The Woman Thou Gavest Me (Sixth Part: I am Lost)
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The name Raa (of Celtic origin with many variations among Celtic races) is pronounced Rah in Ellan.
I AM LOST
“Is it nothing to you, ye that pass by . . . ?
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN
I hate to butt in where I may not be wanted, but if the remainder of my darling’s story is to be understood I must say what was happening in the meantime to me.
God knows there was never a day on which I did not think of my dear one at home, wondering what was happening to her, and whether a certain dark fact which always lay at the back of my mind as a possibility was actually coming to pass.
But she would be brave I know that quite well and I saw plainly that, if I had to get through the stiff job that was before me, I must put my shadowy fears away and think only of the dangers I was sure about.
The first of these was that she might suppose our ship was lost, so as soon as we had set up on old Erebus the wooden lattice towers which contained our long-distance electric apparatus, I tried to send her that first message from the Antarctic which was to say we had not been shipwrecked.
It was a thrilling moment. Exactly at the stroke of midnight on January 21, while the midnight sun was shining with its dull sullen glow, the whole of our company having gathered round, the wireless man prepared to despatch my message.
As we were not sure of our machinery I had drawn up the words to suit any place into which they might fall if they missed their intended destination:
“South Pole Expedition safe. All well. Send greetings to dear ones at home.”
For some forty seconds the sparks crackled out their snappy signals into the crisp night air, and then the settled calm returned, and we stood in breathless silence like beings on the edge of a world waiting for the answer to come as from another planet.
It came. After a few minutes we heard from our magnetic detector the faint sound of the S signals, and then we broke into a great cheer. It was not much, but it was enough; and while our scientific staff were congratulating themselves that electric-wave telegraphy was not inhibited by long distance, or by the earth’s curvature over an arc of a great circle, I was thinking of my dear one that one way or another my message would reach her and she would be relieved.
Then in splendid health and spirits – dogs, ponies, and men all A 1 – we started on our journey, making a bee-line for the Pole.
Owing to the heavy weights we had to transport our progress was slow, much slower than we had expected; and though the going was fair and we kept a steady pace, travelling a good deal by night, it was not until the end of March that we reached Mount Darwin, which I had fixed on for the second of our electric power stations.
By this time winter was approaching, the nights were beginning to be dark and cold, and the altitude (8000 ft.) was telling on some of us.
Nevertheless our second installation got finished about the last week in April, and again we gathered round (not quite such a hearty company as before) while the wireless man spoke to the operator we had left on Erebus.
Again the electrical radiations went crackling into space, and again we gave a cheer when the answer came back all well and instruments in perfect order.
Then, late as it was, we began on the last stage of our journey, which we knew would be a hard one. Three hundred geographical miles in front; temperature down to minus 40; the sun several weeks gone, and nothing before us but thickening twilight, cold winds, snow, the rare aurora and the frequent moon.
But the worst fact was that our spirits were low, and do what I would to keep a good heart and cheer up the splendid fellows who had come with me, I could not help feeling the deepening effect of that sunless gloom.
In spite of this, I broke camp on April 25, and started straight as a die for the South.
It was a stiff fight over the upper glacier in latitude 85, with its razor-shaped ice, full of snow-covered crevasses, and three days out two of our best men fell into one of the worst of them.
I saw the accident from a dozen yards away, and running up I lay on my stomach and shouted down, but it was a black bottomless gulf and not a sound or a sign came back to me.
This cast a still deeper gloom on our company, who could not be cheered up, though I kept telling them we should be on the great plateau soon, please God, and then we should have a clear road to the Pole.
We were not much better on top though, for the surface was much broken up, and in that brewing place of the winds there seemed to be nothing but surging seas of cumulus cloud and rolling waves of snow.
The Polar march was telling on us badly. We were doing no more than seven miles at a stretch. So to help my shipmates to keep up their spirits (and perhaps to give a bit of a “heise” to my own) I had to sing all day long though my darling is right that I have no more voice than a corncrake.
Sometimes I sang “Ramsey Town,” because it did not want much music, but generally “Sally’s the gel for me,” because it had a rattling chorus. The men all joined in (scientific experts included), and if the angels took any heed of us, I think it must have touched them up to look down on our little company of puny men singing away as we trudged through that snowy wilderness which makes a man feel so small.
But man can only do his best, and as Father Dan (God bless his old heart!) used to say, the angels can do no more. We were making middling hard work of it in the 88th parallel, with a temperature as low as 50 degrees of frost, when a shrieking, blinding blizzard came sweeping down on us from the south.
I thought it might blow itself out, but it didn’t, so we struck camp in a broad half -circle, building igloos (snow huts) with their backs (like rain-beaten cattle) to the storm.
There we lay nine days and it is not worth while now to say how much some of our men suffered from frozen fingers, and more from falling spirits.
Sometimes I heard them saying (in voices that were intended to be loud enough for me to hear) it would have been better to have built winter quarters on the north of Darwin and settle there until the return of summer And at other times I heard them counting the distance to the Pole a hundred geographical miles, making twenty days’ march at this season, with the heavy weights we had to carry, and the dwindling of our dogs and ponies, for we had killed a lot of them for food.
But I would not give in, for I felt that to go back without finishing my job would break my heart; and one day when old Treacle said, “No use, guv’nor, let’s give it best,” I flew at him like a hunted tiger.
AH the same I was more than a bit down myself, for there were days when, death was very near, and one night it really broke me up to hear a big 1 strapping chap saying to the man who shared his two-man sack, “I shouldn’t care a whiff if it wasn’t for the wife and the kiddies.”
God knows I had my own anchor at home, and sometimes it had a devil of a tog at me. I fought myself hard, though, and at last in my desire to go on and my yearning to go back to my dear one, I made an awful proposal, such as a man does not much like to think of after a crisis is over.
“Shipmates,’ 7 1 said, “it isn’t exactly my fault that we are here in the middle of winter, but here we are, and we must make the best of it. I am going forward, and those who want to go with me can go. But those who don’t want to go can stay; and so that no one may have it on his conscience that he has kept his comrades back, whether by weakness or by will, I have told the doctor to serve out a dose of something to every man, that he may end it whenever he wants to.”
To my surprise that awful proposal was joyfully received; and never so long as I live shall I forget the sight of O’Sullrran going round the broad circle of my shipmates in the bine gloom of that noonday twilight and handing something to every one of them, while nobody spoke, and Death seemed to look us in the face.
And now I come to the incident for which I have told this story.
I could not get a wink of sleep that night for thinking of the brave fellows I had doomed to death by their own hands (for that was what it came to), because their souls were starving and they were thinking of home.
My soul was starving too, and whether it was the altitude (now 11,000 ft) that was getting into my head, and giving me that draught in the brain which only travellers in frozen regions know, or the Power higher than Nature which speaks to a man in great solitudes when fife is low, I cannot say, but as God is my witness, I was hearing 1 again the voices of my dear ones so far away.
Sometimes they were the voices of my old people in Ellan, but more frequently, and most importunately, it was Mary’s voice, calling me by my name, and crying to me for help as if she were in the shadow of some threatening danger.
“Martin! Martin! Martin!”
When this idea took clear possession of me it was about three am. and the hurricane was yowling like a wounded dog the answering thought came quick. I most go back, No matter at what cost or sacrifice I must go back.
It was in vain I reflected that the trouble which threatened my darling (whatever it was, and I thought I knew) might be all over before I reached her side I must go back.
And even when I reminded myself that I was within twenty days’ march of that last point of my journey which was to be the -crown and completion of it all, I also remembered that my dear one was calling me. and I had no choke but to obey.
Next morning, in the first light of the dim Antarctic glow, I crept out of my snow hut to look sooth with powerful glasses in order to make sure that there was no reason why I should change my mind.
There was none. Although the snow had ceased the blizzard was blowing a hundred miles an hour in cutting gusts, so with a bleeding heart (and yet a hot one) I told Treacle to call up our company, and when they stood round me in the shelter of my hut I said:
“Shipmates, I have been thinking things over during the night, and I see them differently now. Nature is stronger than man, and the nature that is inside of us sometimes hits us harder than that which is without. I think it is that way with us here, and I believe there isn’t a man of yon who wouldn’t go forward with me if he had nobody to think of except himself. . . . Well, perhaps I have somebody to think of, too, so well stick together, shipmates, and whatever regrets there may be, or disappointments, or heart-breakings, well . . . well go back home.”
I think it says something for the mettle my men were made of that there was never a cheer after I said that, for they could see what it cost me to say it. But by God, there was a shout when I added:
“We’ve drawn a blank this time, boys, but well draw a winner yet, and I ask you to swear that you 11 come back with me next year, please God, to finish the work we’ve begun.”
Then we gripped hands in that desolate place, and took our solemn oath, and God knows we meant to keep it.
It did not take long to strike camp, I can tell you. The men were bustling about like boys and we had nothing to think of now but the packing of the food and the harnessing of the dogs and ponies, for we were leaving everything else behind us.
At the last moment before we turned northward I planted the Union Jack on the highest hummock of snow, and when we were a hundred yards off I looked back through the gloom and saw it blowing stiffly in the wind.
I don’t think I need tell how deeply that sight cut me, but if life has another such moment coming for me all I have to say is that I hope I may die before I live to see it which is Irish, but most damnably true.
That was twelve o’clock noon on the eighth day of June; and anybody may make what he likes of what I say, but as nearly as I can calculate the difference of time between London and where we were in the 88th latitude it was the very hour of my dear one’s peril.
[END OP MARTIN CONRAD’S MEMORANDUM]
Two weeks passed and if I suffered from getting up too soon I was never conscious of it.
Once or twice, perhaps, in the early days I felt a certain dizziness and had to hold on for a moment to the iron rail of my bedstead, but I was too much occupied with the tender joys of motherhood to think much about myself.
Bathing, dressing, undressing, and feeding my baby were a perpetual delight to me.
What a joy it all was!
There must be something almost animal, even voluptuous, in mothers’ love, for there was nothing I liked so much as having baby naked on my knee and devouring its sweet body all over with kisses putting its little fat hands and even its little fat feet into my mouth.
There must be something almost infantile, too, for sometimes after I had talked to my darling with a flood of joyous chatter I would even find myself scolding her a little, and threatening what I would do if she did not “behave.”
Oh, mysterious laws of motherhood! Only God can fathom the depths of them.
It was just as if sixteen years of my life had rolled back, and I was again a child in my mother’s room playing with my dolls under the table. Only there was something so wonderful now in the sweet eyes that looked up at me, that at certain moments I would fall into a long reverie and my heart would be full of adoration.
What lengths I went to!
It was the height of the London season when baby came; and sometimes at night, looking through my window, I saw the tail-end of the long queue of carriages and electric broughams which stretched to the end of the street I lived in, from the great houses fronting the Park where balls and receptions were being held until the early hours of morning. But I never envied the society ladies they were waiting for. On the contrary I pitied them, remembering they were childless women for the most part and thinking their pleasures were hollow as death compared with mine.
I pitied the rich mothers too the mothers who banish their babies to nurseries to be cared for by servants, and I thought how much more blessed was the condition of poor mothers like myself who kept all that sweetness to themselves.
How happy I was! No woman coming into a fortune was ever so happy. I sang all day long. Sometimes it was the sacred music of the convent in which each note, with its own glory of sound, wraps one’s heart round as with a rainbow, but more frequently it was “Ramsey Town” or “Sally’s the gel for me,” which were only noisy nonsense but dear to me by such delicious memories.
My neighbours would come to their doors to listen, and when I had stopped I would hear them say:
“Our lady is a ‘appy ‘eart, isn’t she?”
I suppose it was because I was so happy that my looks returned to me, though I did not know it was so until one morning, after standing a moment at the window, I heard somebody say:
“Our lady seems to be prettier than ever now her baby has come.”
I should not have been a woman if I could have resisted that, so I ran to the glass to see if it was true, and it was.
The ugly lines that used to be in my cheeks had gone, my hair had regained its blue-black lustre, and my eyes had suddenly become bright like a darkened room when the shutters are opened and the sunshine streams into it.
But the coming of baby did better for me than that. It brought me back to God, before whom I now felt so humble and so glad, because he had transformed the world for me.
Every Catholic will know why I could not ask for the benediction of the Church after childbirth; but he will also know why I was in a fever of anxiety to have my baby baptized at the earliest possible moment. It was not that I feared her death (I never thought of that in those days), but because I lived in dread of the dangers which had darkened my thoughts before she was born.
So when baby was nearly a fortnight old I wrote to the Rector of a neighbouring Catholic Church asking when I might bring her to be baptized, and he sent me a printed reply, giving the day and hour, and enclosing a card to be fillled up with her name and all other particulars.
“What a day of joy and rapture was that of my baby’s baptism! I was up with the sun on the morning appointed to take her to church and spent hours and hours in dressing her.
How lovely she looked when I had finished! I thought she was the sweetest thing in the world, sweeter than a rosebud under its sparkling web of dew when the rising sun is glistening on it.
After I had put on all the pretty clothes I had prepared for her before she was born the christening robe and the pelisse and the knitted bonnet with its pink ribbons and the light woollen veil I lifted her up to the glass to look at herself, being such a child myself and so wildly, foolishly happy.
“That old Rector won’t see anything equal to her this summer morning anyway,” I thought.
And then the journey to church!
I have heard that unmarried mothers, going out for the first time after their confinement, feel ashamed and confused, as if every passer-by must know their shameful secret. I was a kind of unmarried mother myself, God help me, but I had no such feeling. Indeed I felt proud and gay, and when I sailed out with my baby in my arms I thought all the people in our street were looking at me, and I am sure I wanted to say “Good morning” to everybody I met on my way.
The church was not in a joyous quarter. It stood on the edge of a poor and very populous district, with a flaunting public-house immediately opposite. “When I got to it I found a number of other mothers (all working women), with their babies and the godfathers and godmothers they had provided for them, waiting at the door.
At this sight I felt very stupid, for I had been thinking so much about other things (some of them vain enough perhaps) that I had forgotten the necessity for sponsors; and I do not know what I should have done at that last moment if the sacristan had not come to my relief finding me two old people who, for a fee of a shilling each, were willing to stand godmother and godfather to my darling.
Then the priest came out of the church in his white surplice and stole, and we all gathered in the porch for the preliminary part of the sacrament.
“What an experience it was! Never since my marriage had I been in a state of such spiritual exaltation.
The sacristan, showing me some preference, had put me in the middle of the row, immediately in front of the priest, so what happened to the other children I do not know, having eyes and ears for nothing but the baptism of my own baby.
There were some mistakes, but they did not trouble me, although one was a little important.
When the priest said, “What name give you this child?” I handed the Rector’s card to the sacristan, and whispered “Isabel Mary” to the godmother, but the next thing I heard was:
“Mary Isabel, what dost thou ask of the Church of God?”
But- what did it matter? Nothing mattered except one thing that my darling should be saved by the power of the Holy Sacrament from the dark terrors which threatened her.
Oh. it is a fearful and awful thing, the baptism of a child, if you really and truly believe in it. And I did from the bottom of my heart and soul I believed in it and trusted it.
In my sacred joy I must have cried nearly all the time, for I had taken baby’s bonnet off, I remember, and holding it to my mouth I found after a while that I was wetting it with my tears.
When the exorcisms were over, the priest laid the end of his stole over baby’s shoulder and led her (as our prayer books say) into the church, and we all followed to the baptistery, where I knelt immediately in front of the font, with the old godmother before me, the other mothers on either side, and a group of whispering children behind.
The church was empty, save for two charwomen who were sweeping the floor of the nave somewhere up by the dark and silent altar; and when the sacristan closed the outer door there was a solemn hush, which was broken only by the priest’s voice and the godparents’ muttered responses.
“Mary Isabel, dost thou renounce Satan?”
“I do renounce him.”
“And all his works?”
“I do renounce them.”
“And all his pomps?”
“I do renounce them.”
The actual baptism was like a prayer to me. I am sure my whole soul went out to it. And though I may have been a sinful woman unworthy to be churched, I know, and God knows, that no chaste and holy nun ever prayed with a purer heart than I did then, kneeling there with my baby’s bonnet to my mouth.
“Mary Isabel, I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
Except that baby cried a little when the water was poured on her head (as she had cried when the salt was put on her tongue), I knew no more after that until I saw the candle in the godfather’s hand (which signified that my child had been made a Child of Light) and heard the priest say:
“Go in peace and the Lord be with thee.”
Then I awoke as from a trance. There was a shuffling of feet. The priest was going away. The solemn rite was at an end.
I rose from my knees, put a little money in the plate which the sacristan held out to me, gave a shilling to each of the two old sponsors, took baby back into my arms, and sat down in a pew to put on her bonnet and veil.
The spiritual exaltation which had sustained me lasted until I reached the street where the other mothers and their friends were laughing and joking, in voices that had to be pitched high over the rattle of the traffic, about going to the house opposite to “wet the baby’s head.”
But I think something of the celestial light of the sacrament must have been on my face still when I reached home, for I remember that as I knocked at the door, and waited for the rope from the kitchen to open it, I heard one of my neighbours say:
“Our lady has taken a new lease of life, hasn’t she?”
I thought I had a great new lease of physical and spiritual life.
But how little did I know what Fate had in store for me!
I WAS taking off baby’s outdoor things when my Welsh landlady came np to ask how I had got on, and after I had told her she said:
“And now thee’st got to get the jewel registered.”
“Within three weeks. It’s the law, look yon.”
That was the first thing that frightened me. I had filled up truthfully enough the card which the Rector had sent me, because I knew that the register of my Church must be as sacred as its confessional.
But a public declaration of my baby’s birth and parentage seemed to be quite another matter charged with all the dangers to me, to Martin, and above all to my child, which had overshadowed my life before she was born.
More than once I felt tempted to lie, to make a false declaration, to say that Martin had been my husband and Isabel was my legitimate child.
But at length I resolved to speak the truth, the plain truth, telling myself that God’s law was above man’s law, and I had no right to be ashamed.
In this mood I set off for the Registry Office. It was a long way from where I lived, and carrying baby in my arms I was tired when I got there.
I found it to be a kind of private house, with an open vestibule and a black-and-white enamelled plate on the door-post, saying “Registry of Births and Deaths.”
In the front parlour (which reminded me of Mr. Curphy’s office in Holm town) there was a counter by the door and a large table covered with papers in the space within.
Two men sat at this table, an old one and a young one, and I remember that I thought the old one must have been reading aloud from a newspaper which he held open in his hand, for as I entered the young one was saying:
“Extraordinary! Perfectly extraordinary! And everybody thought they were lost, too!”
In the space between the door and the counter two women were waiting. Both were poor and obviously agitated. One had a baby in her arms, and when it whimpered for its food she unbuttoned her dress and fed it openly. The other woman, whose eyes were red as if she had been crying, wore a coloured straw hat over which, in a pitiful effort to assume black, she had stretched a pennyworth of cheap crepe.
In his own good time the young man got up to attend to them. He was a very ordinary young clerk in a check suit, looking frankly bored by the dull routine of his daily labour, and palpably unconscious of the fact that every day and hour of his life he was standing on the verge of the stormiest places of the soul.
Opening one of two registers which lay on the counter (the Register of Births) he turned first to the woman with the child. Her baby, a boy, was illegitimate, and in her nervousness she stumbled and stammered, and he corrected her sharply.
Then opening the other register (the Register of Deaths) he attended to the woman in the crepe. She had lost her little girl, two years old, and produced a doctor’s certificate. While she gave the particulars she held a soiled handkerchief to her mouth as if to suppress a sob, but the young clerk’s composure remained undisturbed.
I do not know if it was the agitation of the two poor women that made me nervous, but when they were gone and my turn had come, I was hot and trembling.
The young clerk, however, who was now looking at me for the first time, had suddenly become respectful. With a bow and a smile he asked me if I wished to register my child, and when I answered yes he asked me to be good enough to step up to the counter.
“And what is your baby ‘s name, please?” he asked.
I told him. He dipped his pen in his metal ink-pot, shook some drops back, made various imaginary flourishes over his book and wrote:
“And now,” he said, with another smile, “the full name, profession, and place of residence of the father.”
I hesitated for a moment, and then, making a call on my resolution, I said:
“Martin Conrad, seaman, deceased.”
The young clerk looked up quickly.
“Did you say Martin Conrad, ma’am?” he asked, and as well as I could for a click in my throat I answered:
He paused as if thinking; then with the same flourish as before he wrote that name also, and after he had done so, he twisted his face about to the old man, who was sitting behind him, and said, in a voice that was not meant to reach me:
“Extraordinary coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Extraordinary!” said the old man, who had lowered his newspaper and was looking across at me over the rims of his spectacles.
“And now,” said the young clerk, “your own name and your maiden name if you please.”
The young clerk looked up at me again. I was holding baby on my left arm and I could see that his eye caught my wedding ring.
“Mary Conrad, maiden name O’Neill, I presume?” he said.
I hesitated once more. The old temptation was surging back upon me. But making a great pull on my determination to tell the truth (or what I believed to be the truth) I answered:
“No, Mary O’Neill simply.”
“Ah!” said the young clerk, and I thought his manner
There was silence for some minutes while the young clerk filled up his form and made the copy I was to carry away.
I heard the scratching of the young clerk’s pen, the crinkling of the old man’s newspaper, the hollow ticking of a round clock on the wall, the dull hum of the traffic in the streets, and the thud-thud-thudding in my own bosom.
Then the entry was read out to me and I was asked to sign it.
“Sign here, please,” said the young clerk in quite a different tone, pointing to a vacant line at the bottom of the book, and I signed with a trembling hand and a feeling of only partial consciousness.
I hardly know what happened after that until I was standing in the open vestibule, settling baby on my arm afresh for my return journey, and telling myself that I had laid a stigma upon my child which would remain with her as long as she lived.
It was a long, long way back, I remember, and when I reached home (having looked neither to the right nor left, nor at anything or anybody, though I felt as if everybody had been looking at me) I had a sense of dimness of sight and of aching in the eyeballs.
I did not sing very much that day, and I thought baby was rather restless.
Towards nightfall I had a startling experience.
I was preparing Isabel for bed, when I saw a red flush, like a rash, down the left side of her face.
At first I thought it would pass away, but when it did not I called my Welsh landlady upstairs to look at it.
“Do you see something like a stain on baby’s face?” I asked, and then waited breathlessly for her answer.
