The old salt had been badly battered, and I had not liked the way he had been mumbling about "mother," which is not a good sign in a stalwart chap when his strength is getting low.
So while buttoning up the tent on the night after Christmas Day I was a bit touched up to see old Treacle, who had lived the life of a rip, fumbling at his breast and hauling something out with an effort.
It was a wooden image of the Virgin (about the length of my hand) daubed over with gilt and blue paint, and when he stuck it up in front of his face as he lay in his sleeping-bag, I knew that he expected to go out before morning, and wished that to be the last thing his old eyes should rest on.
I am not much of a man for saints myself (having found that we get out of tight places middling well without them), but perhaps what Treacle did got down into some secret place of my soul, for I felt calmer as I fell asleep, and when I awoke it was not from the sound of my darling's voice, but from a sort of deafening silence.
The roaring of the wind had ceased; the blizzard was over; the lamp that hung from the staff of the tent had gone out; and there was a sheet of light coming in from an aperture in the canvas.
It was the midnight sun of the Antarctic, and when I raised my head I saw that it fell full on the little gilded image of the Virgin. Anybody who has never been where I was then may laugh if he likes and welcome, but that was enough for me. It was all right! Somebody was looking after my dear one!
I shouted to my shipmates to get up and make ready, and at dawn, when we started afresh on our journey, there may have been dark clouds over our heads but the sun was shining inside of us.
[END OF MARTIN CONRAD'S MEMORANDUM]
Sister Mildred was right. Our Blessed Lady must have interceded for me, because help came immediately.
I awoke on St. Stephen's morning with that thrilling emotion which every mother knows to be the first real and certain consciousness of motherhood.
It is not for me to describe the physical effects of that great change. But the spiritual effect is another matter. It was like that of a miracle. God in his great mercy, looking down on me in my sorrow, had sent one of His ministering angels to comfort me.
It seemed to say:
"Don't be afraid. He who went away is not lost to you. Something of himself is about to return."
I felt no longer that I was to be left alone in my prison-house of London, because Martin's child was to bear me company—to be a link between us, an everlasting bond, so that he and I should be together to the end.
I tremble to say what interpretation I put upon all this—how it seemed to be a justification of what I did on the night before Martin left Ellan, as if God, knowing he would not return, had prompted me, so that when my dark hour came I might have this great hope for my comforter.
And oh how wonderful it was, how strange, how mysterious, how joyful!
Every day and all day and always I was conscious of my unborn child, as a fluttering bird held captive in the hand. The mystery and the joy of the coming life soothed away my sorrow, and if I had shed any tears they would have dried them.
And then the future!
I seemed to know from the first that it was to be a girl, and already I could see her face and look into her sea-blue eyes. As she grew up I would talk to her of her father—the brave explorer, the man of destiny, who laid down his life in a great work for the world. We should always be talking of him—we two alone together, because he belonged to us and nobody else in the world besides. Everything I have written here I should tell her—at least the beautiful part of it, the part about our love, which nothing in life, and not even death itself, could quench.
Oh the joy of those days! It may seem strange that I should have been so happy so soon after my bereavement, but I cannot help it if it was so, and it was so.
Perhaps it was a sort of hysteria, due to the great change in my physical condition. I do not know. I do not think I want to know. But one thing is sure—that hope and prayer and the desire of life awoke in me again, as by the touch of God's own hand, and I became another and a happier woman.
Such was the condition in which Mildred found me when she returned a few days later. Then she brought me down plump to material matters. We had first to consider the questions of ways and means, in order to find out how to face the future.
It was the beginning of January, my appointed time was in June, and I had only some sixteen pounds of my money left, so it was clear that I could not stay in the boarding-house much longer.
Happily Mildred knew of homes where women could live inexpensively during their period of waiting. They were partly philanthropic and therefore subject to certain regulations, which my resolute determination (not to mention Martin's name, or permit it to be mentioned) might make it difficult for me to observe, but Mildred hoped to find one that would take me on her recommendation without asking further question.
In this expectation we set out in search of a Maternity Home. What a day of trial we had! I shall never forget it.
The first home we called at was a Catholic one in the neighbourhood of our boarding-house.
It had the appearance of a convent, and that pleased me exceedingly. After we had passed the broad street door, with its large brass plate and small brass grille, we were shown into a little waiting-room with tiled floor, distempered walls, and coloured pictures of the saints.
The porteress told us the Mother was at prayers with the inmates, but would come downstairs presently, and while we waited we heard the dull hum of voices, the playing of an organ, and the singing of the sweet music I knew so well.
Closing my eyes I felt myself back in Rome, and began to pray that I might be permitted to remain there. But the desire was damped when the Mother entered the room.
She was a stout woman, wearing heavy outdoor boots and carrying her arms interlaced before her, with the hands hidden in the ample sleeves of her habit, and her face was so white and expressionless, that it might have been cast in plaster of Paris.
In a rather nervous voice Mildred explained our errand. "Mother," she said, "I cannot tell you anything about this young lady, and I have come to ask if you will take her on my recommendation."
"My dear child," said the Mother, "that would be utterly against our rule. Not to know who the young lady is, where she comes from, why she is here, and whether she is married or single or a widow—it is quite impossible."
Mildred, looking confused and ashamed, said:
"She can afford to pay a little."
"That makes no difference."
"But I thought that in exceptional cases . . ."
"There can be no exceptional cases, Sister. If the young lady is married and can say that her husband consents, or single and can give us assurance that her father or guardian agrees, or a widow and can offer satisfactory references . . ."
