Then I noticed that the first line of her superscription "Mrs. Daniel O'Neill" was blurred by the tears that were dropping from her eyes, and my throat began to hurt me dreadfully. But I remembered what Father Dan had told me to do, so I said:
"Never mind, mammy. Don't worry—I'll be home for the holidays."
Soon afterwards we heard the carriage wheels passing under the window, and then Father Dan came up in a white knitted muffler, and with a funny bag which he used for his surplice at funerals, and said, through a little cloud of white breath, that everything was ready.
I saw that my mother was turning round and taking out her pocket-handkerchief, and I was snuffling a little myself, but at a sign from Father Dan, who was standing at the threshold. I squeezed back the water in my eyes and cried:
"Good-bye mammy. I'll be back for Christmas," and then darted across to the door.
I was just passing through it when I heard my mother say "Mary" in a strange low voice, and I turned and saw her—I can see her still—with her beautiful pale face all broken up, and her arms held out to me.
Then I rushed back to her, and she clasped me to her breast crying, "Mally veen! My Mally veen!" and I could feel her heart beating through her dress and hear the husky rattle in her throat, and then all our poor little game of make-believe broke down utterly.
At the next moment my father was calling upstairs that I should be late for the steamer, so my mother dried her own eyes and then mine, and let me go.
Father Dan was gone when I reached the head of the stairs but seeing Nessy MacLeod and Betsy Beauty at the bottom of them I soon recovered my composure, and sailing down in my finery I passed them in stately silence with my little bird-like head in the air.
I intended to do the same with Aunt Bridget, who was standing with a shawl over her shoulders by the open door, but she touched me and said:
"Aren't you going to kiss me good-bye, then?"
"No," I answered, drawing my little body to its utmost height.
"And why not?"
"Because you've been unkind to mamma and cruel to me, and because you think there's nobody but Betsy Beauty. And I'll tell them at the Convent that you are making mamma ill, and you're as bad as . . . as bad as the bad women in the Bible!"
"My gracious!" said Aunt Bridget, and she tried to laugh, but I could see that her face became as white as a whitewashed wall. This did not trouble me in the least until I reached the carriage, when Father Dan, who was sitting inside, said:
"My little Mary won't leave home like that—without kissing her aunt and saying good-bye to her cousins."
So I returned and shook hands with Nessy MacLeod and Betsy Beauty, and lifted my little face to my Aunt Bridget.
"That's better," she said, after she had kissed me, but when I had passed her my quick little ear caught the words:
"Good thing she's going, though."
During this time my father, with the morning mist playing like hoar-frost about his iron-grey hair, had been tramping the gravel and saying the horses were getting cold, so without more ado he bundled me into the carriage and banged the door on me.
But hardly had we started when Father Dan, who was blinking his little eyes and pretending to blow his nose on his coloured print handkerchief, said, "Look!" and pointed up to my mother's room.
There she was again, waving and kissing her hand to me through her open window, and she continued to do so until we swirled round some trees and I lost the sight of her.
What happened in my mother's room when her window was closed I do not know, but I well remember that, creeping into a corner of the carriage. I forgot all about the glory and grandeur of going away, and that it did not help me to remember when half way down the drive a boy with a dog darted from under the chestnuts and raced alongside of us.
It was Martin, and though his right arm was in a sling, he leapt up to the step and held on to the open window by his left hand while he pushed his head into the carriage and made signs to me to take out of his mouth a big red apple which he held in his teeth by the stalk. I took it, and then he dropped to the ground, without uttering a word, and I could laugh now to think of the gruesome expression of his face with its lagging lower lip and bloodshot eyes. I had no temptation to do so then, however, and least of all when I looked back and saw his little one-armed figure in the big mushroom hat, standing on the top of the high wall of the bridge, with William Rufus beside him.
We reached Blackwater in good tithe for the boat, and when the funnels had ceased trumpeting and we were well away, I saw that we were sitting in one of two private cabins on the upper deck; and then Father Dan told me that the other was occupied by the young Lord Raa, and his guardian, and that they were going up together for the first time to Oxford.
I am sure this did not interest me in the least at that moment, so false is it that fate forewarns us when momentous events are about to occur. And now that I had time to think, a dreadful truth was beginning to dawn on me, so that when Father Dan, who was much excited, went off to pay his respects to the great people, I crudled up in the corner of the cabin that was nearest to the door and told myself that after all I had been turned out of my father's house, and would never see my mother and Martin any more.