“No. . . . Yes. . . . Well,” she said, “now that thee’st saying so . . . perhaps it’s a birthmark.”
“Did’st strike thy face against anything when baby was coming!”
I made some kind of reply, I hardly know what, but the truth, or what I thought to be the truth, flashed on me in a moment.
Remembering my last night at Castle Raa, and the violent scene which had occurred there, I told myself that the flush on baby’s face was the mark of my husband’s hand which, making no impression upon me, had been passed on to my child, and would remain with her to the end of her life, as the brand of her mother’s shame and the sign of what had been called her bastardy.
How I suffered at the sight of it! How time after time that night I leaned over my sleeping child to see if the mark had passed away! How again and again I knelt by her side to pray that if sin of mine had to be punished the punishment might fall on me and not on my innocent babe!
At last I remembered baby’s baptism and told myself that if it meant anything it meant that the sin in which my child had been born, the sin of those who had gone before her (if sin it was), had been cast out of her soul with the evil spirits which had inspired them.
“This sign of the Holy Cross Hh which we make upon her forehead do thou, accursed devil, never dare to violate.”
God’s law had washed my darling white! What could man’s law his proud but puny morality do to injure her? It could do nothing!
That comforted me. When I looked at baby again the flush had gone and I went to bed quite happy.
I THINK it must have been the morning of the next day when the nurse who had attended me in my confinement came to see how I was going along.
I told her of the dimness of my sight and the aching of my eyeballs, whereupon she held up her hands and cried:
“There now! What did I tell you! Didn’t I say it is after a lady feels it!”
The moral of her prediction was that, being in a delicate state of health, and having “let myself low” before baby was born, it was my duty to wean her immediately.
I could not do it.
Although the nurse ‘s advice was supported by my Welsh landlady (with various prognostications of consumption and rickets), I could not at first deny myself the wild joy of nursing my baby.
But a severer monitor soon came to say that I must. I found that my money was now reduced to little more than two pounds, and that I was confronted by the necessity (which I had so long put off) of looking for employment.
I could not look for employment until I had found a nurse for my child, and I could not find a nurse until my baby could do without me, so when Isabel was three weeks old I began to wean her.
At first I contented myself with the hours of night, keeping a feeding-bottle in bed, with the cow’s milk warmed to the heat of my own body. But when baby cried for the breast during the day I could not find it in my heart to deny her.
That made the time of weaning somewhat longer than it should have been, but I compromised with my conscience by reducing still further my meagre expenses.
Must I tell how I did so?
Although it was the month of July there was a snap of cold weather such as sometimes comes in the middle of our English summer, and yet I gave up having a fire in my room, and for the cooking of my food I bought a small spirit stove which cost me a shilling.
This tempted me to conduct which has since had consequences, and I am half ashamed and half afraid to speak of it. My baby linen being little I had to wash it frequently, and having no fire I … dried it on my own body.
Oh, I see now it was reckless foolishness, almost wilful madness, but I thought nothing of it then. I was poor and perhaps I was proud, and I could not afford a fire. And then a mother’s love is as deep as the sea, and there was nothing in the wide world I would not have done to keep my darling a little longer beside me.
Baby being weaned at last I had next to think of a nurse, and that was a still more painful ordeal. To give my child to another woman, who was to be the same as a second mother to her, was almost more than I could bear to think about.
I had to think of it. But I could only do so by telling myself that, when I put baby out to nurse, I might arrange to see her every morning and evening and as often as my employment permitted.
This idea partly reconciled me to my sacrifice, and I was in the act of drawing up a newspaper advertisement in these terms when my landlady came to say that the nurse knew of somebody who would suit me exactly.
Nurse called the same evening and told me a long story about her friend.
She was a Mrs. Oliver, and she lived at Ilford, which was at the other end of London and quite on the edge of the country. The poor woman, who was not too happily married, had lost a child of her own lately, and was now very lonely, being devoted to children.
This pleased me extremely, especially (God forgive me!) the fact that Mrs. Oliver was a bereaved mother and lived on the edge of the country.
Already in my mind’s eye I saw her sitting on sunny days under a tree (perhaps in an orchard) with Isabel in her arms, rocking her gently and singing to her softly, and almost forgetting that she was not her own baby whom she had lost . . . though that was a two-edged sword which cut me both ways, being a sort of wild joy with tears lurking behind it.
So I took a note of Mrs. Oliver’s address (10 Leonard’s Row, Lennard’s Green, Ilford) and wrote to her the same night, asking her terms and stating my own conditions.
A reply came the following day. It was a badly-written and misspelt letter, which showed me that Mrs. Oliver must be a working woman (perhaps the wife of a gardener or farm-labourer, I thought), though that did not trouble me in the least, knowing by this time how poor people loved their children.
“The terms is fore shillins a weke,” she wrote, “but i am that lonelie sins my own littel one lef me i wood tike your swete darling for nothin if I cud afford it and you can cum to see her as offen as you pleas.”
In my ignorance and simplicity this captured me completely, so I replied at once saying I would take baby to Ilford the next day.
I did all this in a rush, but when it came to the last moment I could scarcely part with my letter, and I remember that I passed three pillar-boxes in the front street before I could bring myself to post it.
I suppose my eyes must have been red when I returned home, for my Welsh landlady (whom I had taken into my confidence about my means) took me to task for crying, telling me that I ought to thank God for what had happened, which was like a message from heaven, look you, and a dispensation of Providence.
I tried to see things in that light, though it was difficult to do so, for the darker my prospects grew the more radiant shone the light of the little angel by whose life I lived, and the harder it seemed to live without her.
“But it isn’t like losing my child altogether, is it?” I said.
“‘Deed no, and ’twill be better for both of you,” said my landlady.
“Although Iford is a long way off I can go there every day, can’t I?”
“‘Deed thee can, if thee ‘st not minding a journey of nine miles or more.”
“And if I can get a good situation and earn a little money I may be able to have baby back and hire somebody to nurse her, and so keep her all to myself.”
“And why shouldn’t thee?” said my Welsh landlady. “Thee reading print like the young minister and writing letters like a copybook!”
So in the fierce bravery of motherly love I dried my eyes and forced back my sobs, and began to pack up my baby’s clothes, and to persuade myself that I was still quite happy.
My purse was very low by this tune. After paying my rent and some other expenses I had only one pound and a few shillings left.
AT half past seven next morning I was ready to start on my journey.
I took a hasty glance at myself in the glass before going out, and I thought my eyes were too much like the sky at daybreak all joyful beams with a veil of mist in front of them.
But I made myself believe that never since baby was born had I been so happy. I was sure I was doing the best for her.
I was also sure I was doing the best for myself, for what could be so sweet to a mother as providing for her child?
My Welsh landlady had told me it was nine miles to Ilford, and I had gathered that I could ride all the way in successive omnibuses for less than a shilling. But shillings were scarce with me then, so I determined to walk all the way.
Emmerjane, by her own urgent entreaty, carried baby as far as the corner of the Bayswater Road, and there the premature little woman left me, after nearly smothering baby with kisses.
“Keep straight as a’ arrow and you can’t lose your wye,” she said.
It was one of those beautiful mornings in late July when the air is fresh and the sun is soft, and the summer, even in London, has not yet had time to grow tired and dusty.
I felt as light as the air itself. I had put baby’s feeding-bottle in my pocket and hung her surplus linen in a parcel about my wrist, so I had nothing to carry in my arms except baby herself, and at first I did not feel her weight.
There were not many people in the West-End streets at that early hour, yet a few were riding in the Park, and when I came to the large houses in Lancaster Gate I saw that though the sun was shining on the windows most of the blinds were down.
I must have been walking slowly, for it was half past eight when I reached the Marble Arch. There I encountered the first cross-tide of traffic, but somebody, seeing baby, took me by the arm and led me safely over.
The great “Mediterranean of Oxford Street” was by this time running at full tide. People were pouring out of the Tube and Underground stations and clambering on to the motor-buses. But in the rush nobody hustled or jostled me. A woman with a child in her arms was like a queen everybody made way for her.
Once or twice I stopped to look at the shops. Some of the dressmakers’ windows were full of beautiful costumes. I did not covet any of them. I remembered the costly ones I had bought in Cairo and how little happiness they had brought me. And then I felt as if the wealth of the world were in my arms.
Nevertheless the whole feminine soul in me awoke when I came upon a shop for the sale of babies’ clothes. Already I foresaw a time when baby, dressed in pretty things like these, would be running about Lennard ‘s Green and plucking up the flowers in Mrs. Oliver’s garden.
The great street was very long and I thought it would never end. But I think I must have been still fresh and happy while we passed through the foreign quarter of Soho, for I remember that, when two young Italian waiters, standing at the door of their cafe, asked each other in their own language which of us (baby or I) was “the bambino,” I turned to them and smiled.
Before I came to Chancery Lane, however, baby began to cry for her food, and I was glad to slip down a narrow alley into Lincoln’s Inn Fields and sit on a seat in the garden while I gave her the bottle. It was then ten o ‘clock, the sun was high and the day was becoming hot.
The languid stillness of the garden after the noise and stir of the streets tempted me to stay longer than I had intended, and when I resumed my journey I thought the rest must have done me good, but before I reached the Holborn Viaduct fatigue was beginning to gain on me.
I saw that I must be approaching some great hospital, for hospital nurses were now passing me constantly, and one of them, who was going my way, stepped up and asked me to allow her to carry baby. She looked so sweet and motherly that I let her do so, and as we walked along we talked.
She asked me if I was going far, and I said no, only to the other end of London, the edge of the country, to Ilford.
“Ilford!” she cried. “Why, that’s miles and miles away. You’ll have to ‘bus it to Aldgate, then change for Bow, and then tram it through Stratford Market.”
I told her I preferred to walk, being such a good walker, and she gave me a searching look, but said no more on that subject.
Then she asked me how old baby was and whether I was nursing her myself, and I answered that baby was six weeks and I had been forced to wean her, being supposed to be delicate, and besides . . .
“Ah, perhaps you are putting her out to nurse,” she said, and I answered yes, and that was the reason I was going to Ilford.
“I see,” she said, with another searching look, and then it flashed upon me that she had formed her own conclusions about what had befallen me.
When we came to a great building in a side street on the left, with ambulance vans passing in and out of a wide gateway, she said she was sorry she could not carry baby any further, because she was due in the hospital, where the house-doctor would be waiting for her.
“But I hope baby’s nurse will be a good one. They’re not always that, you know.”
I was not quite so happy when the hospital nurse left me. The parcel on my wrist was feeling heavier than before, and my feet were beginning to drag. But I tried to keep a good heart as I faced the crowded thoroughfares Newgate with its cruel old prison, the edge of St. Paul’s, and the corner of St. Martin ‘s-le-Grand, and so on into Cheapside.
Cheapside itself was almost impassable. Merchants, brokers, clerks, and city men generally in tall silk hats were hurrying and sometimes running along the pavement, making me think of the river by my father’s house, whose myriad little waves seemed to my fancy as a child to be always struggling to find out which could get to Murphy’s Mouth the first and so drown itself in the sea.
People were still very kind to me, though, and if anybody brushed me in passing he raised his hat: and if any one pushed me accidentally he stopped to say he was sorry.
Of course baby was the talisman that protected me from harm; and what I should have done without her when I got to the Mansion House I do not know, for that seemed to be the central heart of all the London traffic, with its motor-buses and taxi-cabs going in different directions and its tremendous tides of human life flowing every way.
But just as I was standing, dazed and deafened on the edge of a triangle of streets, looking up at a great building that was like a rock on the edge of a noisy sea, and bore on its face the startling inscription, “The Earth is the Lord ‘s and the fulness thereof,” a big policeman, seeing me with baby in my arms, held up his hand to the drivers and shouted to the pedestrians (“Stand a-one side, please”), and then led me safely across, as if the Red Sea had parted to let us pass.
It was then twelve o’clock and baby was once more crying for her food, so I looked for a place in which I might rest while I gave her the bottle again.
Suddenly I came upon what I wanted. It seemed to be a garden, but it was a graveyard one of the graveyards of the old London churches, enclosed by high buildings now, and overlooked by office windows.
Such a restful place, so green, so calm, so beautiful! Lying there in the midst of the tumultuous London traffic, it reminded me of one of the little islands in the middle of our Ellan glens, on which the fuchsia and wild rose grow while the river rolls and boils about it.
I had just sat down on a seat that had been built about a gnarled and blackened old tree, and was giving baby her food, when I saw that a young girl was sitting beside me.
She was about nineteen years of age, and was eating scones out of a confectioner’s bag, while she read a paper-covered novel. Presently she looked at baby with her little eyes, which were like a pair of shiny boot buttons, and said:
“That your child?”‘
I answered her, and then she asked:
“Do you like children?”
I answered her again, and asked her if she did not like them also.
“Can’t say I’m particularly gone on them,” she said, whereupon I replied that that was probably because she had not yet had much experience.
“Oh, haven’t I? Perhaps I haven’t,” she said, and then with a hard little laugh, she added “Mother’s had nine though.”
I asked if she was a shop assistant, and with a toss of her head she told me she was a typist.
“Better screw and your evenings off,” she said, and then she returned to the subject of children.
One of her chums in the office who used to go out with her every night to the music-halls got into trouble a year or two ago. As a consequence she had to marry. And what was the result? Never had her nose out of the wash-tub now!
The story was crude enough, yet it touched me closely.
“But couldn’t she have put her baby out to nurse and got another situation somewhere?” I asked.
“Matter o’ luck,” said the girl. “Some can. Some can’t. That’s their look out. Firms don’t like it. If they find you’ve got a child they gen’r’lly chuck you.”
In spite of myself I was a little down when I started on my journey again. I thought the parcel was cutting my wrist and I felt my feet growing heavier at every step.
Was Maggie Jones’s story the universal one?
If a child were born beyond the legal limits, was it a thing to hide away and be ashamed of?
And could it be possible that man’s law was stronger than God’s law after all?
I HAD walked so slowly and stopped so often that it was two o’clock in the afternoon when I passed through Aldgate.
I was then faint for want of food, so I looked out for a tea-shop or restaurant.
I passed several such places before I found the modest house I wanted. Then I stepped into it rather nervously and took the seat nearest the door.
It was an oblong room with red plush seats along the walls behind a line of marble-topped tables. The customers were all men, chiefly clerks and warehousemen, I thought, and the attendants were girls in black frocks and white aprons.
There seemed to be a constant fire of free-and-easy flirtation going on between them. At one table a man in a cloth cap was saying to the girl who had served him:
“What’s the damage, dearie?”
“One roast, one veg, two breads ‘levenpence, and no liberties, mister.”
“Sunday off, Em’ly?” said a youth in a red tie at another table, and being told it was, he said:
“Then what do you say to ‘oppin ‘ up to ‘Endon and ‘aving a day in a boat?”
I had to wait some time before anybody came to attend to me, but at length a girl from the other end of the room, who had taken no part in these amatory exchanges, stepped up and asked what I wanted.
I ordered a glass of cold milk and a scone for myself and a pint of hot milk to replenish baby’s bottle.
The girl served me immediately, and after rinsing and refilling the feeding-bottle she stood near while the baby used it.
She had quiet eyes and that indefinable expression of yearning tenderness which we sometimes see in the eyes of a dear old maid who has missed her motherhood.
The shop had been clearing rapidly; and as soon as the men were gone, and while the other girls were sitting in corners to read penny novelettes, my waitress leaned over and asked me if I did not wish to go into the private room to attend to baby.
A moment afterwards I followed her into a small apartment at the end of the shop, and there a curious thing occurred.
She closed the door behind us and asked me in an eager whisper to allow her to see to baby.
I tried to excuse myself, but she whispered:
”Hush! I have a baby of my own, though they know nothing about it here, so you can safely trust me.”
I did so, and it was beautiful to see the joy she had in doing what was wanted, saying all sorts of sweet and gentle things to my baby (though I knew they were meant for her own), as if the starved mother-heart in her were stealing a moment of maternal tenderness.
“There!” she said. “She’ll be comfortable now, bless her!”
I asked about her own child, and, coming close and speaking in a whisper, she told me all about it.
It was a girl and it would be a year old at Christmas. At first she had put it out to nurse in town, where she could see it every evening, but the foster-mother had neglected it, and the Inspector had complained, so she had been compelled to take it away. Now it was in a Home in the country, ten miles from Liverpool Street, and it was as bonny as a peach and as happy as the day is long.
“See,” she whispered, taking a card from her breast, after a furtive glance towards the door. “I sent two shillings to have her photograph taken and the Matron has just sent it.”
It was the picture of a beautiful baby girl, and I found it easy to praise her.
“I suppose you see her constantly, don’t you?” I said.
The girl’s face dropped.
“Only on visiting days, once a month, and not always that,” she answered.
“But how can you live without seeing her of tener?” I asked.
“Matter o’ means,” she said sadly. “I pay five shillings a week for her board, and the train is one-and-eight return, so I have to be careful, you see, and if I lost my place what would happen to baby?”
I was very low and tired and down when I resumed my walk. But when I thought for a moment of taking omnibuses for the rest of my journey I remembered the waitress’s story and told myself that the little I had belonged to my child, and so I struggled on.
But what a weary march it was during the next two hours! I was in the East End now, and remembering the splendour of the West, I could scarcely believe I was still in London.
Long, mean, monotonous streets, running off to right and left, miles on miles of them without form or feature, or any trace of nature except the blue strips of sky overhead.
Such multitudes of people, often badly dressed and generally with set and anxious faces, hasting to and fro, hustling, elbowing, jostling each other along, as if driven by some invisible power that was swinging an unseen scourge.
No gracious courtesy here! A woman with a child in her arms was no longer a queen. Children were cheap, and sometimes it was as much as I could do to save myself from being pushed off the pavement.
The air seemed to smell of nothing but ale and coarse tobacco. And then the noise! The ceaseless clatter of carts, the clang of electric cars, the piercing shrieks of the Underground Railway coming at intervals out of the bowels of the earth like explosions out of a volcano, and, above all, the raucous, rasping, high-pitched voices of the people, often foul-mouthed, sometimes profane, too frequently obscene.
A cold, grey, joyless, outcast city, cut off from the rest of London by an invisible barrier more formidable than a wall; a city in which the inhabitants seemed to live cold, grey, joyless lives, all the same that they joked and laughed; a city under perpetual siege, the siege of Poverty, in the constant throes of civil war, the “War of Want, the daily and hourly fight for food.
If there were other parts of the East End (and I am sure there must be) where people live simple, natural, human lives, I did not see them that day, for my course was down the principal thoroughfares only.
Those thoroughfares, telescoping each other, one after another, seemed as if they would never come to an end.
How tired I was! Even baby was no longer light, and the parcel on my wrist had become as heavy as lead.
Towards four o’clock I came to a broad parapet which had strips of garden enclosed by railings and iron seats in front of them. Utterly exhausted, my arms aching and my legs limp, I sank into one of these seats, feeling that I could walk no farther.
But after a while I felt better, and then I became aware that another woman was sitting beside me.
When I looked at her first I thought I had never in my life seen anything so repulsive. She was asleep, and having that expressionless look which sleep gives, I found it impossible to know whether she was young or old. She was not merely coarse, she was gross. The womanhood in her seemed to be effaced, and I thought she was utterly brutalised and degraded.
Presently baby, who had also been asleep, awoke and cried,
and then the woman opened her eyes and looked at the child, while I hushed her to sleep again.
There must be something in a baby ‘s face that has a miraculous effect on every woman (as if these sweet angels, fresh from God, make us all young and all beautiful), and it was even so at that moment.
Never shall I forget the transfiguration in the woman’s face when she looked into the face of my baby. The expression of brutality and degradation disappeared, and through the bleared eyes and over the coarsened features there came the light of an almost celestial smile.
After a while the woman spoke to me. She spoke in a husky voice which seemed to be compounded of the effects of rum and raw night air.
“That your ‘n,” she said.
I answered her.
“Boy or gel?”
I told her.
I told her that too.
The woman was silent for a moment, and then, with a thickening of the husky voice, she said:
“S’pose you’ll say I’m a bleedin’ liar, but I ‘ad a kid as putty as that one – puttier. It was a boy. The nobbiest little b__ as you ever come acrost. Your’n is putty, but it ain’t in it with my Billie, not by a long chalk.”
I asked her what had become of her child.
“Lawst ‘im,” she said. “Used to give sixpence a week to the woman what ‘ad ‘alf the ‘ouse with me to look after ‘im while I was workin’ at the fact’ry. But what did the bleedin’ b__ do? Blimey, if she didn’t let ‘im get run over by the dray from the brewery.”
“Killed?” I said, clutching at baby.
The woman nodded without speaking.
I asked her how old her child had been.
“More ‘n four,” she said. “Just old enough to run a arrand. It was crool. Hit me out, I can tell you. That kid was all I had. Apple o’ my eye, in a manner of speakin’. When it was gone there wasn’t much encouragement, was there? The Favver from the Mission came jawin’ as ‘ow Jesus ‘ad taken ‘im to ‘imself . Rot! When they put ‘im down in old Bow I didn’t care no more for nothin’. Monse and monse I walked about night and day, and the bleedin ‘ coppers was allus on to me. They got their own way at last. I took the pneumonier and was laid up at the London. And when I got out I didn’t go back to the fact’ry neither.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
The woman laughed – bitterly, terribly.
“Do? Don’t you know?”
I shook my head. The woman looked hard at me, and then at the child.
“Look here – are you a good gel?” she said.
Hardly knowing what she meant I answered that I hoped so.
“‘Ope? Don’t you know that neither?”
Then I caught her meaning, and answered faintly:
She looked searchingly into my eyes and said:
“I b ‘lieve you. Some gels is. S ‘elp me Gawd I don ‘t know how they done it, though.”
I was shuddering and trembling, for I was catching glimpses, as if by broken lights from hell, of the life behind the wrecked hope, the shattered faith, the human being hunted like a beast and at last turned into one.
Just at that moment baby awoke and cried again. The woman looked at her with the same look as before not so much a smile as- a sort of haggard radiance.
Then leaning over me she blew puffs of alcoholic breath into baby’s face, and stretching out a coarse fat finger she tickled her under the chin.
Baby ceased to cry and began to smile. Seeing this the woman ‘s eyes sparkled like sunshine.