Mildred looked across at me, but I shook my head.
"In that case there seems to be nothing more to say," said the Mother, and rising without ceremony she walked with us to the door.
Our next call was at the headquarters of a home which was neither Catholic nor Protestant, but belonged, Mildred said, to a kind of Universal Church, admitting inmates of all denominations.
It was in a busy thoroughfare and had the appearance of a business office. After Mildred had written her name and the object of our visit on a slip of paper we were taken up in a lift to another office with an open safe, where a man in a kind of uniform (called a Commissioner) was signing letters and cheques.
The Commissioner was at first very courteous, especially to me, and I had an uncomfortable feeling that he was mistaking me for something quite other than I was until Mildred explained our errand, and then his manner changed painfully.
"What you ask is against all our regulations," he said. "Secrecy implies something to hide, and we neither hide anything nor permit anything to be hidden. In fact our system requires that we should not only help the woman, but punish the man by making him realise his legal, moral, and religious liability for his wrong-doing. Naturally we can only do this by help of the girl, and if she does not tell us at the outset who and what the partner of her sin has been and where he is to be found. . . ."
I was choking with shame and indignation, and rising to my feet I said to Mildred:
"Let us go, please."
"Ah, yes, I know," said the Commissioner, with a superior smile, "I have seen all this before. The girl nearly always tries to shield the guilty man. But why should she? It may seem generous, but it is really wicked. It is a direct means of increasing immorality. The girl who protects the author of her downfall is really promoting the ruin of another woman, and if. . . ."
Thinking of Martin I wanted to strike the smug Pharisee in the face, and in order to conquer that unwomanly impulse I hurried out of the office, and into the street, leaving poor Mildred to follow me.
Our last call was at the home of a private society in a little brick house that seemed to lean against the wall of a large lying-in hospital in the West End of London.
At the moment of our arrival the Matron was presiding in the drawing-room over a meeting of a Missionary League for the Conversion of the Jews, so we were taken through a narrow lobby into a little back-parlour which overlooked, through a glass screen, a large apartment, wherein a number of young women, who had the appearance of dressmakers, ladies' maids, and governesses, were sewing tiny pieces of linen and flannel that were obviously baby-clothes.
There were no carpets on the floors and the house had a slight smell of carbolic. The tick-tick of sewing machines on the other side of the screen mingled with the deadened sound of the clapping of hands in the room overhead.
After a while there was rustle of dresses coming down the bare stairs, followed by the opening and closing of the front door, and then the Matron came into the parlour.
She was a very tall, flat-bosomed woman in a plain black dress, and she seemed to take in our situation instantly. Without waiting for Mildred's explanation she began to ask my name, my age, and where I came from.
Mildred fenced these questions as well as she could, and then, with even more nervousness than ever, made the same request as before.
The Matron seemed aghast.
"Most certainly not," she said. "My committee would never dream of such a thing. In the interests of the unfortunate girls who have fallen from the path of virtue, as well as their still more unfortunate offspring, we always make the most searching inquiries. In fact, we keep a record of every detail of every case. Listen to this," she added, and opening a large leather-bound hook like a ledger, she began to read one of its entries:
"H.J., aged eighteen years, born of very respectable parents, was led astray [that was not the word] in a lonely road very late at night by a sailor who was never afterwards heard of. . . ."
But I could bear no more, and rising from my seat I fled from the room and the house into the noisy street outside.
All day long my whole soul had been in revolt. It seemed to me that, while God in His gracious mercy was giving me my child to comfort and console me, to uplift and purify me, and make me a better woman than I had been before, man, with his false and cruel morality, with his machine-made philanthropy, was trying to use it as a whip to punish not only me but Martin.
But that it should never do! Never as long as I lived! I would die in the streets first!
Perhaps I was wrong, and did not understand myself, and certainly Mildred did not understand me. When she rejoined me in the street we turned our faces homeward and were half way back to the boarding-house before we spoke again.
Then she said:
"I am afraid the other institutions will be the same. They'll all want references."
I answered that they should never get them.
"But your money will be done soon, my child, and then what is to become of you?"
"No matter!" I said, for I had already determined to face the world myself without help from anybody.
There was a silence again until we reached the door of our boarding-house, and then Mildred said:
"Mary, your father is a rich man, and however much you may have displeased him he cannot wish you to be left to the mercy of the world—especially when your time comes. Let me write to him. . . ."
That terrified me, for I saw only one result—an open quarrel between my father and my husband about the legitimacy of my child, who would probably be taken away from me as soon as it was born.
So taking Mildred by the arm, regardless of the observation of passers-by, I begged and prayed and implored of her not to write to my father.
She promised not to do so, and we parted on good terms; but I was not satisfied, and the only result of our day's journeying was that I became possessed of the idea that the whole world was conspiring to rob me of my unborn child.
A few days later Mildred called again, and then she said:
"I had another letter from Father Donovan this morning, Mary. Your poor priest is broken-hearted about you. He is sure you are in London, and certain you are in distress, and says that with or without his Bishop's consent he is coming up to London to look for you, and will never go back until you are found."
I began to suspect Mildred. In the fever of my dread of losing my child I convinced myself that with the best intentions in the world, merely out of love for me and pity for my position, she would give me up—perhaps in the very hour of my peril.
To make this impossible I determined to cut myself off from her and everybody else, by leaving the boarding-house and taking another and cheaper lodging far enough away.