I was sitting so, with my hands in my big muff and my face to the stern, making the tiniest occasional sniff as the mountains of my home faded away in the sunlight, which was now tipping the hilltops with a feathery crest, when my cabin was darkened by somebody who stood in the doorway.
It was a tail boy, almost a man, and I knew in a moment who he was. He was the young Lord Raa. And at first I thought how handsome and well dressed he was as he looked down at me and smiled. After a moment he stepped into the cabin and sat in front of me and said:
"So you are little Mary O'Neill, are you?"
I did not speak. I was thinking he was not so very handsome after all, having two big front teeth like Betsy Beauty.
"The girl who ought to have been a boy and put my nose out, eh?"
Still I did not speak. I was thinking his voice was like Nessy MacLeod's—shrill and harsh and grating.
"Poor little mite! Going all the way to Rome to a Convent, isn't she?"
Even yet I did not speak. I was thinking his eyes were like Aunt Bridget's—cold and grey and piercing.
"So silent and demure, though! Quite a little nun already. A deuced pretty one, too, if anybody asks me."
I was beginning to have a great contempt for him.
"Where did you get those big angel eyes from? Stole them from some picture of the Madonna, I'll swear."
By this time I had concluded that he was not worth speaking to, so I turned my head and I was looking back at the sea, when I heard him say:
"I suppose you are going to give me a kiss, you nice little woman, aren't you?"
"Oh, but you must—we are relations, you know."
He laughed at that, and rising from his seat, he reached over to kiss me, whereupon I drew one of my hands out of my muff and doubling my little mittened fist, I struck him in the face.
Being, as I afterwards learned, a young autocrat, much indulged by servants and generally tyrannising over them, he was surprised and angry.
"The spitfire!" he said. "Who would have believed it? The face of a nun and the temper of a devil! But you'll have to make amends for this, my lady."
With that he went away and I saw no more of him until the steamer was drawing up at the landing stage at Liverpool, and then, while the passengers were gathering up their luggage, he came back with Father Dan, and the tall sallow man who was his guardian, and said:
"Going to give me that kiss to make amends, or are you to owe me a grudge for the rest of your life, my lady?"
"My little Mary couldn't owe a grudge to anybody," said Father Dan. "She'll kiss his lordship and make amends; I'm certain."
And then I did to the young Lord Raa what I had done to Aunt Bridget—I held up my face and he kissed me.
It was a little, simple, trivial incident, but it led with other things to the most lamentable fact of my life, and when I think of it I sometimes wonder how it comes to pass that He who numbers the flowers of the field and counts the sparrows as they fall has no handwriting with which to warn His children that their footsteps may not fail.
Of our journey to Rome nothing remains to me but the memory of sleeping in different beds in different towns, of trains screaming through tunnels and slowing down in glass-roofed railway stations, of endless crowds of people moving here and there in a sort of maze, nothing but this, and the sense of being very little and very helpless and of having to be careful not to lose sight of Father Dan, for fear of being lost—until the afternoon of the fourth day after we left home.
We were then crossing a wide rolling plain that was almost destitute of trees, and looked, from the moving train, like green billows of the sea with grass growing over them. Father Dan was reading his breviary for the following day, not knowing what he would have to do in it, when the sun set in a great blaze of red beyond the horizon, and then suddenly a big round black ball, like a captive balloon, seemed to rise in the midst of the glory.
I called Father Dan's attention to this, and in a moment he was fearfully excited.
"Don't worry, my child," he cried, while tears of joy sprang to his eyes. "Do you know what that is? That's the dome of St. Peter's! Rome, my child, Rome!"
It was nine o'clock when we arrived at our destination, and in the midst of a great confusion I walked by Father Dan's side and held on to his vertical pocket, while he carried his own bag, and a basket of mine, down the crowded platform to an open cab outside the station.
Then Father Dan wiped his forehead with his print handkerchief and I sat close up to him, and the driver cracked his long whip and shouted at the pedestrians while we rattled on and on over stony streets, which seemed to be full of statues and fountains that were lit up by a great white light that was not moonlight and yet looked like it.
But at last we stopped at a little door of a big house which seemed to stand, with a church beside it, on a high shelf overlooking the city, for I could see many domes like that of St. Peter lying below us.
