away without difficulty in a couple of hours, and until to-morrow morning nobody would be a penny the wiser.
Fortunately it was Thursday, when a combined passenger and cargo steamer sailed to Liverpool. Of course the motor-car would not be available to take me to the pier, but Tommy the Mate, who had a stiff cart in which he took his surplus products to market, would be waiting for me at eleven o ‘clock by the gate to the high road.
The people downstairs, meaning my husband and Alma and her mother, were going off to the pavilion (where hundreds of decorators were to work late and the orchestra and ballet were to have a rehearsal), and they had been heard to say that they would not be back until “way round about midnight.”
“But the servants?” I asked.
“They’re going too, bless them,” said Price. “So eat your dinner in peace, my lady, and don’t worry about a thing until I come back to fetch you.”
Another hour passed. I was in a fever of apprehension. I felt like a prisoner who was about to escape from a dungeon.
A shrill wind was coming up from the sea and whistling about the house. I could hear the hammering of the workmen in the pavilion as well as the music of the orchestra practising their scores.
A few minutes before eleven Price returned, carrying one of the smaller of the travelling-trunks I had taken to Cairo. I noticed that it bore no name and no initials.
“It’s all right,” she said. “They’ve gone off, every mother’s son and daughter of them all except the house-keeper, and I’ve caught her out, the cat!”
That lynx-eyed person had begun to suspect. She had seen Tommy harnessing his horse and had not been satisfied with his explanation that he was taking tomatoes to Blackwater to be sent off by the Liverpool steamer.
So to watch events, without seeming to watch them, the housekeeper (when the other servants had gone off to the rehearsal) had stolen upstairs to her room in the West tower overlooking the back courtyard.
But Price had been more than a match for her. Creeping up behind, she had locked the door of the top landing, and now the “little cat” might scream her head off through the window, and (over the noises of the wind and the workmen) it would be only like “torn” shrieking on the tiles.
“We must be quick, though,” said Price, tumbling into my travelling-trunk as many of my clothes as it would hold.
When it was full and locked and corded she said:
“Wait,” and stepped out on the landing to listen.
After a moment she returned saying:
“Not a sound! Now for it, my lady.”
And then, tying her handkerchief over her head to keep down her hair in the wind, she picked up the trunk in her arms and crept out of the room on tiptoe.
The moment had come to go, yet, eager as I had been all evening to escape from my husband’s house, I could scarcely tear myself away, for I was feeling a little of that regret which comes to us all when we are doing something for the last time.
Passing through the boudoir this feeling took complete possession of me. Only a few hours before it had been the scene of my deepest degradation, but many a time before it had been the place of my greatest happiness.
“You are my wife. I am your real husband. No matter where you are or what they do with you, you are mine and always will be.”
Half -closing the door, I took a last look round at the piano, the desk, the table, the fireplace, all the simple things associated with my dearest memories. So strong was the yearning of my own soul that I felt as if the soul of Martin were in the room with me at that moment.
I believe it was.
“Quick, my lady, or you’ll lose your steamer,” whispered Price, and then we crossed the landing (which was creaking again) and crept noiselessly down a back staircase.
We were near the bottom when I was startled by a loud knocking, which seemed to come from a distant part of the house. My heart temporarily stopped its beating, but Price only laughed and whispered:
“There she is! We’ve fairly caught her out, the cat.”
At the next moment Price opened an outer door, and after we had passed through she closed and locked it behind us.
We were then in the courtyard behind the house, stumbling in the blinding darkness over cobble-stones.
“Keep close to me, my lady,” said Price.
After a few moments we reached the drive. I think I was more nervous than I had ever been before. I heard the withered leaves behind me rustling along the ground before the wind from the sea, and thought they were the footsteps of people pursuing us. I heard the hammering of the workmen and the music of the orchestra, and thought they were voices screaming to us to come back.
Price, who was forging ahead, carried the trunk in her arms as if it had been a child, but every few minutes she waited for me to come up to her, and encouraged me when I stumbled in the darkness.
“Only a little further, my lady,” she said, and I did my best to struggle on.
We reached the gate to the high road at last. Tommy the Mate was there with his stiff cart, and Price, who was breathless after her great exertion, tumbled my trunk over the tail-board.
The time had come to part from her, and, remembering how faithful and true she had been to me, I hardly knew what to say. I told her I had left her wages in an envelope on the dressing-table, and then I stammered something about being too poor to make her a present to remember me by.
“It doesn’t need a present to help me to remember a good mistress, my lady,” she said.
“God bless you for being so good to me,” I answered, and then I kissed her.
“I’ll remember you by that, though,” she said, and she began to cry.
I climbed over the wheel of the stiff cart and seated myself on my trunk, and then Tommy, who had been sitting on the front-board with his feet on the outer shaft, whipped up his horse and we started away.
During the next half-hour the springless cart bobbed along the dark road at its slow monotonous pace. Tommy never once looked round or spoke except to his horse, but I understood my old friend perfectly.
I was in a fever of anxiety lest I should be overtaken and carried back. Again and again I looked behind. At one moment, when a big motor-car, with its two great white eyes, came rolling up after us, my stormy heart stood still. But it was not my husband’s car, and in a little while its red tail-light disappeared in the darkness ahead.
We reached Blackwater in time for the midnight steamer and drew up at the landward end of the pier. It was cold; the salt wind from the sea was very chill. Men who looked like commercial travellers were hurrying along with their coat-collars turned up, and porters with heavy trunks on their shoulders were striving to keep pace with them.
I gave my own trunk to a porter who came up to the cart, and then turned to Tommy to say good-bye. The old man had got down from the shaft and was smoothing his smoking horse, and snuffling as if he had caught a cold.
“Good-bye, Tommy,” I said and then something more which I do not wish to write down.
“Good-bye, lil missie,” he answered (that cut me deep), “I never believed ould Tom Dug would live to see ye laving home like this. . . . But wait! Only wait till himself is after coming back, and I’ll go bail it’ll be the divil sit up for some of them.”
IT was very dark. No more than, three or four lamps on the pier were burning, but nevertheless I was afraid that the pier-master would recognise me.
I thought he did so as I approached the gangway to the saloon, for he said:
II Private cabin on main deck aft.”
Nervous as I was, I had just enough presence of mind to say “Steerage, please,” which threw him off the scent entirely, BO that he cried, in quite a different voice:
“Steerage passengers forward.”
I found my way to the steerage end of the steamer; and in order to escape observation from the few persons on the pier I went down to the steerage cabin, which was a little triangular place in the bow, with an open stove in the middle of the floor and a bleary oil-lamp swinging from a rafter overhead.
The porter found me there, .and in my foolish ignorance of the value of money I gave him half a crown for his trouble. He first looked at the coin, then tested it between his teeth, then spat on it, and finally went off chuckling.
The first and second bells rang. I struggled every moment of delay before the steamer sailed, for I still felt like a prisoner who was running away and might even yet be brought back.
Seating myself in the darkest corner of the cabin, I waited and watched. There were only two other steerage passengers and they were women. Judging by their conversation I concluded that they were cooks from lodging-houses on “the front,” returning after a long season to their homes in Liverpool. Both were very tired, and they were spreading their blankets on the bare bunks so as to settle themselves for the night.
At last the third bell rang. I heard the engine whistle, the funnel belch out its smoke, the hawsers being thrown off, the gangways being taken in, and then, looking through the porthole, I saw the grey pier gliding behind us.
After a few moments, with a feeling of safety and a sense of danger passed, I went up on deck. But oh, how little I knew what bitter pain I was putting myself to!
We were just then swinging round the lighthouse which stands on the south-east headland of the bay, and the flash of its revolving light in my face as I reached the top of the cabin stairs brought back the memory of the joyous and tumultuous scenes of Martin’s last departure.
That, coupled and contrasted with the circumstances of my own flight, stealthily, shamefully, and in the dead of night, gave me a pang that was almost more than I could bear.
But my cup was not yet full. A few minutes afterwards we sailed in the dark past the two headlands of Port Raa, and, looking up, I saw the lights in the windows of my husband’s house, and the glow over the glass roof of the pavilion.
What would happen there to-morrow morning when it was discovered that I was gone? What would happen to-morrow night when my father arrived, ignorant of my flight, as I felt sure the malice of my husband would keep him?
Little as I knew then of my father’s real motives in giving that bizarre and rather vulgar entertainment, I thought I saw and heard everything that would occur.
I saw the dazzling spectacle, I saw the five hundred guests, I saw Alma and my husband, and above all I saw my father, the old man stricken with mortal maladies, the wounded lion whom the shadow of death itself could not subdue, degraded to the dust in his hour of pride by the act of his own child.
I heard his shouts of rage, his cries of fury, his imprecations on me as one who should never touch a farthing of his fortune. And then I heard the whispering of his “friends,” who were telling the “true story” of my disappearance, the tale of my “treacheries” to my husband just as if Satan had willed it that the only result of the foolish fete on which my father had wasted his wealth like water should be the publication of my shame.
But the bitterest part of my experience was still to come.
In a few minutes we sailed past the headlands of Port Raa, the lights of my husband’s house shot out of view like meteors on a murky night, and the steamer turned her head to the open sea.
I was standing by a rope which crossed the bow and holding on to it to save myself from falling, for, being alone with Nature at last, I was seeing my flight for the first time in full light.
I was telling myself that as surely as my flight became known Martin’s name would be linked with mine, and the honour that was dearer to me than my own would be buried in disgrace.
God! God! Why should Nature be so hard and cruel to a woman? Why should it be permitted that, having done no worse than obey the purest impulses of my heart, the iron law of my sex should rise up to condemn both me and the one who was dearer to my soul than life itself?
I hardly know how long I stood there, holding on to that rope. There was no sound now except the tread of a sailor in his heavy boots, an inarticulate call from the bridge, an answering shout from the wheel, the rattling of the wind in the rigging, the throbbing of the engine in the bowels of the ship, and the monotonous wash of the waves against her side.
Oh, how little I felt, how weak, how helpless!
I looked up towards the sky, but there seemed to be no sky, no moon, and no stars, only a vaporous blackness that came down and closed about me.
I looked out to the sea, but there seemed to be no sea, only a hissing splash of green spray where the steamer’s forward light fell on the water which her bow was pitching up, and beyond that nothing but a threatening and thundering void.
I did not weep, but I felt as other women had felt before me, as other women have felt since, as women must always feel after they have sinned against the world and the world’s law, that there was- nothing before me but the blackness of night.
“Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my cry.”
But all at once a blessed thought came to me. We were travelling eastward, and dark as the night was now, in a few hours the day would dawn, the sun would shine in our faces and the sky would smile over our heads!
It would be like that with me. Martin would come back. I was only going to meet him. It was dark midnight with me now, but I was sailing into the sunrise!
Perhaps I was like a child, but I think that comforted me.
At all events I went down to the little triangular cabin with a cheerful heart, forgetting that I was a runaway, a homeless wanderer, an outcast, with nothing before me but the wilderness of London where I should be friendless and alone.
The fire had gone out by this time, the oil-lamp was swinging to the motion of the ship, the timbers were creaking, and the Liverpool women were asleep.
AT eight o’clock next morning I was in ‘the train leaving Liverpool for London.
I had selected a second-class compartment labelled “For Ladies,” and my only travelling companion was a tall fair woman, in a seal-skin coat and a very large black hat. She had filled the carriage with the warm odour of eau-de-Cologne and the racks on both sides with her luggage, which chiefly consisted of ladies’ hat boxes of various shapes and sizes.
Hardly had we started when I realised that she was a very loquacious and expansive person.
Was I going all the- way? Yes? Did I live in Liverpool? No? In London perhaps? No? Probably I lived in the country? Yes? That was charming, the country being so lovely.
I saw in a moment that if my flight was to be carried out to any purpose I should have to conceal my identity; but how to do so I did not know, my conscience never before having had to accuse me of deliberate untruth.
Accident helped me. My companion asked me what was my husband’s profession, and being now accustomed to think of Martin as my real husband, I answered that he was a commander.
“You mean the commander of a ship?”
“Ah, yes, you’ve been staying in Liverpool to see him off on a voyage. How sweet! Just what I should do myself if my husband were a sailor.”
Then followed a further battery of perplexing questions.
Had my husband gone on a long voyage? Yes? Where to? The South. Did I mean India, Australia, New Zealand? Yes, and still farther.
“Ah, I see,” she said again. “He’s probably the captain of a tramp steamer, and will go from port to port as long as he can find a cargo.”
Hardly understanding what my companion meant by this, I half agreed to it, and then followed a volley of more personal inquiries.
I was young to be married, wasn’t I? Probably I hadn’t been married, very long, had I? And not having settled myself in a home perhaps I was going up to London to wait for my husband? Yes? How wise – town being so much more cheerful than the country.
“Any friends there?”
“But won’t you be lonely by yourself in London?”
“A little lonely perhaps.”