“See that,” she cried. “S’elp me Jesus, I b’lieve I could ‘ave been good meself if I’d on’y ‘ad somethink like this to keer for.”
I am not ashamed to say that more than once there had been tears in my eyes while the woman spoke, though her blasphemies had corrupted the air like the gases that rise from a dust-heap. But when she touched my child I shuddered as if something out of the lowest depths had tainted her.
Then a strange thing happened.
I had risen to go, although my limbs could scarcely support me, and was folding my little angel closely in my arms, when the woman rose too and said:
“You wouldn’t let me carry your kiddie a bit, would you?”
I tried to excuse myself, saying something, I know not what.
The woman looked at me again, and after a moment she said:
“S’pose not. On’y I thought it might make me think as ‘ow I was carryin’ Billie.”
That swept down everything.
The one remaining window of the woman’s soul was open and I dared not close it.
I looked down at my child so pure, so sweet, so stainless; I looked up at the woman so foul, so gross, so degraded.
There was a moment of awful struggle and then . . . the woman and I were walking side by side.
And the harlot was carrying my baby down the street.
AT five o’clock I was once more alone.
I was then standing (with baby in my own arms now) under the statue which is at the back of Bow Church.
I thought I could walk no farther, and although every penny I had in my pocket belonged to Isabel (being all that yet stood between her and want) I must borrow a little of it if she was to reach Mrs. Oliver’s that night.
I waited for the first tram that was going in my direction, and when it came up I signalled to it, but it did not stop it was full.
I waited for a second tram, but that was still more crowded.
I reproached myself for having come so far. I told myself how ill-advised I had been in seeking for a nurse for my child at the farthest end of the city. I reminded myself that I could not hope to visit her every day if my employment was to be in the West, as I had always thought it would be. I asked
myself if in all this vast London, with its myriads of homes, there had been no house nearer that could have sheltered my child.
Against all this I had to set something, or I think my very heart would have died there and then. I set the thought of Ilford, on the edge of the country, with its green fields and its flowers. I set the thought of Mrs. Oliver, who would love my child as tenderly as if she were her own little lost one.
I dare say it was all very weak and childish, but it is just when we are done and down, and do not know what we are doing, that Providence seems to be directing us, and it was so with me at that moment.
The trams being full I had concluded that Fate had set itself against my spending any of Isabel’s money, and had made up my mind to make a fierce fight over the last stage of my journey, when I saw that a little ahead of where I was standing the road divided into two branches at an acute angle, one branch going to the right and the other to the left.
Not all Emmerjane’s instructions about keeping “as straight as a’ arrow” sufficed to show me which of the two roads to take and I looked about for somebody to tell me.
It was then that I became aware of a shabby old four-wheeled cab which stood in the triangular space in front of the statue, and of the driver (an old man, in a long coachman’s coat, much worn and discoloured, and a dilapidated tall hat, very shiny in patches) looking at me while he took the nosebag off his horse a bony old thing with its head hanging down.
I stepped up to him and asked my way, and he pointed it out to me to the right, over the bridge and through Stratford Market.
I asked how far it was to Ilford.
“Better nor two mile I call it,” he answered.
After that, being so tired in brain as well as body, I asked a foolish question how long it would take me to get there.
The old driver looked at me again, and said:
“‘Bout a ‘our and a ‘alf I should say by the looks of you and you carryin ‘ the biby.”
I dare say my face dropped sadly as I turned away, feeling very tired, yet determined to struggle through. But hardly had I walked twenty paces when I heard’ the cab coming up behind and the old driver crying:
“‘Old on, missie.”
I stopped, and to my surprise he drew up by my side, got down from his box, opened the door of his cab and said:
I told him I could not afford to ride.
“Ger in,” he said again more loudly, and as if angry with himself for having to say it.
Again I made some demur, and then the old man said, speaking fiercely through his grizzly beard:
“Look ‘ere, missie. I ‘ave a gel o’ my own lost somewheres, and I wouldn’t be ans’rable to my ole woman if I let you walk with a face like that.”
I don’t know what I said to him. I only know that my tears gushed out and that at the next moment I was sitting in the cab.
What happened then I do not remember, except that the dull rumble of the wheels told me we were passing over a bridge, and that I saw through the mist before my eyes a sluggish river, a muddy canal, and patches of marshy fields.
I think my weariness and perhaps my emotion, added to the heavy monotonous trotting of the old horse, must have put me to sleep, for after a while I was conscious of a great deal of noise, and of the old driver twisting about and shouting in a cheerful voice through the open window at the back of his seat:
After a while we came to a broad road, full of good houses, and then the old driver cried “Ilford,” and asked what part of it I wished to go to.
I reached forward and told him, “10 Lennard’s Row, Lennard’s Green,” and then sat back with a lighter heart.
But after another little while I saw a great many funeral cars passing us, with the hearses empty, as if returning from a cemetery. This made me think of the woman and her story, and I found myself unconsciously clasping my baby closer.
The corteges became so numerous at last that to shut out painful sights I closed my eyes and tried to think of pleasanter things.
I thought, above all, of Mrs. Oliver’s house, as I had always seen it in my mind ‘s eye not a pretentious place at all, only a little humble cottage but very sweet and clean, covered with creepers and perhaps with roses.
I was still occupied with these visions when I felt the cab turn sharply to the left. Then opening my eyes I saw that we were running down a kind of alley-way, with a row of very mean little two-storey houses on the one side, and on the other, a kind of waste ground strewn with broken bottles, broken iron pans, broken earthenware and other refuse, interspersed with tufts of long scraggy grass, which looked the more wretched because the sinking sun was glistening over it.
Suddenly the cab slowed down and stopped. Then the old man jumped from his box and opening his cab door, said:
“Here you are, missie. This is your destingnation. ”
There must have been a moment of semi-consciousness in
which I got out of the cab, for when I came to full possession of myself I was standing on a narrow pavement in front of a closed door which bore the number 10.
At first I was stunned. Then my heart was in my mouth, and it was as much as I could do not to burst out crying. Finally I wanted to fly, and I turned back to the cab, but it had gone and was already passing round the corner.
It was six o ‘clock. I was very tired. I was nine miles from Bayswater. I could not possibly carry baby back. What could I do?
Then, my brain being unable to think, a mystic feeling (born perhaps of my life in the convent) came over me a feeling that all that had happened on my long journey, all I had seen and everything that had been said to me, had been intended to prepare me for (and perhaps to save me from) the dangers that were to come.
I think that gave me a certain courage, for with what strength of body and spirit I had left (though my heart was in my mouth still) I stepped across the pavement and knocked at the door.
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
My great-hearted, heroic little woman!
All this time I, in my vain belief that our expedition was of some consequence to the world, was trying to comfort myself with the thought that my darling must have heard of my safety.
But how could I imagine that she had hidden herself away in a mass of humanity which appears to be the most impenetrable depths into which a human being can disappear?
How could I dream that, to the exclusion of all such interests as mine, she was occupied day and night, night and day, with the joys and sorrows, the raptures and fears of the mighty passion of Motherhood, which” seems to be the only thing in life that is really great and eternal?
Above all, how could I believe that in London itself, in the heart of the civilised and religious world, she was going through trials which make mine, in the grim darkness of the Polar night, seem trivial and easy?
It is all over now, and though, thank God, I did not know at the time what was happening to my dear one at home, it is some comfort to me to remember that I was acting exactly as if I did.
From the day we turned back I heard my darling’s voice no more. But I had a still more perplexing and tormenting experience, and that was a dream about her, in which she was walking on a crevassed glacier towards a precipice which she could not see because the brilliant rays of the aurora were in her eyes.
Anybody may make what he likes of that on grounds of natural law, and certainly it was not surprising that my dreams should speak to me in pictures drawn from the perils of my daily life, but only one thing matters now that these experiences of my sleeping hours increased my eagerness to get back to my dear one.
My comrades were no impediment to that, I can tell you. With their faces turned homewards, and the wind at their backs, they were showing tremendous staying power, although we had thirty and forty below zero pretty constantly, with, rough going all the time, for the snow had been ruckled up by the blizzard to almost impassable heaps and hummocks.
On reaching our second installation at Mount Darwin I sent a message to the men at the foot of Mount Erebus, telling them to get into communication (through Macquarie Island) with the captain of our ship in New Zealand, asking him to return for us as soon as the ice conditions would permit; and this was the last of our jobs (except packing our instruments tight and warm) before we started down the “long white gateway” for our quarters at the Cape.
With all the heart in the world, though, our going had to be slow. It was the middle of the Antarctic winter, when absolute night reigned for weeks and we had nothing to alleviate the darkness but the light of the scudding moon, and sometimes the glory of the aurora as it encircled the region of the unrisen sun.
Nevertheless my comrades sang their way home through the sullen gloom. Sometimes I wakened the echoes of those desolate old hills myself with a stave of “Sally’s the gel,” although I was suffering a good deal from my darker thoughts of what the damnable hypocrisies of life might be doing with my darling, and my desire to take my share of her trouble whatever it might be.
The sun returned the second week in August. Nobody can know what relief that brought us except those who have lived for months without it. To see the divine and wonderful thing rise up like a god over those lone white regions is to know what a puny thing man is in the scheme of the world.
I think all of us felt like that at sight of the sun, though some (myself among the rest) were thinking more of it as a kind of message from friends at home. But old Treacle, I remember, who had stood looking at it in awed solemnity, said:
“Well, I’m d__!”
After that we got on famously until we reached Winter Quarters, where we found everybody well and everything in order, but received one piece of alarming intelligence that the attempt to get into wireless communication with our ship had failed, with the result that we should have to wait for her until the time originally appointed for her return.
That did not seem to matter much to my shipmates, who, being snugly housed from blinding blizzards, settled down to amuse themselves with sing-songs and story-tellings and readings.
But, do what I would, to me the delay was dreadful, and every day, in the fever of my anxiety to get away as soon as the ice permitted, I climbed the slopes of old Erebus with ‘Sullivan, to look through powerful glasses- for what the good chap called the “open wather.”
Thank God, our wooden house was large enough to admit of my having a cabin to myself, for I should have been ashamed of my comrades hearing the cries that sometimes burst from me in the night.
It is hard for civilised men at home, accustomed to hold themselves under control, to realise how a man’s mind can run away from him when he is thousands of miles separated from his dear ones, and has a kind of spiritual certainty that evil is befalling them.
I don? t think I am a bigger fool than most men in that way, but I shiver even yet at the memory of all the torment I went through during those days of waiting, for my whole life seemed to revolve before me and I accused myself of a thousand offences which I had thought dead and buried and forgotten.
Some of these were trivial in themselves, such as hot and intemperate words spoken in childhood to my good old people at home, disobedience or ingratitude shown to them, with all the usual actions of a naughty boy, who ought to have been spanked and never was.
But the worst of them concerned my darling, and came with the thought of my responsibility for the situation in which I felt sure she found herself.
A thousand times I took myself to task for that, thinking what I ought and ought not to have done, and then giving myself every bad name and my conduct every damning epithet.
Up and down my cabin I would walk with hands buried in my pockets, revolving these thoughts and working myself up, against my will, to a fever of regret and self-accusation.
Talk about Purgatory the Purgatory of dear old Father Dan! That was to come after death mine came before, and by the holy saints, I had enough of it.
Two months passed like this; and when the water of the Sound was open and our ship did not appear, mine was not the only heart that was eating itself out, for the spirits of my shipmates had also begun to sink.
In the early part of the Antarctic spring there had been a fearful hurricane lasting three days on the sea, with a shrieking, roaring chorus of fiends outside, and the conviction now forced itself on my men that our ship must have gone down in the storm.
Of course I fought this notion hard, for my last hopes were based on not believing it. But when after the lapse of weeks I could hold out no longer, and we were confronted by the possibility of being held there another year (for how were our friends to know before the ice formed again that it was necessary to send relief?), I faced the situation firmly measuring out our food and putting the men on shortened rations, twenty-eight ounces each and a thimbleful of brandy.
By the Lord God it is a fearful thing to stand face to face with slow death. Some of my. shipmates could scarcely bear it. The utter solitude, the sight of the same faces and the sound of the same voices, with the prospect of nothing else, seemed to drive most of them nearly mad.
There was no sing-songing among them now, and what speaking I overheard was generally about the great dinners they had eaten, or about their dreams, which were usually of green fields and . flower-beds and primroses and daisies daisies, by heaven, in a world that was like a waste!
As for me I did my best to play the game of never giving up. It was a middling hard game, God knows, and after weeks of waiting a sense of helplessness settled down on me such as I had never known before.
I am not what is called a religious man, but when I thought of my darling’s danger (for such I was sure it was) and how I was cut off from her by thousands of miles of impassable sea, there came an overwhelming longing to go with my troubles to somebody stronger than myself.
I found it hard to do that at first, for a feeling of shame came over me, and I thought:
“You coward, you forgot all about God when things were going well with you, but now that they are tumbling down, and death seems certain, you whine and want to go where you never dreamt of going in your days of ease and strength.”
I got over that, though there’s nothing except death a man doesn’t get over down there and a dark night came when (the ice breaking from the cliffs of the Cape with a sound that made me think of my last evening at Castle Raa) I found myself folding my hands and praying to the God of my childhood, not for myself but for my dear one, that He before whom the strongest of humanity were nothing at all, would take her into His Fatherly keeping.
“Help her! Help her! I can do no more.”
It was just when I was down to that extremity that it pleased Providence to come to my relief. The very next morning I was awakened out of my broken sleep by the sound of a gun, followed by such a yell from Treacle as was enough to make you think the sea-serpent had got hold of his old buttocks.
“The ship! The ship! Commander! Commander! The ship! The ship!”
And, looking out of my little window I saw him, with six or seven other members of our company, half naked, just as they had leapt out of their bunks, running like savages to the edge of the sea, where the “Scotia,” with all flags flying (God bless and preserve her!), was steaming slowly up through a grinding pack of broken ice.
What a day that was! What shouting! What handshaking! For ‘Sullivan it was Donnybrook Fair with the tail of his coat left out, and for Treacle it was Whitechapel Road with “What cheer, old cock?” and an unquenchable desire to stand treat all round.
But what I chiefly remember is that the moment I awoke, and before the idea that we were saved and about to go home had been fully grasped by my hazy brain, the thought flashed to my mind:
“Now you’ll hear of her!”
[END OF MARTIN CONRAD’S MEMORANDUM]
THE door of No. 10 was opened by a rather uncomely woman of perhaps thirty years of age, with a weak face and watery eyes.
This was Mrs. Oliver, and it occurred to me even at that first sight that she had the frightened and evasive look of a wife who lives under the intimidation of a tyrannical husband.
She welcomed me, however, with a warmth that partly dispelled my depression and I followed her into the kitchen.
It was the only room on the ground floor of her house (except a scullery) and it seemed sweet and clean and comfortable, having a table in the middle of the floor, a sofa under the window, a rocking-chair on one side of the fireplace, a swinging baby’s cot on the other side, and nothing about it that was not homelike and reassuring, except two large photographs over the mantelpiece of men stripped to the waist and sparring.
“We’ve been looking for you all day, ma’am, and had nearly give you up,” she said.
Then she took baby out of my arms, removed her bonnet and pelisse, lifted her barrow-coat to examine her limbs, asked her age, kissed her on the arms, the neck and the legs, and praised her without measure.
“And what’s her name, ma’am?”
“Mary Isabel, but I wish her to be called Isabel.”
“Isabel! A beautiful name too! Fit for a angel, ma ‘am. And she is a little angel, bless her! Such rosy cheeks! Such a ducky little mouth! Such blue eyes blue as the blue-bells in the eemet’ry. She’s as pretty as a waxwork, she really is, and any woman in the world might be proud to nurse her.”
A young mother is such a weakling that praise of her child (how r ever crude) acts like a charm on her, and in spite of myself I was beginning to feel more at ease, when Mrs. Oliver’s husband came downstairs.
He was a short, thick-set man of about thirty-five, with a square chin, a very thick neck and a close-cropped red bullet head, and he was in his stocking feet and shirt-sleeves as if he had been dressing to go out for the evening.
I remember that it flashed upon me I don’t know why that he had seen me from the window of the room upstairs, driving up in the old man’s four-wheeler, and had drawn from that innocent circumstance certain deductions about my character and my capacity to pay.
I must have been right, for as soon as our introduction was over and I had interrupted Mrs. Oliver’s praises of my baby’s beauty by speaking about material matters, saying the terms were to be four shillings, the man, who had seated himself on the sofa to put on his boots said, in a voice that was like a shot out of a blunderbus:
“How’d you mean, Ted?” said Mrs. Oliver, timidly. “Didn’t we say four?”
“Five,” said the man again, with a still louder volume of voice.
I could see that the poor woman was trembling, but assuming the sweet air of persons who live in a constant state of fear, she said:
“Oh yes. It was five, now I remember.”
I reminded her that her letter had said four, but she insisted that I must be mistaken, and when I told her I had the letter with me and she could see it if she wished, she said:
“Then it must have been a slip of the pen in a manner of speaking, ma’am. We allus talked of five. Didn’t we, Ted?”
“Certainly,” said her husband, who was still busy with his boots.
I saw what was going on, and I felt hot and angry, but there seemed to be nothing to do except submit.
“Very well, we’ll say five then,” I said.
“Paid in advance,” said the man, and when I answered that that would suit me very well, he added:
“A month in advance, you know.”
By this time I felt myself trembling with indignation, as well as quivering with fear, for while I looked upon all the money I possessed as belonging to baby, to part with almost the whole of it in one moment would reduce me to utter helplessness, so I said, turning to Mrs. Oliver:
“Is that usual?”
It did not escape me that the unhappy woman was constantly studying her husband’s face, and when he glanced up at her with a meaning look she answered, hurriedly:
“Oh yes, ma’am, quite usual. All the women in the Row has it. Number five, she has twins and gets a month in hand with both of them. But we’ll take four weeks and I can’t say no fairer than that, can I?”
“But why?” I asked.
“Well, you see, ma’am, you’re . . . you’re a stranger to us, and if baby was left on our hands . . . Not as we think you’d leave her chargeable as the saying is, but if you were ever ill, and got a bit back with your payments … we being only pore people. …”
While the poor woman was floundering on in this way my blood was boiling and I was beginning to ask her if she supposed for one moment that I meant to desert my child, when the man, who had finished the lacing of his boots, rose to his feet, and said:
“You don ‘t want yer baiby to be give over to the Guardians for the sake of a week or two, do you?”
That settled everything. I took out my purse and with a trembling hand laid my last precious sovereign on the table.
A moment or two after this Mr. Oliver, who had put on his coat and a cloth cap, made for the door.
“Evenin’, ma’am,” he said, and with what grace I could muster I bade him good-bye.
“You aren’t a-going to the ‘Sun’ to-night, are you, Ted?”
asked Mrs. Oliver.
“Club,” said the man, and the door clashed behind him.
I breathed more freely when he was gone, and his wife (from whose face the look of fear vanished instantly) was like another woman.
“Goodness gracious,” she cried, with a kind of haggard hilarity, “where ‘s my head? Me never offering you a cup of tea, and you looking so white after your journey.”
I took baby back into my arms while she put on the kettle, set a black tea-pot on the hob to warm, laid a piece of tablecloth and a thick cup and saucer on the end of the table, and then knelt on the fender to toast a little bread, talking meantime (half apologetically and half proudly) about her husband.
He was a bricklayer by trade, and sometimes worked at the cemetery which I could see at the other side of the road (behind the long railings and the tall trees), but was more generally engaged as a sort of fighting lieutenant to a Labour leader whose business it was to get up strikes. Before they were married he had been the “Light Weight Champion of Whitechapel, ” and those were photos of his fights which I could see over the mantelpiece, but “he never did no knocking of people about now,” being “quiet and matrimonual. ”
In spite of myself my heart warmed to the woman. I wonder it did not occur to me there and then that, living in constant dread of her tyrannical husband, she would always be guilty of the dissimulation I had seen an example of already and that the effect of it would be reflected upon my child.
It did not. I only told myself that she was clearly fond of children and would be a kind nurse to my baby. It even pleased me, in my foolish motherly selfishness, that she was a plain-featured person, whom baby could never come to love as she would, I was sure, love me.
I felt better after I had taken tea, and as it was then seven o’clock, and the sun was setting horizontally through the cypresses of the cemetery, I knew it was time to go.
I could not do that, though, without undressing baby and singing her to sleep. And even then I sat for a while with an aching heart, and Isabel on my knee, thinking of how I should have to go to bed that night, for the first time, without her.
Mrs. Oliver, in the meantime, examining the surplus linen which I had brought in my parcel, was bursting into whispered cries of delight over it, and, being told I had made the clothes myself, was saying:
“What a wonderful seamstress you might be if you liked, ma’am.”
At length the time came to leave baby, and no woman knows the pain of that experience who has not gone through it.
Though I really believed my darling would be loved and cared for, and knew she would never miss me, or yet know that I was gone (there was a pang even in that thought, and in every other kind of comforting ), I could not help it, that, as I was putting my cherub into her cot, my tears rained down on her little face and awakened her, so that I had to kneel by her side and rock her to sleep again.
“You’ll be good to my child, won’t you, Mrs. Oliver?” I said.
” ‘Deed I will, ma’am,” the woman replied.
“You’ll bath her every day, will you not?”
“Night and morning. I allus does, ma’am.”
“And rinse out her bottle and see that she has nice new milk fresh from the cow?”
“Sure as sure, ma’am. But don’t you fret no more about the child, ma’am. I’ve been a mother myself, ma’am, and I’ll be as good to your little angel as if she was my own come back to me. ”
“God bless you,” I said in a burst of anguish, and after remaining a moment longer on my knees by the cot (speaking with all my heart and soul, though neither to nurse nor to baby) I rose to my feet, dashed the tears from my eyes, and ran out of the house.
I KNEW that my eyes were not fit to be seen in the streets, so I dropped my dark veil and hurried along, being conscious of nothing for some time except the clang of electric cars and the bustle of passers-by, to whom my poor little sorrow was nothing at all.
But I had not gone far I think I had not, though my senses were confused and vague before I began to feel ashamed, to take myself to task, and to ask what I had to cry about.
If I had parted from my baby it was for her own good, and if I had paid away my last sovereign I had provided for her for a month, I had nothing to think of now except myself and how to get work.
I never doubted that I should get work, or that I should get it immediately, the only open question being what work and where.