A grill in the little door was first opened and then a lady in a black habit, with a black band round her forehead and white bands down each side of her face, opened the door itself, and asked us to step in, and when we had done so, she took us down a long passage into a warm room, where another lady, dressed in the same way, only a little grander, sat in a big red arm-chair.
Father Dan, who was still wearing his knitted muffler, bowed very low to this lady, calling her the Reverend Mother Magdalene, and she answered him in English but with a funny sound which I afterwards knew to be a foreign accent.
I remember that I thought she was very beautiful, nearly as beautiful as my mother, and when Father Dan told me to kiss her hand I did so, and then she put me to sit in a chair and looked at me.
"What is her age?" she asked, whereupon Father Dan said he thought I would be eight that month, which was right, being October.
"Small, isn't she?" said the lady, and then Father Dan said something about poor mamma which I cannot remember.
After that they talked about other things, and I looked at the pictures on the walls—pictures of Saints and Popes and, above all, a picture of Jesus with His heart open in His bosom.
"The child will be hungry," said the lady. "She must have something to eat before she goes to bed—the other children have gone already."
Then she rang a hand-bell, and when the first lady came back she said:
"Ask Sister Angela to come to me immediately."
A few minutes later Sister Angela came into the room, and she was quite young, almost a girl, with such a sweet sad face that I loved her instantly.
"This is little Mary O'Neill. Take her to the Refectory and give her whatever she wants, and don't leave her until she is quiet and comfortable."
"Very well, Mother," said Sister Angela, and taking my hand she whispered: "Come, Mary, you look tired."
I rose to go with her, but at the same moment Father Dan rose too, and I heard him say he must lose no time in finding an hotel, for his Bishop had given him only one day to remain in Rome, and he had to catch an early train home the following morning.
This fell on me like a thunderbolt. I hardly know what I had led myself to expect, but certainly the idea of being left alone in Rome had never once occurred to me.
My little heart was fluttering, and dropping the Sister's hand I stepped back and took Father Dan's and said:
"You are not going to leave your little Mary are you, Father?"
It was harder for the dear Father than for me, for I remember that, fearfully flurried, he stammered in a thick voice something about the Reverend Mother taking good care of me, and how he was sure to come back at Christmas, according to my father's faithful promise, to take me home for the holidays.
After that Sister Angela led me, sniffing a little still, to the Refectory, which was a large, echoing room, with rows of plain deal tables and forms, ranged in front of a reading desk that had another and much larger picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall above it. Only one gasjet was burning, and I sat under it to eat my supper, and after I had taken a basin of soup I felt more comforted.
Then Sister Angela lit a lamp and taking my hand she led me up a stone staircase to the Dormitory, which was a similar room, but not so silent, because it was full of beds, and the breathing of the girls, who were all asleep, made it sound like the watchmaker's shop in our village, only more church-like and solemn.
My bed was near to the door, and after Sister Angela had helped me to undress, and tucked me in, she made her voice very low, and said I would be quite comfortable now, and she was sure I was going to be a good little girl and a dear child of the Infant Jesus; and then I could not help taking my arms out again and clasping her round the neck and drawing her head down and kissing her.
After that she took the lamp and went away to a cubicle which was partitioned off the end of the Dormitory and there I could see her prepare to go to bed herself—taking the white bands off her cheeks and the black band off her forehead, and letting her long light hair fall in beautiful wavy masses about her face, which made her look so sweet and home like.
But oh, I was so lonely! Never in my life since—no, not even when I was in my lowest depths—have I felt so little and helpless and alone. After the Sister had gone to bed and everything was quiet in the Dormitory save for the breathing of the girls—all strangers to me and I to them—from mere loneliness I covered up my head in the clothes just as I used to do when I was a little thing and my father came into my mother's room.
I try not to think bitterly of my father, but even yet I am at a loss to know how he could have cast me away so lightly. Was it merely that he wanted peace for his business and saw no chance of securing it in his own home except by removing the chief cause of Aunt Bridget's jealousy? Or was it that his old grudge against Fate for making me a girl made him wish to rid himself of the sight of me?
I do not know. I cannot say. But in either case I try in vain to see how he could have thought he had a right, caring nothing for me, to tear me from the mother who loved me and had paid for me so dear; or how he could have believed that because he was my father, charged with the care of my poor little body, he had control over the little bleeding heart which was not his to make to suffer.