Being satisfied that she had found out everything about me,
my travelling companion (probably from the mere love of
talking) told me something about herself.
She was a fashionable milliner and had a shop in the West End of London. Occasionally she made personal visits to the provinces to take orders from the leading shopkeepers, but during the season she found it more profitable to remain in town, where her connection was large, among people who could pay the highest prices.
By this time we had reached Crewe, and as there was some delay in getting into the station, my travelling companion put her head out of the window to inquire the cause. She was told that a night train from Scotland was in front of us, and we should have to be coupled on to it before we could proceed to London.
This threw her into the wildest state of excitement.
“I see what it is,” she said. “The shooting season is over and the society people are coming down from the moors. I know lots and lots of them. They are my best customers the gentlemen at all events.”
“Why, yes,” she said with a little laugh.
After some shunting our Liverpool carriages were coupled to the Scotch train and run into the station, where a number of gentlemen in knickerbockers and cloth caps were strolling about the platform.
My companion seemed to know them all, and gave them their names, generally their Christian names, and often their familial-ones.
Suddenly I had a shock. A tell man, whose figure I recognised, passed close by our carriage, and I had only time to conceal myself from observation behind the curtain of the window.
“Helloa!” cried my companion. “There’s Teddy Eastcliff. He married Camilla, the Russian dancer. They first met in my shop I may tell you.”
I was feeling hot and cold by turns, but a thick veil must have hidden my confusion, for after we left Crewe my companion, becoming still more confidential, talked for a long time about her aristocratic customers, and I caught a glimpse of a life that was on the verge of a kind of fashionable Bohemia.
More than once I recognised my husband’s friends among the number of her clients, and trembling lest my husband himself should become a subject of discussion, I made the excuse of a headache to close my eyes and be silent.
My companion thereupon slept, very soundly and rather audibly, from Rugby to Willesden, where, awakening with a start while the tickets were being collected, she first powdered her face by her fashion-glass and then interested herself afresh in my affairs.
“Did you say, my dear, that you have no friends in London!”
I repeated that I had none.
“Then you will go to an hotel, I suppose?”
I answered that I should have to look for something less expensive.
“In that case,” she said, “I think I know something that will suit you exactly.”
It was a quiet boarding establishment in Bloomsbury comfortable house, reasonable terms, and, above all, perfectly respectable. In fact, it was kept by her own sister, and if I liked she would take me along in her cab and drop me at the door. Should she?
Looking back at that moment I cannot but wonder that after what I had heard I did not fear discovery. But during the silence of the last hour I had been feeling more than ever weak and helpless, so that when my companion offered me a shelter in that great, noisy, bewildering city in which I had intended to hide myself, but now feared I might be submerged and lost, with a willing if not a cheerful heart I accepted.
Half an hour afterwards our cab drew up in a street off Russell Square at a rather grimy-looking house which stood at the corner of another and smaller square that was shut off by an iron railing.
The door was opened by a young waiter of sixteen or seventeen years, who was wearing a greasy dress-suit and a soiled shirt front.
My companion pushed into the hall, I followed her, and almost at the same moment a still larger and perhaps grosser woman than my friend, with the same features and complexion, came out of a room to the left with a serviette in her hand.
“Jane!” cried my companion, and pointing to me she said:
“I’ve brought you a new boarder.”
Then followed a rapid account of where she had met me, who and what I was, and why I had come up to London.
“I’ve promised you’ll take her in and not charge her too much, you know.”
“Why, no, certainly not,” said the sister.
At the next moment the boy waiter was bringing my trunk into the house on his shoulder and my travelling companion was bidding me good-bye and saying she would look me up later.
When the door was closed I found the house full of the smell of hot food, chiefly roast beef and green vegetables, and I could hear the clink of knives and forks and the clatter of dishes in the room the landlady had come from.
“You’d like to go up to your bedroom at once, wouldn’t you?” she said.
We went up two flights of stairs covered with rather dirty druggeting, along a corridor that had a thin strip of linoleum, and finally up a third flight that was bare to the boards, until we came to a room which seemed to be at the top of the house and situated in its remotest corner.
It was a very small apartment, hardly larger than the room over the hall at home in which Aunt Bridget had made me sleep when I was a child, and it was nearly as cold and cheerless.
The wall-paper, which had once been a flowery pink, was now pale and patternless; the Venetian blind over the window (which looked out on the smaller square) had lost one of its cords and hung at an irregular angle; there was a mirror over the mantelpiece with the silvering much mottled, and a leather-covered easy chair whereof the spring was broken and the seat heavily indented.
“I dare say this will do for the present,” said my landlady, and though my heart was in my mouth I compelled myself to agree.
“My terms, including meals and all extras, will be a pound a week,” she added, and to that also, with a lump in my throat I assented, whereupon my landlady left me, saying luncheon was on and I could come downstairs when I was ready.
A talkative cockney chambermaid, with a good little face, brought me a fat blue jug of hot water, and after I had washed and combed I found my way down to the dining-room.
What I expected to find there I hardly know. What I did find was a large chamber, as dingy as the rest of the house, and as much in need of refreshing, with a long table down the middle, at which some twenty persons sat eating, with the landlady presiding at the top.
The company, who were of both sexes and chiefly elderly, seemed to me at that first sight to be dressed in every variety of out-of-date clothes, many of them rather shabby and some almost grotesque.
Raising their faces from their plates they looked at me as I entered, and I was so confused that I stood hesitating near the door until the landlady called to me.
“Come up here,” she said, and when I had done so, and taken the seat by her side, which had evidently been reserved for me, she whispered:
“I don’t think my sister mentioned your name, my dear. What is it?”
I had no time to deliberate.
“O’Neill,” I whispered back, and thereupon my landlady, raising her voice, and addressing the company as if they had been members of her family, said:
“Mrs. O’Neill, my dears.”
Then the ladies at the table inclined their heads at me and smiled, while the men (especially those who were the most strangely dressed) rose from their seats and bowed deeply.
OF all houses in London this, I thought, was the least suitable to me.
Looking down the table I told myself that it must be the very home of idle gossip and the hot-bed of tittle-tattle.
I was wrong. Hardly had I been in the house a day when I realised that my fellow-guests were the most reserved and self-centred of all possible people.
One old gentleman who wore a heavy moustache, and had been a colonel in the Indian army, was understood to be a student of Biblical prophecy, having collected some thousands of texts which established the identity of the British nation with the lost tribes of Israel.
Another old gentleman, who wore a patriarchal beard and had taken orders without securing a living, was believed to be writing a history of the world and (after forty years of continuous labour) to have reached the century before Christ.
An elderly lady with a benign expression was said to be a tragic actress who was studying in secret for a season at the National Theatre.
Such, and of such kind, were my house-mates; and I have since been told that every great city has many such groups of people, the great prophets, the great historians, the great authors, the great actors whom the world does not know the odds and ends of humanity, thrown aside by the rushing river of life into the gulley-ways that line its banks, the odd brothers, the odd sisters, the odd uncles, the odd aunts, for whom there is no place in the family, in society, or in the business of the world.
It was all very curious and pathetic, yet I think I should have been safe, for a time at all events, in this little corner of London into which chance had so strangely thrown me, but for one unfortunate happening.
That was the arrival of the daily newspaper.
There was never more than a single copy. It came at eight in the morning and was laid on the dining-room mantelpiece, from which (by an unwritten law of the house) it was the duty as well as the honour of the person who had first finished breakfast to take it up and read the most startling part of the news to the rest of the company.
Thus it occurred that on the third morning after my arrival I was startled by the voice of the old colonel, who, standing back to the fire, with the newspaper in his hand, cried:
“Mysterious Disappearance of a Peeress.”
“Read it,” said the old clergyman.
The tea-cup which I was raising to my mouth trembled in my hand, and when I set it down it rattled against the saucer. I knew what was coming, and it came.
The old colonel read:
“A telegram from Blackwater announces the mysterious disappearance of the young wife of Lord Raa, which appears to have taken place late on Thursday night or in the early hours of Friday morning.
“It will be remembered that the missing lady was married a little more than a year ago, and her disappearance is the more unaccountable from the fact that during the past month she has been actively occupied in preparing for a fete in honour of her return home after a long and happy honeymoon.
“The pavilion in which the fete was to have been held had been erected on a headland between Castle Raa and a precipitous declivity to the sea, and the only reasonable conjecture is that the unhappy lady, going out on Thursday night to superintend the final preparations, lost her way in the darkness and fell over the cliffs.
“The fact that the hostess was missing was not generally known in Ellan until the guests had begun to arrive for the reception on Friday evening, when the large assembly broke up in great confusion.
“Naturally much sympathy is felt for the grief-stricken husband.”
After the colonel had finished reading I had an almost irresistible impulse to scream, feeling sure that the moment my house-mates looked into my .face they must see that I was the person indicated.
They did not look, and after a chorus of exclamations (“Most mysterious!” “What can have become of her?” “On the eve of her fete too!”) they began to discuss disappearances in general, each illustrating his point by reference to the subject of his own study.
“Perfectly extraordinary how people disappear nowadays,” said one.
“Extraordinary, sir?” said the old colonel, looking over his spectacles, “why should it be extraordinary that one person should disappear when whole nations the ten tribes for example. . . .”
“But that’s a different thing altogether,” said the old clergyman. “Now if you had quoted Biblical examples Elisha or perhaps Jonah. . . .”
After the discussion had gone on for several minutes in this way I rose from the table on my trembling limbs and slipped out of the room.
It would take long to tell of the feverish days that followed how newspaper correspondents were sent from London to Ellan to inquire into the circumstances of my disappearance; how the theory of accident gave place to the theory of suicide, and the theory of suicide to the theory of flight; how a porter on the pier. at Blackwater said he had carried my trunk to the steamer that sailed on Thursday midnight, thinking I was a maid from the great house until I had given him half-a-crown (his proper fee being threepence); how two female passengers had declared that a person answering to my description had sailed with them to Liverpool; how these clues had been followed up and had led to nothing; and how, finally, the correspondents had concluded the whole incident of my disappearance could not be more mysterious if I had been dropped from mid-air into the middle of the Irish Sea.
But then came another development.
My father, who was reported to have received the news of my departure in a way that suggested he had lost control of his senses (raging and storming at my husband like a man demented), having come to the conclusion that I, being in a physical condition peculiar to women, had received a serious shock resulting in a loss of memory, offered five hundred pounds reward for information that would lead to my discovery, which was not only desirable to allay the distress of my heart-broken family but urgently necessary to settle important questions of title and inheritance.
With this offer of a reward came a description of my personal appearance.
“Age 20, a little under medium height; slight; very black hair; lustrous dark eyes; regular features; pale face; grave expression; unusually sunny smile.”
It would be impossible for me to say with what perturbation I heard these reports read out by the old colonel and the old clergyman. Even the nervous stirring of my spoon and the agitated clatter of my knife and fork made me wonder that my house-mates did not realise the truth, which must, I thought, be plainly evident to all eyes.
They never did, being so utterly immersed in their own theories. But all the same I sometimes felt as if my fellow guests in that dingy house in Bloomsbury were my judges and jury, and more than once, in my great agitation, when the reports came near to the truth, I wanted to cry, “Stop, stop, don’t you see it is I?”
That I never did so was due to the fact that, not knowing what legal powers my father might have to compel my return to Ellan, the terror that sat on me like a nightmare was that of being made the subject of a public quarrel between my father and my husband, concerning the legitimacy of my unborn child, with the shame and disgrace which that would bring not only upon me but upon Martin.
I had some reason for this fear.
After my father’s offer of a reward there came various spiteful paragraphs (inspired, as I thought, by Alma and written by the clumsier hand of my husband) saying it was reported in Ellan that, if my disappearance was to be accounted for on the basis of flight, the only ‘ ‘ shock ‘ ‘ I could have experienced must be a shock of conscience, rumour having for some time associated my name with that of a person who was not unknown in connection with Antarctic exploration.
It was terrible.
Day by way the motive of my disappearance became the sole topic of conversation in our boarding-house. I think the landlady must have provided an evening as well as a morning paper, for at tea in the drawing-room upstairs the most recent reports were always being discussed.
After a while I realised that not only my house-mates but all London was discussing my disappearance.
It was a rule of our boarding-house that during certain hours of the day everybody should go out as if he had business to go to, and having nothing else to do I used to walk up and down the streets. In doing so I was compelled to pass certain newsvendors’ stalls, and I saw for several days that nearly every placard had something about “the missing peeress.”
When this occurred I would walk quickly along the thoroughfare with a sense of being pursued and the feeling which a nervous woman has when she is going down a dark corridor at night that noiseless footsteps are coming behind, and a hand may at any moment be laid on her shoulder.
But nobody troubled me in the streets and the only person in our boarding-house who seemed to suspect me was our landlady. She said nothing, but when my lip was quivering while the old colonel read that cruel word about Martin I caught her little grey eyes looking aslant at me.