Hitherto I had thought that, being quick with my pen, I might perhaps become secretary to somebody; but now, remembering the typist’s story (“firms don’t like it”), and wishing to run no risks in respect of my child, I put that expectation away and began to soar to higher things.
How vain they were! Remembering some kind words the Reverend Mother had said about me at the convent (where I had taken more prizes than Alma, though I had never mentioned it before) I told myself that I, too, was an educated woman. ‘ I knew Italian, French and German, and having heard that some women could make a living by translating books for publishers I thought I might do the same.
Nay, I could even write books myself. I was sure I could one book at all events, about friendless girls who have to face the world for themselves, and all good women would read it (some good men also), because they would see that it must be true.
Oh, how vain were my thoughts! Yet in another sense they were not all vanity, for I was not thinking of fame, or what people would say about what I should write, but only what I should get for it.
I should get money, not a great deal perhaps, yet enough for baby and me, that we might have that cottage in the country, covered with creepers and roses, where Isabel would run about the grass by and by, and pluck the flowers in the garden.
“So what have you got to cry about, you ridiculous thing,” I thought while I hurried along, with a high step now, as if my soul had been in my feet.
But a mother’s visions of the future are like a mirage (always gleaming with the fairy palaces which her child is to inhabit some day), and I am not the first to find her shadows fade away.
I must have been walking for some time, feeling no weariness at all, when I came to the bridge by Bow Church. There I had intended to take a tram, but not being tired I went on farther, thinking every stage I could walk would be so much money to the good.
I was deep in the Mile End Road, when a chilling thought came to me. It was the thought of the distance that would divide me from my child, making my visits to her difficult, and putting it out of my power to reach her quickly (perhaps even to know in time) if, as happened to children, she became suddenly and dangerously ill.
I remembered the long line of telescoping thoroughfares I had passed through earlier in the day (with their big hospitals, their big breweries, their big tabernacles, their workmen’s lodging-houses, their Cinema picture palaces, their Jewish theatres, and their numberless public houses); and then the barrier of squalid space which would divide me from baby, if I obtained employment in the “West End, seemed to be immeasurably greater and more frightening than the space that had divided me from Martin when he was at the other end of the world.
Not all the allurements of my dream were sufficient to reconcile me to such a dangerous separation.
“It’s impossible,” I thought. “Quite impossible.”
Insensibly my rapid footsteps slackened. When I reached that part of the Mile End Road in which the Jewish tailors live, and found myself listening to a foreign language which I afterwards knew to be Yiddish, and looking at men with curls at each side of their sallow faces, slithering along as if they were wearing eastern slippers without heels, I stopped, without knowing why, at the corner of a street where an Italian organ-man was playing while a number of bright-eyed Jewish children danced.
I was still looking on, hardly thinking of what I saw, when my eyes fell on an advertisement, pasted on the window of a sausage-and-ham shop at the corner. In large written characters it ran:
Seamstress Wanted. Good Wages.
Apply No. Washington Street.
How little are the things on which our destiny seems to hang! In a moment I was remembering what Mrs. Oliver had said about my being a good seamstress; and, almost before I knew what I was about, I was hurrying up the side street and knocking with my knuckles at an open door.
A rather fat and elderly Jewess, covered with rings and gold chains, and wearing a manifest black wig, came from a room at one side of the lobby. I explained my errand, and after she had looked me over in a sort of surprise, as if I had not been the kind of person she expected, she said, in a nasal and guttural voice:
“Vait! My daughter, she speaks very vell Ainglish. ”
Then turning her head over her shoulder, she pitched her voice several octaves higher and cried, “Miriam,” whereupon there came tripping downstairs a Jewish girl of about eighteen, with large black eyes, thick black hair, and such a dear good face.
I repeated my application, and after the girl had interpreted my request to her mother, I was asked into the lobby, and put through a kind of catechism.
Was I a seamstress? No, but I wished to become one. Had I aiver vorked on vaistcoats? I hadn’t, but I could do anything with my needle.
Perhaps the urgency of my appeal, and more probably the pressure of her own need, weighed with the Jewess, for after reflection, and an eager whisper from her daughter (who was looking at me with kindling eyes), she said,
“Very vell, ve’ll see what she can do.”
I was then taken into a close and stuffy room where a number of girls (all Jewish as I could see) were working on sections of waistcoats, which, lying about on every side, looked like patterns for legs of mutton. One girl was basting, another was pressing, and a third was sewing button-holes with a fine silk twist round bars of gimp.
This last was the work which was required of me, and I was told to look and see if I could do it. I watched the girl for a moment and then said:
“Let me try.”
Needle and twist and one of the half vests were then given to me, and after ten minutes I had worked my first button-hole and handed it back.
The daughter praised it warmly, but the mother said:
“Very fair, but a leedle slow.”
“Let me try again,” I said, and my trembling fingers were so eager to please that my next button-hole was not only better but more quickly made.
“Beautiful!” said the daughter. “And mamma, only think, she’s quicker than Leah, already. I timed them.”
“I muz call your vader, dough,” said the Jewess, and she disappeared through the doorway.
“While I stood talking to the younger Jewess, who had, I could see, formed as quick an attachment for me as I for her, I heard another nasal and guttural voice (a man’s) coming towards us from the hall.
“Is she von of our people?”
“Nein! She’s a Skihoah” – meaning, as I afterwards learned, a non-Jewish girl.
Then a tall, thin Jew entered the room behind the elderly Jewess. I had never before and have never since seen such a patriarchal figure. With his long grey beard and solemn face he might have stood for Moses in one of the pictures that used to hang on the walls of the convent except for his velvet skull-cap and the black alpaca apron, which was speckled over with fluffy bits of thread and scraps of cloth and silk.
He looked at me for a moment with his keen eyes, and after his wife had shown him my work, and he had taken a pinch of snuff and blown his nose on a coloured handkerchief with the sound of a trumpet, he put me through another catechism.
I was trembling lest he should make intimate inquiries, but beyond asking my name, and whether I was a Christian, he did not concern himself with personal questions.
“Vat vages do you vant?” he asked.
I told him I should be pleased to take whatever was paid to other girls doing work of the same kind.
“Ach no! Dese girls are full-timers. You are only a greener [meaning a beginner] so you vill not expect anything like so much.”
At that his daughter repeated her assurance that I was quicker than the girl she had called Leah; but the Jew, with an air of parental majesty, told her to be silent, and then said that as I was an “improver” he could only take me “on piece,” naming the price (a very small one) per half-dozen buttons and buttonholes, with the condition that I found my own twist and did the work in my own home.
Seeing that I should be no match for the Jew at a bargain, and being so eager to get to work at any price, I closed with his offer, and then he left the room, after telling me to come back the next day.
“And vhere do you lif, my dear?” said the Jewess.
I told her Bayswater, making some excuse for being in the East End, and getting as near to the truth as I dare venture, but feeling instinctively, after my sight of the master of the house, that I dared say nothing about my child.
She told me I must live nearer to my work, and I said that was exactly what I wished to do asking if she knew where I could find a room.
Fortunately the Jewess herself had two rooms vacant at that moment, and we went upstairs to look at them.
Both were at the top of the house, and one of them I could have for two shillings a week, but it was dark and cheerless, being at the back and looking into the space over the yards in which the tenants dried their washing on lines stretched from pulleys.
The other, which would cost a shilling a week more, was a lean slit of a room, very sparsely furnished, but it was to the front, and looked down into the varied life of the street, so I took it instantly and asked when I could move in.
“Ven you like,” said the Jewess. “Everyding is ready.”
So, early next morning I bade farewell to my good Welsh landlady (who looked grave when I told her what I was going to do) and to Emmerjane (who cried when I kissed her smudgy face) and, taking possession of my new home, began work immediately in my first and only employment.
Perhaps it was a deep decline after the splendours of my dreams, but I did not allow myself to think about that. I was near to Ilford and I could go to see Isabel every day.
Isabel! Isabel! Isabel! Everything was Isabel, for now that Martin was gone my hopes and my fears, my love and my life, revolved on one axis only my child.
MY employer was a Polish Jew, named Israel Abramovitch.
He had come to England at the time of the religious persecution in the Holy Cities of Russia, set himself up in his trade as a tailor in a garret in Whitechapel, hired a “Singer,” worked with “green” labour for “slop” warehouses, and become in less than twenty years the richest foreign Jew in the East End of London, doing some of the “best bespoke” work for the large shops in the West and having the reputation (as I afterwards found) of being the greatest of Jewish “sweaters.”
In spite of this, however, he was in his own way a deeply religious man. Strict, severe, almost superstitious in obeying the Levitical laws and in practising the sad and rather gloomy symbolism of his faith. A famous Talmudist, a pillar of the synagogue, one of the two wardens of the Chevra in Brick Lane, and consequently a great upholder of moral rectitude.
His house seemed to be a solid mass of human beings, chiefly Jewish girls, who worked all day, and sometimes (when regulations could be evaded or double gangs engaged) all night, for the Jew drove everybody at high speed, not excepting his wife, who cooked the food and pressed the clothes at the same time.
In this hive of industry I needed no spur to make me work.
Every, morning Mrs. Abramovitch brought up a thick pile of vests to my room, and every evening she took them down again, after counting my earnings with almost preternatural rapidity and paying me, day by day, with unfailing promptitude.
At the end of my first week I found I had made ten shillings. I was delighted, but after I had paid for my room and my food there was not enough for baby’s board, so the second week I worked later in the evenings, and earned fourteen shillings. This was still insufficient, therefore I determined to take something from the other end of the day.
“Morning will be better,” I thought, remembering the painful noises at night, especially about midnight, when people were being thrown out of a public-house higher up the street, where there was a placard in the window saying the ale sold there could be guaranteed to “make anybody drunk for fourpence. ”
Unfortunately (being a little weak) I was always heavy in the mornings, but by great luck my room faced the east, so I conceived the idea of moving my bed up to the window and drawing my blinds to the top so that the earliest light might fall on my face and waken me.
This device succeeded splendidly, and for many weeks of the late summer and early autumn I was up before the sun, as soon as the dawn had broadened and while the leaden London daylight was filtering through the smoke of yesterday.
By this means I increased my earnings to sixteen shillings,
and, as my fingers learned to fly over their work, to seven-
teen and even eighteen.
That was my maximum, and though it left a narrow margin for other needs it enabled me at the end if a month to pay another pound for baby’s board and to put away a little towards her “shortening,” which Mrs. Oliver was always saying must be soon.
I had to stick close to maintain this average, and 1 grudged even the time occupied in buying and eating my food, though that was not a long process in the Mile End Road, which is full of shops where things can be bought ready cooked. After the first week I did not even need to go out for them, for they were brought round to my room every morning, thus enabling me to live without leaving my work.
It was a stiff life, perhaps, but let nobody think I looked upon myself as a slave. Though I worked so hard I felt no self-pity. The thought that I was working for my child sweetened all my labours. It was such a joy to think that baby depended upon me for everything she wanted.
Being so happy in those days I sang a great deal, though naturally not in the middle of the day, when our house was going like a mill-wheel, but in the early mornings before the electric trams began to clang, or the hawkers with their barrows to shout, and when there was no sound even in the East End except that ceaseless tramp, tramp, tramp in the front street which always made me think of the children of Israel in Egypt drawing burdens for Pharaoh.
Throwing open my window I sang all sorts of things, but, being such a child myself and so fond of make-believe, I loved best to sing my lullaby, and so pretend that baby was with me in my room, lying asleep behind me in my bed.
“Sleep, little baby, I love thee, I love thee,
Sleep, little Queen, I am bending above thee.“
I never knew that I had any other audience than a lark in a cage on the other side of the street (perhaps I was in a cage myself, though I did not think of that then) which always started singing when I sang, except the washerwomen the West End, and two old widows opposite who sewed Bibles and stitched cassocks, which being (so Miriam told me) the worst-paid of all sweated labour compelled them to be up as early as myself.
It was not a very hopeful environment, yet for some time, in my little top room, I was really happy.
I saw baby every day. Between six and nine every night, I broke off work to go to Ilford, saying nothing about my errand to anybody, and leaving the family of the Jew to think it was my time for recreation.
Generally I “trammed” it from Bow Church, because I was so eager to get to my journey’s end, but usually I returned on foot, for though the distance was great I thought I slept better for the walk.
What joyful evenings those were!
Perhaps I was not altogether satisfied about the Olivers, but that did not matter very much. On closer acquaintance I found my baby’s nurse to be a “heedless” and “feckless” woman; and though I told myself that all allowances must be made for her in having a bad husband, I knew in my secret heart that I was deceiving myself, and that I ought to listen to the voices that were saying “Your child is being neglected.”
Sometimes it seemed to me that baby had not been bathed but that only gave me an excuse for bathing her myself.
Sometimes I thought her clothes were not as clean as they might be but that only gave me the joy of washing them.
Sometimes I was sure that her feeding-bottle had not been rinsed and her milk was not quite fresh but that only gave me the pleasure of scalding the one and boiling the other.
More than once it flashed upon me that I was paying Mrs. Oliver to do all this but then what a deep delight it was to be mothering my own baby!
Thus weeks and months passed it is only now I know how many, for in those days Time itself had nothing in it for me except my child and every new day brought the new joy of watching my baby’s development.
Oh, how wonderful it all was! To see her little mind and soul coming out of the Unknown! Out of the silence and darkness of the womb into the world of light and sound!
First her sense of sight, with her never-ending interest in her dear little toes! Then her senses of touch and hearing, and the gift of speech, beginning with a sort of crow, and ending in the “ma-ma-ma” which the first time I heard it went prancing through and through me and was more heavenly to my ears than the music of the spheres!
What evenings of joy I had with her!
The best of them (God forgive me!) were the nights when the bricklayer had got into some trouble by “knocking people about” at the “Rising Sun” and his wife had to go off to rescue him from the police.
Then, baby being ‘ ‘ shortened, ‘ ‘ I would prop her up in her cot while I sang “Sally” to her; or if that did not serve, and her little lip continued to drop, I both sang and danced, spreading my skirts and waltzing to the tune of “Clementina” while the kettle hummed over the fire and the brick-layer’s kitchen buzzed softly like a hive of bees.
Oh dear! Oh dear! I may have been down in the depths, yet there is no place so dark that it may not be brightened by a sunbeam, and my sunbeam was my child.
And then Martin baby was constantly making me think of him. Devouring her with my eyes, I caught resemblances every day in her eyes, her voice, her smile, and, above all, in that gurgling laugh that was like water bubbling out of a bottle.
I used to talk to her about him, pouring all my sentimental secrets into her ears, just as if she understood, telling her what a great man her father had been and how he loved both of us would have done if he had lived longer.
I dare say it was very foolish. Yet I cannot think it was all foolishness. Many and many a time since I have wondered if the holy saints, who knew what had really happened to Martin, were whispering all this in my ear as a means of keeping my love for him as much alive as if he had been constantly by my side.
The climax came when Isabel was about five months old, for then the feeling about baby and Martin reached another and higher phase.
I hardly dare to speak of it, lest it should seem silly when it was really so sacred and so exalted.
The idea I had had before baby was born, that she was being sent to console me (to be a link between my lost one and me), developed into the startling and rapturous thought that the very soul of Martin had passed into my child.
“So Martin is not dead at all,” I thought, “not really dead, because he lives in baby.”
It is impossible to say how this thought stirred me; how it filled my heart with thankfulness; how I prayed that the little body in which the soul of my Martin had come to dwell might grow beautiful and strong and worthy of him – how I felt charged with another and still greater responsibility to guard and protect her with my life itself if need be.
“Yes, yes, my very life itself,” I thought.
Perhaps this was a sort of delirium, born of my great love, my hard work, and my failing strength. I did not know, I did not care.
All that mattered to me then was one thing only that whereas hitherto I had thought Martin was so far gone from me that not Time but only Eternity would bring us together, now I felt that he was coming back and back to me nearer and nearer and nearer every day.
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
My dear, noble little woman was right in more ways than she knew.
At that very time I was in literal truth hurrying home to her as fast as the fastest available vessel could carry me.
As soon as we had boarded the Scotia at the Cape and greeted our old shipmates, we shouted for our letters.
There were some for all of us and heaps for me, so I scuttled down to my cabin, where I sorted the envelopes like a pack of cards, looking for the small delicate hand that used to write my letters and speeches.
To my dismay it was not there, and realizing that fact I bundled the letters into a locker and never looked at them again until we were two days out when I found they were chiefly congratulations from my committee, the proprietor of my newspaper, and the Royal Geographical Society, all welcome enough in their way, but- Dead Sea fruit to a man with an empty, heaving heart.
Going up on deck I found every face about me shining like the aurora, for the men had had good news all round! one having come into a fortune and another into the fatherhood of twins, and both being in a state of joy and excitement.
But all the good fellows were like boys. Some of them (with laughter seasoned by a few tears) read me funny bits out of their wives’ letters bits too that were not funny, about having “a pretty fit of hysterics” at reading bad news of us and “wanting to kiss the newsboy” when he brought the paper contradicting it.
I did my best to play the game of rejoicing, pretending I had had good news also, and everything was going splendid. But I found it hard enough to keep it going, especially while we were sailing back to the world, as we called it, and hearing from the crew the news of what had happened while we had been away.
First, there was the reason for the delay in the arrival of the ship, which had been due not to failure of the wireless at our end, but to a breakdown on Macquarie Island.
And then there was the account of the report of the loss of the Scotia in the gale going out, which had been believed on insufficient evidence (as I thought), but recorded in generous words of regret that sent the blood boiling to a man’s face and made him wish to heaven they could be true.
We were only five or six days sailing to New Zealand, but the strain to me was terrible, for the thought was always uppermost:
“Why didn’t she write a word of welcome to reach me on my return to civilisation?”
When I was not talking to somebody that question was constantly haunting me. To escape from it I joined the sports of my shipmates, who with joyful news in their hearts and fresh food in their stomachs were feeling as good as new in spite of all they had suffered.
But the morning we smelt land, the morning the cloud banks above the eastern horizon came out hard and fast and sure (no dreamland this time), I stood at the ship’s bow, saying nothing to anybody, only straining my eyes for the yet distant world we were coming back to out of that desolate white waste, and thinking:
“Surely I’ll have news from her before nightfall.”
There was a big warm-hearted crowd on the pier at Port Lyttelton. Treacle said, “Gawd, I didn’t know there was so many people in the world, Guv ‘nor;” and ‘Sullivan, catching sight of a pretty figure under a sunshade, tugged at my arm and cried (in the voice of an astronomer who has discovered a planet), “Commanther! Commanther! A girl!”
Almost before we had been brought to, a company of scientific visitors came aboard; but I was more concerned about the telegrams that had come at the same moment, so hurrying down to my cabin I tore them open like a vulture riving its prey always looking at the signatures first and never touching an envelope without thinking:
“Oh God, what will be inside of it?”
There was nothing from my dear one! Invitations to dine, to lecture, to write books, to do this and that and Heaven knows what, but never a word from her who was more to me than all the world besides.
This made me more than ever sure of the “voices” that had called me back from the 88th latitude, so I decided instantly to leave our ship in New Zealand, in readiness for our next effort, and getting across to Sydney to take the first fast steamer home.
The good people at Port Lyttelton were loath to let us go. But after I had made my excuses, (“crazy to get back to wives and sweethearts, you know”) they sent a school of boys (stunning little chaps in Eton suits) to sing us off with “Forty Years On” which brought more of my mother into my eyes than I knew to be left there.
At Sydney we had the same experience the same hearty crowds, the same welcome, the same invitations, to which we made the same replies, and then got away by a fast liner which happened to be ready to sail.
On the way “back to the world” I had slung together a sort of a despatch for the newspaper which had promoted our expedition (a lame, limping thing for want of my darling’s help to make it go), saying something about the little we had been able to do but more about what we meant, please God, to do some day.
“She’ll see that, anyway, and know we’re coming back,” I thought.
But to make doubly sure I sent two personal telegrams, one to my dear one at Castle Raa, and the other to my old people at home, asking for answers to Port Said.
Out on the sea again I was tormented by the old dream of the crevassed glacier; and if anybody wonders why a hulking chap who had not been afraid of a ninety-mile blizzard in the region of the Pole allowed himself to be kept awake at night by a buzzing in the brain, all I can say is that it was so, and I know nothing more about it.
Perhaps my recent experience with the ” wireless” persuaded me that if two sticks stuck in the earth could be made to communicate with each other over hundreds of miles, two hearts that loved each other knew no limitations of time or space.
In any case I was now so sure that my dear one had called me home from the Antarctic that by the time we reached Port Said, and telegrams were pouring in on me, I had worked myself up to such a fear that I dared not open them.
From sheer dread of the joy or sorrow that might be enclosed in the yellow covers, I got O’Sullivan down in my cabin to read my telegrams, while I scanned his face and nearly choked with my own tobacco smoke.
There was nothing from my dear one! Nothing from my people at home either!
‘Sullivan got it into his head that I was worrying about my parents, and tried to comfort me by saying that old folks never dreamt of telegraphing, but by the holy immaculate Mother he’d go bail there would be a letter for me before long.
We stayed two eternal days at Port Said while the vessel was taking coal for the rest of the voyage, and almost at the moment of sailing a letter arrived from Ellan, which, falling into O ‘Sullivan ‘s hands first, sent him flying through the steamer and shouting at the top of his voice:
The passengers gave room for him, and told me afterwards of his beaming face. And when he burst into my cabin I too felt sure he had brought me good news, which he had, though it was not all that I wanted.
“The way I was sure there would be a letter for you soon, and by the holy St. Patrick and St. Thomas, here it is,” he cried.
The letter was from my father, and I had to brace myself before I could read it.
It was full of fatherly love, motherly love, too, and the extravagant pride my dear good old people had of me (“everybody’s talking of you, my boy, and there’s nothing else in the newspapers”); but not a word about my Mary or only one, and that seemed worse than none at all.
“You must have heard of the trouble at Castle Raa. Very sad, but this happy hour is not the time to say anything about it.”
Nothing more! Only reams and reams of sweet parental chatter which (God forgive me!) I would have gladly given over and over again for one plain sentence about my darling.
Being now more than ever sure that some kind of catastrophe had overtaken my poor little woman, I telegraphed to her again, this time (without knowing what mischief I was making) at the house of Daniel O’Neill telling myself that, though the man was a brute who had sacrificed his daughter to his lust of rank and power and all the rest of his rotten aspirations, he was her father, and, if her reprobate of a husband had turned her out, he must surely have taken her in.