He is my father—God help me to think the best of him.
At half past six in the morning I was awakened by the loud ringing of the getting-up bell, and as soon as I could rouse myself from the deep sleep of childhood I saw that a middle-aged nun with a severe face was saying a prayer, and that all the girls in the dormitory were kneeling in their beds while they made the responses.
A few minutes later, when the girls were chattering and laughing as they dressed, making the room tingle with twittering sounds like a tree full of linnets in the spring, a big girl came up to me and said:
"I am Mildred Bankes and Sister Angela says I am to look after you to-day."
She was about fifteen years of age, and had a long plain-featured face which reminded me of one of my father's horses that was badly used by the farm boys; but there was something sweet in her smile that made me like her instantly.
She helped me to dress in my brown velvet frock, but said that one of her first duties would be to take me to the lay sisters who made the black habits which all the girls in the convent wore.
It was still so early that the darkness of the room was just broken by pale shafts of light from the windows, but I could see that the children of my own age were only seven or eight altogether, while the majority of the girls were several years older, and Mildred explained this by telling me that the children of the Infant Jesus, like myself, were so few that they had been put into the dormitory of the children of the Sacred Heart.
In a quarter of an hour everybody was washed and dressed, and then, at a word from Sister Angela, the girls went leaping and laughing downstairs to the Meeting Room, which was a large hail, with a platform at the farther end of it and another picture of the Sacred Heart, pierced with sharp thorns, on the wall.
The Reverend Mother was there with the other nuns of the Convent, all pale-faced and slow eyed women wearing rosaries, and she said a long prayer, to which the scholars (there were seventy or eighty altogether) made responses, and then there was silence for five minutes, which were supposed to be devoted to meditation, although I could not help seeing that some of the big girls were whispering to each other while their heads were down.
After that, and Mass in the Church, we went scurrying away to the Refectory, which was now warm with the steam from our breakfast and bubbling with cheerful voices, making a noise that was like water boiling in a saucepan.
I was so absorbed by all I saw that I forgot to eat until Mildred nudged me to do so, and even when my spoon was half way to my mouth something happened which brought it down again.
At the tinkle of a hand-bell one of the big girls had stepped up to the reading-desk and begun to read from a book which I afterwards knew to be "The Imitation of Christ." She was about sixteen years of age, and her face was so vivid that I could not take my eyes off it.
Her complexion was fair and her hair was auburn, but her eyes were so dark and searching that when she raised her head, as she often did, they seemed to look through and through you.
"Who is she?" I whispered.
"Alma Lier," Mildred whispered back, and when breakfast was over, and we were trooping off to lessons, she told me something about her.
Alma was an American. Her father was very rich and his home was in New York. But her mother lived in Paris, though she was staying at an hotel in Rome at present, and sometimes she came in a carriage to take her daughter for a drive.
Alma was the cleverest girl in the school too, and sometimes at the end of terms, when parents and friends came to the Convent and one of the Cardinals distributed the prizes, she had so many books to take away that she could hardly carry them down from the platform.
I listened to this with admiring awe, thinking Alma the most wonderful and worshipful of all creatures, and when I remember it now, after all these years, and the bitter experiences which have come with them, I hardly know whether to laugh or cry at the thought that such was the impression she first made on me.
My class was with the youngest of the children, and Sister Angela was my teacher. She was so sweet to me that her encouragement was like a kiss and her reproof like a caress; but I could think of nothing but Alma, and at noon, when the bell rang for lunch and Mildred took me back to the Refectory, I wondered if the same girl would read again.
She did, but this time in a foreign language, French as Mildred whispered—from the letters of the Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque—and my admiration for Alma went up tenfold. I wondered if it could possibly occur that I should ever come to know her.
There is no worship like that of a child, and life for me, which had seemed so cold and dark the day before, became warm and bright with a new splendour.
I was impatient of everything that took me away from the opportunity of meeting with Alma—the visit to the lay-sisters to be measured for my new black clothes, the three o'clock "rosary," when the nuns walked with their classes in the sunshine and, above all, the voluntary visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the Church of the Convent, which seemed to me large and gorgeous, though divided across the middle by an open bronze screen, called a Cancello—the inner half, as Mildred whispered, being for the inmates of the school, while the outer half was for the congregation which came on Sunday to Benediction.