One afternoon, her sister, the milliner, came to see me according to her promise, and though she, too, said nothing, I saw that, while the old colonel and the old clergyman were disputing on the hearthrug about some disappearance which occurred thousands of years ago, she was looking fixedly at the fingers with which, in my nervousness, I was ruckling up the discoloured chintz of my chair.
Then in a moment I don’t know why it flashed upon me that my travelling companion was in correspondence with my father.
That idea became so insistent towards dinner-time that I made pretence of being ill (which was not very difficult) to retire to my room, where the cockney chambermaid wrung handkerchiefs out of vinegar and laid them on my forehead to relieve my headache though she increased it, poor thing, by talking perpetually.
Next morning the landlady came up to say that if, as she assumed from my name, I was Irish and a Catholic, I might like to receive a visit from a Sister of Mercy who called at the house at intervals to attend to the sick.
I thought I saw in a moment that this was a subterfuge, but feeling that my identity was suspected I dared not give cause for further suspicion, so I compelled myself to agree.
A few minutes later, having got up and dressed, I was standing with my back to the window, feeling like one who would soon have to face an attack, when a soft footstep came up my corridor and a gentle hand knocked at my door.
“Come in,” I cried, trembling like the last leaf at the end of a swinging bough.
And then an astonishing thing happened.
A young woman stepped quietly into the room and closed the door behind her. She was wearing the black and white habit of the Little Sisters of the Poor, but I knew her long, pale, plain-featured face in an instant.
A flood of shame, and at the same time a flood of joy swept over me at the sight of her.
It was Mildred Bankes.
“MARY,” said Mildred, “speak low and tell me everything.”
he sat in my chair, I knelt by her side, took one of her hands in both of mine, and told her.
I told her that I had fled from my husband’s house because I could not bear to remain there any longer.
I told her that my father had married me against my will, in spite of my protests, when I was a child, and did not know that I had any right to resist him.
I told her that my father God forgive me if I did him a wrong did not love me, that he had sacrificed my happiness to his lust of power, and that if he were searching for me now it was only because my absence disturbed his plans and hurt his pride.
I told her that my husband did not love me either, and that he had married me from the basest motives, merely to pay his debts and secure an income.
I told her, too, that not only did my husband not love me, but he loved somebody else, that he had been cruel and brutal to me, and therefore (for these and other reasons) I could not return to him under any circumstances.
While I was speaking I felt Mildred’s hand twitching between mine, and when I had finished she said:
“But, my dear child, they told me your friends were broken-hearted about you; that you had lost your memory and perhaps your reason, and therefore it would be a good act to help them to send you home.”
“It’s not true, it’s not true,” I said.
And then in a low voice, as if afraid of being overheard, she told me how she came to be there that the woman who had travelled with me in the train from Liverpool, seeing my father ‘s offer of a reward, had written to him to say that she knew where I was and only needed somebody to establish my identity; that my father wished to come to London for this purpose, but had been forbidden by his doctor; that our parish priest, Father Donovan, had volunteered to come instead, but had been prohibited by his Bishop; and finally that my father had written to his lawyers in London, and Father Dan to her, knowing that she and I had been together at the Sacred Heart in Rome, and that it was her work now to look after lost ones and send them safely back to their people.
“And now the lawyer and the doctors are downstairs,” she said in a whisper, “and they are only waiting for me to say who you are that they may apply for an order to send you home.”
This terrified me so much that I made a fervent appeal to Mildred to save me.
“Oh, Mildred, save me, save me,” I cried.
“But how can I? How can I?” she asked.
I saw what she meant, and thinking to touch her still more deeply I told her the rest of my story.
I told her that if I had fled from my husband’s house it was not merely because he had been cruel and brutal to me, but because I, too, loved somebody else somebody who was far away but was coming back, and there was nothing I could not bear for him in the meantime, no pain or suffering or loneliness, and when he returned he would protect me from every danger, and we should love each other eternally.
If I had not been so wildly agitated I ‘should have known that this was the wrong way with Mildred, and it was not until I had said it all in a rush of whispered words that I saw her eyes fixed on me as if they were about to start from their sockets.
“But, my dear, dear child,” she said, “this is worse and worse. Your father and your husband may have done wrong, but you have done wrong too. Don’t you see you have?”
I did not tell her that I had thought of all that before, and did not believe any longer that God would punish me for breaking a bond I had been forced to make. But when she was about to rise, saying that after all it would be a good thing to send me home before I had time to join my life to his whoever he was who had led me to forget my duty as a wife, I held her trembling hands and whispered:
“Wait, Mildred. There is something I have not told you even yet.”
“What is it?” she asked, but already I could see that she knew what I was going to say.
“Mildred,” I said, “if I ran away from my husband it was not merely because I loved somebody else, but because. . . . ”
I could not say it. Do what I would I could not. But holy women like Mildred, who spend their lives among the lost ones, have a way of reading a woman’s heart when it is in trouble, and Mildred read mine.
“Do you mean that . . . that there are consequences . . . going to be? ” she whispered.
“Does your husband know?”
“And your father?”
Mildred drew her hand away from me and crossed herself, saying beneath her breath:
“Oh Mother of my God!”
I felt more humbled than I had ever been before, but after a while I said:
“Now you see why I can never go back. And you will save me, will you not?”
There was silence for some moments. Mildred had drawn back in her chair as if an evil spirit had passed between us. But at length she said:
“It is not for me to judge you, Mary. But the gentlemen will come up soon to know if you are the Mary O’Neill whom
I knew at the Sacred Heart, and what am I to say to them?”
“Say no,” I cried. “Why shouldn’t you? They’ll never know anything to the contrary. Nobody will know.”
I knew what Mildred meant, and in my shame and confusion I tried to excuse myself by telling her who the other woman was.
“It is Alma,” I said.
“Alma? Alma Lier?”
And then I told her how Alma had come back into my life, how she had tortured and tempted me, and was now trying to persuade my husband, who was a Protestant, to divorce me that she might take my place.
And then I spoke of Martin again I could not help it saying that the shame which Alma would bring on him would be a greater grief to me than anything else that could befall me in this world.
“If you only knew who he is,” I said, “and the honour he is held in, you would know that I would rather die a thousand deaths than that any disgrace should fall on him through me.”
I could see that Mildred was deeply moved at this, and though I did not intend to play upon her feelings, yet in the selfishness of my great love I could not help doing so.
“You were the first of my girl friends, Mildred the very first. Don’t you remember the morning after I arrived at school? They had torn me away from my mother, and I was so little and lonely, but you were so sweet and kind. You took me into church for my first visitation, and then into the garden for my first rosary don ‘t you remember it?”
Mildred had closed her eyes. Her face was becoming very white.
“And then don ‘t you remember the day the news came that my mother was very ill, and I was to go home? You came to see me off at the station, and don’t you remember what you said when we were sitting in the train? You said we might never meet again, because our circumstances would be so different. You didn’t think we should meet like this, did you?”
Mildred’s face was growing deadly white.
“My darling mother died. She was all I had in the world and I was all she had, and when she was gone there was no place for me in my father ‘s house, so I was sent back to school. But the Reverend Mother was very kind to me, and the end of it was that I wished to become a nun. Yes indeed, and never so much as on the day you took your vows.”
Mildred’s eyes were still closed, but her eyelids were fluttering and she was breathing audibly.
“How well I remember it! The sweet summer morning and the snow-white sunshine, and the white flowers and the white chapel of the Little Sisters, and then you dressed as a bride in your white gown and long white veil. I cried all through the ceremony. And if my father had not come for me then, perhaps I should have been a nun like you now.”
Mildred’s lips were moving. I was sure she was praying to our Lady for strength to resist my pleading, yet that only made me plead the harder.
“But God knows best what our hearts are made for,” I said. “He knows that mine was made for love. And though you may not think it I know God knows that he who is away is my real husband not the one they married me to. You will not separate us, will you? All our happiness his and mine is in your hands. You will save us, will you not?”
Some time passed before Mildred spoke. It may have been only a few moments, but to me it seemed like an eternity. I did not know then that Mildred was reluctant to extinguish the last spark of hope in me. At length she said:
“Mary, you don’t know what you are asking me to do. When I took my vows I promised to speak the truth under all circumstances, no matter what the consequences, as surely as I should answer to God at the great Day of “Judgment. Yet you wish me to lie. How can I? How can I? Remember my vows, my duty.”
I think the next few minutes must have been the most evil of all my life. When I saw, or thought I saw, that, though one word would save me, one little word, Mildred intended to give me away to the men downstairs, I leapt to my feet and burst out on her with the bitterest reproaches.
“You religious women are always talking about your duty,” I cried. “You never think about love. Love is kind and merciful; but no, duty, always duty! Love indeed! What do you cold creatures out of the convent, with your crosses and rosaries, know about love real love the blazing fire in a woman’s heart when she loves somebody so much that she would give her heart’s blood for him yes, and her soul itself if need be.”
What else I said I cannot remember, for I did not know what I was doing until I found myself looking out of the window and panting for breath.
Then I became aware that Mildred was making no reply to my reproaches, and looking over my shoulder I saw that she was still sitting in my chair with both her hands covering her face and the tears trickling through her fingers on to the linen of her habit.
That conquered me in a moment.
I was seized with such remorse that I wished to throw my arms about her neck and kiss her. I dared riot do that, now, but I knelt by her side again and asked her to forgive me.
“Forgive me, sister,” I said. “I see now that God has brought us to this pass and there is no way out of it. You must do what you think is right. I shall always know you couldn’t have done otherwise. He will know too. And if it must be that disgrace is to fall on him through me . . . and that when he comes home he will find . . .”
But I could not bear to speak about that, so I dropped my head on Mildred’s lap.
During the silence that followed we heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.
“Listen! They’re here,” said Mildred. “Get up. Say nothing. Leave everything to me.”
I rose quickly and returned to the window. Mildred dried her eyes, got up from the chair and stood with her back to the fire-place.
There was a knock at my door. I do not know which of us answered it, but my landlady came into the room, followed by three men in tall silk hats.
“Excuse us, my dear,” she said, in an insincere voice. “These gentlemen are making an examination of the house, and they wish to see your room. May they?”
I do not think I made any reply. I was holding my breath and watching intently. The men made a pretence of glancing round, but I could see they were looking at Mildred. Their looks seemed to say as plainly as words could speak:
“Is it she?”
Mildred hesitated for a moment, there was a dreadful silence and then may the Holy Virgin bless her! she shook her head.
I could bear no more. I turned back to the window. The men, who had looked at each other with expressions of surprise, tried to talk together in ordinary tones as if on commonplace subjects.
“So there’s nothing to do here, apparently.”
“Let’s go, then. Good day, Sister. Sorry to have troubled you.”
I heard the door close behind them. I heard their low voices as they passed along the corridor. I heard their slow footsteps as they went down the stairs. And then, feeling as if my heart would burst, I turned to throw myself at Sister Mildred’s feet.
But Sister Mildred was on her knees, with her face buried in my bed, praying fervently.
I DID not know then, and it seems unnecessary to say now, why my father gave up the search for me in London. He did so, and from the day the milliner’s clue failed him I moved about freely.
Then from the sense of being watched I passed into that of being lost.
Sister Mildred was my only friend in London, but she was practically cut off from me. The Little Sisters had fixed her up (in the interests of her work among the lost ones) in a tiny flat at the top of a lofty building near Piccadilly, where her lighted window always reminded me of a lighthouse on the edge of a dangerous reef. But in giving me her address she warned me not to come to her except in case of urgent need, partly because further intercourse might discredit her denial, and partly because it would not be good for me to be called “one of Sister Veronica’s girls” that being Mildred’s name as a nun.
Oh the awful loneliness of London!
Others just as friendless have wandered in the streets of the big city. I knew I was not the first, and I am sure I have not been the last to find London the most solitary place in the world. But I really and truly think there was one day of the week when, from causes peculiar to my situation, my loneliness must have been deeper than that of the most friendless refugee.
Nearly every boarder in our boarding-house used to receive once a week or once a month a letter containing a remittance from some unknown source, with which he paid his landlady and discharged his other obligations.
I had no such letter to receive, so to keep up the character I had not made but allowed myself to maintain (of being a commander’s wife) I used to go out once a week under pretence of calling at a shipping office to draw part of my husband’s pay.
In my childish ignorance of the habits of business people I selected Saturday afternoon for this purpose; and in my fear of encountering my husband, or my husband’s friends in the West End streets, I chose the less conspicuous thoroughfares at the other side of the river.
Oh, the wearisome walks I had on Saturday afternoons, wet or dry, down the Seven Dials, across Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall, round the eastern end of the Houses of Parliament, and past Westminster Pier (dear to me from one poignant memory), and so on and on into the monotonous and inconspicuous streets beyond.
Towards nightfall I would return, generally by the footway across Hungerford Bridge, which is thereby associated with the most painful moments of my life, for nowhere else did I feel quite so helpless and so lonely.