I was encouraged in this course by the thought of my diminishing resources, and though heaven knows I had not too many comforts where I was. I reproached myself for spending so much on my own needs when I ought to be economising for the coming of my child.
The end of it all was that one morning early I went down to the corner of Oxford Street where the motor-omnibuses seem to come and go from all parts of London.
North, south, east, and west were all one to me, leading to labyrinths of confused and interminable streets, and I knew as little as a child which of them was best for my purpose. But chance seems to play the greatest part in our lives, and at that moment it was so with me.
I was standing on the edge of the pavement when a motor-bus labelled "Bayswater Road" stopped immediately in front of me and I stepped into it, not knowing in the least why I did so.
Late that evening, having found what I wanted, I returned in the mingled mist and darkness to the boarding-house to pack up my belongings. That was not difficult to do, and after settling my account and sending young John for a cab I was making for the door when the landlady came up to me.
"Will you not leave your new address, my dear, lest anybody should call," she said.
"Nobody will call," I answered.
"But in case there should he letters?"
"There will be no letters," I said, and whispering to the driver to drive up Oxford Street, I got into the cab.
It was then quite dark. The streets and shops were alight, and I remembered that as I crossed the top of the Charing Cross Road I looked down in the direction of the lofty building in which Mildred's window would be shining like a lighthouse over Piccadilly.
Poor dear ill-requited Mildred! She has long ago forgiven me. She knows now that when I ran away from the only friend I had in London it was because I could not help it.
She knows, too, that I was not thinking of myself, and that in diving still deeper into the dungeon of the great city, in hiding and burying myself away in it, I was asking nothing of God but that He would let me live the rest of my life—no matter how poor and lonely—with the child that He was sending to be a living link between my lost one and me.
In the light of what happened afterwards, that was all so strange, and oh, so wonderful and miraculous!
My new quarters were in the poorer district which stands at the back of Bayswater.
The street was a cul-de-sac (of some ten small houses on either side) which was blocked up at the further end by the high wall of a factory for the "humanization" of milk, and opened out of a busy thoroughfare of interior shops like a gully-way off a noisy coast.
My home in this street was in number one, and I had been attracted to it by a printed card in the semi-circular fan-light over the front door, saying: "A ROOM TO LET FURNISHED."
My room, which was of fair size, was on the first floor and had two windows to the street, with yellow holland blinds and white muslin curtains.
The furniture consisted of a large bed, a horse-hair sofa, three cane-bottomed chairs, a chest of drawers (which stood between the windows), and a mirror over the mantelpiece, which had pink paper, cut into fanciful patterns, over the gilt frame, to keep off the flies.
The floor was covered with linoleum, but there were two strips of carpet, one before the fire and the other by the bed: the walls were papered with a bright red paper representing peonies in bloom; and there were three pictures—a portrait of a great Welsh preacher with a bardic name ("Dyfed"), an engraving entitled "Feed my Sheep" (showing Jesus carrying a lamb), and a memorial card of some member of the family of the house, in the form of a tomb with a weeping angel on either side.
I paid five shilling a week for my room, and, as this included the use of kettle, cooking utensils, and crockery, I found to my great delight at the end of the first week that providing for myself (tea, bread and butter, and eggs being my principal food) I had only spent ten shillings altogether, which, according to my present needs, left me enough for my time of waiting and several weeks beyond.
Every morning I went out with a little hand-bag to buy my provisions in the front street; and every afternoon I took a walk in the better part of Bayswater and even into the Park (Hyde Park), which was not far off, but never near Piccadilly, or so far east as Bloomsbury, lest I should meet Sister Mildred or be recognized by the old boarders.
I had no key to my lodgings, but when I returned home I knocked at the front door (which was at the top of a short flight of steps from the pavement) and then a string was pulled in the cellar-kitchen in which the family of my landlady lived, whereupon the bolt was shot back and the door opened of itself.
Finding it necessary to account for myself here as at the boarding-house, I had adhered to my former name, but said I was the widow of a commander lately lost, at sea, which was as near to the truth as I dared venture.
I had also made no disguise of the fact that I was expecting a child, a circumstance which secured me much sympathy from the kind-hearted souls who were now my neighbours.
They were all womanly women, generally the wives of men working in the milk factory, and therefore the life of our street was very regular.
At five in the morning you heard the halting step of the old "knocker up," who went up and down the street tapping at the bedroom windows with a long pole like a fishing-rod. A little before six you heard the clashing of many front doors and the echoing footsteps of the men going to their work. At half-past seven you heard the whoop of the milkman and the rattling of his cans. At half-past eight you heard the little feet of the children, like the pattering of rain, going off to the Board School round the corner. And a little after four in the afternoon you heard the wild cries of the juvenile community let loose from lessons, the boys trundling iron hoops and the girls skipping to a measured tune over a rope stretched from parapet to parapet.
After that, our street hummed like a bee-hive, with the women, washed and combed, standing knitting at their open doors or exchanging confidences across the areas until darkness fell and each of the mothers called her children into bed, as an old hen in the farmyard clucks up her chickens.
These good creatures were very kind to me. Having satisfied themselves from observation of my habits that I was "respectable," they called me "our lady"; and I could not help hearing that I was "a nice young thing," though it was a little against me that I did not go to church or chapel, and had confessed to being a Catholic—for several of our families (including that of my landlady) were members of the Welsh Zion Chapel not far away.