But at four o'clock we had dinner, when Alma read again—this time in Italian—from the writings of Saint Francis of Sales—and then, to my infinite delight, came a long recreation, when all the girls scampered out into the Convent garden, which was still bright with afternoon sunshine and as merry with laughter and shouts as the seashore on a windy summer morning.
The garden was a large bare enclosure, bounded on two sides by the convent buildings and on the other two by a yellow wall and an avenue made by a line of stone pines with heads like open umbrellas, but it had no other foliage except an old tree which reminded me of Tommy the Mate, having gnarled and sprawling limbs, and standing like a weather-beaten old sailor, four-square in the middle.
A number of the girls were singing and dancing around this tree, and I felt so happy just then that I should have loved to join them, but I was consumed by a desire to come to close quarters with the object of my devotion, so I looked eagerly about me and asked Mildred if Alma was likely to be there.
"Sure to be," said Mildred, and hardly were the words out of her mouth when Alma herself came straight down in our direction, surrounded by a group of admiring girls, who were hanging on to her and laughing at everything she said.
My heart began to thump, and without knowing what I was doing I stopped dead short, while Mildred went on a pace or two ahead of me.
Then I noticed that Alma had stopped too, and that her great searching eyes were looking down at me. In my nervousness, I tried to smile, but Alma continued to stare, and at length, in the tone of one who had accidentally turned up something with her toe that was little and ridiculous, she said:
"Goodness, girls, what's this?"
Then she burst into a fit of laughter, in which the other girls joined, and looking me up and down they all laughed together.
I knew what they were laughing at—the clothes my mother had made for me and I had felt so proud of. That burnt me like iron, and I think my lip must have dropped, but Alma showed no mercy.
"Dare say the little doll thinks herself pretty, though," she said. And then she passed on, and the girls with her, and as they went off they looked back over their shoulders and laughed again.
Never since has any human creature—not even Alma herself—made me suffer more than I suffered at that moment. My throat felt tight, tears leapt to my eyes, disappointment, humiliation, and shame swept over me like a flood, and I stood squeezing my little handkerchief in my hand and feeling as if I could have died.
At the next moment Mildred stepped back to me, and putting her arm about my waist she said:
"Never mind, Mary. She's a heartless thing. Don't have anything to do with her."
But all the sunshine had gone out of the day for me now and I cried for hours. I was still crying, silently but bitterly, when, at eight o'clock, we were saying the night prayers, and I saw Alma, who was in the opposite benches, whispering to one of the girls who sat next to her and then looking straight across at me.
And at nine o'clock when we went to bed I was crying more than ever, so that after the good-night-bell had been rung and the lights had been put down, Sister Angela, not knowing the cause of my sorrow, stepped up to my bed before going down stairs for her own studies, and whispered:
"You mustn't fret for home, Mary. You will soon get used to it."
But hardly had I been left alone, with the dull pain I could find no ease for, when somebody touched me on the shoulder, and, looking up, I saw a girl in her nightdress standing beside me. It was Alma and she said:
"Say, little girl, is your name O'Neill?"
Trembling with nervousness I answered that it was.
"Do you belong to the O'Neills of Ellan?"
Still trembling I told her that I did.
"My!" she said in quite another tone, and then I saw that by some means I had begun to look different in her eyes.
After a moment she sat on the side of my bed and asked questions about my home—if it was not large and very old, with big stone staircases, and great open fireplaces, and broad terraces, and beautiful walks going down to the sea.
I was so filled with the joy of finding myself looking grand in Alma's eyes that I answered "yes" and "yes" without thinking too closely about her questions, and my tears were all brushed away when she said:
"I knew somebody who lived in your house once, and I'll tell her all about you."
She stayed a few moments longer, and when going off she whispered:
"Hope you don't feel badly about my laughing in the garden to-day. I didn't mean a thing. But if any of the girls laugh again just say you're Alma Lier's friend and she's going to take care of you."
I could hardly believe my ears. Some great new splendour had suddenly dawned upon me and I was very happy.
I did not know then that the house which Alma had been talking of was not my father's house, but Castle Raa. I did not know then that the person who had lived there was her mother, and that in her comely and reckless youth she had been something to the bad Lord Raa who had lashed my father and sworn at my grandmother.