The trains out of Charing Cross shrieking past me, the dark river flowing beneath, the steamers whistling under the bridge, the automobiles tooting along the Embankment, the clanging of the electric cars, the arc lamps burning over the hotels and the open flares blazing over the theatres all the never-resting life of London and myself in the midst of the tumultuous solitude, a friendless and homeless girl.
But God in His mercy saved me from all that saved me too, in ways in which it was only possible to save a woman.
The first way was through my vanity.
Glancing at myself in my mottled mirror one morning I was shocked to see that what with my loneliness and my weary walks I was losing my looks, for my cheeks were hollow, my nose was pinched, my eyes were heavy with dark rings underneath them, and I was plainer than Martin had ever seen me.
This frightened me.
It would be ridiculous to tell all the foolish things I did after that to improve and preserve my appearance for Martin’s sake, because every girl whose sweetheart is away knows quite well, and it is not important that anybody else should.
There was a florist’s shop in Southampton Row, and I went there every morning for a little flower which I wore in the breast of my bodice, making believe to myself that Martin had given it to me.
There was a jeweller’s shop there too, and I sold my wedding ring (having long felt as if it burnt my finger) and bought another wedding ring with an inscription on the inside “From, Martin to Mary.”
As a result of all this caressing of myself I saw after a while, to my great joy, that my good looks were coming back; and it would be silly to say what a thrill of delight I had when, going into the drawing-room of our boarding-house one day, the old actress called me ”Beauty” instead of the name I had hitherto been known by.
The second way in which God saved me from my loneliness was through my condition.
I did not yet know what angel was whispering to me out of the physical phase I was passing through, when suddenly I became possessed by a passion for children.
It was just as if a whole new world of humanity sprang into life for me by magic. When I went out for my walks in the streets I ceased to be conscious of the faces of men and women, and it seemed as if London were peopled by children only.
I saw no more of the crowds going their different ways like ants on an ant-hill, but I could not let a perambulator pass without peering under the lace of the hood at the little cherub face whose angel eyes looked up at me.
There was an asylum for children suffering from incurable diseases in the smaller square beside our boarding-house, and every morning after breakfast, no matter how cold the day might be, I would open my window to hear the cheerful voices of the suffering darlings singing their hymn:
“There’s a Friend for little children,
Above the bright blue sky.”
Thus six weeks passed, Christmas approached, and the sad old city began to look glad and young and gay.
Since a certain night at Castle Raa I had had a vague feeling that I had thrown myself out of the pale of the Church, therefore I had never gone to service since I came to London, and had almost forgotten that confession and the mass used to be sweet to me.
But going home one evening in the deepening London fog (for the weather had begun to be frosty) I saw, through the open doors of a Catholic church, a great many lights in a side chapel, and found they were from a little illuminated model of the Nativity with the Virgin and Child in the stable among the straw. A group of untidy children were looking at it with bright beady eyes and chattering under their breath, while a black-robed janitor was rattling his keys to make them behave.
This brought back the memory of Rome and of Sister Angela. But it also made me think of Martin, and remember his speech at the public dinner, about saying the prayers for the day with his comrades, that they might feel that they were not cut off from the company of Christian men.
So telling myself he must be back by this time on that lonely plateau that guards the Pole, I resolved (without thinking of the difference of time) to go to mass on Christmas morning, in order to be doing the same thing as Martin at the same moment.
With this in my mind I returned to our boarding-house and found Christmas there too, for on looking into the drawing-room on my way upstairs I saw the old actress, standing on a chair, hanging holly which the old colonel with old-fashioned courtesy was handing up to her.
They were cackling away like two old hens when they caught sight of me, whereupon the old’ actress cried:
“Ah, here’s Beauty!”
Then she asked me if I would like, a ticket for a dress rehearsal on Christmas Eve of a Christmas pantomime.
“The audience will be chiefly children out of the lanes and alleys round-about/but perhaps you won ‘t mind that,” she said.
I told her I should be overjoyed, and at two o’clock the following afternoon I was in my seat at the corner of the dress-circle of the great theatre, from which I could see both the stage and the auditorium.
The vast place was packed with children from ceiling to floor, and I could see the invisible hands of thousands of mothers who had put the girls into clean pinafores and brushed and oiled the tousled heads of the boys.
How their eager faces glistened! How sad they looked when the wicked sisters left Cinderella alone in the kitchen! How bright when the glittering fairy godmother came to visit her! How their little dangling feet clapped together with joy when the pretty maid went off to the ball behind six little ponies which pranced along under the magical moonlight in the falling snow!
But the part of the performance which they liked best was their own part when, in the interval, the band struck up one of the songs they sang in their lanes and alleys;
“Yew aw the enny, Oi em ther bee,
Oi’d like ter sip ther enny from those red lips yew see.”
That was so loaded with the memory of one of the happiest days of my life (the day I went with Martin to see the Scotia) that, in the yearning of the motherhood still unborn in me, I felt as if I should like to gather the whole screaming houseful of happy children to my breast.
But oh why, why, why, does not Providence warn us when we are on the edge of tragic things?
The pantomime rehearsal being over I was hurrying home (for the evening was cold, though I was so warm within) when I became aware of a number of newsmen who were flying up from the direction of the Strand, crying their papers at the top of their voice.
I did not usually listen to such people, but I was compelled to do so now, for they were all around me.
“Paper – third e’shen – loss of the Sco-sha.”
The cry fell on me like a thunderbolt. An indescribable terror seized me. I felt paralysed and stood dead still. People were buying copies of the papers, and at first I made a feeble effort to do the same. But my voice was faint; the newsman did not hear me and he went flying past.
“Paper – third e’shen – reported loss of the Sco-sha.”
After that I dared not ask for a paper. Literally I dared not. I dared not know the truth. I dared not see the dreadful fact in print.
So I began to hurry home. But as I passed through the streets, stunned, stupefied, perspiring, feeling as if I were running away from some malignant curse, the newsmen seemed to be pursuing me, for they were darting out from every street.
“Paper – third e’shen – loss of the Sco-sha.”
Faster and faster I hurried along. But the awful cry was always ringing in my ears, behind, before, and on either side.
When I reached our boarding-house my limbs could scarcely support me. I had hardly strength enough to pull the bell. And before our young waiter had opened the door two newsmen, crossing the square, were crying:
“Paper – third edition – reported loss of the ‘Scotia.’”
As I passed through the hall the old colonel and the old clergyman were standing by the dining-room door. They were talking excitedly, and while I was going upstairs, panting hard and holding on by the handrail, I heard part of their conversation.
“Scotia was the name of the South Pole ship, wasn’t it?”
“Certainly it was. We must send young John out for a paper.”
Reaching my room I dropped into my chair. My faculties had so failed me that for some minutes I was unable to think. Presently my tired brain recalled the word “Reported” and to that my last hope began to cling as a drowning sailor clings to a drifting spar.
After a while I heard some of our boarders talking on the floor below. Opening my door and listening eagerly I heard one of them say, in such a casual tone:
“Rather sad this South Pole business, isn’t it?”
“Yes, if it’s true.”
“Doesn’t seem much doubt about that unless there are two ships of the same name, you know.”
At that my heart leapt up. I had now two rafts to cling to. Just then the gong sounded, and my anxiety compelled me to go down to tea.
As I entered the drawing-room the old colonel was unfolding a newspaper.
“Here we are,” he was saying. “Reported loss of the Scotia Appalling Antarctic Calamity.”
I tried to slide into the seat nearest to the door, but the old actress made room for me on the sofa close to the tea-table.
“You enjoyed the rehearsal? Yes?” she whispered.
“Hush!” said our landlady, handing me a cup of tea, and then the old colonel, standing back to the fire, began to read.
“Telegrams from New Zealand report the picking up of large fragments of a ship which were floating from the Antarctic seas. Among them were the bulwarks, some portions of the deck cargo, and the stern of a boat, bearing the name ‘Scotia.’
“Grave fears are entertained that these fragments belong to the schooner of the South Pole expedition, which left Akaroa a few weeks ago, and the character of some of the remnants (being vital parts of a ship’s structure) lead to the inference that the vessel herself must have foundered.”
“Well, well,” said the old clergyman, with his mouth full of buttered toast.
The walls of the room seemed to be moving around me. I could scarcely see; I could scarcely hear.
“Naturally there can be no absolute certainty that the ‘Scotia’ may not be still afloat, or that the members of the expedition may not have reached a place of safety, but the presence of large pieces of ice attached to some of the fragments seem to the best authorities to favour the theory that the unfortunate vessel was struck by one of the huge icebergs which have lately been floating up from the direction of the Admiralty Mountains, and in that case her fate will probably remain one of the many insoluble mysteries of the ocean.”
“Now that’s what one might call the irony of fate,” said the old clergyman, “seeing that the object of the expedition …”
“While the sympathy of the public will be extended to the families of all the explorers who have apparently perished in a brave effort to protect mankind from one of the worst dangers of the great deep, the entire world will mourn the loss (as we fear it may be) of the heroic young Commander, Doctor Martin Conrad, who certainly belonged to the ever-diminishing race of dauntless and intrepid souls who seem to be born with that sacred courage which leads men to render up their lives at the lure of the Unknown and the call of a great idea.”
I felt as if I were drowning. At one moment there was the shrieking of waves about my face; at the next the rolling of billows over my head.
“Though it seems only too certain . . . this sacred courage quenched . . . let us. not think such lives as his are wasted . . . only wasted lives . . . lives given up . . . inglorious ease . . . pursuit of idle amusements. . . . Therefore let loved ones left behind . . . take comfort . . . inspiring thought . . . if lost . . . not died in vain. . . . Never pleasure but Death . . . the lure that draws true hearts. …”
I heard no more. The old colonel’s voice, which had been beating on my brain like a hammer, seemed to die away in the distance.
“How hard you are breathing. What is amiss?” said our landlady.
I made no reply. Rising to my feet I became giddy and held on to the table cloth to prevent myself from falling.
The landlady jumped up to protect her crockery and at the same moment the old actress led me from the room. I excused myself on the ground of faintness, and the heat of the house after my quick walk home from the theatre.
Back in my bedroom my limbs gave way and I sank to the floor with my head on the chair. There was no uncertainty for me now. It was all over. The great love which had engrossed my life had gone.
In the overwhelming shock of that moment I could not think of the world ‘s loss. I could not even think of Martin’s. I could only think of my own, and once more I felt as if something of myself had been torn out of my breast.
“Why? Why?” I was crying in the depths of my heart why, when I was so utterly alone, so helpless and so friendless, had the light by which I lived been quenched.
After a while the gong sounded for dinner. I got up and lay on the bed. The young waiter brought up some dishes on a tray. I sent them down again. Then tune passed and again I heard voices on the floor below.
“Rough on that young peeress if Conrad has gone down, eh?”
“Don’t you remember the one who ran away from that reprobate Raa?”
“Ah, yes, certainly. I remember now.”
“Of course, Conrad was the man pointed at, and perhaps if he had lived to come back he might have stood up for the poor thing, but now …”
“Ah, well, that’s the way, you see.”
The long night passed.
Sometimes it seemed to go with feet of lead, sometimes with galloping footsteps. I remember that the clocks outside seemed to strike every few minutes, and then not to strike at all. At one moment I heard the bells of a neighbouring church ringing merrily, and by that I knew it was Christmas morning.
I did not sleep during the first hours of night, but somewhere in the blank reaches of that short space between night and day (like the slack-water between ebb and flow), which is the only time when London rests, I fell into a troubled doze.
I wish I had not done so, for at the first moment of returning consciousness I had that sense, so familiar to bereaved ones, of memory rushing over me like a surging tide. I did not cry, but I felt as if my heart were bleeding.
The morning dawned dark and foggy. In the thick air of my room the window looked at me like a human eye scaled with cataract. It was my first experience of a real London fog and I was glad of it. If there had been one ray of sunshine that morning I think my heart would have broken.
The cockney chambermaid came with her jug of hot water and wished me “a merry Christmas.” I did my best to answer her.
The young waiter came with my breakfast. I told him to set it down, but I did not touch it.
Then the cockney chambermaid came back to make up my room and, finding me still in bed, asked if I would like a fire. I answered “Yes,” and while she was lighting a handful between the two bars of my little grate she talked of the news in the newspaper.
“It don’t do to speak no harm of the dead, but as to them men as ‘ad a collusion with a iceberg in the Australier sea, serve ’em jolly well right I say. What was they a-doing down there, risking their lives for nothing, when they ought to have been a-thinking of their wives and children. My Tom wanted to go for a sailor, but I wouldn’t let him! Not me! ‘If you’re married to a sailor,’ says I, ‘ ‘alf your time you never knows whether you ‘as a ‘usband or ‘asn’t.’ ‘Talk sense,’ says Tom. ‘I am a-talking sense,’ says I, ‘and then think of the kiddies,’ I says.”