Such was the life of the little human cage to which I had confined myself, but I had an inner life that was all my own and very sweet to me.
During the long hours of every day in which I was alone I occupied myself in the making of clothes for my baby—buying linen and flannel and worsted, and borrowing patterns from my Welsh landlady.
This stimulated my tenderness towards the child that was to come, for the heart of a young mother is almost infantile, and I hardly know whether to laugh or cry when I think of the childish things I did and thought and said to myself in those first days when I was alone in my room in that back street in Bayswater.
Thus long before baby was born I had christened her. At first I wished to call her Mary, not because I cared for that name myself, but because Martin had said it was the most beautiful in the world. In the end, however, I called her Isabel Mary (because Isabel was my mother's name and she had been a far better woman than I was), and as I finished my baby's garments one by one I used to put them away in their drawer, saying to myself, "That's Isabel Mary's binder," or "Isabel Mary's christening-robe" as the case might be.
I dare say it was all very foolish. There are tears in my eyes when I think of it now, but there were none then, for though there were moments when, remembering Martin, I felt as if life were for ever blank, I was almost happy in my poor surroundings, and if it was a cage I had fixed myself in there was always a bird singing inside of it—the bird that sang in my own bosom.
"When Isabel Mary comes everything will he all right," I used to think.
This went on for many weeks and perhaps it might have gone on until my time was full but for something which, occurring under my eyes, made me tremble with the fear that the life I was living and the hope I was cherishing were really very wrong and selfish.
Of my landlady, Mrs. Williams, I saw little. She was a rather hard but no doubt heavily-laden woman, who had to "do" for a swarm of children, besides two young men lodgers who lived in the kitchen and slept in the room behind mine. Her husband was a quiet man (a carter at the dairy) whom I never saw at all except on the staircase at ten o'clock at night, when, after winding the tall clock on the landing, he went upstairs to bed in his stocking feet.
But the outstanding member of the family for me was a shock-headed girl of fourteen called Emmerjane, which was a running version of Emma Jane.
I understood that Emmerjane was the illegitimate daughter of Mrs. Williams's dead sister, and that she had been born in Carnarvon, which still shimmered in her memory in purple and gold.
Emmerjane was the drudge of the family, and I first saw her in the street at dusk, mothering a brood of her little cousins, taking Hughie by one hand and Katie by the other and telling Gwennie to lay hold of Davie lest he should be run over by the milk vans.
Afterwards she became my drudge also—washing my floor, bringing up my coals, and cleaning my grate, for sixpence a week, and giving me a great deal of information about my neighbours for nothing.
Thus she told me, speaking broad cockney with a Welsh accent, that the people opposite were named Wagstaffe and that the creaking noise I heard was that of a mangle, which Mrs. Wagstaffe had to keep because her husband was a drunkard, who stole her money and came home "a-Saturday nights, when the public-houses turned out, and beat her somethink shockin'," though she always forgave him the next day and then the creaking went on as before.
But the greatest interest of this weird little woman, who had a premature knowledge of things a child ought not to know, was in a house half-way down the street on the other side, where steam was always coming from the open door to the front kitchen.
The people who lived there were named Jones. Mrs. Jones "washed" and had a bed-ridden old mother (with two shillings from the Guardians) and a daughter named Maggie.
Maggie Jones, who was eighteen, and very pretty, used to work in the dairy, but the foreman had "tiken advantage of her" and she had just had a baby.
This foreman was named Owen Owens and he lived at the last number on our side, where two unmarried sisters "kept house" for him and sat in the "singing seat" at Zion.
Maggie thought it was the sisters' fault that Owen Owens did not marry her, so she conceived a great scheme for "besting" them, and this was the tragedy which, through Emmerjane's quick little eyes and her cockney-Welsh tongue, came to me in instalments day by day.
When her baby was a month old Maggie dressed it up "fine" and took it to the photographers for its "card di visit." The photographs were a long time coming, but when they came they were "heavenly lovely" and Maggie "cried to look at them."
Then she put one in an envelope and addressed it to Owen Owens, and though it had only to cross the street, she went out after dark to a pillar-box a long way off lest anybody should see her posting it.
Next day she said, "He'll have it now, for he always comes home to dinner. He'll take it up to his bedroom, look you, and stand it on the washstand, and if either of those sisters touch it he'll give them what's what."
After that she waited anxiously for an acknowledgment, and every time the postman passed down our street her pretty pale face would be at the door, saying, "Anything for me to-day?" or "Are you sure there's nothing for me, postman?"
At length a letter came, and Maggie Jones trembled so much that she dared not open it, but at last she tripped up to her room to be "all of herself," and then . . . then there was a "wild screech," and when Emmerjane ran upstairs Maggie was stretched out on the floor in a dead faint, clutching in her tight hand the photograph which Owen Owens had returned with the words, written in his heavy scrawl across the face—Maggie Jones's bastard.
It would be impossible to say how this incident affected me. I felt as if a moral earthquake had opened under my feet.
What had I been doing? In looking forward to the child that was to come to me I had been thinking only of my own comfort—my own consolation.
But what about the child itself?
If my identity ever became known—and it might at any moment, by the casual recognition of a person in the street—how should the position of my child differ from that of this poor girl?
A being born out of the pale of the law, as my husband would say it must be, an outcast, a thing of shame, without a father to recognise it, and with its mother's sin to lash its back for ever!
When I thought of that, much as I had longed for the child that was to be a living link between Martin and me, I asked myself if I had any right to wish for it.