“Cable reply to Malta. Altogether too bad not hearing from you,” I said.
A blind, hasty, cruel telegram, but thank God she never received it!
[END OF MARTIN CONRAD’S MEMORANDUM]
DAY by day it became more and more difficult for me to throw dust in my own eyes about the Olivers.
One evening on reaching their house a little after six, as usual, I found the front door open, the kitchen empty save for baby, who, sitting up in her cot, was holding quiet converse with her toes, and the two Olivers talking loudly (probably by pre-arrangement) in the room upstairs.
The talk was about baby, which was “a noosance,” interfering with a man ‘s sleep by night and driving him out of his home by day. And how much did they get for it? Nothing, in a manner of speaking. What did the woman (meaning me) think the “bleedin’ place” was “a philanthropic institooshun” or a “charity orginisation gime”?
After this I heard the bricklayer thunder downstairs in his heavy boots and go out of the house without coming into the kitchen, leaving his wife (moral coward that he was) to settle his account with me.
Then Mrs. Oliver came down, with many sighs, expressed surprise at seeing me and fear that I might have overheard what had been said in the room above.
“Sorry to say I’ve been having a few words with Ted, ma’am, and tell you the truth it was about you.”
Ted had always been against her nursing, and she must admit it wasn’t wise of a woman to let her man go to the public-house to get out of the way of a crying child; but though she was a-running herself off her feet to attend to the pore dear, and milk was up a penny, she had growd that fond of my baby since she lost her own that she couldn’t abear to part with the jewel, and perhaps if I could pay a little more Ted said seven, but she said six, and a shilling a week wouldn’t hurt me she could over-persuade him to let the dear precious stay.
I was trembling with indignation while I listened to the woman’s whining (knowing well I was being imposed upon), but I was helpless and so I agreed.
My complacency had a bad effect on the Olivers, who continued to make fresh extortions, until their demands almost drove me to despair.
I thought a climax had been reached when one night a neighbour came to the door and, calling Mrs. Oliver into the lobby, communicated some news in a whisper which brought her back with a frightened face for her cloak and hat, saying “something was a matter with Ted” and she must “run away quick to him.”
When she returned an hour or two later she was crying, and with sobs between her words she told me that Ted (having taken a drop too much) had “knocked somebody about” at the “Sun.” As a consequence he had fallen into the hands of the police, and would be brought before the magistrate the following morning, when, being unable to pay the fine, he would have to “do time” just as a strike was a-coming on, too, and he was expecting good pay from the Strike Committee.
“And what is to happen to me and the baby while my ‘usband is in prison?” she said.
I knew it was an act of weakness, but, thinking of my child and the danger of its being homeless, I asked what the amount of the fine would probably be, and being told ten-and-six, I gave the money, though it was nearly all I had in the world.
I paid for my weakness, though, and have reason to remember it.
The extortions of the Olivers had brought me to so narrow a margin between my earnings and expenses that I lay awake nearly all that night thinking what I could do to increase the one or reduce the other. The only thing I found possible was to change to cheaper quarters. So next morning, with a rather heavy heart, I asked Mrs. Abramovitch if the room at the back of the house was still empty, and hearing that it was I moved into it the same day.
That was a small and not a very wise economy.
My new room was cheerless as well as dark, with no sights but the clothes that were drying from the pulley-lines and no sounds but the whoops of the boys of the neighbourhood playing at “Red Indians” on the top of the yard walls.
But it was about the same as the other in size and furniture, and after I had decorated it with my few treasures the Reverend Mother’s rosary, which I hung on the head of the bed, and my darling mother’s miniature, which I pinned up over the fire I thought it looked bright and homelike.
All this time, too, I was between the nether and the upper mill-stone.
My employer, the Jew (though he must have seen that I was sweating myself much more than the law would have allowed him to sweat me), could not forgive himself when he found that I was earning more by “piece” than he would have had to pay me by the day, or resist the temptation to square accounts with me at the earliest possible opportunity.
Unfortunately, his opportunity came only too quickly, and it led (however indirectly) to the most startling fact that has ever, perhaps, entered into a woman’s life.
I had not been more than three months at the Jew’s house when the Jewish festivals came round New Year’s Day, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles which, falling near together and occupying many days, disturbed his own habits of work entirely.
One of the tasks he reserved for himself was that of taking the best paid of his “best-bespoke” back to the large shops in the West End, and waiting for the return orders. But finding that the festivals interfered with these journeys, he decided that they should be made by me, who was supposed to know the West End (having lived in it) and to present a respectable appearance.
I was reluctant to undertake the new duty, for though the Jew was to pay me a few shillings a week for it, I saw I could earn more in the time with my needle. But when he laid his long, hairy forefinger on the side of his nose and said with a significant smile:
“You vill be gradeful, and convenience your employer, mine child,” I agreed.
Thus it came to pass that not only during the Jewish festivals, but for months after they were over, I carried a rather large black bag by tram or rail to the district that lies at the back of Piccadilly and along Oxford Street as far west as the Marble Arch.
I had to go whenever called upon and to wait as long as wanted, so that in the height of the tailoring season I was out in the West End at all irregular hours of night, and even returned to my lodgings on one or two occasions in the raw sunshine of the early mornings.
The one terror of my West End journeys was that I might meet Sister Mildred. I never did. In the multitude of faces which passed through the streets, flashing and disappearing like waves under the moon at sea, I never once caught a glimpse of a face I knew.
But what sights I saw for all that! What piercing, piteous proofs that between the rich and the poor there is a great gulf fixed!
The splendid carriages driving in and out of the Park; the sumptuously dressed ladies strolling through Bond Street; the fashionable church paraders; the white plumes and diamond stars which sometimes gleamed behind the glow of the electric broughams gliding down the Mall.
“I used to be a-toffed up like that onct,” I heard an old woman who was selling matches say as a lady in an ermine coat stepped out of a theatre into an automobile and was wrapped round in a tiger-skin rug.
Sometimes it happened that, returning to the East End after the motor ‘buses had ceased to ply, I had to slip through the silent Leicester Square and the empty Strand to the Underground Railway on the Embankment.
Then I would see the wretched men and women who were huddled together in the darkness on the steps to the river (whose ever-flowing waters must have witnessed so many generations of human wreckage), and, glancing up at the big hotels and palatial mansions full of ladies newly returned from theatres and restaurants in their satin slippers and silk stockings, I would wonder how they could lie in their white beds at night in rooms whose windows looked down on such scenes.
But the sight that stirred me most (though it did not awaken my charity, which shows what a lean-souled thing I was myself) was that of the “public women,” the streetwalkers, as I used to call them, whom I saw in Piccadilly with their fine clothes and painted faces, sauntering in front of the clubs or tripping along with a light step and trying to attract the attention of the men.
I found no pathos in the position of such women. On the contrary, I had an unspeakable horror and hatred and loathing of them, feeling that no temptation, no poverty, no pressure that could ever be brought to bear upon a woman in life or in death excused her for committing so great a wrong on the sanctity of her sex as to give up her womanhood at any call but that of love.
“Nothing could make me do it,” I used to think, “nothing in this world.”
But God! how little I knew then what is in a woman’s heart to do when she has a child to live for, and is helpless and alone!
I cannot expect anybody to forgive me for what I did (or attempted to do), and now that the time has come to tell of it my hand trembles, and body and soul seem to be quivering like a flame.
May God (who has brought everything to such a glorious end) have mercy on me and forgive me, and help me to be true!
THE worst consequence of my West End journeys was that my nightly visits to Ilford were fewer than before, and that the constant narrowing of the margin between my income and my expenses made it impossible for me to go there during the day.
As a result my baby received less and less attention, and I could not be blind to the fact that she was growing paler and thinner.
At length she developed a cough which troubled me a great deal. Mrs. Oliver made light of it, saying a few pennyworths of paregoric would drive it away, so I hurried off to a chemist, who recommended a soothing syrup of his own, saying it was safer and more effectual for a child.
The syrup seemed to stop the cough but to disturb the digestion, for I saw the stain of curdled milk on baby’s bib and was conscious of her increasing weakness.
This alarmed me very much, and little as I knew of children’s ailments, I became convinced that she stood in need of more fresh air, so I entreated Mrs. Oliver to take her for a walk every day.
I doubt if she ever did so, for as often as I would say:
“Has baby been out to-day, nurse?” Mrs. Oliver would make some lame excuse and pass quickly to another subject.
At last, being unable to bear the strain any longer, I burst out on the woman with bitter reproaches, and then she broke down into tears and explained everything. She was behind with her rent, the landlord was threatening, and she dared not leave the house for a moment lest he should lock her out altogether.
“I don’t mind telling you, it’s all along of Ted, ma’am. He’s on strike wages but he spends it at the ‘Sun,’ He has never been the man to me never once since I married him. I could work and keep the house comfortable without him, but he wouldn’t let me a-be, because he knows I love him dear. Yes, I do, I love him dear,” she continued, breaking into hysterical sobs, “and if he came home and killed me I could kiss him with my last breath.”
This touched me more than I can say. A sense of something tragic in the position of the poor woman, who knew the character of the man she loved as well as the weakness which compelled her to love him, made me sympathise with her for the first time, and think (with a shuddering memory of my own marriage) how many millions of women there must be in the world who were in a worse position than myself.
On returning to my room that night I began to look about to see if I had anything I could sell in order to help Mrs. Oliver, and so put an end to the condition that kept my baby a prisoner in her house.
I had nothing, or next to nothing. Except the Reverend Mother’s rosary (worth no more than three or four shillings) I had only my mother’s miniature, which was framed in gold and set in pearls, but that was the most precious of all my earthly possessions except my child.
Again and again when I looked at it in my darkest hours ‘ I had found new strength and courage. It had been like a shrine to me what the image of the Virgin was in happier days and thinking of all that my darling mother had done and suffered and sacrificed for my sake when I was myself a child, I felt that I could never part with her picture under the pressure of any necessity whatever.
“Never,” I thought, “never under any circumstances.”
It must have been about a week after this that I went to Ilford on one of those chill, clammy nights which seem peculiar to the East End of London, where the atmosphere, compounded of smoke and fog and thin drizzling rain, penetrates to the bone and hangs on one’s shoulders like a shroud.
Thinking of this, as I thought of everything, in relation to baby, I bought, as I was passing a hosier’s shop, a pair of nice warm stockings and a little woollen jacket.
When I reached the Olivers’ I found, to my surprise, two strange men stretched out at large in the kitchen, one on the sofa and the other in the rocking-chair, both smoking strong tobacco and baby coughing constantly.
Before I realised what had happened Mrs. Oliver called me into the scullery, and, after closing the door on us, she explained the position, in whispers broken by sobs.
It was the rent. These were the” bailiff’s men put into possession by the landlord, and unless she could find two pounds ten by nine o’clock to-morrow morning, she and her husband would be sold up and turned into the street.
“The home as I’ve been scraping and pinching to keep together!” she cried. “For the sake of two pound ten! . . . You couldn’t lend us that much, could you?”
I told her I could not, but she renewed her entreaties, asking me to think if I had not something I could pawn for them, and saying that Ted and she would consider it “a sacred dooty” to repay.
Again I told her I had nothing I was trying not to think of the miniature but just at that moment she caught sight of the child’s jacket which I was still holding in my hand, and she fell on me with bitter reproaches.
“You’ve money enough to spend on baby, though. It’s crool. Her living in lukshry and getting new milk night and day, and fine clothes being bought for her constant, and my pore Ted without a roof to cover him in weather same as this. It breaks my heart. It do indeed. Take your child away, ma’am. Take her to-night, afore we’re turned out of house and home to-morrow morning.”
Before the hysterical cries with which Mrs. Oliver said this had come to an end I was on my way back to my room at the Jew’s. But it was baby I was thinking of in relation to that cold, clammy night that it would be impossible to take her out in it (even if I had somewhere to take her to, which I had not) without risk to her health and perhaps her life.
With trembling fingers and an awful pain at my heart I took my mother’s miniature from the wall and wrapped it up in tissue paper.
A few minutes afterwards I was back in the damp streets, walking fast and eagerly, cutting over the lines of the electric trams without looking for the crossings.
I knew where I was going to I was going to a pawn-broker ‘s in the Mile End Waste which I had seen on my West End journeys. When I got there I stole in at a side door, half-closing my eyes as I did so, by that strange impulse which causes us to see nothing when we do not wish to be seen.
I shall never forget the scene inside. I think it must have left a scar on my brain, for I see it now in every detail the little dark compartment; the high counter; the shelves at the back full of parcels, like those of a left-luggage room at a railway station; the heavy, baggy, big-faced man in shirt-sleeves with a long cigar held between his teeth at the corner of his frothy mouth; and then my own hurried breathing; my thin fingers opening the tissue paper and holding out the miniature; the man’s coarse hands fumbling it; his casual air as he looked at it and cheapened, it, as if it had been a common thing scarcely worthy of consideration.
“What’s this ‘ere old-fashion ‘d thing? Portrait of your great-grandmother? Hum! Not ‘arf bad-looking fice, neither.”
I think my eyes must have been blazing like hot coals. I am sure I bit my lips (I felt them damp and knew they were bleeding) to prevent myself from flinging out at the man in spite of my necessity. But I did my best to control my trembling mouth, and when he asked me how much I wanted on the miniature I answered, with a gulp in my throat:
“Two pounds ten, if you please, sir.”
“Couldn ‘t do it,” said the pawnbroker.
I stood speechless for a moment, not knowing what to say next, and then the pawnbroker, with apparent indifference, said:
“I’ll give you two ten for it out and out.”
“You mean I am to sell …”
“Yus, take it or leave it, my dear.”
It is no use saying what I suffered at that moment. I think I became ten years older during the few minutes I stood at that counter.
But they came to an end somehow, and the next thing
I knew was that I was on my way back to Ilford; that the damp air had deepened into rain; that miserable and perhaps homeless beings, ill-clad and ill-fed, were creeping along in the searching cold with that shuffling sound which bad boots make on a wet pavement; and that I was telling myself with a fluttering heart that the sheltering wings of my beautiful mother in heaven had come to cover my child.
On reaching the Olivers’, hot and breathless, I put three gold coins, two sovereigns and a half-sovereign, on to the table to pay off the broker’s men.
They had been settling themselves for the night, and looked surprised and I thought chagrined, but took up the money and went away.
As they were going off one of them called me to the door, and in the little space at the foot of the stairs he said, tipping his fingers towards the cot:
“If that’s your kiddie, miss, I recommend you to get it out o’ this ‘ere place quick see?”
I stayed an hour or two longer because I was troubled about baby’s cough; and before I left, being still uneasy, I did what I had never done before wrote my address at the Jew’s house, so that I could be sent for if I was ever wanted.
ONE HUNDREDTH CHAPTER
WHEN I awoke next morning the last word of the broker’s man seemed to be ringing in my ears.
I knew it was true; I knew I ought to remove baby from the house of the Olivers without another day’s delay, but I was at a loss to know what to do with her.
To bring her to my own room at the Jew’s was obviously impossible, and to advertise for a nurse for my child was to run the risk of falling into the toils of somebody who might do worse than neglect her.
In my great perplexity I recalled the waitress at the restaurant whose child had been moved to a Home in the country, and for some moments I thought how much better it would be that baby should be “bonny and well” instead of pale and thin as she was now. But when I reflected that if I took her to a public institution I should see her only once a month, I told myself that I could not and would not do so.
“I’ll work my fingers to the bone first,” I thought.
Yet life makes a fearful tug at a woman when it has once got hold of her, and, strangely enough, it was in the Jew’s house that I first came to see that for the child’s own sake I must part with her.
Somewhere about the time of my moving into the back room my employer made a kind of bower of branches and evergreens over the lead-flat roof of an outhouse in his back-yard a Succah, as Miriam called it, built in honour of the Feast of Tabernacles, as a symbol of the time when the Israelites in the Wilderness dwelt in booths.
In this Succah the Jew’s family ate all their meals during the seven or eight days of the Jewish feast, and one morning, as I sat at work by my open window, I heard Miriam after breakfast reading something from the Books of Moses.
It was the beautiful story of Jacob parting with Benjamin in the days of the famine, when there was corn in Egypt only how the poor old father in his great love could not bring himself to give up his beloved son, although death threatened him; how Judah pleaded with Jacob to send the boy with him into the far country lest they should all die, “both we and thou and also our little ones;” and how at last Jacob said, “If it must be so, do this,” but “if I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”
It would be hard to say how deeply this story moved me while I listened from my room above. And now that I thought of it again, I saw that I was only sacrificing my child to my selfish love of her, and therefore the duty of a true mother was to put her into a Home.
It would not be for long. The work I was doing was not the only kind I was capable of. After I had liberated myself from the daily extortions of the Olivers I should be free to look about for more congenial and profitable employment; and then by and by baby and I might live together in that sweet cottage in the country (I always pictured it as a kind of Sunny Lodge, with roses looking in at the window of “Mary O’Neill’s little room”) which still shone through my dreams.
I spent some sleepless nights in reconciling myself to all this, and perhaps wept a little, too, at the thought that after years of separation I might be a stranger to my own darling. But at length I put my faith in “the call of the blood” to tell her she was mine, and then nothing remained except to select the institution to which my only love and treasure was to be assigned.
Accident helped me in this as in other things. One day on my westward journey a woman who sat beside me in the tram, and was constantly wiping her eyes (though I could see a sort of sunshine through her tears), could not help telling me, out of the overflowing of her poor heart, what had just been happening to her.
She was a widow, and had been leaving her little girl, three years old, at an orphanage, and though it had been hard to part with her, and the little darling had looked so pitiful when she came away, it would be the best for both of them in the long run.
I asked which orphanage it was, and she mentioned the name of it, telling me something about the founder a good doctor who had been a father to the fatherless of thousands of poor women like herself.
That brought me to a quick decision, and the very, next morning, putting on my hat and coat, I set off for the Home, which I knew where to find, having walked round it on my way back from the West End and heard the merry voices of happy children who were playing behind a high wall.
I hardly know whether to laugh or cry when I think of the mood in which I entered the orphanage. In spite of all that life had done to me, I really and truly felt as if I were about to confer an immense favour upon the doctor by allowing him to take care of my little woman.
Oh, how well I remember that little point of time!
My first disappointment was to learn that the good doctor was dead, and when I was shown into the office of his successor (everything bore such a business-like air) I found an elderly man with a long “three-decker” neck and a glacial smile, who, pushing his spectacles up on to his forehead, said in a freezing voice:
“Well, ma’am, what is your pleasure?”
After a moment of giddiness I began to tell him my story how I had a child and her nurse was not taking proper care of her; how I was in uncongenial employment myself, but hoped soon to get better: how I loved my little one and
expected to be able to provide for her presently; and how, therefore, if he would receive her for a while, only a little while, on the understanding, the clear and definite understanding, that I could take her away as soon as I wished to …
Oh dear! Oh dear!
I do not know what there was in my appearance or speech which betrayed me, but I had got no further than this when the old gentleman said sharply:
“Can you provide a copy of the register of your child’s birth to show that it is legitimate? ”
What answer I made I cannot recollect, except that I told the truth in a voice with a tremor in it, for a memory of the registry office was rolling back on me and I could feel my blushes flushing into my face.
The result was instantaneous. The old gentleman touched a bell, drew his spectacles down on to his nose, and said in his icy tones:
“Don’t take illegitimate children if we can help it.”
It was several days before I recovered from the deep humiliation of this experience. Then (the exactions of the Olivers quickening my memory and at the same time deadening my pride) I remembered something which I had heard the old actress say during my time at the boarding-house about a hospital in Bloomsbury for unfortunate children how the good man who founded it had been so firm in his determination that no poor mother in her sorrow should be put to further shame about her innocent child that he had hung out a basket at the gate at night in which she could lay her little one, if she liked, and then ring a bell and hide herself away.
It wasn’t easy to reconcile oneself to such philanthropy, but after a sleepless night, and with rather a sickening pang of mingled hope and fear, I set off for this hospital.
It was a fine Sunday morning. The working-men in the East End were sitting at their doors smoking their pipes and reading their Sunday papers; but when I reached the West all the church bells were ringing, and people wearing black clothes and shiny black gloves were walking with measured steps through the wide courtyard that led to the chapel.
I will not say that I did not feel some qualms at entering a Protestant church, yet as soon as I had taken my seat and looked up at the gallery of the organ, where the children sat tier on tier, so quaint and sweet the boys like robins in their bright red waistcoats, and the girls like rabbits in their mob-caps with fluted frills and the service began, and the fresh young voices rose in hymns of praise to the good Father of us all, I thought of nothing except the joy of seeing Isabel there some day and hearing her singing in the choir.
When the service was over I asked for the secretary and was shown into his room.
I dare say he was a good man, but oh! why will so many good people wear such wintry weather in their faces that merely to look at them pierces a poor woman to the soul?
Apologising for the day, I told my story again (my head a little down), saying I understood that it was no barrier to a child in that orphanage that she had been born outside the pale of the law.
“On the contrary,” said the secretary, “that is precisely the kind of child this house is intended for.”
But when I went on to say that I assumed they still observed the wish of the founder that no questions of any kind should be asked about a child’s birth or parentage, he said no, they had altered all that. Then he proceeded to explain that before a child could be received the mother must now go before a
committee of gentlemen to satisfy them of her previous good character, and that the father of her baby had deserted both of them.
More than that, he told me that on being received the child was immediately re-registered and given a new name, in order that it might be cut off from the sin of its parents and the contamination of their shame.
It would be impossible for me to describe the feelings with which I listened to the secretary while he said all this, with the cast-metal face of a man who was utterly unconscious of the enormity of the crime he was describing.
“Before a committee of gentlemen?” I asked.
“That is so.”
“Who are to ask her all those questions?”
“And then they are to change her baby’s name?”
“Is she told what the new name is to be?”
“No, but she is given a piece of parchment containing a number which corresponds with the name in our books.”
I rose to my feet, flushing up to the eyes I think, trembling from head to foot I know, and, forgetting who and what I was and why I was there a poor, helpless, penniless being seeking shelter for her child I burst out on the man in all the mad wrath of outraged motherhood.