After a while I got up and dressed and sat long hours before the fire. I tried to think of others beside myself who must be suffering from the same disaster especially of Martin’s mother and the good old doctor. I pictured the sweet kitchen-parlour in Sunny Lodge, with the bright silver bowls on the high mantelpiece. There was no fire under the slouree now. The light of that house was out, and two old people were sitting on either side of a cold hearth.
I passed in review my maidenhood, my marriage, and my love, and told myself that the darkest days of my loneliness in London had hitherto been. relieved by one bright hope. I had only to live on and Martin would come back to me. But now I was utterly alone. I was in the presence of nothingness. The sanctuary within me where Martin had lived was only a cemetery of the soul.
“Why? Why? Why?” I cried again, but there was no answer.
Thus I passed my Christmas Day (for which I had formed such different plans), and I hardly knew if it was for punishment or warning that I was at last compelled to think of something besides my own loss.
My unborn child!
No man on earth can know anything about that tragic prospect, though millions of women must have had to face it. To have a child coming that is doomed before its birth to be fatherless there is nothing in the world like that.
I think the bitterest part of my grief was that nobody could ever know. If Martin had lived he would have leapt to acknowledge his offspring in spite of all the laws and conventions of life. But being dead he could not be charged with it. Therefore the name of the father of my unborn child must never, never, never be disclosed.
The thickening. of the fog told me that the day was passing.
It passed. The houses on the opposite side of the square vanished in a vaporous, yellow haze, and their lighted windows were like rows of bloodshot eyes looking out of the blackness.
Except the young waiter and the chambermaid nobody visited me until a little before dinner time. Then the old actress came up, rather fantastically dressed (with a kind of laurel crown on her head), to say that the boarders were going to have a dance and wished me to join them. I excused myself on the ground of headache, and she said:
“Young women often suffer from it. It’s a pity, though! Christmas night, too!”
Not long after she had gone, I heard, through the frequent tooting of the taxis in the street, the sound of old-fashioned waltzes being played on the piano, and then a dull thudding noise on the floor below, mingled with laughter, which told me that the old boarders were dancing.
I dare say my head was becoming light. I had eaten nothing for nearly forty hours, and perhaps the great shock which chance had given me had brought me near to the blank shadowland which is death.
I remember that in some vague way there arose before me a desire to die. It was not to be suicide my religion saved me from that but death by exhaustion, by continuing to abstain from food, having no desire for it.
Martin was gone what was there to live for? Had I not better die before my child came to life! And if I could go where Martin was I should be with him eternally.
Stall I did not weep, but whether audibly or only in the unconscious depths of my soul more than once I cried to Martin by name.
“Martin! Martin! I am coming to you!”
I was in this mood (sitting in my chair as I had done all day and staring into the small slow fire which was slipping to the bottom of the grate) when I heard a soft step in the corridor outside. At the next moment my door was opened noiselessly, and somebody stepped into the room.
It was Mildred, and she knelt by my side and said in a low voice:
“You are in still deeper trouble, Mary tell me.”
I tried to pour out my heart to her as to a mother, but I could not do so, and indeed there was no necessity. The thought that must have rushed into my eyes was instantly reflected in hers.
“It is he, isn’t it?” she whispered, and I could only bow my head.
“I thought so from the first,” she said. “And now you are thinking of … of what is to come?”
Again I could only bow, but Mildred put her arms about me and said:
“Don’t lose heart, dear. Our Blessed Lady sent me to take care of you. And I will – I will.”
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
Surely Chance must be the damnedest conspirator against human happiness, or my darling could never have been allowed to suffer so much from the report that my ship was lost.
What actually happened is easily told.
Two days after we left Akaroa, N.Z., which was the last we saw of the world before we set our faces towards the Unknown, we ran into a heavy lumpy sea and made bad weather of it for forty-eight hours.
Going at good speed, however, we proceeded south on meridian 179 degrees E., latitude 68, when (just as we were sighting the Admiralty Mountains, our first glimpse of the regions of the Pole) we encountered a south-westerly gale, which, with our cumbersome deck cargo, made the handling of the ship difficult.
Nevertheless the Scotia rode bravely for several hours over the mountainous seas, though sometimes she rolled fifty degrees from side to side.
Towards nightfall we shipped a good deal of water; the sea smashed in part of our starboard bulwarks, destroyed the upper deck, washed out the galley, carried off two of our life boats and sent other large fragments of the vessel floating away to leeward.
At last the pumps became choked, and the water found its way to the engine-room. So to prevent further disaster we put out the fires, and then started, all hands, to bale out with buckets.
It was a sight to see every man- jack at work on that job (scientific staff included), and you would not have thought out spirits were much damped, whatever our bodies may have been, if you had been there when I cried, “Are we down-hearted, shipmates?” and heard the shout that came up from fifty men (some of them waist deep in the water):
We had a stiff tussle until after midnight, but we stuck hard, and before we turned into our bunks, we had fought the sea and beaten it.
Next morning broke fine and clear, with that fresh crisp air of the Antarctic which is the same to the explorer as the sniff of battle to the warhorse, and no sign of the storm except the sight of some dead-white icebergs which had been torn from the islands south-west of us.
Everybody was in high spirits at breakfast, and when one of the company started “Sweethearts and Wives” all hands joined in the chorus, and (voice or no voice) I had a bit of a go at it myself.
It is not the most solemn music ever slung together, but perhaps no anthem sung in a cathedral has ascended to heaven with a heartier spirit of thanksgiving.
When I went up on deck again, though, I saw that enough of our “wooden walls” had gone overboard to give “scarey people” the impression (if things were ever picked up, as I knew they would be, for the set of the current was to the north-east) that we had foundered, and that made me think of my dear one.
We had no wireless aboard, and the ship would not be going back to New Zealand until March, so I was helpless to correct the error; but I determined that the very first message from the very first station I set up on the Antarctic continent should be sent to her to say that I was safe and everything going splendid.
What happened on Christmas day is a longer story.
On the eighteenth of December, having landed some of my deck cargo and provisions, and sent up my ship to winter quarters, I was on my way, with ponies, dogs, and sledges and a large company of men, all in Al condition, to the lower summit of Mount Erebus, for I intended to set up my first electric-power-wave station there that being high enough, we thought, to permit of a message reaching the plateau of the Polar zone and low enough (allowing for the curvature of the earth) to cover the maximum distance in a northerly direction.
It was a long reach, but we chose the rocky ridges and moraines, trying to avoid the crevassed glaciers, and all went well until the twentieth, when just as we were reaching the steeper gradients a strong wind sprang up, blowing straight down the course before us.
All day long we toiled against it, but the weather grew worse, with gusts of sleet and snow, until the wind reached the force of a hurricane and the temperature fell to 28 degrees below zero.
There was nothing to do but to wait for the blizzard to blow itself out, so we plugged down our tents in the shelter of the rocky side of a ravine that had an immense snow-field behind it.
The first night was bad enough, for the canvas of one tent flew into ribbons, and the poor chaps in it had to lie uncovered in their half-frozen sleeping-bags until morning.
All through the twenty-first, twenty-second, and twenty-third the storm continued, sweeping with terrific force down the ravine, and whirling the snow in dense masses from the snow-field overhead.
Christmas Eve was worse, with the temperature down to 38 degrees below zero and the wind up to eighty miles an hour in gusts, and during the greater part of Christmas Day we were all confined to our sleeping-bags and half buried in the snow that had drifted in on us.
As a consequence we had no religious service, and if anybody said a De Profundis it was between his crackling lips under his frozen beard. We had no Christmas dinner either, except a few Plasmon biscuits and a nip of brandy and water, which were served out by good old O’Sullivan, who had come with me as doctor to the expedition.
On St. Stephen’s Day I made a round of the camp and found the ponies suffering terribly and the dogs badly hit. The storm was telling on the men too, for some of them were down with dysentery, and the toes of one poor chap were black from frostbite.
I was fit enough myself, thank God, but suffering from want of sleep or rather from a restless feeling which broken sleep brought with it.
The real truth is that never since I sailed had I been able to shake off the backward thought that I ought not to have left my dear one behind me. In active work, like the gale, I could dismiss the idea of her danger; but now that I had nothing to do but to lie like a log in a sleeping-bag, I suffered terribly from my recollection of her self-sacrifice and my fear of the consequences that might come of it.
This was not so bad in the daytime, for even in the midst of the whirling snow and roaring wind I had only to close my eyes, and I could see her as she came up the road in the sunshine that Sunday morning when she was returning from church in her drooping hat and fluttering veil, or as she looked at me with her great “seeing eyes” at the last moment of all when she compelled me to come away.
But the night was the devil. No sooner did I drop off to sleep than I awoke with a start at the sound of her voice calling me by my name.
It was always a voice of distress, and though I am no dreamer and I think no crank, I could not get away from the idea that she was crying to me to come back.
That was about the one thing in the world that was impossible to me now, and yet I knew that getting assurance from somewhere that my dear one was being cared for was the only way to set my mind at rest for the job that was before me.
It may seem ridiculous that I should have thought of that, but everybody who has ever been with Nature in her mighty solitudes, aloof from the tides of life, knows that the soul of man is susceptible down there to signs which would seem childish amid the noise and bustle of the world.
It was like that with me.
I shared my tent with ‘Sullivan, the chief of our scientific staff, and Treacle, who thought it his duty to take care of me, though the work was generally the other way about.
The old salt had been badly battered, and I had not liked the way he had been mumbling about “mother,” which is not a good sign in a stalwart chap when his strength is getting
So while buttoning up the tent on the night after Christmas Day I was a bit touched up to see old Treacle, who had lived the life of a rip, fumbling at his breast and hauling something out with an effort.
It was a wooden image of the Virgin (about the length of my hand) daubed over with gilt and blue paint, and when he stuck it up in front of his face as he lay in his sleeping-bag, I knew that he expected to go out before morning, and wished that to be the last thing his old eyes should rest on.
I am not much of a man for saints myself (having found that we get out of tight places middling well without them), but perhaps what Treacle did got down into some secret place of my soul, for I felt calmer as I fell asleep, and when I awoke it was not from the sound of my darling’s voice, but from a sort of deafening silence.
The roaring of the wind had ceased; the blizzard was over; the lamp that hung from the staff of the tent had gone out; and there was a sheet of light coming in from an aperture in the canvas.
It was the midnight sun of the Antarctic, and when I raised my head I saw that it fell full on the little gilded image of the Virgin. Anybody who has never been where I was then may laugh if he likes and welcome, but that was enough for me. It was all right! Somebody was looking after my dear one!
I shouted to my shipmates to get up and make ready, and at dawn, when we started afresh on our journey, there may have been dark clouds over our heads but the sun was shining inside of us. M. C.
[END OF MARTIN CONRAD’S MEMORANDUM]
SISTER MILDRED was right. Our Blessed Lady must have interceded for me, because help came immediately.
I awoke on St. Stephen’s morning with that thrilling emotion which every mother knows to be the first real and certain consciousness of motherhood.
It is not for me to describe the physical effects of that great change. But the spiritual effect is another matter. It was like that of a miracle. God in His great mercy, looking down on me in my sorrow, had sent one of His ministering angels to comfort me.
It seemed to say:
“Don’t be afraid. He who went away is not lost to you. Something of himself is about to return.”
I felt no longer that I was to be left alone in my prison-house of London, because Martin’s child was to bear me company to be a link between us, an everlasting bond, so that he and I should be together to the end.
I tremble to say what interpretation I put upon all this how it seemed to be a justification of what I did on the night before Martin left Ellan, as if God, knowing he would not return, had prompted me, so that when my dark hour came I might have this great hope for my comforter.
And oh how wonderful it was, how strange, how mysterious, how joyful!
Every day and all day and always I was conscious of my unborn child, as a fluttering bird held captive in the hand. The mystery and the joy of the coming life soothed away my sorrow, and if I had shed any tears they would have dried them.
And then the future!
I seemed to know from the first that it was to be a girl, and already I could see her face and look into her sea-blue eyes. As she grew up I would talk to her of her father the brave explorer, the man of destiny, who laid down his life in a great work for the world. We should always be talking of him we two alone together, because he belonged to us and nobody else in the world besides. Everything I have written here I should tell her at least the beautiful part of it, the part about our love, which nothing in life, and not even death itself, could quench.
Oh the joy of those days! It may seem strange that I should have been so happy so soon after my bereavement, but I cannot help it if it was so, and it was so.
Perhaps it was a sort of hysteria, due to the great change in my physical condition. I do not know. I do Don’t think I want to know. But one thing is sure that hope and prayer and the desire of life awoke in me again, as by the touch of God’s own hand, and I became another and a happier woman.
Such was the condition in which Mildred found me when she returned a few days later. Then she brought me down plump to material matters. We had first to consider the questions of ways and means, in order to find out how to face the future.
It was the beginning of January, my appointed time was in June, and I had only some sixteen pounds of my money left, so it was clear that I could not stay in the boarding-house much longer.