I felt I had no right, and that considering my helpless position the only true motherly love was to pray that my baby might be still-born.
But that was too hard. It was too terrible. It was like a second bereavement. I could not and would not do it.
"Never, never, never!" I told myself.
Thinking matters out in the light of Maggie Jones's story, I concluded that poverty was at the root of nearly everything. If I could stave off poverty no real harm could come to my child.
I determined to do so. But there was only one way open to me at present—and that was to retrench my expenses.
I did retrench them. Persuading myself that I had no real need of this and that, I reduced my weekly outlay.
This gave me immense pleasure, and even when I saw, after a while, that I was growing thin and pale, I felt no self-pity of any sort, remembering that I had nobody to look well for now, and only the sweet and glorious duty before me of providing for my child.
I convinced myself, too, that my altered appearance was natural to my condition, and that all I needed was fresh air and exercise, therefore I determined to walk every day in the Park.
I did so once only.
It was one of those lovely mornings in early spring, when the air and the sky of London, after the long fog and grime of winter, seem to be washed by showers of sunshine.
I had entered by a gate to a broad avenue and was resting (for I was rather tired) on a seat under a chestnut tree whose glistening sheaths were swelling and breaking into leaf, when I saw a number of ladies and gentlemen on horseback coming in my direction.
I recognised one of them instantly. It was Mr. Vivian, and a beautiful girl was riding beside him. My heart stood still, for I thought he would see me. But he was too much occupied with his companion to do so.
"Yes, by Jove, it's killing, isn't it?" he said, in his shrill voice, and with his monocle in his mole-like eye, he rode past me, laughing.
After that I took my walks in the poorer streets behind Bayswater, but there I was forced back on my old problem, for I seemed to be always seeing the sufferings of children.
Thank God, children as a whole are happy. They seem to live in their hearts alone, and I really and truly believe that if all the doors of the rich houses of the West End of London were thrown open to the poor children of the East End they would stay in their slums and alleys.
But some of them suffer there for all that, especially the unfortunate ones who enter the world without any legal right to be here, and I seemed to be coming upon that kind everywhere.
One evening I saw a tiny boy of five sheltering from the rain under a dripping and draughty railway arch, and crying as if his little heart would break. I tried to comfort him and could not, but when a rather shame-faced young woman came along, as if returning from her work, he burst out on her and cried:
"Oh, muvver, she's been a-beating of me awrful."
"Never mind, Johnny," said the young woman, kneeling on the wet pavement to dry the child's eyes. "Don't cry, that's a good boy."
It needed no second sight to look into the heart of that tragedy, and the effect of it upon me was to make me curtail my expenditure still further.
Looking back on those days I cannot but wonder that I never tried to find employment. But there was one delicate impediment then—my condition, which was becoming visible, I thought, to people in the street, and causing some of them, especially women, to look round at me. When this became painful I discontinued my walks altogether, and sent Emmerjane on my few errands.
Then my room became my world.
I do not think I ever saw a newspaper. And knowing nothing of what was going on, beyond the surge and swell of the life of London as it came to me when I opened my window. I had now, more than ever, the sense of living in a dungeon on a rock in the middle of the sea.
Having no exercise I ate less and less. But I found a certain joy in that, for I was becoming a miser for my child's sake, and the only pain I suffered was when I went to my drawer, as I did every day, and looked at my rapidly diminishing store.
I knew that my Welsh landlady was beginning to call me close, meaning mean; but that did not trouble me in the least, because I told myself that every penny I saved out of my own expenses was for my child, to keep her from poverty and all the evils and injustices that followed in its train.
As my appointed time drew near my sleep was much broken; and sometimes in the middle of the night, when I heard a solitary footstep going down the street I would get up, draw aside one of my blinds, and see a light burning in some bedroom window opposite, and afterwards hear the muffled cry of the small new being who had come as another immigrant into our chill little world.
But I made no arrangements for myself until my Welsh landlady came up to my room one day and asked if I had settled with a doctor. When I answered no, she held up her hands and cried:
"Good gracious! Just as I thought. Thee'st got to lose no time, though."
Happily there was a doctor in our street nearly every day, and if I wished it she would call him up to me. I agreed and the doctor came next morning.
He was a tall, elderly man with cold eyes, compressed lips, and a sour expression, and neither his manner nor his speech gave any hint of a consciousness (which I am sure every true doctor must have) that in coming to a woman in my condition he was entering one of the sacred chambers of human life.
He asked me a few abrupt questions, told me when he would come again, and then spoke about his fee.
"My fee is a guinea and I usually get it in advance," he said, whereupon I went to my drawer, and took out a sovereign and a shilling, not without a certain pang at seeing so much go in a moment after I had been saving so long.
The doctor had dropped the money into his waistcoat pocket with oh! such a casual air, and was turning to go, when my Welsh landlady said:
"Her's not doing herself justice in the matter, of food, doctor."
"Why, what do you eat?" asked the doctor, and as well as I could, out of my dry and parched throat, I told him.
"Tut! tut! This will never do," he said. "It's your duty to your child to have better food than that. Something light and nourishing every day, such as poultry, fish, chicken broth, beef-tea, and farinaceous foods generally."
I gasped. 'What was the doctor thinking about?
"Remember," he said, with his finger up, "the health of the child is intimately dependent on the health of the mother. When the mother is in a morbid state it affects the composition of the blood, and does great harm to the health of the offspring, both immediately and in after life. Don't forget now. Good day!"