“And you call this a Christian institution!” I said. “You take a poor woman in her hour of trouble and torture her with an inquisition into the most secret facts of her life, in public, and before a committee of men. And then you take her child, and so far as she is concerned you bury it, and give her a ticket to its grave. A hospital? This is no hospital. It is a cemetery. And yet you dare to write over your gates the words of our Lord our holy and loving and blessed Lord who said, ‘Suffer little children . . .”
But what is the use of repeating what I said then (perhaps unjustly) or afterwards in the silence of my own room and the helpless intoxication of my rage?
It was soon stamped out of me.
By the end of another week I was driven to such despair by the continued extortions of the Olivers that, seeing an advertisement in the Underground Railway of a Home for children in the country (asking for subscriptions and showing a group of happy little people playing under a chestnut-tree in bloom), I decided to make one more effort.
“They can’t all be machines,” I thought, “with the founders’ hearts crushed out of them.”
The day was Friday, when work was apt to heap up at the Jew’s, and Mrs. Abramovitch had brought vests enough to my room to cover my bed, but nevertheless I put on my hat and coat and set out for the orphanage.
It was fifteen miles on the north side of London, so it cost me something to get there. But I was encouraged by the homelike appearance of the place when I reached it, and still more by finding that it was conducted by women, for at last, I thought, the woman-soul would speak to me.
But hardly had I told my story to the matron, repeating my request (very timidly this time and with such a humble, humble heart) that I might be allowed to recover my child as soon as I found myself able to provide for her, than she stopped me and said:
“My dear young person, we could have half the orphan children in London on your terms. Before we accept such a child as yours we expect the parent to give us a legal undertaking that she relinquishes all rights in it until it is sixteen years of age.”
“Sixteen? Isn’t that rather severe on a mother?” I said.
“Justly severe,” said the matron. “Such women should be made to maintain their children, and thus realise that the way of transgressors is hard.”
How I got back to London, whether by rail or tram or on foot, or what happened on the way (except that darkness was settling down on me, within and without), I do not know. I only know that very late that night, as late as eleven o ‘clock, I was turning out of Park Lane into Piccadilly, where the poor ‘ ‘ public women ‘ ‘ with their painted faces, dangling their little hand-bags from their wrists, were promenading in front of the gentlemen’s clubs and smiling up at the windows.
These were the scenes which had formerly appalled me; but now I was suddenly surprised by a different feeling, and found myself thinking that among the women who sinned against their womanhood there might be some who sold themselves for bread to keep those they loved and who loved them.
This thought was passing through my mind when I heard a hollow ringing laugh from a woman who was standing at the foot of a flight of steps talking to a group of three gentlemen whose white shirt fronts beneath their overcoats showed that they were in evening dress.
Her laughter was not natural. It had no joy in it, yet she laughed and laughed, and feeling as if I knew (because life had that day trampled on me also), I said to myself:
“That woman ‘s heart is dead.”
This caused me to glance at her as I passed, when, catching a side glimpse of her face, I was startled by a memory I could not fix.
“Where and when have I seen that woman’s face before?” I thought.
It seemed impossible that I could have seen it anywhere. But the woman’s resemblance to somebody I had known. coupled with her joyless laughter, compelled me to stop at the next corner and look back.
By this time the gentlemen, who had been treating her lightly (O God, how men treat such women!), had left her and, coming arm-in-arm in my direction, with, their silk hats tilted a little back, were saving:
“Poor old Aggie! She’s off!” “Completely off!” “Is it drink, I wonder?”
And then, seeing me, they said:
“Gad, here’s a nice little gal, though!” “No rouge, neither!” “By Jove, no! Her face is as white as a water-lily!”
Seeing that they were wheeling round, and fearing they were going to speak to me, I moved back and so came face to face with the woman, who was standing where they had left her, silent now, and looking after the men with fierce eyes under the fair hair that curled over her forehead.
Then in a moment a memory from the far past swept over me, and I cried, almost as if the name had been forced out of me:
The woman started, and it seemed for a moment as if she were going to run away. Then she laid hold of me by the arm and, looking searchingly into my face, said:
“Who are you? … I know. You are Mary O’Neill, aren ‘t you?”
“I knew you were. I read about your marriage to that . . . that man. And now you are wondering why I am here. Well, come home with me and see.”
It was not until afterwards that I knew by what mistake about my presence in that place Angela thought she must justify herself in my eyes (mine!); but taking me by the hand, just as she used to do when I was a child, she led, almost pulled, me down Piccadilly, and my will was so broken that I did not attempt to resist her.
We crossed Piccadilly Circus, with its white sheet of electric light, and, turning into the darker thoroughfares on the northern side of it, walked on until, in a narrow street of the Italian quarter of Soho, we stopped at a private door by the side of a cafe that had an Italian name on the window.
“This is where we live. Come in,” said Angela, and I followed her through a long empty lobby and up three flights of bare stairs.
While we ascended, there was the deadened sound, as from the cafe, of men singing (in throbbing voices to mandolines and guitars) one of the Italian songs which I remembered to have heard from the piazza outside the convent on that night when Sister Angela left me in bed while she went off to visit the chaplain:
“Oh bella Napoli, Oh suol beato
Onde sorridere voile il creato.“
“The Italian Club,” said Angela, “Only one flight more. Come!”
ONE HUNDRED AND FIRST CHAPTER
AT length Angela opened, with a key from her satchel, a door on the top landing, and we entered a darkened room which was partly in the roof.
As we stepped in I heard rapid breathing, which told me that we were in a sick chamber, and then a man’s voice, very husky and weak, saying:
“Is that you, Agnes?”
“It’s only me, dear,” said Angela.
After a moment she turned up the solitary gas-jet, which had been burning low, and I saw the shadowy form of a man lying in a bed that stood in a corner. He was wasted with consumption, his long bony hands were lying on the counterpane, his dark hair was matted over his forehead as from sweat, but I could not mistake the large, lively grey eyes that looked out of his long thin face. It was Father Giovanni.
Angela went up to him and kissed him, and I could see that his eyes lighted with a smile as he saw her coming into the room.
“There ‘s somebody with you, isn’t there?” he said.
“Yes. Who do you think it is?”
“Don’t you remember little Margaret Mary at the Sacred Heart?”
“Is this she?”
“Yes,” said Angela, and then in a hoarse, angry voice the man said:
“What has she come here for?”
Angela told him that I had seen her on Piccadilly, and being a great lady now, I (Oh heaven!) was one of the people who came out into the streets at midnight to rescue lost ones.
“She looked as if she wondered what had brought me down to that life, so I ‘ve fetched her home to see.”
I was shocked at Angela ‘s mistake, but before I could gather strength or courage to correct her Giovanni was raising himself in bed and saying, with a defiant air, his eyes blazing like watch-fires:
“She does it for me, if you want to know. I’ve been eleven months ill she does it all for me, I tell you.”
And then, in one of those outbursts of animation which come to the victims of that fell disease, he gave me a rapid account of what had happened to them since they ran away from Rome how at first he had earned their living as a teacher of languages; how it became known that he was an unfrocked and excommunicated priest who had broken his vows/ and then his pupils had left him; how they had struggled on for some years longer, though pursued by this character as by a malignant curse; and how at length his health had quite broken down, and he would have starved but for Agnes (Angela being her nun’s name), who had stuck to him through everything.
While the sick man said this in his husky voice, Angela was sitting on the bed by his side with her arm about his waist, listening to him with a sort of pride and looking at me with a kind of triumph.
“I dare say you wonder why I didn’t try to get work,” she said. “I could have got it if I had wanted to. I could have got it at the Italian laundry. But what was two shillings a day to a man who was ordered new milk and fresh eggs five times every twenty-four hours, not to speak of the house rent?”
“She ought to have let me die first,” said Giovanni, and then, looking at me again with his large, glittering, fierce eyes, he said:
“You think she ought to have let me die, don’t you?”
“No, no, no,” I said it was all I could say, for their mistake about myself was choking me.
Perhaps my emotion appeased both of them, for after a moment Angela beat out Giovanni’s pillow and straightened his counterpane, and then told him to lie down and be quiet, while she brought a chair for me and took off her things in her own bedroom.
But hardly had she gone into an adjoining chamber when the sick man raised himself again and, reaching over in my direction, told me in a hoarse whisper the story of the first night of her present way of life how the doctor had said he must be removed to the hospital; how Agnes would not part with him; how the landlord had threatened to turn them out; and how at last, after sitting with her head in her hands the whole evening, Aggie had got up and gone out and, coming back at midnight, had thrown two sovereigns on the table and said, “There you are, Giovanni that’s our rent and your eggs and milk for one week, anyway.”
By this time Angela had returned to the room (her paint and rouge washed off, and her gay clothes replaced by a simple woollen jacket over a plain underskirt), and she began to beat up an egg, to boil some milk, to pour out a dose of medicine, and to do, with all a good woman’s tact, a good woman’s tenderness, the little services of which an invalid stands in need.
Oh heavens, how beautiful it was fearfully, awfully tragically beautiful!
I was deeply moved as I sat in silence watching her; and when at length Giovanni, who had been holding her hand in his own long, bony ones and sometimes putting it to his lips, dropped off to sleep (tired out, perhaps, by talking to me), and she, drawing up to where I sat by the end of the bed, resumed her self-defence, saying in a whisper that ladies like me could not possibly understand what a woman would do, in spite of herself, when the life of one she loved was threatened, I could bear her mistake no longer, but told her of my real condition that I was no longer a lady, that I had run away from my husband, that I had a child, and was living as a poor seamstress in the East End of London.
Angela listened to my story in astonishment; and when I had come to an end she was holding my hand and looking into my eyes with just that look which she had when she put me to bed for the first time at school, and, making her voice very low, told me to be a good child of the Infant Jesus.
“It’s nearly one o’clock. You can’t go back to the East End to-night,” she whispered.
“Oh, I must, I must,” I said, getting up and making for the door. But before I had reached it my limbs gave way, whether from the strain of emotion or physical weakness, and if it had not been for Angela I should have dropped to the floor.
After that she would hear of no excuses. I must stay until morning. I could sleep in her own bed in the other room, and she could lay a mattress for herself on the floor by the side of Giovanni’s. There would be no great sacrifice in that. It was going to be one of Giovanni’s bad nights, and she was likely to be up and down all the time anyway.
Half an hour later I was in bed in a little room that was separated by a thin papered partition from the room of the poor consumptive, and Angela, who had brought me a cup of hot milk, was saying in a whisper:
“He’s very bad. The doctor says he can ‘t last longer than a week. Sister Veronica (you remember her, she’s Mildred Bankes that used to be) tried to get him into a home for the dying. It was all arranged, too, but at the last moment he wouldn’t go. He told them that, if they wanted to separate him from Agnes, they had better bring his coffin because he would be dead before they got him to the door.”
When she had gone I lay a long time in the dark, listening to the sounds on the other side of the partition.
Giovanni awoke with an alarming fit of coughing, and in the querulous, plaintive, fretful, sometimes angry tones which invalids have, he grumbled at Angela and then cried over her, saying what a burden he was to her, while she, moving about the room in her bare feet, coaxed and caressed him, and persuaded him to take his milk or his medicine.
Through all this I would hear at intervals the drumming noises of the singing downstairs, which sounded in my ears (as the singers were becoming more and more intoxicated) like the swirling and screeching of an ironical requiem for the dying man before he was dead:
“Oh bella Napoli, Oh suol beato
Onde sorridere voile il creato.“
But somewhere in those dead hours in which London sleeps everything became still, and my mind, which had been questioning the grim darkness on the worst of the world ‘s tragedies (what a woman will do for those she loves), fell back on myself and I thought of the Christian institutions which had turned me from their doors, and then of this “street- walker” who had given up her own bed to me and was now lying in the next room on a mattress on the floor.
I could not help it if I felt a startling reverence for Angela, as a ministering angel faithful unto death, and I remembered that as I fell asleep I was telling myself that we all needed God’s mercy, God’s pardon, and that God would forgive her because she had loved much But sleep was more tolerant still. I dreamt that Angela died, and on reaching the gates of heaven all the saints of God met her, and after they had clothed her in a spotless white robe, one of them it was the blessed Mary Magdalene
took her hand and said:
“Here is another of the holy martyrs.”
I awoke from that dream with beads of perspiration on my forehead. But I dare not say what confused and terrible thoughts came next, except that they were about baby what I might do myself if driven to the last extremity. When I slept and dreamt again, it was I who was dead, and it was my darling mother who met me and took me to the feet of the Blessed Virgin and said:
“Mother of all Mothers, who knows all that is in a mother’s heart, this is my little daughter. She did not intend to do wrong. It was all for the sake of her child.”
When I awoke in the morning, with the darkness shivering off through the gloom, this last dream was sitting upon me like a nightmare. It terrified me. I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a precipice and some awful forces were trying to push me over it.
The London sparrows were chirping on the skylight over my head, and I could faintly hear the Italian criers in the front street ”
“Lattel” “Spazzina!” “Erbaggi freschi!”
In spite of myself (hating myself for it after all the tenderness that had been shown me), I could not overcome a feeling of shame at finding myself lying where I was, and I got up to run away that I might cleanse my soul of the evil thoughts which had come to me while there.
As I dressed I listened for a sound from the adjoining room. All was quiet now. The poor restless ones were at last getting a little rest.
A few minutes afterwards I passed on tiptoe through their room without looking towards the bed, and reaching the door to the staircase I opened it as noiselessly as I could.
Then I closed it softly after me, on so much suffering and so much love.
ONE HUNDRED AND SECOND CHAPTER
THE sun was shining in the street. It was one of those clear, clean, frosty mornings when the very air of London, even in the worst places, seems to be washed by the sunlight from the sin and drink of the night before.
I was on my way to that church among the mews of Mayfair to which I had gone so frequently during the early days of my marriage when I was struggling against the mortal sin (as I thought it was) of loving Martin.
Just as I reached the church and was ascending the steps, a gorgeous landau with high-stepping horses and a powdered footman drew up at the bottom of them.
The carriage, which bore a coronet on the door, contained a lady in long furs, a rosy-faced baby-girl in squirrel skins with a large doll in her arms, and a nurse.
I could see that, like myself, the lady (a young mother) had come to confess, for as she rose from her seat she told the child to sit quiet and be good and she would not keep her long.
“Turn out soon, mummy, and dolly will lub you eber and eber,” said the child.
The lady stooped and kissed the little one, and then, with a proud and happy look, stepped out of the carriage and passed into the church, while the door-keeper opened the vestibule door for her and bowed deeply.
I stood at the top of the steps for a moment looking back at the carriage, the horses, the footman, the nurse, and, above all, the baby-girl with her doll, and then followed the lady into the church.
Apparently mass was just over. Little spirelets of smoke were rising from the candles on the altar which the sacristan was putting out, a few communicants were still on their knees, and others with light yet echoing footsteps were making for the door.
The lady in furs had already taken her place at one of the confessional boxes, and as there seemed to be no other that was occupied by a priest, I knelt on a chair in the nave and tried to fix my mind on the prayers (once so familiar) for the examination of conscience before confession:
“Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, dispel the darkness of my heart, that I may bewail my sins and rightly confess them.”
But the labouring of my spirit was like the flight of a bat in the daylight. Though I tried hard to keep my mind from wandering, I could not do so. Again and again it went back to the lady in furs with the coroneted carriage and the high-stepping horses.
She was about my own age, and she began to rise before my tightly closed eyes as a vision of what I might have been myself if I had not given up everything for love wealth, rank, title, luxury.
God is my witness that down to that moment I had never once thought I had made any sacrifice, but now, as by a flash of cruel lightning, I saw myself as I was a peeress who had run away from her natural condition and was living in the slums, working like any other work-girl.
Even this did not hurt me much, but when I thought of the rosy-faced child in the carriage, and then of my own darling at Mrs. Oliver’s as I had seen her last, so thin and pale, and with her little bib stained by her curdled milk, a feeling I had never had before pierced to my very soul.
I asked myself if this was what God looked down upon and permitted that because I had obeyed what I still believed to be the purest impulse of my nature, love, my child must be made to suffer.
Then something hard began to form in my heart. I told myself that what I had been taught to believe about God was falsehood and deception.
All this time I was trying to hush down my mind by saying my prayer, which called on the gracious Virgin Mary to intercede for me with my Redeemer, and the holy Saints of God to assist me.
“Assist me by thy grace, that I may be able to declare my sins to the priest, thy Vicar.”
It was of no use. Every moment my heart was hardening, and what I had intended to confess about my wicked thoughts of the night before was vanishing away. At last I rose to my feet and, lifting my head, looked boldly up at the altar.
Just at that moment the young peeress, having finished her confession, went off with a light step and a cheerful face. Her kneeling-place at the confessional box was now vacant, yet I did not attempt to take it, and some minutes passed in which I stood biting my lips to prevent a cry. Then the priest parted his curtains and beckoned to me, and I moved across and stood stubbornly by the perforated brass grating.
“Father,” I said, as firmly as I could, for my throat was fluttering, “I came here to make my confession, but something has come over me since I entered this church, and now I cannot.”
“What has come over you, my child?” asked the priest
“I feel that what is said about God in a place like this, that He is a kind and beneficent Father, who is just and merciful and pities the sufferings of His children, is untrue. It is all wrong and false. God does not care.”
The priest did not answer me immediately, but after a moment of silence he said in a quivering voice:
“My child, I feel just like that myself sometimes. It is the devil tempting you. He is standing by your side and whispering in your ear, at this moment.”
I shuddered, and the priest added:
“I see how it is, my daughter. You are suffering, and those you love are suffering too. But must you surrender your faith on that account? Look round at the pictures on these walls [the Stations of the Cross] . Think of the Great Sufferer, the Great Martyr, who in the hour of His death, at the malicious power of the world, cried, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
I had dropped to my knees by now, my head was down, and my hands were clasped together.
“You are wrong, my child, if you think God does not care for you because He allows you to suffer. Are you rich? Are you prosperous? Have you every earthly blessing? Then beware, for Satan is watching for your soul. But are you poor? Are you going through unmerited trouble? Have you lost some one who was dearer to you than your heart of hearts? Then take courage, for our holy and blessed Saviour has marked you for His own.”
I know nothing of that priest except his whispering voice, which, coming through the grating of the confessional, produced the effect of the supernatural, but I thought then, and I think now, that he must have been a great as well as a good man.
I perfectly recollect that, when I left the church and passed into the streets, it seemed as if his spirit went with me and built up in my soul a resolution that was bright with heavenly tears and sunshine.
Work! Work! Work! I should work still harder than before. No matter how mean, ill-paid, and uncongenial my work might be, I should work all day and all night if necessary. And since I had failed to get my child into an orphanage, it was clearly intended that I should keep her with me, for my own charge and care and joy.
This was the mood in which I returned to the house of the Jew.
It was Saturday morning, and though the broader thoroughfares of the East End were crowded and the narrower streets full of life, the Jew’s house was silent, for it was the Jewish Sabbath.
As I went hurriedly upstairs I heard the Jew himself, who was dressing for the synagogue, singing his Sabbath hymn: Lerho daudee likras kollo “Come, friend, let us go forth to meet the Bride, let us receive the Sabbath with joy!”
Then came a shock.
When I reached my room I found, to my dismay, that the pile of vests which I had left on my bed on going out the day before had been removed; and just as I was telling myself that no one else except Mrs. Abramovitch had a key to my door I heard shuffling footsteps on the stair, and knew that her husband was coming up to me.
A moment afterwards the Jew stood in my doorway. He was dressed in his Sabbath suit and, free from the incongruous indications of his homely calling, the patriarchal appearance which had first struck me was even more marked than before. His face was pale, his expression was severe, and if his tongue betrayed the broken English of the Polish Jew, I, in my confusion and fear, did not notice it then.
My first thought was that he had come to reprove me for neglecting my work, and I was prepared to promise to make up for my absence. But at a second glance I saw that something had happened, something had become known, and that he was there to condemn and denounce me.
“You have been out all night,” he said. “Can you tell me where you have been?”
I knew I could not, and though it flashed upon me to say that I had slept at the house of a friend, I saw that, if he asked who my friend was, and what, I should be speechless.
The Jew waited for my reply and then said:
“You have given us a name can you say it is your true and right one?”
Again I made no answer, and after another moment the Jew said:
“Can you deny that you have a child whom you have hidden from our knowledge?”
I felt myself gasping, but still I did not speak.
“Can you say that it was lawfully born according to your Christian marriage?”
I felt the colour flushing into my face but I was still silent; and after a moment in which, as I could see, the stern-natured Jew was summing me up as a woman of double life and evil character, he said:
“Then it is true? . . . Very well, you will understand that from this day you cease to be in my service.”
All this time my eyes were down, but I was aware that somebody else had come into the room. It was Miriam, and she was trying to plead for me.
“Father …” she began, but, turning hotly upon her, the Jew cried passionately:
“Go away! A true daughter of Israel should know better than to speak for such a woman.”
I heard the girl going slowly down the stairs, and then the Jew, stepping up to me and speaking more loudly than before, said:
“Woman, leave my house at once, before you corrupt the conscience of my child.”
Again I became aware that some one had come into the room. It was Mrs. Abramovitch, and she, too, was pleading for me.
“Israel! Calm thyself! Do not give way to injustice and anger. On Shobbos morning, too!”
“Hannah,” said the Jew, “thou speakest with thy mouth, not thy heart. The Christian doth not deny that she hath given thee a false name, and is the adulterous mother of a misbegotten child. If she were a Jewish woman she would be summoned before the Beth Din, and in better days our law of Moses would have stoned her. Shall she, because she is a Christian, dishonour a good Jewish house? No! The hand of the Lord would go out against me.”
“But she is homeless, and she hath been a good servant to thee, Israel. Give her time to find another shelter.”
There was a moment of silence after that, and then the Jew said:
“Very well! It shall not be said that Israel Abramovitch knows not to temper justice with mercy.”
And then, my face being still down, I heard him saying over my head:
“You may stay here another week. After that I wash my hands of thee.”
With these hard words he turned away, and I heard him going heavily down the stairs. His wife stayed a little longer, saying something in a kind voice, which I did not comprehend, and then she followed him.
I do not think I had spoken a word. I continued to stand where the Jew had left me. After a while I heard him closing and locking the door of his own apartment, and knew that he was going off to his synagogue in Brick Lane in his tall silk hat worn on the back of his head like a skull-cap, and with his wife and daughter behind him, carrying his leather-bound prayer-book.