Happily Mildred knew of homes where women could live inexpensively during their period of waiting. They were partly philanthropic and therefore subject to certain regulations, which my resolute determination (not to mention Martin’s name, or permit it to be mentioned) might make it difficult for me to observe, but Mildred hoped to find one that would take me on her recommendation without asking further question.
In this expectation we set out in search of a Maternity Home. What a day of trial we had! I shall never forget it.
The first home we called at was a Catholic one in the neighbourhood of our boarding-house.
It had the appearance of a convent, and that pleased me exceedingly. After we had passed the broad street door, with its large brass plate and small brass grille, we were shown into a little waiting-room with tiled floor, distempered walls, and coloured pictures of the saints.
The porteress told us the Mother was at prayers with the inmates, but would come downstairs presently, and while we waited we heard the dull hum of voices, the playing of an organ, and the singing of the sweet music I knew so well.
Closing my eyes I felt myself back in Rome, and began to pray that I might be permitted to remain there. But the desire was damped when the Mother entered the room.
She was a stout woman, wearing heavy outdoor boots and carrying her arms interlaced before her, with the hands hidden in the ample sleeves of her habit, and her face was so white and expressionless, that it might have been cast in plaster of Paris.
In a rather nervous voice Mildred explained our errand.
“Mother,” she said, “I cannot tell you anything about this young lady, and I have come to ask if you will take her on my recommendation.”
“My dear child,” said the Mother, “that would be utterly against our rule. Not to know who the young lady is, where she comes from, why she is here, and whether she is married or single or a widow it is quite impossible.”
Mildred, looking confused and ashamed, said:
“She can afford to pay a little.”
“That makes no difference.”
“But I thought that in exceptional cases …”
“There can be no exceptional cases, Sister. If the young lady is married and can say that her husband consents, or single and can give us assurance that her father or guardian agrees, or a widow and can offer satisfactory references …”
Mildred looked across at me, but I shook my head.
“In that case there seems to be nothing more to say,” said the Mother, and rising without ceremony she walked with us to the door.
Our next call was at the headquarters of a home which was neither Catholic nor Protestant, but belonged, Mildred said, to a kind of Universal Church, admitting inmates of all denominations.
It was in a busy thoroughfare and had the appearance of a business office. After Mildred had written her name and the object of our visit on a slip of paper we were taken up in a lift to another office with an open safe, where a man in a kind of uniform (called a Commissioner) was signing letters and cheques.
The Commissioner was at first very courteous, especially to me, and I had an uncomfortable feeling that he was mistaking me for something quite other than I was until Mildred explained our errand, and then his manner changed painfully.
“What you ask is against all our regulations,” he said. “Secrecy implies something to hide, and we neither hide anything nor permit anything to be hidden. In fact our system requires that we should not only help the woman, but punish the man by making him realise his legal, moral, and religious liability for his wrong-doing. Naturally we can only do this by help of the girl, and if she does not tell us at the outset who and what the partner of her sin has been and where he is to be found …”
I was choking with shame and indignation, and rising to my feet I said to Mildred:
”Let us go, please.”
“Ah, yes, I know,” said the Commissioner, with a superior smile, “I have seen all this before. The girl nearly always tries to shield the guilty man. But why should she? It may seem generous, but it is really wicked. It is a direct means of increasing immorality. The girl who protects the author of her downfall is really promoting the ruin of another woman, and if …”
Thinking of Martin I wanted to strike the smug Pharisee in the face, and in order to conquer that unwomanly impulse I hurried out of the office, and into the street, leaving poor Mildred to follow me.
Our last call was at the home of a private society in a little brick house that seemed to lean against the wall of a large lying-in hospital in the West End of London.
At the moment of our arrival the Matron was presiding in the drawing-room over a meeting of a Missionary League for the Conversion of the Jews, so we were taken through a narrow lobby into a little back-parlour which overlooked, through a glass screen, a large apartment, wherein a number of young women, who had the appearance of dressmakers, ladies’ maids, and governesses, were sewing tiny pieces of linen and flannel that were obviously baby-clothes.
There were no carpets on the floors and the house had a slight smell of carbolic. The tick-tick of sewing machines on the other side of the screen mingled with the deadened sound of the clapping of hands in the room overhead.
After a while there was rustle of dresses coming down the bare stairs, followed by the opening and closing of the front door, and then the Matron came into the parlour.
She was a very tall, flat-bosomed woman in a plain black dress, and she seemed to take in our situation instantly. Without waiting for Mildred’s explanation she began to ask my name, my age, and where I came from.
Mildred fenced these questions as well as she could, and then, with even more nervousness than ever, made the same request as before.
The Matron seemed aghast.
“Most certainly not,” she said. “My committee would never dream of such a thing. In the interests of the unfortunate girls who have fallen from the path of virtue, as well as their still more unfortunate offspring, we always make the most searching inquiries. In fact, we keep a record of every detail of every case. Listen to this,” she added, and opening a large leather-bound book like a ledger, she began to read one of its entries:
“H. J., aged eighteen years, born of very respectable parents, was led astray [that was not the word] in a lonely road very late at night by a sailor who was never afterwards heard of . . .”
But I could bear no more, and rising from my seat I fled from the room and the house into the noisy street outside.
All clay long my whole soul had been in revolt. It seemed to me that, while God in His gracious mercy was giving me my child to comfort and console me, to uplift and purify me, and make me a better woman than I had been before, man, with his false and cruel morality, with his machine-made philanthropy, was trying to use it as a whip to punish not only me but Martin.
But that it should never do! Never as long as I lived! I would die in the streets first!
Perhaps I was wrong, and did not understand myself, and certainly Mildred did not understand me. When she rejoined me in the street we turned our faces homeward and were half way back to the boarding-house before we spoke again.
Then she said:
“I am afraid the other institutions will be the same. They’ll all want references.”
I answered that they should never get them.
“But your money will be done soon, my child, and then what is to become of you?”
“No matter!” I said, for I had already determined to face the world myself without help from anybody.
There was a silence again until we reached the door of our boarding-house, and then Mildred said:
“Mary, your father is a rich man, and however much you may have displeased him he cannot wish you to be left to the mercy of the world especially when your tune comes. Let me write to him …”
That terrified me, for I saw only one result an open quarrel between my father and my husband about the legitimacy of my child, who would probably be taken away from me as soon as it was born.
So taking Mildred by the arm, regardless of the observation of passers-by, I begged and prayed and implored of her not to write to my father.
She promised not to do so, and we parted on good terms; but I was not satisfied, and the only result of our day’s journeying was that I became possessed of the idea that the whole world was conspiring to rob me of my unborn child.
A few days later Mildred called again, and then she said:
“I had another letter from Father Donovan this morning, Mary. Your poor priest is broken-hearted about you. He is sure you are in London, and certain you are in distress, and says that with or without his Bishop’s consent he is coming up to London to look for you, and will never go back until you are found.”
I began to suspect Mildred. In the fever of my dread of losing my child I convinced myself that with the best intentions in the world, merely out of love for me and pity for my position, she would give me up perhaps in the very hour of my peril.
To make this impossible I determined to cut myself off from her and everybody else, by leaving the boarding-house and taking another and cheaper lodging far enough away.
I was encouraged in this course by the thought of my diminishing resources, and though heaven knows I had not too many comforts where I was, I reproached myself for spending so much on my own needs when I ought to be economising for the coming of my child.
The end of it all was that one morning early I went down to the corner of Oxford Street where the motor-omnibuses seem to come and go from all parts of London.
North, south, east, and west were all one to me, leading to labyrinths of confused and interminable streets, and I knew as little as a child which of them was best for my purpose. But chance seems to play the greatest part in our lives, and at that moment it was so with me.
I was standing on the edge of the pavement when a motor-bus labelled “Bayswater Road” stopped immediately in front of me and I stepped into it, not knowing in the least why I did so.
Late that evening, having found what I wanted, I returned in the mingled mist and darkness to the boarding-house to pack up my belongings. That was not difficult to do, and after settling my account and sending young John for a cab I was making for the door when the landlady came up to me.
“Will you not leave your new address, my dear, lest anybody should call,” she said.
“Nobody will call,” I answered.
“But in case there should be letters?”
“There will be no letters,” I said, and whispering to the driver to drive up Oxford Street, I got into the cab.
It was then quite dark. The streets and shops were alight, and I remembered that as I crossed the top of the Charing Cross Road I looked down in the direction of the lofty building in which Mildred’s window would be shining like a lighthouse over Piccadilly.
Poor dear ill-requited Mildred! She has long ago forgiven me. She knows now that when I ran away from the only friend I had in London it was because I could not help it.
She knows, too, that I was not thinking of myself, and that in diving still deeper into the dungeon of the great city, in hiding and burying myself away in it, I was asking nothing of God but that He would let me live the rest of my life no matter how poor and lonely with the child that He was sending to be a living link between my lost one and me.
In the light of what happened afterwards, that was all so strange, and oh, so wonderful and miraculous!
MY new quarters were in the poorer district which stands at the back of Bayswater.
The street was a cul-de-sac (of some ten small houses on either side) which was blocked up at the further end by the high wall of a factory for the ” humanization ” of milk, and opened out of a busy thoroughfare of interior shops like a gully-way off a noisy coast.
My home in this street was in number one, and I had been attracted to it by a printed card in the semi-circular fan-light over the front door, saying: “A ROOM TO LET FURNISHED.”
My room, which was of fair size, was on the first floor and had two windows to the street, with yellow holland blinds and white muslin curtains.
The furniture consisted of a large bed, a horse-hair sofa, three cane-bottomed chairs, a chest of drawers (which stood between the windows), and a mirror over the mantelpiece, which had pink paper, cut into fanciful patterns, over the gilt frame, to keep off the flies.
The floor was covered with linoleum, but there were two strips of carpet, one before the fire and the other by the bed; the walls were papered with a bright red paper representing peonies in bloom; and there were three pictures a portrait of a great Welsh preacher with a bardic name (“Dyfed”), an engraving entitled “Feed my Sheep” (showing Jesus carrying a lamb), and a memorial card of some member of the family of the house, in the form of a tomb with a weeping angel on either side.
I paid five shilling a week for my room, and, as this included the use of kettle, cooking utensils, and crockery, I found to my great delight at the end of the first week that providing for myself (tea, bread and butter, and eggs being my principal food) I had only spent ten shillings altogether, which, according to my present needs, left me enough for my time of waiting and several weeks beyond.
Every morning I went out with a little hand-bag to buy my provisions in the front street; and every afternoon I took a walk in the better part of Bayswater and even into the Park (Hyde Park), which was not far off, but never near Piccadilly, or so far east as Bloomsbury, lest I should meet Sister Mildred or be recognized by the old boarders.
I had no key to my lodgings, but when I returned home I knocked at the front door (which was at the top of a short flight of steps from the pavement) and then a string was pulled in the cellar-kitchen in which the family of my landlady lived, whereupon the bolt was shot back and the door opened of itself.
Finding it necessary to account for myself here as at the boarding-house, I had adhered to my former name, but said I was the widow of a commander lately lost at sea, which was as near to the truth as I dared venture.
I had also made no disguise of the fact that I was expecting a child, a circumstance which secured me much sympathy from the kind-hearted souls who were now my neighbours.
They were all womanly women, generally the wives of men working in the milk factory, and therefore the life of our street was very regular.
At five in the morning you heard the halting step of the old “knocker up,” who went up and down the street tapping at the bedroom windows with a long pole like a fishing-rod. A little before six you heard the clashing of many front doors and the echoing footsteps of the men going to their work. At half -past seven you heard the whoop of the milkman and the rattling of his cans. At half-past eight you heard the little feet of the children, like the pattering of rain, going off to the Board School round the corner. And a little after four in the afternoon you heard the wild cries of the juvenile community let loose from lessons, the boys trundling iron hoops and the girls skipping to a measured tune over a rope stretched from parapet to parapet.
After that, our street hummed like a bee-hive, with the women, washed and combed, standing knitting at their open doors or exchanging confidences across the areas until darkness fell and each of the mothers called her children into bed, as an old hen in the farmyard clucks up her chickens.
These good creatures were very kind to me. Having satisfied themselves from observation of my habits that I was “respectable,” they called me “our lady”; and I could not help hearing that I was “a nice young thing,” though it was a little against me that I did not go to church or chapel, and had confessed to being a Catholic for several of our families (including that of my landlady) were members of the Welsh Zion Chapel not far away.
Such was the life of the little human cage to which I had confined myself, but I had an inner life that was all my own and very sweet to me.
During the long hours of every day in which I was alone I occupied myself in the making of clothes for my baby buying linen and flannel and worsted, and borrowing patterns from my Welsh landlady.
This stimulated my tenderness towards the child that was to come, for the heart of a young mother is almost infantile, and I hardly know whether to laugh or cry when I think of the childish things I did and thought and said to myself in those first days when I was alone in my room in that back street in Bayswater.