That was a terrible shock to me. In my great ignorance and great love I had been depriving myself for the sake of my child, and now I learned that I had all the time been doing it a grave and perhaps life-long injury!
Trying to make amends I sent out for some of the expensive foods the doctor had ordered me, but when they were cooked I found to my dismay that I had lost the power of digesting them.
My pain at this discovery was not lessened next day when my Welsh landlady brought up a nurse whom I had asked her to engage for me.
The woman was a human dumpling with a discordant voice, and her first interest, like that of the doctor, seemed to centre in her fee.
She told me that her usual terms were a guinea for the fortnight, but when she saw my face fall (for I could not help thinking how little I had left) she said:
"Some ladies don't need a fortnight, though. Mrs. Wagstaffe, for instance, she never has no more than five days, and on the sixth she's back at her mangle. So if five will do, ma'am, perhaps ten and six won't hurt you."
I agreed, and the nurse was rolling her ample person out of my room when my Welsh landlady said:
"But her's not eating enough to keep a linnet, look you."
And then my nurse, who was what the doctor calls a croaker, began on a long series of stories of ladies who, having "let themselves down" had died, either at childbirth or soon afterwards.
"It's after a lady feels it if she has to nurse her baby," said the nurse, "and I couldn't be responsible neither for you nor the child if you don't do yourself justice."
This was a still more terrible possibility—the possibility that I might die and leave my child behind me. The thought haunted me all that day and the following night, but the climax came next morning, when Emmerjane, while black-leading my grate, gave me the last news of Maggie Jones.
Maggie's mother had been "a-naggin' of her to get work," asking if she had not enough mouths to feed "without her bringin' another."
Maggie had at first been afraid to look for employment, thinking everybody knew of her trouble. But after her mother had put the young minister from Zion on to her to tell her to be "obejent" she had gone out every day, whether the weather was good or bad or "mejum."
This had gone on for three months (during which Maggie used to stay out late because she was afraid to meet her mother's face) until one wet night, less than a week ago, she had come home drenched to the skin, taken to her bed, "sickened for somethink" and died.
Three days after Emmerjane told me this story a great solemnity fell on our street.
It was Saturday, when the children do not go to school, but, playing no games, they gathered in whispering groups round the house with the drawn blinds, while their mothers stood bareheaded at the doors with their arms under their aprons and their hidden hands over their mouths.
I tried not to know what was going on, but looking out at the last moment I saw Maggie Jones's mother, dressed in black, coming down her steps, with her eyes very red and her hard face (which was seamed with labour) all wet and broken up.
The "young minister" followed (a beardless boy who could have known nothing of the tragedy of a woman's life), and stepping into the midst of the group of the congregation from Zion, who had gathered there with their warm Welsh hearts full of pity for the dead girl, he gave out a Welsh hymn, and they sang it in the London street, just as they had been used to do at the cottage doors in the midst of their native mountains:
"Bydd myrdd o ryfeddodau Ar doriad boreu wawr."
I could look no longer, so I turned back into my room, but at the next moment I heard the rumble of wheels and knew that Maggie Jones was on her way to her last mother of all—the Earth.
During the rest of that day I could think of nothing but Maggie's child, and what was to become of it, and next morning when Emmerjane came up she told me that the "young minister" was "a-gettin' it into the 'ouse."
I think that was the last straw of my burden, for my mind came back with a swift rebound from Maggie Jones's child to my own.
The thought of leaving my baby behind now terrified and appalled me. It brought me no comfort to think that though I was poor my father was rich, for I knew that if he ever came to know of my child's existence he would hate it and cast it off, as the central cause of the downfall of his plans.
Yet Martin's child alone, and at the mercy of the world! It could not and must not be!
Then came a fearful thought. I fought against it. I said many "Hail Marys" to protect myself from it. But I could not put it away.
Perhaps my physical condition was partly to blame. Others must judge of that. It is only for me to say, in all truth and sincerity, what I felt and thought when I stood (as every woman who is to be a mother must) at the door of that dark chamber which is Life's greatest mystery.
I thought of how Martin had been taken from me, as Fate (perhaps for some good purpose still unrevealed) had led me to believe.
I thought of how I had comforted myself with the hope of the child that was coming to be a link between us.
I thought of the sweet hours I had spent in making my baby's clothes; in choosing her name; in whispering it to myself, yes, and to God, too, every night and every morning.
I thought of how day by day I had trimmed the little lamp I kept burning in the sanctuary within my breast where my baby and I lived together.
I thought of how this had taken the sting out of death and victory out of the grave. And after that I told myself that, however sweet and beautiful, all this had been selfishness and I must put it away.
Then I thought of the child itself, who—conceived in sin as my Church would say, disinherited by the law, outlawed by society, inheriting my physical weaknesses, having lost one of its parents and being liable to lose the other—was now in danger of being left to the mercies of the world, banned from its birth, penniless and without a protector, to become a drudge and an outcast or even a thief, a gambler, or a harlot.
This was what I thought and felt.
And when at last I knew that I had come to the end of my appointed time I knelt down in my sad room, and if ever I prayed a fervent prayer, if ever my soul went up to God in passionate supplication, it was that the child I had longed for and looked forward to as a living link with my lost one might be born dead.
"Oh God, whatever happens to me, let my baby be born dead—I pray, I beseech Thee."
Perhaps it was a wicked prayer. God knows. He will be just.
It was Saturday, the seventh of June. The summer had been a cold one thus far; the night was chill and heavy rain was beating against the window-pane.