I hardly knew what else was happening. My heart was heaving like a dead body on a billow. All that the priest had said was gone. In its place there was a paralysing despair as if the wheels of life were rolling over me.
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
My dear, long-suffering, martyred darling!
It makes my blood boil to see how the very powers of darkness, in the name of religion, morality, philanthropy and the judgment of God, were persecuting my poor little woman.
But why speak of myself at all, or interrupt my darling’s narrative, except to say what was happening in my efforts to reach her?
While we were swinging along in our big liner over the heaving bosom of the Mediterranean the indefinable sense of her danger never left me day or night.
That old dream of the glacier and the precipice continued to haunt my sleep, with the difference that, instead of the aurora glistening in my dear one’s eyes, there was now a blizzard behind her.
The miserable thing so tortured me as we approached Malta (where I expected to receive a reply to the cable I had sent from Port Said to the house of Daniel O’Neill) that I felt physically weak at the thought of the joy or sorrow ahead of me.
Though there was no telegram from my darling at Malta, there was one from the chairman of my committee, saying he was coming to Marseilles to meet our steamer and would sail the rest of the way home with us.
Indirectly this brought me a certain comfort. It reminded me of the letter I had written for my dear one on the day I left Castle Baa. Sixteen months had passed since then, serious things had happened in the interval, and I had never thought of that letter before.
It was not to her father, as she supposed, and certainly not to her husband. It was to my chairman, asking him, in the event of my darling sending it on, to do whatever was necessary to protect her during my absence.
If my chairman had not received that letter, my conclusion would be that my dear little woman had never been reduced to such straits as to require help from any one. If he had in fact received it, he must have done what I wished, and therefore everything would be well.
There was a certain suspense as well as a certain consolation in all this, and before our big ship slowed down at Marseilles I was on deck searching for my chairman among the people waiting for us on the pier.
I saw him immediately, waving his travelling cap with a flourish of joy, and I snatched a little comfort from that.
As soon as the steamer was brought to he was the first to come aboard, and I scanned his face as he hurried up the gangway. It was beaming.
“It’s all right,” I thought; “a man could not look as happy as that if he were bringing me bad news.”
A moment afterwards he was shaking my hand, clapping me on the shoulder, and saying:
“Splendid! Magnificent! Glorious achievement! Proved your point up to the hilt, my boy!”
And when I said something about not having gone all the way he cried:
“Never mind! You’ll do it next tune,” which made some of my shipmates who were standing round with shining eyes say, “Aye, aye, sir,” and then one of them (it was good old ‘Sullivan) shouted:
“By the stars of heaven, that’s thrue, my lord! And if anybody’s after saying that the Commanther was turned back this time by anything less than the almighty power of Nature in her wrath, you may say there’s forty-eight of us here to tell him he lies.”
“I believe it,” said the chairman, and then there were further congratulations, with messages from members of my committee, but never a word from my dear one.
Thinking the chairman might hesitate to speak of a private matter until we were alone, I took him down to my stateroom. But he had nothing to say there, either, except about articles to be written, reports to be compiled, and invitations to be accepted.
Several hours passed like this. We were again out at sea, and my longing to know what had happened was consuming me, but I dared not ask from fear of a bad answer.
Before the night was out, however, I had gone to work in a roundabout way. Taking ‘Sullivan into my confidence, I told him it had not been my parents that I had been anxious about (God forgive me!), but somebody else whom he had seen and spoken to.
“Do you mean Mar … I should say Lady . . . ”
“By the holy saints, the way I was thinking that when I brought you the letter at Port Said, and saw the clouds of heaven still hanging on you.”
I found that the good fellow had a similar trouble of his own (not yet having heard from his mother), so he fell readily into my plan, which was that of cross-questioning the chairman about my dear one, and I about his, and then meeting secretly and imparting what we had learned.
Anybody may laugh who likes at the thought of two big lumbering fellows afraid to face the truth (scouting round and round it), but it grips me by the throat to this day to see myself taking our chairman into a quiet corner of the smoke-room and saying:
“Poor old O ‘Sullivan! He hasn’t heard from his old mother yet. She was sick when he sailed, and wouldn’t have parted with him to go with anybody except myself. You haven’t heard of her, have you?”
And then to think of ‘Sullivan doing the same for me, with:
“The poor Commanther! Look at him there. Faith, he’s keeping a good heart, isn’t he? But it’s just destroyed he is for want of news of a great friend that was in trouble. It was a girl … a lady, I mane. You haven’t heard the whisper of a word, sir . . . eh?”
Our chairman had heard nothing. And when (bracing myself at last) I asked point-blank if anything had been sent to him as from me, and he answered “No,” I might have been relieved, but I wasn’t. Though I did not know then that my darling had burnt my letter, I began to feel that she was the last person in the world to use it, being (God bless her!) of the mettle that makes a woman want to fight her own battles without asking help of any one.
This quite crushed down my heart, for, seeing that she had sent no reply to my cables, I could not find any escape from the conclusion that she was where no word could come from her she was dead!
Lord God, how I suffered when this phantom got into my mind! I used to walk up and down the promenade deck late into the night, trying and condemning myself as if I had been my own judge and jury.
“She is dead. I have killed her,” I thought.
Thank God, the phantom was soon laid by the gladdest sight I ever saw on earth or ever expect to see, and it wouldn’t be necessary to speak of it now but for the glorious confidence it brought me.
It was the same with me as with a ship-broken man whom Providence comes to relieve in his last extremity, and I could fix the place of mine as certainly as if I had marked it on a chart. We had called at Gibraltar (where O ‘Sullivan had received a letter from his mother, saying she was splendid) and were running along the coast of Portugal.
It was a dirty black night, with intervals of rain, I remember. While my shipmates were making cheerful times of it in the smoke-room (O’Sullivan with heart at ease singing the “Minsthrel Boy” to a chorus of noisy cheers) I was walking up and down the deck with my little stock of courage nearly gone, for turn which way I would it was dark, dark, dark, when just as we picked up the lights of Finisterre something said to me, as plainly as words could speak:
“What in the name of thunder are you thinking about? Do you mean to say that you were turned back in the 88th latitude, and have been hurried home without the loss of a moment, only to find everything over at the end of your journey? No, no, no! Your poor, dear, heroic little woman is alive! She may be in danger, and beset by all the powers of the devil, but that’s just why you have been brought home to save her, and you will save her, as surely as the sun will rise to-morrow morning.”
There are thoughts which, like great notes in music, grip you by the soul and lift you into a world which you don’t naturally belong to. This was one of them.
Never after that did I feel one moment’s real anxiety. I was my own man once more; and though I continued to walk the deck while our good ship sped along in the night, it was only because there was a kind of wild harmony between the mighty voice of the rolling billows of the Bay and the unheard anthem of boundless hope that was singing in my breast.
I recollect that during my walk a hymn was always haunting me. It was the same that we used to sing in the shuddering darkness of that perpetual night, when we stood (fifty downhearted men) under the shelter of our snow camp, with a ninety mile blizzard shrieking above us:
“Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom, Lead Thou me on.”
But the light was within me now, and I knew as certainly as that the good ship was under my feet that I was being carried home at the call of the Spirit to rescue my stricken darling.
God keep her on her solitary way! England! England! England! Less than a week and I should be there!
That was early hours on Saturday morning the very Saturday when my poor little woman, after she had been turned away by those prating philanthropists, was being sheltered by the prostitute.
Let him explain it who can. I cannot.
[END OP MARTIN CONRAD’S MEMORANDUM]
ONE HUNDRED AND THIRD CHAPTER
I MUST have been sitting a full hour or more on the end of my bed stunned, stupefied, unable to think when Miriam, back from the synagogue, came stealthily upstairs to say that a messenger had come for me about six o’clock the night before.
“He said his name was Oliver, and father saw him, and that’s how he came to know. ‘Tell her that her child is ill, and she is to come immediately,’ he said.”
I was hardly conscious of what happened next hardly aware of passing through the streets to Ilford. I had a sense of houses flying by as they seem to do from an express train; of my knees trembling; of my throat tightening; and of my whole soul crying out to God to save the life of my child until I could get to her.
“When I reached the house of the Olivers the worst of my fears were relieved. Mrs. Oliver was sitting before the fire with baby on her lap.
At sight of me the woman began to mumble out something about my delay, and how she could not be held responsible if anything happened; but caring nothing about responsibility, hers or mine, I took baby from her without more words.
My child was in a state of deep drowsiness, and when I tried to rouse her I could not do so. I gathered that this condition had lasted twenty-four hours, during which she had taken no nourishment, with the result that she was now very thin.
I knew nothing of children’s ailments but a motherly instinct must have come to my aid, for I called for a bath, and bathed baby, and she awoke, and then took a little food.
But again she dropped back into the drowsy condition, and Mrs. Oliver, who was alarmed, called in some of the neighbours to look at her.
Apparently the mission of the good women was to comfort Mrs. Oliver, not me, but they said, ” Sleep never did no harm to nobody,” and I found a certain consolation in that.
Hours passed. I was barely sensible of anything that happened beyond the narrow circle of my own lap, but at one moment I heard the squirling of a brass band that was going up the street, with the shuffling of an irregular procession.
“It’s the strike,” said Mrs. Oliver, running to the window. “There’s Ted, carrying a banner.”
A little later I heard the confused noises of a strike meeting, which was being held on the Green. It was like the croaking of a frog-pond, with now and then a strident voice (the bricklayer’s) crying “Buckle your belts tighter, and starve rather than give in, boys.” Still later I heard the procession going away, singing with a slashing sound that was like driving wind and pelting rain:
“The land, the land, the blessed, Uessed land, Gawd gave the land to the people.”
But nothing awakened baby, and towards three in the afternoon (the idea that she was really ill having taken complete possession of me) I asked where I could find the nearest doctor, and being told, I went off in search of him.
The doctor was on his rounds, so I left a written message
indicating baby’s symptoms and begging him to come to her
On the way back I passed a number of children’s funerals easily recognisable by the combined coach and hearse, the white linen “weepers” worn by the coachman and his assistant, and the little coffin, sprinkled with cheap flowers, in the glass case behind the driver’s seat. These sights, which brought back a memory of the woman who carried my baby down the Mile End Road, almost deprived me of my senses.
I had hardly got back and taken off my coat and warmed my hands and dress by the fire before taking baby in my lap, when the doctor, in his gig, pulled up at the door.
He was a young man, but he seemed to take in the situation in a moment. I was the mother, wasn’t I? Yes. And this woman was baby’s nurse? Yes.
Then he drew up a chair and looked steadfastly down at baby, and I went through that breathless moment, which most of us know, when we are waiting for the doctor’s first word.
“Some acute digestive trouble here apparently,” he said, and then something about finding out the cause of it.
But hardly had he put his hands on my child as she lay in my lap than there came a faintly discoloured vomit.
“What have you been giving her?” he said, looking round at Mrs. Oliver.
Mrs. Oliver protested that she had given baby nothing except her milk, but the doctor said sharply:
“Don’t talk nonsense, woman. Show me what you’ve given her.”
Then Mrs. Oliver, looking frightened, went upstairs and brought down a bottle of medicine, saying it was a soothing syrup which I had myself bought for baby’s cough.
“As I thought!” said the doctor, and going to the door and opening it, he flung the bottle on to the waste ground opposite, saying as he did so:
“If I hear of you giving your babies any more of your soothing syrup – I’ll see what the Inspector has to say.”
After that, ignoring nurse, he asked me some searching and intimate questions if I had had a great -grief or shock or worry while baby was coming, and whether and how long I had nursed her.
I answered as truthfully as I could, though I saw the drift
of his inquiries, and was trembling with fear of what he
would tell me next,
He said nothing then, however, except to make his recommendations. And remembering my loss of work, my heart sank as he enumerated baby’s needs fresh cow’s milk diluted with lime water, small quantities of meat juice, and twenty to thirty drops of the best brandy three or four tunes a day.
When he rose to go I paid his fee. It was only half-a-crown, but he cannot have known how much that meant to me, for as he was leaving the kitchen he told me to send for him again in the morning if there were a change in the symptoms.
Peeling that I did not yet know the whole truth (though I was trembling in terror of it), I handed baby to Mrs. Oliver and followed the doctor to the door.
“Doctor,” I said, “is my baby very ill?”
He hesitated for a moment and then answered, “Yes.”
Again he hesitated, and then looking closely at me (I felt my lower lip trembling) he said:
“I won’t say that. She’s suffering from marasmus, provoked by overdoses of the pernicious stuff that is given by ignorant and unscrupulous people to a restless child to keep it quiet. But her real trouble comes of maternal weakness, and the only cure for that is good nourishment and above all fresh air and sunshine.”
“Will she get better?”
“If you can take her away into the country she will, certainly.”
“And if … if I can’t,” I asked, the words fluttering up to my lips, “will she . . . die?”
The doctor looked steadfastly at me again (I was biting my lip to keep it firm), and said:
When I returned to the kitchen I knew that I was face to face with another of the great mysteries of a woman’s life Death the death of my child, which my very love and tenderness had exposed her to.
Meantime Mrs. Oliver, who was as white as a whitewashed wall, was excusing herself in a whining voice that had the sound of a spent wave. She wouldn’t have hurt the pore dear precious for worlds, and if it hadn’t been for Ted, who was so tired at night and wanted sleep after walking in percession . . .
Partly to get rid of the woman I sent her out (with almost the last of my money) for some of the things ordered by the doctor. While she was away, and I was looking down at the little silent face on my lap, praying for one more glimpse of my Martin’s sea-blue eyes, the bricklayer came lunging into the house.
”Where’s Lizer?” he said.
I told him and he cried: “The baiby again! Allus the baiby!”
With that he took out of his pocket a cake of moist tobacco, cut and rolled some of it in his palm, and then charged his pipe and lit it filling the air with clouds of rank smoke, which made baby bark and cough without rousing her. I pointed this out to him and asked him not to smoke. “Eh?” he said, and then I told him that the doctor had been called and what he had said about fresh air.
“So that’s it, is it?” he said. “Good! Just reminds me of something I want to say, so I’ll introdooce the matter now, in a manner o’ speaking. Last night I ‘ad to go to Mile End for you, and here ‘s Lizer out on a sim ‘lar arrand. If people ‘ave got to be ‘ospital nurses to a sick baiby they ought to be paid, mind ye. We ‘re only pore, and it may be a sacred dooty walkin’ in percession, but it ain’t fillin’.”
Choking with anger, I said: “Put out your pipe, please.”
“Ma’am to youl”
“Put it out this moment, sir, or I’ll see if I can’t find somebody to make you.”
The bricklayer laughed, then pointed with the shank of his pipe to the two photographs over the mantelpiece, and said:
“See them? Them’s me, with my dooks up. If any friend o’ yourn as is interested in the baiby comes to lay a ‘and on me I’ll see if I’ve forgot ‘ow to use ’em.”
I felt the colour shuddering out of my cheeks, and putting baby into the cot I turned on the man and cried:
“You scoundrel! The doctor has told me what is the immediate cause of my baby’s illness and your wife has confessed to giving overdoses of a drug at your direction. If you don’t leave this house in one minute I’ll go straight to the police-station and charge you with poisoning my child.”
The bully in the coward was cowed in a moment.
“Don’t get ‘uffy, ma’am,” he said. “I’m the peaceablest man in the East End, and if I mentioned anything about a friend o’ yourn it slipped out in the ‘eat of the moment see?”
“Out you go! Go! Go!” I cried, and, incredible as it may seem, the man went flying before my face as if I had been a fury.
It would be a long tale to tell of what happened the day following, the next and the next and the next how baby became less drowsy, but more restless; how being unable to retain her food she grew thinner and thinner; how I wished to send for the doctor, but dared not do so from fear of his fee; how the little money I had left was barely sufficient to buy the food and stimulants which were necessary to baby’s cure: how I sat for long hours with my little lamb on my lap straining my dry eyes into her face; and how I cried to God for the life of my child, which was everything I had or wanted.
All this time I was still lodging at the Jew’s, returning to it late every night, and leaving it early in the morning, but nothing happened there that seemed to me of the smallest consequence. One day Miriam, looking at me with her big black eyes, said:
“You must take more rest, dear, or you will make yourself ill.”
“No, no, I am not ill,” I answered, and then remembering how necessary my life was to the life of my child, I said, “I must not be ill.”
At last on the Saturday morning I know now it must have been Saturday, but time did not count with me then I overheard Mrs. Abramovitch pleading for me with her husband, saying they knew I was in trouble and therefore I ought to have more time to find lodgings, another week three days at all events. But the stern-natured man with his rigid religion was inexorable. It was God’s will that I should be punished, and who was he to step in between the All-High and His just retribution?
“The woman is displeasing to God,” he said, and then he declared that, the day being Sabbath (the two tall candle-sticks and the Sabbath loaves must have been under his eyes at the moment), he would give me until nine o’clock that night, and if I had not moved out by that time he would put my belongings into the street.
I remember that the Jew’s threat made no impression upon my mind. It mattered very little to me where I was to lodge next week or what roof was to cover me.
When I reached the Olivers’ that morning I found baby distinctly worse. Even the brandy would not stay on her stomach and hence her strength was plainly diminishing. I sat for some time looking steadfastly into my child’s face, and then I asked myself, as millions of mothers must have done before me, why my baby should suffer so. Why? Why? Why?
There seemed to be no answer to that question except one. Baby was suffering because I was poor. If I had not been poor I could have taken her into the country for fresh air and sunshine, where she would have recovered as the doctor had so confidently assured me.
And why was I poor? I was poor because I had refused to be enslaved by my father’s authority when it was vain and wrong, or my husband’s when it was gross and cruel, and because I had obeyed the highest that was in me the call of love.
And now God looked down on the sufferings of my baby, who was being killed for my conduct killed by my poverty!
I tremble to say what wild impulses came at that thought. I felt that if my baby died and I ever stood before God to be judged I should judge Him in return. I should ask Him why, if He were Almighty, He permitted the evil in the world to triumph over the good, and if He were our heavenly Father why He allowed innocent children to suffer? Was there any human father who could be so callous, so neglectful, so cruel, as that?
I dare say it was a terrible thing to bring God to the bar of judgment, to be judged by His poor weak ignorant creature; but it was also terrible to sit with a dying baby on my lap (I thought mine was dying), and to feel that there was nothing not one thing I could do to relieve its sufferings.
My faith went down like a flood during the heavy hours of that day all that I had been taught to believe about God’s goodness and the marvellous efficacy of the Sacraments of His Church.
I thought of the Sacrament of my marriage, which the Pope told me had been sanctioned by my Redeemer under a natural law that those who entered into it might live together in peace and love and then of my husband and his brutal infidelities.
I thought of the Sacrament of my baby’s baptism, which was to exorcise all the devils out of my child and then of the worst devil in the world, poverty, which was taking her very life.
After that a dark shadow crossed my soul, and I told myself that since God was doing nothing, since He was allowing my only treasure to be torn away from me, I would fight for my child’s life as any animal fights for her young.
By this time a new kind of despair had taken hold of me. It was no longer the paralysing despair but the despair that has a driving force in it.
“My child shall not die,” I thought. “At least poverty shall not kill her!”
Many times during the day I had heard Mrs. Oliver trying to comfort me with various forms of sloppy sentiment. Children were a great trial, they were allus makin’ and keepin’ people pore, and it was sometimes better for the- dears themselves to be in their ‘eavenly Father’s boosim.
I hardly listened. It was the same as if somebody were talking to me in my sleep. But towards nightfall my deaf ear caught something about myself that “it” (I knew what that meant) might be better for me, also, for then I should be free of encumbrances and could marry again.
“Of course you could you so young and good-lookin ‘. Only the other day the person at number five could tell me as you were the prettiest woman as comes up the Row, and the Vicar’s wife couldn’t hold a candle to you. ‘Fine feathers makes fine birds,’ says she: ‘Give your young lady a nice frock and a bit o’ colour in her cheeks, and there ain’t many as could best her in the “West End neither.”
As the woman talked dark thoughts took possession of me. I began to think of Angela. I tried not to, but I could not help it.
And then came the moment of my fiercest trial. With a sense of Death hanging over my child I told myself that the only way to drive it off was to make some great sacrifice.
Hitherto I had thought of everything I possessed as belonging to baby, but now I felt that I myself belonged to her. I had brought her into the world, and it was my duty to see that she did not suffer.
All this time the inherited instinct of my religion was fighting hard with me, and I was saying many Hail Marys to prevent myself from doing what I meant to do.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with thee . . .”
I felt as if I were losing my reason. But it was of no use struggling against the awful impulse of self -sacrifice (for such I thought it) which had taken hold of my mind, and at last it conquered me.
“I must get money,” I thought. “Unless I get money my child will die. I must get money.”
Towards seven o’clock I got up, gave baby to Mrs. Oliver, put on my coat and fixed with nervous fingers my hat and hatpins.
“Where are you going to, pore thing?” asked Mrs. Oliver.
“I am going out. I’ll be back in the morning,” I answered.
And then, after kneeling and kissing my baby again my sweet child, my Isabel I tore the street door open, and pulled it noisily behind me.
ONE HUNDRED AND FOURTH CHAPTER
ON reaching the front street, I may have taken the penny tram, for though I had a sense of growing blind and deaf I have vague memories of lights flashing past me and of the clanging of electric cars.
At Bow Church I must have got out (probably to save a further fare) because I recollect walking along the Bow Road between the lights in the shops and the coarse flares from the stalls on the edge of the pavement, where women with baskets on their arms were doing their Saturday night’s shopping.
My heart was still strong (sharpened indeed into poignancy) and I know I was not crying, for at one moment as I passed the mirror in a chemist’s window I caught sight of my face and it was fierce as flame.
At another moment, while I was hurrying along, I collided with a drunken woman who was coming out of a public-house with her arm about the neck of a drunken sailor.
“Gawd! Here’s the Verging Mary agine!” she cried.
It was the woman who had carried baby, and when I tried to hurry past her she said:
“You think I’m drunk, don’t you, dear? So ‘am. Don’t you never get drunk? No? What a bleedin’ fool you are! “Want to get out o’ this ‘ere ‘ole? Tike my tip then gettin’ drunk’s on’y way out of it.”
Farther on I had to steer my way through jostling companies of young people of both sexes who were going (I thought) the same way as the woman girls out of the factories with, their free walk, and their boisterous “fellers” from the breweries.