Thus long before baby was born I had christened her. At first I wished to call her Mary, not because I cared for that name myself, but because Martin had said it was the most beautiful in the world. In the end, however, I called her Isabel Mary (because Isabel was my mother’s name and she had been a far better woman than I was), and as I finished my baby’s garments one by one I used to put them away in their drawer, saying to myself, “That’s Isabel Mary’s binder,” or “Isabel Mary’s christening-robe” as the case might be.
I dare say it was all very foolish. There are tears in my eyes when I think of it now, but there were none then, for though there were moments when, remembering Martin, I felt as if life were for ever blank, I was almost happy in my poor surroundings, and if it was a cage I had fixed myself in there was always a bird singing inside of it the bird that sang in my own bosom.
“When Isabel Mary comes everything will be all right,” I used to think.
This went on for many weeks and perhaps it might have gone on until my time was full but for something which, occurring under my eyes, made me tremble with the fear that the life I was living and the hope I was cherishing were really very wrong and selfish.
Of my landlady, Mrs. Williams, I saw little. She was a rather hard but no doubt heavily-laden woman, who had to ‘ ‘ do ” for a swarm of children, besides two young men lodgers who lived in the kitchen and slept in the room behind mine. Her husband was a quiet man (a carter at the dairy) whom I never saw at all except on the staircase at ten o’clock at night, when, after winding the tall clock on the landing, he went upstairs to bed in his stocking feet.
But the outstanding member of the family for me was a shock-headed girl of fourteen called Emmerjane, which was a running version of Emma Jane.
I understood that Emmerjane was the illegitimate daughter of Mrs. “Williams ‘s dead sister, and that she had been born in Carnarvon, which still shimmered in her memory in purple and gold.
Emmerjane was the drudge of the family, and I first saw her in the street at dusk, mothering a brood of her little cousins, taking Hughie by one hand and Katie by the other and telling Gwennie to lay hold of Davie lest he should be run over by the milk vans.
Afterwards she became my drudge also washing my floor, bringing up my coals, and cleaning my grate, for sixpence a week, and giving me a great deal of information about my neighbours for nothing.
Thus she told me, speaking broad cockney with a “Welsh accent, that the people opposite were named Wagstaffe and that the creaking noise I heard was that of a mangle, which Mrs. Wagstaffe had to keep because her husband was a drunkard, who stole her money and came home “a-Saturday nights, when the public-houses turned out, and beat her somethink shocking” though she always forgave him the next day and then the creaking went on as before.
But the greatest interest of this weird little woman, who had a premature knowledge of things a child ought not to know, was in a house half-way down the street on the other side, where steam was always coming from the open door to the front kitchen.
The people who lived there were named Jones. Mrs. Jones “washed” and had a bed-ridden old mother (with two shillings from the Guardians) and a daughter named Maggie.
Maggie Jones, who was eighteen, and very pretty, used to work in the dairy, but the foreman had “tiken advantage of her” and she had just had a baby.
This foreman was named Owen Owens and he lived at the last number on our side, where two unmarried sisters “kept house” for him and sat in the “singing seat” at Zion.
Maggie thought it was the sisters’ fault that Owen Owens did not marry her, so she conceived a great scheme for “besting” them, and this was the tragedy which, through Emmerjane ‘s quick little eyes and her cockney- Welsh tongue, came to me in instalments day by day.
When her baby was a month old Maggie dressed it up; “fine”and took it to the photographers for its “card di visit.” The photographs were a long time coming, but when they came they were “heavenly lovely” and Maggie “cried to look at them.”
Then she put one in an envelope and addressed it to Owen Owens, and though it had only to cross the street, she went out after dark to a pillar-box a long way off lest anybody should see her posting it.
Next day she said, “He’ll have it now, for he always comes home to dinner. He’ll take it up to his bedroom, look you, and stand it on the washstand, and if either of those sisters touch it he’ll give them what ‘s what.”
After that she waited anxiously for an acknowledgment, and every time the postman passed down our street her pretty pale face would be at the door, saying, “Anything for me to-day?” or “Are you sure there’s nothing for me, postman?”
At length a letter came, and Maggie Jones trembled so much that she dared not open it, but at last she tripped up to her room to be “all of herself,” and then . . . then there was a “wild screech,” and when Emmerjane ran upstairs Maggie was stretched out on the floor in a dead faint, clutching in her tight hand the photograph which Owen Owens had returned with the words, written in his heavy scrawl across the face Maggie Jones’s bastard.
It would be impossible to say how this incident affected me. I felt as if a moral earthquake had opened under my feet.
What had I been doing? In looking forward to the child that was to come to me I had been thinking only of my own comfort my own consolation.
But what about the child itself?
If my identity ever became known and it might at any moment, by the casual recognition of a person in the street – how should the position of my child differ from that of this poor girl?
A being born out of the pale of the law, as my husband would say it must be, an outcast, a thing of shame, without a father to recognise it, and with its mother’s sin to lash its back for ever!
When I thought of that, much as I had longed for the child that was to be a living link between Martin and me, I asked myself if I had any right to wish for it.
I felt I had no right, and that considering my helpless position the only true motherly love was to pray that my baby might be still-born.
But that was too hard. It was too terrible. It was like a second bereavement. I could not and would not do it.
“Never, never, never!” I told myself.
THINKING matters out in the light of Maggie Jones’s story, I concluded that poverty was at the root of nearly everything. If I could stave off poverty no real harm could come to my child.
I determined to do so. But there was only one way open to me at present and that was to retrench my expenses.
I did retrench them. Persuading myself that I had no real need of this and that, I reduced my weekly outlay.
This gave me immense pleasure, and even when I saw, after a while, that I was growing thin and pale, I felt no self-pity of any sort, remembering that I had nobody to look well for now, and only the sweet and glorious duty before me of providing for my child.
I convinced myself, too, that my altered appearance was natural to my condition, and that all I needed was fresh air and exercise, therefore I determined to walk every day in the Park.
I did so once only.
It was one of those lovely mornings in early spring, when the air and the sky of London, after the long fog and grime of winter, seem to be washed by showers of sunshine.
I had entered by a gate to a broad avenue and was resting (for I was rather tired) on a seat under a chestnut tree whose glistening sheaths were swelling and breaking into leaf, when I saw a number of ladies and gentlemen on horseback coming in my direction.
I recognised one of them instantly. It was Mr. Vivian, and a beautiful girl was riding beside him. My heart stood still, for I thought he would see me. But he was too much occupied with his companion to do so.
“Yes, by Jove, it’s killing, isn’t it?” he said, in his shrill voice, and with his monocle in his mole-like eye, he rode past me, laughing.
After that I took my walks in the poorer streets behind Bayswater, but there I was forced back on my old problem, for I seemed to be always seeing the sufferings of children.
Thank God, children as a whole are happy. They seem to live in their hearts alone, and I really and truly believe that if all the doors of the rich houses of the West End of London were thrown open to the poor children of the East End they would stay in their slums and alleys.
But some of them suffer there for all that, especially the unfortunate ones who enter the world without any legal right to be here, and I seemed to be coming upon that kind everywhere.
One evening I saw a tiny boy of five sheltering from the rain under a dripping and draughty railway arch, and crying as if his little heart would break. I tried to comfort him and could not, but when a rather shame-faced young woman came along, as if returning from her work, he burst out on her and cried:
“Oh, muwer, she’s been a-beating of me awrful.”
“Never mind, Johnny,” said the young woman, kneeling on the wet pavement to dry the child’s eyes. “Don’t cry, that’s a good boy.”
It needed no second sight to look into the heart of that tragedy, and the effect of it upon me was to make me curtail my expenditure still further.
Looking back on those days I cannot but wonder that I never tried to find employment. But there was one delicate impediment then my condition, which was becoming visible, I thought, to people in the street, and causing some of them, especially women, to look round at me. When this became painful I discontinued my walks altogether, and sent Emmerjane on my few errands.
Then my room became my world.
I do not think I ever saw a newspaper. And knowing nothing of what was going on, beyond the surge and swell of the life of London as it came to me when I opened my window, I had now, more than ever, the sense of living in a dungeon on a rock in the middle of the sea.
Having no exercise I ate less and less. But I found a certain joy in that, for I was becoming a miser for my child’s sake, and the only pain I suffered was when I went to my drawer, as I did every day, and looked at my rapidly diminishing store.
I knew that my Welsh landlady was beginning to call me close, meaning mean; but that did not trouble me in the least, because I told myself that every penny I saved out of my own expenses was for my child, to keep her from poverty and all the evils and injustices that followed in its train.
As my appointed time drew near my sleep was much broken; and sometimes in the middle of the night, when I heard a solitary footstep going down the street I would get up, draw aside one of my blinds, and see a light burning in some bedroom window opposite, and afterwards hear the muffled cry of the small new being who had come as another immigrant into our chill little world.
But I made no arrangements for myself until my Welsh landlady came up to my room one day and asked if I had settled with a doctor. When I answered no, she held up her hands- and cried:
“Good gracious! Just as I thought. Thee’st got to lose no time, though.”
Happily there was a doctor in our street nearly every day, and if I wished it she would call him up to me. I agreed and the doctor came next morning.
He was a tall, elderly man with cold eyes, compressed lips, and a sour expression, and neither his manner nor his speech gave any hint of a consciousness (which I am sure every true doctor must have) that in coming to a woman in my condition he was entering one of the sacred chambers of human life.
He asked me a few abrupt questions, told me when he would come again, and then spoke about his fee.
“My fee is a guinea and I usually get it in advance,” he said, whereupon I went to my drawer, and took out a sovereign and a shilling, not without a certain pang at seeing so much go in a moment after I had been saving so long.
The doctor had dropped the money into his waistcoat pocket with oh! such a casual air, and was turning to go, when my Welsh landlady said:
“Her’s not doing herself justice in the matter of food, doctor.”
“Why, what do you eat?” asked the doctor, and as well as I could, out of my dry and parched throat, I told him.
“Tut! tut! This will never do,” he said. “It’s your duty to your child to have better food than that. Something light and nourishing every day, such as poultry, fish, chicken broth, beef-tea, and farinaceous foods generally.”
I gasped. What was the doctor thinking about?
“Remember,” he said, with his finger up, “the health of the child is intimately dependent on the health of the mother.
When the mother is in a morbid state it affects the composition of the blood, and does great harm to the health of the offspring, both immediately and in after life. Don’t forget now. Good day!”
That was a terrible shock to me. In my great ignorance and great love I had been depriving myself for the sake of my child, and now I learned that I had all the time been doing it a grave and perhaps life-long injury!
Trying to make amends I sent out for some of the expensive foods the doctor had ordered me, but when they were cooked I found to my dismay that I had lost the power of digesting them.
My pain at this discovery w r as not lessened next day when my Welsh landlady brought up a nurse whom I had asked her to engage for me.
The woman was a human dumpling with a discordant voice, and her first interest, like that of the doctor, seemed to centre in her fee.
She told me that her usual terms were a guinea for the fortnight, but when she saw my face fall (for I could not help thinking how little I had left) she said:
“Some ladies don’t need a fortnight, though. Mrs. Wagstaffe, for instance, she never has no more than five days, and on the sixth she’s back at her mangle. So if five will do, ma’am, perhaps ten and six won’t hurt you.”
I agreed, and the nurse was rolling her ample person out of my room when my Welsh landlady said:
“But her’s not eating enough to keep a linnet, look you.”
And then my nurse, who was what the doctor calls a croaker, began on a long series of stories of ladies who, having “let themselves down ‘ ‘ had died, either at childbirth or soon afterwards.
“It’s after a lady feels it if she has to nurse her baby,” said the nurse, “and I couldn’t be responsible neither for you nor the child if you don’t do yourself justice.”
This was a still more terrible possibility the possibility that I might die and leave my child behind me. The thought haunted me all that day and the following night, but the climax came next morning, when Emmerjane, while black-leading my grate, gave me the last news of Maggie Jones.
Maggie ‘s mother had been “a-naggin’ of her to get work,” asking if she had not enough mouths to feed “without her bringin’ another.”
Maggie had at first been afraid to look for employment, thinking everybody knew of her trouble. But after her mother had put the young minister from Zion on to her to tell her to be “obejent” she had gone out every day, whether the weather was good or bad or “mejum. ”
This had gone on for three months (during which Maggie used to stay out late because she was afraid to meet her mother’s face) until one wet night, less than a week ago, she had come home drenched to the skin, taken to her bed, “sickened for somethink” and died.
Three days after Emmerjane told me this story a great solemnity fell on our street.
It was Saturday, when the children do not go to school, but, playing no games, they gathered in whispering groups round the house with the drawn blinds, while their mothers stood bareheaded at the doors with their arms under their aprons and their hidden hands over their mouths.
I tried not to know what was going on, but looking out at the last moment I saw Maggie Jones’s mother, dressed in black, coming down her steps, with her eyes very red and her hard face (which was seamed with labour) all wet and broken up.