There was a warm fire in my room for the first time for several months; the single gas jet on the window side of the mantelpiece had been turned low, and the nurse, in list slippers, was taking my little flannel and linen garments out of the chest of drawers and laying them on the flat steel fender.
I think I must have had intervals of insensibility, for the moments of consciousness came and went with me, like the diving and rising of a sea-bird in the midst of swelling waves.
At one such moment I became aware that the doctor and my Welsh landlady, as well as my nurse, were in the room, and that they were waiting for the crisis and fearing for my life.
I heard them talking in low voices which made a drumming noise in my ears, like that which the sea makes when it is rolling into a cave.
"She's let herself down so low, pore thing, that I don't know in the world what's to happen to her."
"As God is my witness, look you, I never saw anybody live on so little."
"I'm not afraid of the mother. I'm more afraid of the child, if you ask me."
Then the drumming noise would die out, and I would only hear something within myself saying:
"Oh God, oh God, that my child may be born dead."
At another moment I heard, above the rattle of the rain, the creaking of the mangle in the cellar-kitchen on the other side of the street.
At still another moment I heard the sound of quarrelling in the house opposite. A woman was screaming, children were shrieking, and a man was swearing in a thick hoarse voice.
I knew what had happened—it was midnight, the "public-houses had turned out," and Mr. Wagstaffe had came home drunk.
The night passed heavily. I heard myself (as I had done before) calling on Martin in a voice of wild entreaty:
Then remembering that he was gone I began again to pray. I heard myself praying to the Blessed Virgin:
"Oh, Mother of my God, let my child . . ."
But a voice which seemed to come from far away interrupted me.
"Hush, bach, hush! It will make it harder for thee."
At length peace came. It seemed to me that I was running out of a tempestuous sea, with its unlimited loneliness and cruel depth, into a quiet harbour.
There was a heavenly calm, in which I could hear the doctor and the nurse and my Welsh landlady talking together in cheerful whispers.
I knew that everything was over, and with the memory of the storm I had passed through still in my heart and brain. I said:
"Is it dead?"
"Dead?" cried the nurse in a voice several octaves higher than usual. "Dear heart no, but alive and well. A beautiful little girl!"
"Yes, your baby is all right, ma'am," said the doctor, and then my Welsh landlady cried:
"Why did'st think it would be dead, bach? As I am a Christian woman thee'st got the beautifullest baby that ever breathed."
I could bear no more. The dark thoughts of the days before were over me still, and with a groan I turned to the wall. Then everything was wiped out as by an angel's wing, and I fell into a deep sleep.
When I awoke my dark thoughts were vanishing away like a bad dream in the morning. The rain had ceased, the gas had been put out, and I could see by the glow on the peonies of the wall-paper that the sun was shining with a soft red light through the holland blinds of my windows.
I heard the sparrows chirping on the sills outside; I heard the milkman rattling his cans; I heard the bells of a neighbouring church ringing for early communion.
I closed my eyes and held my breath and listened to the sounds in my own room. I heard the kettle singing over the fire; I heard somebody humming softly, and beating a foot on the floor in time to the tune and then I heard a low voice (it was Emmerjane's) saying from somewhere near my bed:
"I dunno but what she's awake. Her breathing ain't a-goin' now."
Then I turned and saw the nurse sitting before the fire with something on her lap. I knew what it was. It was my child, and it was asleep. In spite of my dark thoughts my heart yearned for it.
And then came the great miracle.
My child awoke and began to cry. It was a faint cry, oh! so thin and weak, but it went thundering and thundering through me. There was a moment of awful struggle, and then a mighty torrent of love swept over me.
It was Motherhood.
My child! Mine! Flesh of my flesh! Oh God! Oh God!
All my desire for my baby's death to save it from the pains of life was gone, and my heart, starved so long, throbbed with tenderness. I raised myself in bed, in spite of my nurse's protest, and cried to her to give me my baby.
"Give her to me. Give her to me."
"By-and-by, by-and-by," said the nurse.
"Now, now! I can wait no longer."
"But you must take some food first. Emmerjane, give her that glass of milk and water."
I drank the milk just to satisfy them, and then held out my arms for my child.
"Give her to me—quick, quick!"
"Here she is then, the jewel!"
Oh! the joy of that moment when I first took my baby in my arms, and looked into her face, and saw my own features and the sea-blue eyes of Martin! Oh the rapture of my first eager kiss!
I suppose I must have been rough with my little cherub in the fervour of my love, for she began to cry again.
"There! there!" said the nurse. "Be good now, or I must take baby away."
But heaven had taught me another lesson, and instantly, instinctively, I put my baby to my breast. Instantly and instinctively, too, my baby turned to it with its little mouth open and its little fingers feeling for the place.
"Oh God! My God! Oh Mother of my God!"
And then in that happiness that is beyond all earthly bliss—the happiness of a mother when she first clasps her baby to her breast—I began to cry.
I had not cried for months—not since that night in Ellan which I did not wish to remember any more—but now my tears gushed out and ran down my face like rain.
I cried on Martin once more—I could not help it. And looking down at the closed eyes of my child my soul gushed out in gratitude to God, who had sent me this for all I had suffered.
"Hush, hush! You will do yourself a mischief and it will be bad for the milk," said the nurse.
After that I tried to control myself. But I found a fierce and feverish delight in suckling my child. It seemed as if every drop my baby drew gave me a spiritual as well as a physical joy—cooling my blood and my brain and wiping out all my troubles.