It was a cold and savage night. As I approached the side street in which I lived I saw by the light of the arc lamps a small group of people, a shivering straggle of audience, with the hunched-up shoulders of beings thinly clad and badly fed, standing in stupid silence at the corner while two persons
wearing blue uniforms (a man in a peaked cap and a young woman in a poke bonnet) sang a Salvation hymn of which the refrain was “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
The door of the Jew’s house was shut (for the first time in my experience), so I had to knock and wait, and while I waited I could not help but hear the young woman in the poke bonnet pray.
Her prayer was about “raising the standard of Calvary,” and making the drunkards and harlots of the East End into “seekers” and “soul yielders” and “prisoners of the King of Kings.”
Before the last words of the prayer were finished the man in the peaked cap tossed up his voice in another hymn, and the young woman joined him with an accordion:
“Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod. . . .“
The door was opened by the Jew himself, who, assuming a severe manner, said something to me in his guttural voice which I did not hear or heed, for I pushed past him and walked firmly upstairs.
When I had reached my room and lit the gas, I closed and locked the door, as if I were preparing to commit a crime and perhaps I was.
I did not allow myself to think of what I intended to do that night, but I knew quite well, and when at one moment my conscience pressed me hard something cried out in my heart:
“Who can blame me since my child’s life is in danger?”
I opened my trunk and took out my clothes all that remained of the dresses I had brought from Ellan. They were few, and more than a little out of fashion, but one of them, though far from gay, was bright and stylish a light blue frock with a high collar and some white lace over the bosom.
I remember wondering why I had not thought of pawning it during the week, when I had had so much need of money, and then being glad that I had not done so.
It was thin and light, being the dress I had worn on the day I first came to the East End, carrying my baby to Ilford, when the weather was warm which now was cold; but I paid no heed to that, thinking only that it was my best and most attractive.
After I had put it on and glanced at myself in my little swinging looking-glass I was pleased, but I saw at the same time that my face was deadly pale, and that made me think of some bottles and cardboard boxes which lay in the pockets of my trunk.
I knew what they contained the remains of the cosmetics which I had bought in Cairo in the foolish days when I was trying to make my husband love me. Never since then had I looked at them, but now I took them out (with a hare’s foot and some pads and brushes) and began to paint my pale face reddening my cracked and colourless lips and powdering out the dark rings under my eyes.
While I was doing this I heard (though I was trying not to) the deadened sound of the singing in the front street, with the young woman’s treble voice above the man’s bass and the wheezing of the accordion:
“Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide for ever
Flowing by the throne of God.“
The Dark Spirit must have taken possession of me by this time, poor vessel of conflicting passions as I was, for I remember that while I listened I laughed thinking what mockery it was to sing of “angel feet and “crystal tides” to those shivering wretches at the corner of the London street in the smoky night air.
“What a farce!” I thought. “What a heartless farce!”
Then I put on my hat, which was also not very gay, and taking out of my trunk a pair of long light gloves which I had never worn since I left Ellan, I began to pull them on.
I was standing before the looking-glass in the act of doing this, and trying (God pity me!) to smile at myself, when I was suddenly smitten by a new thought.
I was about to commit suicide the worst kind of suicide, not the suicide which is followed by oblivion, but by a life on earth after death!
After that night Mary O’Neill would no longer exist! I should never be able to think of her again! I should have killed her and buried her and stamped the earth down on her and she would be gone from me for ever!
That made a grip at my heart awakening memories of happy days in my childhood, bringing back the wild bliss of the short period of my great love, and even making me think of my life in Rome, with its confessions, its masses, and the sweetness of its church bells.
I was saying farewell to Mary ‘Neill! And parting with oneself seemed so terrible that when I thought of it my heart seemed ready to burst.
“But who can blame me when my child’s life is in danger?” I asked myself again, still tugging at my long gloves.
By the time I had finished dressing the Salvationists were going off to their barracks with their followers behind them. Under the singing I could faintly hear the shuffling of bad shoes, which made a sound like the wash of an ebbing tide over the teeth of a rocky beach up our side street, past the Women’s Night Shelter (where the beds never had time to become cool), and beyond the public-house with the placard in the window saying the ale sold there could be guaranteed to make anybody drunk for fourpence.
“We’ll stand the storm, it won’t be long,
And we’ll anchor in the sweet by-and-by.”
I listened and tried to laugh again, but I could not do so now. There was one last spasm of my cruelly palpitating heart, in which I covered my face with both hands, and cried:
“For baby’s sake! For my baby’s sake!”
And then I opened my bedroom door, walked boldly downstairs and went out into the streets.
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
I don’t call it Chance that this was the very day of my return to England.
If I had to believe that, I should have to disbelieve half of what is best in the human story, and the whole of what we are taught about a guiding Providence and the spiritual influences which we cannot reason about and prove.
We were two days late arriving, having made dirty weather of it in the Bay of Biscay, which injured our propeller and compelled us to lie to, so I will not say that the sense of certainty which came to me off Finisterre did not suffer a certain shock.
In fact the pangs of uncertainty grew so strongly upon me as we neared home that in the middle of the last night of our voyage I went to ‘Sullivan’s cabin, and sat on the side of his bunk for hours, talking of the chances of my darling being lost and of the possibility of finding her.
‘Sullivan, God bless him, was “certain sure” that everything would be right, and he tried to take things gaily.
“The way I’m knowing she’ll be at Southampton in a new hat and feather! So mind yer oi, Commanther.”
We passed the Channel Islands in the spring of morning, and at breakfast-time we picked up the pilot, who had brought out a group of reporters. I did my best for the good chaps (though it is mighty hard to talk about exploring when you are thinking of another subject), and then handed them over to my shipmates.
Towards seven o’clock at night we heaved up to the grey stone pier at the head of Southampton Water. It was then dark, so being unable to see more than the black forms and waving hands of the crowd waiting for us with the lights behind them, I arranged with O ‘Sullivan that he should slip ashore as soon as we got alongside, and see if he could find my dear one.
“Will you remember her face?” I asked.
“And why wouldn’t I? By the stars of God, there’s only one of it in the world,” he answered.
The welcome we got when we were brought to was enough to make a vain man proud, and a modest one ashamed, and perhaps I should have had a little of both feelings if the right woman had been there to share them.
My state-room was on the promenade deck, and I stood at the door of it as long as I dared, raising my cap at the call of my name, but feeling as if I were the loneliest man in the world, God help me!
‘Sullivan had not returned when Treacle came to say that everything was ready, and it was time to go ashore.
1 will not say that I was not happy to be home; I will not pretend that the warm-hearted welcome did not touch me; but God knows there was a moment when, for want of a face I did not see, I could have turned about and gone back to the South Pole there and then, without an instant’s hesitation.
“When I got ashore I had as much as I could do to stand four-square to the storm of hand-shaking that fell on me. And perhaps if I had been in better trim I should have found lots of fun in the boyish delight of my shipmates in being back, with old Treacle shaking hands with everybody from the Mayor of the town to the messenger-boys (crying “What cheer, matey?”), while the scientific staff were bringing up their wives to be introduced to me, just as the lower-form fellows used to do with their big sisters at school.
At last O ‘Sullivan came back with a long face to say he could see nothing of my dear one, and then I braced myself and said:
“Never mind! She’ll be waiting for us in London perhaps.”
It took a shocking time to pass through the Customs, but we got off at last in a special train commissioned by our chairman half of our company with their wives and a good many reporters having crammed themselves into the big saloon carriage reserved for me.
At the last moment somebody threw a sheaf of evening papers through my window, and as soon as we were well away I took up one of them and tried to read it, but column after column fell blank on my eyes, for my mind was full of other matters.
The talk in the carriage, too, did not interest me in the least. It was about the big, bustling, resonant world, general elections, the fall of ministries, Acts of Parliament, and the Lord knows what things that had looked important when we were in the dumb solitude of Winter Quarters, but seemed to be of no account now when I was hungering for something else.
At last I got a quiet pressman in a corner and questioned him about Ellan.
“That’s mv native island, you know anything going on there?”
The reporter said yes, there was some commotion about the failure of banks, with the whole island under a cloud, and its biggest financial man gone smash.
“Is his name O’Neill?” I asked.
“Anything else happened there while I’ve been away?”
“No . . . yes . . . well, now that I think of it, there was a big scare a year or so ago about a young peeress who disappeared mysteriously.”
“Was . . . was it Lady Raa?”
“Yes,” said the reporter, and then (controlling myself as well as I could) I listened to a rapid version of what had become known about my dear one down to the moment when she “vanished as utterly as if she had been dropped into the middle of the Irish Sea.”
It is of no use saying what I felt after that, except that flying in an express train to London, I was as impatient of space and time as if I had been in a ship down south stuck fast in the rigid besetment of the ice.
I could not talk, and I dared not think, so I shouted for a sing-song, and my shipmates (who had been a little low at seeing me so silent) jumped at the proposal like schoolboys let loose from school.
Of course ‘Sullivan gave us “The Minsthrel Boy”; and Treacle sang “Yew are the enny”; and then I, yes I (Oh, God!), sang “Sally’s the gel,” and every man of my company joined in the ridiculous chorus.
Towards ten o’clock we changed lines on the loop at Waterloo and ran into Charing Cross, where we found another and still bigger crowd of hearty people behind a barrier, with a group of my committee, my fellow explorers, and geographers in general, waiting on the platform.
I could not help it if I made a poor return to their warm-hearted congratulations, for my eyes were once more searching for a face I could not see, so that I was glad and relieved when I heard the superintendent say that the motor-car that was to take me to the hotel was ready and waiting.
But just then O ‘Sullivan came up and whispered that a priest and a nun were asking to speak to me, and he believed they had news of Mary.
The priest proved to be dear old Father Dan, and the nun to be Sister Veronica, whom my dear one calls Mildred. At the first sight of their sad-joyful faces something gripped me by the throat, for I knew what they had come to say before they said it that my darling was lost, and Father Dan (after some priestly qualms) had concluded that I was the first man who ought to be told of it.
Although this was exactly what I had expected, it fell on me like a thunderbolt, and in spite of the warmth of my welcome home, I believe in my soul I was the most down-hearted man alive.
Nevertheless I bundled Father Dan and the Sister and ‘Sullivan into the automobile, and jumping in after them, told the chauffeur to drive like the deuce to the hotel.
He could not do that, though, for the crowd in the station-yard surrounded the car and shouted for a speech. I gave them one, saying heaven knows what, except that their welcome made me ashamed of not having got down to the Pole, but please God I should get there next time or leave my bones on the way.
We got to the hotel at last (the same that my poor stricken darling had stayed at after her honeymoon), and as soon as we reached my room I locked the door and said:
“Now out with it. And please tell me everything.”
Father Dan was the first to speak, but his pulpit style was too slow for me in my present stress of thoughts and feelings. He had hardly got further than his difference with his Bishop, and the oath he had sworn by Him who died for us to come to London and never go back until he had found my darling, when I shook his old hand and looked towards the Sister.
She was quicker by a good deal, and in a few minutes I knew something of my dear one’s story how she had fled from home on my account, and for my sake had become poor; how she had lodged for a while in Bloomsbury; how hard she had been hit by the report of the loss of my ship; and how (Oh my poor, suffering, heroic, little woman!) she had disappeared on the approach of another event of still more serious consequence.
It was no time for modesty, not from me at all events, so while the Father’s head was down, I asked plainly if there was a child, and was told there was, and the fear of having it taken from her (I could understand that) was perhaps the reason my poor darling had hidden herself away.
“And now, when, where, and by whom was she seen last?” I asked.
“Last week, and again to-day, to-night, here in the West End by a fallen woman,” answered the Sister.
“And what conclusion do you draw from that?”
The Sister hesitated for a moment and then said:
“That her child is dead; that she does not know you are alive; and that she is throwing herself away, thinking there is nothing left to live for.”
“What?” I cried. “You believe that? Because she left that brute of a husband . . . and because she came to me . . . you believe that she could . . . Never! Not Mary O’Neill! She would beg her bread, or die in the streets first.”
I dare say my thickening voice was betraying me; but when I looked at Mildred and saw the tears rolling down her cheeks and heard her excuses (it was “what hundreds of poor women were driven to every day”), I was ashamed and said so, and she put her kind hand in my hand in token of her forgiveness.
“But what’s to be done now?” she asked.
O’Sullivan was for sending for the police, but I would not hear of that. I was beginning to feel as I used to do when I lost a comrade in a blizzard down south, and (without a fact or a clue to guide me) sent a score of men in a broad circle from the camp (like spokes in a wheel) to find him or follow back on their tracks.
There were only four of us, but I mapped out our courses, where we were to go, when we were to return, and what we were to do if any of us found my lost one take her to Sister’s flat, which she gave the address of.
It was half-past eleven when we started on our search, and I dare say our good old Father Dan, after his fruitless journeys, thought it a hopeless quest. But I had found myself at last. My spirits which had been down to zero had gone up with a bound. I had no ghost of an idea that I had been called home from the 88th latitude for nothing. And I had no fear that I had come too late.
Call it frenzy if you like I don’t much mind what people call it. But I was as sure as I have ever been of anything in this life, or ever expect to be, that the sufferings of my poor martyred darling were at an end, and that within an hour I should be holding her in my arms.
[END OF MABTIN CONRAD’S MEMORANDUM]
ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTH CHAPTER
THERE must be a physical power in fierce emotion to deprive us of the use of our senses of hearing and even of sight, for my memory of what happened after I left the Jew’s has blank places in it.
Trying to recall the incidents of that night is like travelling on a moorland road under a flying moon, with sometimes the whitest light in which everything is clearly seen, and then the blackest darkness.
I remember taking the electric car going west, and seeing the Whitechapel Road shooting by me, with its surging crowds of pedestrians, its public-houses, its Cinema shows, and its Jewish theatres.
I remember getting down at Aldgate Pump, and walking through that dead belt of the City, which, lying between east and west, is alive like a beehive by day and silent and deserted by night.
I remember seeing an old man, with a face like a rat’s, picking up cigar-ends from the gutters before the dark Banks, and then a flock of sheep bleating before a barking dog as they were driven through the echoing streets from the riverside towards the slaughter-houses near Smithfield Market.
I remember that when I came to St. Paul’s the precincts of the cathedral were very quiet and the big clock was striking nine. But on Ludgate Hill the traffic was thick, and when I reached Fleet Street crowds of people were standing in front of the newspaper offices, reading large placards in written characters which were pasted on the windows.
I remember that I did not look at these placards, thinking their news was nothing to me, who had not seen a newspaper for months and for whom the world was now eclipsed!, but that as I stepped round one of the crowds, which extended to the middle of the street, somebody said:
“He has landed at Southampton, it seems.”
I remember that when I reached Charing Cross I found myself on the fringe of another and much larger crowd, and that the people, who seemed to be waiting for somebody and were chatting with a noise like the crackling of thorns under
a pot, were saying:
“His train is fifty minutes late, so we’ve half an hour to wait yet.”
Then I remember that walking at random round St. Martin’s Church into Leicester Square I came upon three “public women” who were swinging along with a high step and laughing loudly, and that one of them was Angela, and that she stopped on seeing me and cried:
“Hello! Here I am again, you see! Giovanni’s dead, and I don’t care a damn!”
I remember that she said something else it was about Sister Mildred, but my mind did not take it in and at the next moment she left me, and I heard her laughter once more as she swept round the corner.
I hardly know what happened next, for here comes one of the blank places in my memory, with nothing to light it except vague thoughts of Martin (and that soulless night in Bloomsbury when the newspapers announced that he was lost), until, wandering aimlessly through streets and streets of people such multitudes of people, no end of people I found myself back at Charing Cross.
The waiting crowd was now larger and more excited than before, and the traffic at both sides of the station was stopped.
“He’s coming! He’s coming! Here he is!” the people cried, and then there were deafening shouts and cheers.
I recall the sight of a line of policemen pushing people back (I was myself pushed back); I recall the sight of a big motor car containing three men and a woman, ploughing its way through; I recall the sight of one of the men raising his cap; of the crowd rushing to shake hands with him; then of the car swinging away, and of the people running after it with a noise like that of the racing of a noisy river.
It is the literal truth that never once did I ask myself what this tumult was about, and that for some time after it was over a full hour at least I had a sense of walking in my sleep, as if my body were passing through the streets of the West End of London while my soul was somewhere else altogether.
Thus at one moment, as I was going by the National Gallery and thought I caught the sound of Martin’s name, I felt as if I were back in Glen Raa, and it was I myself who had been calling it.
At another moment, when I was standing at the edge of the pavement in Piccadilly Circus, which was ablaze with electric light and thronged with people (for the theatres and music-halls were emptying, men in uniform were running about with whistles, policemen were directing the traffic, and streams of carriages were flowing by), I felt as if I were back in my native island, where I was alone on the dark shore while the sea was smiting me.
Again, after a brusque voice had said, “Move on, please,” I followed the current of pedestrians down Piccadilly it must have been Piccadilly and saw lines of “public women,” chiefly French and Belgian, sauntering along, and heard men throwing light words to them as they went by, I was thinking of the bleating sheep and the barking dog.
And again, when I was passing a men’s club and the place where I had met Angela, my dazed mind was harking back to Ilford (with a frightened sense of the length of time since I had been there “Good heavens, it must be five hours at least!”), and wondering if Mrs. Oliver was giving baby her drops of brandy and her spoonfuls of diluted milk.
But somewhere about midnight my soul seemed to take full possession of my body, and I saw things clearly and sharply as I turned out of Oxford Street into Regent Street.
The traffic was then rapidly dying down, the streets were darker, the cafes were closing, men and women were coming out of supper rooms, smoking cigarettes, getting into taxis and driving away; and another London day was passing into another night.
People spoke to me. I made no answer. At one moment an elderly woman said something to which I replied, “No, no,” and hurried on. At another moment, a foreign-looking man addressed me, and I pushed past without replying. Then a string of noisy young fellows, stretching across the broad pavement arm-in-arm, encircled me and cried:
“Here we are, my dear. Let’s have a kissing-bee. ”
But with angry words and gestures I compelled them to let me go, whereupon one of the foreign women who were sauntering by said derisively:
“What does she think she’s out for, I wonder?”
At length I found myself standing under a kind of loggia at the corner of Piccadilly Circus, which was now half-dark, the theatres and music-halls being closed, and only one group of arc lamps burning on an island about a statue.
There were few people now where there had been so dense a crowd awhile ago; policemen were tramping leisurely along; horse-cabs were going at walking pace, and taxis were moving slowly; but a few gentlemen (walking home from their clubs apparently) were passing at intervals, often looking at me, and sometimes speaking as they went by.
Then plainly and pitilessly the taunt of the foreign woman came back to me what was I there for?
I knew quite well, and yet I saw that not only was I not doing what I came out to do, but every time an opportunity had offered I had resisted it. It was just as if an inherited instinct of repulsion had restrained m, or some strong unseen arm had always snatched me away.
This led me was it some angel leading me to think again of Martin and to remember our beautiful and sacred parting at Castle Raa.
“Whatever happens to either of us, we belong to each other for ever,” he had said, and I had answered, “For ever and ever.”
It was a fearful shock to think of this now. I saw that if I did what I had come out to do, not only would Mary O’Neill be dead to me after to-night, but Martin Conrad would be dead also.
When I thought of that I realised that, although I had accepted, without question, the newspaper reports of Martin’s death, he had never hitherto been dead to me at all. He had lived with me every moment of my life since, supporting me, sustaining me and inspiring me, so that nothing I had ever done not one single thing would have been different if I had believed him to be alive and been sure that he was coming back.
But now I was about to kill Martin Conrad as well as Mary O’Neill, by breaking the pledge (sacred as any sacrament) which they had made for life and for eternity.
Could I do that? In this hideous way too? Never! Never! Never! I should die in the streets first.
I remember that I was making a movement to go back to Ilford (God knows how), when, on the top of all my brave thinking, came the pitiful thought of my child. My poor helpless little baby, who had made no promise and was party to no pledge. She needed nourishment and fresh air and sunshine, and if she could not get them if I went back to her penniless she would die!
My sweet darling! My, Isabel, my only treasure! Martin’s child and mine!
That put a quick end to all my qualms. Again I bit my lip until it bled, and told myself that I should speak to the very next man who came along.
“Yes, the very next man who comes along,” I thought.
I was standing at that moment in the shadow of one of the pilasters of the loggia, almost leaning against it, and in the silence of the street I heard distinctly the sharp firm step of somebody coming my way.
It was a man. As he came near me he slowed down, and stopped. He was then immediately behind me. I heard his quick breathing. I felt that his eyes were fixed on me. One sidelong glance told me that he was wearing a long ulster and a cap, that he was young, tall, powerfully built, had a strong, firm, clean-shaven face, and an indescribable sense of the open air about him.
“Now, now!” I thought, and (to prevent myself from running away) I turned quickly round to him and tried to speak.
But I said nothing. I did not know what women say to men under such circumstances. I found myself trembling violently, and before I was aware of what was happening I had burst into tears.
Then came another blinding moment and a tempest of conflicting feelings.
I felt that the man had laid hold of me, that his strong hands were grasping my arms, and that he was looking into my face. I heard his voice. It seemed to belong to no waking moment but to come out of the hours of sleep.
I looked up at him, but before my eyes could carry the news to my brain I knew who it was I knew, I knew, I knew!
“Don’t be afraid! It’s I!”
Then something – God knows what – made me straggle to escape, and I cried:
“Let me go!”
Bat even while I was struggling trying to fly away from my greatest happiness I was praying with all my might that the strong arms would hold me, conquer me, master me.
They did. And then something seemed to give way within my head, and through a roaring that came into my brain I heard the voice again, and it was saying:
“Quick, Sister, call a cab. Open the door, O ‘Sullivan. No, leave her to me. I’ve got her, thank God!”
And then Minding darkness fell over me and everything was blotted out.
But only a moment afterwards (or what seemed to be a moment) memory came back in a great swelling wave of joy. Though I did not open my eyes I knew that I was safe and baby was safe, and all was well Somebody – it was the same beloved voice again – was saying:
“Mally! My Mally! My poor, long-suffering darling! My own again, God bless her!”
It was he, it was Martin, my Martin. And, oh Mother of my Lord, he was carrying me upstairs in his arms.
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.