The “young minister” followed (a beardless boy who could have known nothing of the tragedy of a woman’s life), and stepping into the midst of the group of the congregation from Zion, who had gathered there with their warm Welsh hearts full of pity for the dead girl, he gave out a Welsh hymn, and they sang it in the London street, just as they had been used to do at the cottage doors in the midst of their native mountains:
“Bydd myrdd o ryfeddodau
Ar doriad boreu wawr.“
I could look no longer, so I turned back into my room, but at the next moment I heard the rumble of wheels and knew that Maggie Jones was on her way to her last mother of all the Earth.
During the rest of that day I could think of nothing but Maggie ‘s child, and what was to become of it, and next morning when Emmerjane came up she told me that the “young minister” was “a-gettin’ it into the ‘ouse.”
I think that was the last straw of my burden, for my mind came back with a swift rebound from Maggie Jones’s child to my own.
The thought of leaving my baby behind now terrified and appalled me. It brought me no comfort to think that though I was poor my father was rich, for I knew that if he ever came to know of my child’s existence he would hate it and east it off, as the central cause of the downfall of his plans.
Yet Martin’s child alone, and at the mercy of the world! It could not and must not be!
Then came a fearful thought. I fought against it. I said many “Hail Marys” to protect myself from it. But I could not put it away.
Perhaps my physical condition was partly to blame. Others must judge of that. It is only for me to say, in all truth and sincerity, what I felt and thought when I stood (as every woman who is to be a mother must) at the door of that dark chamber which is Life’s greatest mystery.
I thought of how Martin had been taken from me, as Fate (perhaps for some good purpose still unrevealed) had led me to believe.
I thought of how I had comforted myself with the hope of the child that was coming to be a link between us.
I thought of the sweet hours I had spent in making my baby’s clothes; in choosing her name; in whispering it to myself, yes, and to God, too, every night and every morning.
I thought of how day by day I had trimmed the little lamp I kept burning in the sanctuary within my breast where my baby and I lived together.
I thought of how this had taken the sting out of death and victory out of the grave. And after that I told myself that, however sweet and beautiful, all this had been selfishness and I must put it away.
Then I thought of the child itself, who conceived in sin as my Church would say, disinherited by the law, outlawed by society, inheriting my physical weaknesses, having lost one of its parents and being liable to lose the other was now in danger of being left to the mercies of the world, banned from its birth, penniless and without a protector, to become a drudge and an outcast or even a thief, a gambler, or a harlot.
This was what I thought and felt.
And when at last I knew that I had come to the end of my appointed time I knelt down in my sad room, and if ever I prayed a fervent prayer, if ever my soul went up to God in passionate supplication, it was that the child I had longed for and looked forward to as a living link with my lost one might be born dead.
“Oh God, whatever happens to me, let my baby be born dead I pray, I beseech Thee.”
Perhaps it was a wicked prayer. God knows. He will be just.
IT was Saturday, the seventh of June. The summer had been a cold one thus far; the night was chill and heavy rain was beating against the window-pane.
There was a warm fire in my room for the first time for several months; the single gas jet on the window side of the mantelpiece had been turned low, and the nurse, in list slippers, was taking my little flannel and linen garments out of the chest of drawers and laying them on the flat steel fender.
I think I must have had intervals of insensibility, for the moments of consciousness came and went with me, like the diving and rising of a sea-bird in the midst of swelling waves.
At one such moment I became aware that the doctor and my “Welsh landlady, as well as my nurse, were in the room, and that they were waiting for the crisis and fearing for my life.
I heard them talking in low voices which made a drumming noise in my ears, like that which the sea makes when it is rolling into a cave.
“She’s let herself down so low, pore thing, that I don’t know in the world what’s to happen to her.”
“As God is my witness, look you, I never saw anybody live on so little.”
“I’m not afraid of the mother. I’m more afraid of the child, if you ask me.”
Then the drumming noise would die out, and I would only hear something within myself saying:
“Oh God, oh God, that my child may be born dead.”
At another moment I heard, above the rattle of the rain, the creaking of the mangle in the cellar-kitchen on the other side of the street.
At still another moment I heard the sound of quarrelling in the house opposite. A woman was screaming, children were shrieking, and a man was swearing in a thick hoarse voice.
I knew what had happened it was midnight, the “public-houses had turned out,” and Mr. Wagstaffe had come home drunk.
The night passed heavily. I heard myself (as I had done before) calling on Martin in a voice of wild entreaty:
Then remembering that he was gone I began again to pray. I heard myself praying to the Blessed Virgin:
“Oh, Mother of my God, let my child …”
But a voice which seemed to come from far away interrupted me.
“Hush, bach, hush! It will make it harder for thee.”
At length peace came. It seemed to me that I was running out of a tempestuous sea, with its unlimited loneliness and cruel depth, into a quiet harbour.
There was a heavenly calm, in which I could hear the doctor and the nurse and my “Welsh landlady talking together in cheerful whispers.
I knew that everything was over, and with the memory of the storm I had passed through still in my heart and brain, I said:
“Is it dead?”
“Dead?” cried the nurse in a voice several octaves higher than usual. “Dear heart no, but alive and well. A beautiful little girl!”
“Yes, your baby is all right, ma’am,” said the doctor, and then my Welsh landlady cried:
“Why did’st think it would be dead, bach? As I am a Christian woman thee’st got the beautifullest baby that ever breathed. ‘ ‘
I could bear no more. The dark thoughts of the days before were over me still, and with a groan I turned to the wall. Then everything was wiped out as by an angel’s wing, and I fell into a deep sleep.
When I awoke my dark thoughts were vanishing away like a bad dream in the morning. The rain had ceased, the gas had been put out, and I could see by the glow on the peonies of the wall-paper that the sun was shining with a soft red light through the holland blinds of my windows.
I heard the sparrows chirping on the sills outside; I heard the milkman rattling his cans; I heard the bells of a neighbouring church ringing for early communion.
I closed my eyes and held my breath and listened to the sounds in my own room. I heard the kettle singing over the fire; I heard somebody humming softly, and beating a foot on the floor in time to the tune; and then I heard a low yoice (it was Emmerjane’s) saying from somewhere near my bed:
“I dunno but what she’s awake. Her breathing ain’t a-goin’ now.”
Then I turned and saw the nurse sitting before the fire with something on her lap. I knew what it was. It was my child, and it was asleep. In spite of my dark thoughts my heart yearned for it.
And then came the great miracle.
My child awoke and began to cry. It was a faint cry, oh! so thin and weak, but it went thundering and thundering through me. There was a moment of awful struggle, and then a mighty torrent of love swept over me.
It was Motherhood.
My child! Mine! Flesh of my flesh! Oh God! Oh God I
All my desire for my baby’s death to save it from the pains of life was gone, and my heart, starved so long, throbbed with tenderness. I raised myself in bed, in spite of my nurse’s protest, and cried to her to give me my baby.
“Give her to me. Give her to me.”
“By-and-by, by-and-by,” said the nurse.
“Now, now! I can wait no longer.”
“But you must take some food first. Emmerjane, give her that glass of milk and water.”
I drank the milk just to satisfy them, and then held out my arms for my child.
“Give her to me quick, quick!”
“Here she is then, the jewel!”
Oh! the joy of that moment when I first took my baby in my arms, and looked into her face, and saw my own features and the sea-blue eyes of Martin! Oh the rapture of my first eager kiss!
I suppose I must have been rough with my little cherub in the fervour of my love, for she began to cry again.
“There! there!” said the nurse. “Be good now, or I must take baby away.”
But heaven had taught me another lesson, and instantly, instinctively, I put my baby to my breast. Instantly and instinctively, too, my baby turned to it with its little mouth open and its little fingers feeling for the place.
“Oh God! My God! Oh Mother of my God!”
And then in that happiness that is beyond all earthly bliss the happiness of a mother when she first clasps her baby to her breast I began to cry.
I had not cried for months not since that night in Ellan which I did not wish to remember any more but now my tears gushed out and ran down my face like rain.
I cried on Martin once more I could not help it. And looking down at the closed eyes of my child my soul gushed out in gratitude to God, who had sent me this for all I had suffered.
“Hush, hush! You will do yourself a mischief and it will be bad for the milk,” said the nurse.
After that I tried to control myself. But I found a fierce and feverish delight in suckling my child. It seemed as if every drop my baby drew gave me a spiritual as well as a physical joy cooling my blood and my brain and wiping out all my troubles.
Oh mystery of mysteries! Oh miracle of miracles!
My baby was at my breast and my sufferings were at an end.
THAT was a long, long day of happiness.
It was both very long and very short, for it passed like a dream.
What wonderful happenings were crowded into it!
First the nurse, from the dizzy heights of her greater experience and superior knowledge, indulged my infantile anxieties by allowing me to look on while baby was being bathed, and rewarded me for “being good” by many praises of my baby’s beauty.
“I’ve nursed a-many in my time,” she said, “but I don’t mind saying as I’ve never had a bonnier babby on my knee. Look at her legs now, so white and plump and dimpled. Have you ever seen any think so putty?”
I confessed that I never had, and when nurse showed me how to fix the binder, and put on the barrow-coat without disturbing baby while asleep, I thought her a wonderful woman.
Emmerjane, who had with difficulty been kept out of the room last night and was now rushing breathlessly up and down stairs, wished to hold baby for a moment, and at length out of the magnificence of my generosity I allowed her to do so, only warning her, as she loved her life, to hold tight and not let baby fall.
“How’d you mean?” said the premature little mother. “Me let her fall? Not much!”
Every hour, according to the doctor’s orders, I gave baby the breast. I do not know which was my greatest joy to feast my eyes on her while she sucked and to see her little head fall back with her little mouth open when she had had enough, or to watch her when she stretched herself and hiccoughed, and then grasped my thumb with her little tight fingers.
Oh, the wild, inexpressible delight of it!
Every hour had its surprise. Every few minutes had their cause of wonder.
It rather hurt me when baby cried, and I dare say my own foolish lip would drop at such moments, but when I saw that there were no tears in her eyes, and she was only calling for her food, I pleaded with nurse to let me give her the breast again.
The sun shone all day long, and though the holland window blinds were kept down to subdue the light, for my sake and perhaps for baby’s, I thought my room looked perfectly beautiful. It might be poor and shabby, but nights of angels could not have made it more heavenly than it was in my eyes then.
In the afternoon nurse told me I must take some sleep myself, but I would not sleep until baby slept, so she had to give me my cherub again, and I sat up and rocked her and for a while I sang as softly as I could a little lullaby.
It was a lullaby I had learned at Nemi from the Italian women in embroidered outside stays, who so love their children; and though I knew quite well that it had been written for the Mother of all Mothers, who, after she had been turned away from every door, had been forced to take refuge in a stable in Bethlehem, I was in such an ecstasy of spiritual happiness that I thought it no irreverence to change it a little and to sing it in my London lodging to my human child.
“Sleep, little baby, I love thee, I love thee,
Sleep, little Queen, I am bending above thee.“
I dare say my voice was sweet that day a mother’s voice is always sweet for when Emmerjane, who had been out of the room, came back to it with a look of awed solemnity, she said:
“Well, I never did! I thought as ‘ow there was a ‘ angel a-eome into this room.”
“So there is, and here she is,” I said, beaming down on my sleeping child.
But the long, short, blissful day came to an end at last, and when night fell and I dropped asleep, there were two names of my dear ones on my lips, and if one of them was the name of him who (as I thought) was in heaven, the other was the name of her who was now lying in my arms.
I may have been poor, but I felt like a queen with all the riches of life in my little room.
I may have sinned against the world and the Church, but I felt as if God had justified me by His own triumphant law.
The whole feminine soul in me seemed to swell and throb, and with my baby at my breast I wanted no more of earth or heaven.
I was still bleeding from the bruises of Fate, but I felt healed of all my wounds, loaded with benefits, crowned with rewards.
Four days passed like this, varied by visits from the doctor and my Welsh landlady. Then my nurse began to talk of leaving me.
I did not care. In my ignorance of my condition, and the greed of my motherly love, I was not sorry she was going so soon. Indeed, I was beginning to be jealous of her, and was looking forward to having my baby all to myself.
But nurse, as I remember, was a little ashamed and tried to excuse herself.
“If I hadn’t promised to nurse another lady, I wouldn’t leave you, money or no money,” she said. “But the girl” (meaning Emmerjane) “is always here, and if she isn’t like a nurse she’s ‘andy.”
“Yes, yes, I shall be all right,” I answered.
On the fifth day my nurse left me, and shocking as that fact seems to me now, I thought little of it then.
I was entirely happy. I had nothing in the world except my baby, and my baby had nothing in the world except me. I was still in the dungeon that had seemed so dreadful to me before the great dungeon of London to one who is poor and friendless.
But no matter! I was no longer alone, for there was one more inmate in my prison-house my child.
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.