Oh mystery of mysteries! Oh miracle of miracles!
My baby was at my breast and my sufferings were at an end.
That was a long, long day of happiness.
It was both very long and very short, for it passed like a dream.
What wonderful happenings were crowded into it!
First the nurse, from the dizzy heights of her greater experience and superior knowledge, indulged my infantile anxieties by allowing me to look on while baby was being bathed, and rewarded me for "being good" by many praises of my baby's beauty.
"I've nursed a-many in my time," she said, "but I don't mind saying as I've never had a bonnier babby on my knee. Look at her legs now, so white and plump and dimpled. Have you ever seen anythink so putty?"
I confessed that I never had, and when nurse showed me how to fix the binder, and put on the barrow-coat without disturbing baby while asleep, I thought her a wonderful woman.
Emmerjane, who had with difficulty been kept out of the room last night and was now rushing breathlessly up and down stairs, wished to hold baby for a moment, and at length out of the magnificence of my generosity I allowed her to do so, only warning her, as she loved her life, to hold tight and not let baby fall.
"How'd you mean?" said the premature little mother. "Me let her fall? Not much!"
Every hour, according to the doctor's orders, I gave baby the breast. I do not know which was my greatest joy—to feast my eyes on her while she sucked and to see her little head fall back with her little mouth open when she had had enough, or to watch her when she stretched herself and hiccoughed, and then grasped my thumb with her little tight fingers.
Oh, the wild, inexpressible delight of it!
Every hour had its surprise. Every few minutes had their cause of wonder.
It rather hurt me when baby cried, and I dare say my own foolish lip would drop at such moments, but when I saw that there were no tears in her eyes, and she was only calling for her food, I pleaded with nurse to let me give her the breast again.
The sun shone all day long, and though the holland window blinds were kept down to subdue the light, for my sake and perhaps for baby's, I thought my room looked perfectly beautiful. It might be poor and shabby, but flights of angels could not have made it more heavenly than it was in my eyes then.
In the afternoon nurse told me I must take some sleep myself, but I would not sleep until baby slept, so she had to give me my cherub again, and I sat up and rocked her and for a while I sang—as softly as I could—a little lullaby.
It was a lullaby I had learned at Nemi from the Italian women in embroidered outside stays, who so love their children; and though I knew quite well that it had been written for the Mother of all Mothers, who, after she had been turned away from every door, had been forced to take refuge in a stable in Bethlehem, I was in such an ecstasy of spiritual happiness that I thought it no irreverence to change it a little and to sing it in my London lodging to my human child.
"Sleep, little baby, I love thee, I love thee, Sleep, little Queen, I am bending above thee."
I dare say my voice was sweet that day—a mother's voice is always sweet—for when Emmerjane, who had been out of the room, came back to it with a look of awed solemnity, she said:
"Well, I never did! I thought as 'ow there was a' angel a-come into this room."
"So there is, and here she is," I said, beaming down on my sleeping child.
But the long, short, blissful day came to an end at last, and when night fell and I dropped asleep, there were two names of my dear ones on my lips, and if one of them was the name of him who (as I thought) was in heaven, the other was the name of her who was now lying in my arms.
I may have been poor, but I felt like a queen with all the riches of life in my little room.
I may have sinned against the world and the Church, but I felt as if God had justified me by His own triumphant law.
The whole feminine soul in me seemed to swell and throb, and with my baby at my breast I wanted no more of earth or heaven.
I was still bleeding from the bruises of Fate, but I felt healed of all my wounds, loaded with benefits, crowned with rewards.
Four days passed like this, varied by visits from the doctor and my Welsh landlady. Then my nurse began to talk of leaving me.
I did not care. In my ignorance of my condition, and the greed of my motherly love, I was not sorry she was going so soon. Indeed, I was beginning to be jealous of her, and was looking forward to having my baby all to myself.
But nurse, as I remember, was a little ashamed and tried to excuse herself.
"If I hadn't promised to nurse another lady, I wouldn't leave you, money or no money," she said. "But the girl" (meaning Emmerjane) "is always here, and if she isn't like a nurse she's 'andy."
"Yes, yes, I shall be all right," I answered.
On the fifth day my nurse left me, and shocking as that fact seems to me now, I thought little of it then.
I was entirely happy. I had nothing in the world except my baby, and my baby had nothing in the world except me. I was still in the dungeon that had seemed so dreadful to me before—the great dungeon of London to one who is poor and friendless.
But no matter! I was no longer alone, for there was one more inmate in my prison-house—my child.
I AM LOST
"Is it nothing to you, ye that pass by . . . ?"
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
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 A1—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 deg.; 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 corn-crake.
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.
All 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 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 tug 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," I 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 o' O'Sullivan going round the broad circle of my shipmates in the blue 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 life is low, I cannot say, but as God is my witness, I was hearing 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 a.m. and the hurricane was yowling like a wounded dog—the answering thought came quick. I must 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 choice but to obey.
Next morning, in the first light of the dim Antarctic glow, I crept out of my snow hut to look south 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 rip 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 you 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 we'll stick together, shipmates, and whatever regrets there may be, or disappointments, or heart-breakings, we'll . . . we'll 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 we'll draw a winner yet, and I ask you to swear that you'll 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 OF 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 he 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 'cart, 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 filled 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 up 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 you."
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 Holmtown) 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 changed instantly.
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 hook, 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 + 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.