I did not know anything that was dead and buried in the past, or shrouded and veiled in the future. I only knew that Alma had called herself my friend and promised to take care of me. So with a glad heart I went to sleep.
Alma kept her word, though perhaps her method of protection was such as would have commended itself only to the heart of a child.
It consisted in calling me Margaret Mary after our patron saint of the Sacred Heart, in taking me round the garden during recreation as if I had been a pet poodle, and, above all, in making my bed the scene of the conversaziones which some of the girls held at night when they were supposed to be asleep.
The secrecy of these gatherings flattered me, and when the unclouded moon, in the depths of the deep blue Italian sky, looked in on my group of girls in their nightdresses, bunched together on my bed, with my own little body between, I had a feeling of dignity as well as solemnity and awe.
Of course Alma was the chief spokeswoman at these whispered conferences. Sometimes she told us of her drives into the Borghese Gardens, where she saw the King and Queen, or to the Hunt on the Campagna, where she met the flower of the aristocracy, or to the Pincio, where the Municipal band played in the pavilion, while ladies sat in their carriages in the sunshine, and officers in blue cloaks saluted them and smiled.
Sometimes she indicated her intentions for the future, which was certainly not to be devoted to retreats and novenas, or to witness another black dress as long as she lived, and if she married (which was uncertain) it was not to be to an American, but to a Frenchman, because Frenchmen had "family" and "blood," or perhaps to an Englishman, if he was a member of the House of Lords, in which case she would attend all the race-meetings and Coronations, and take tea at the Carlton, where she would eat meringues glaces every day and have as many eclairs as she liked.
And sometimes she would tell us the stories of the novels which she bribed one of the washing-women to smuggle into the convent—stories of ladies and their lovers, and of intoxicating dreams of kissing and fondling, at which the bigger girls, with far-off suggestions of sexual mysteries still unexplored, would laugh and shudder, and then Alma would say:
"But hush, girls! Margaret Mary will be shocked."
Occasionally these conferences would be interrupted by Mildred's voice from the other end of the dormitory, where she would raise her head from her pillow and say:
"Alma Lier, you ought to be ashamed of yourself—keeping that child up when she ought to be asleep, instead of listening to your wicked stories."
"Helloa, Mother Mildred, is that you?" Alma would answer, and then the girls would laugh, and Mildred was supposed to be covered with confusion.
One night Sister Angela's footsteps were heard on the stairs, and then the girls flew back to their beds, where, with the furtive instinct of their age and sex, they pretended to be sleeping soundly when the Sister entered the room. But the Sister was not deceived, and walking up the aisle between the beds she said in an angry tone:
"Alma Lier, if this ever occurs again I'll step down to the Reverend Mother and tell her all about you."
Little as I was, I saw that between Alma and Sister Angela there was a secret feud, which must soon break into open rupture, but for my own part I was entirely happy, being still proud of Alma's protection and only feeling any misgivings when Mildred's melancholy eyes were looking at me.
Thus week followed week until we were close upon Christmas, and the girls, who were to be permitted to go home before the Feast, began to count the days to the holidays. I counted them too, and when anybody talked of her brother I thought of Martin Conrad, though his faithful little figure was fading away from me, and when anybody spoke of her parents I remembered my mother, for whom my affection never failed.
But, within a week from the time for breaking up, the Reverend Mother sent for me, and with a sinking heart I went to her room, knowing well what she was going to say.
"You are not to go home for the holidays this time, my child. You are to remain here, and Sister Angela is to stay to take care of you."
She had a letter from Father Dan, telling her that my mother was still unwell, and for this and other reasons it was considered best that I should not return at Christmas.
Father Dan had written a letter to me also, beginning, "My dear daughter in Jesus" and ending "Yours in Xt," saying it was not his fault that he could not fulfil his promise, but my father was much from home now-a-days and Aunt Bridget was more difficult than ever, so perhaps I should be happier at the Convent.
It was a bitter blow, though the bitterest part of it lay in the fear that the girls would think I was of so little importance to my people that they did not care to see me.
But the girls were too eager about their own concerns to care much about me, and even on the very last day and at the very last moment, when everything was bustle and joy, and boxes were being carried downstairs, and everybody was kissing everybody else and wishing each other a Happy Christmas, and then flying away like mad things, and I alone was being left, Alma herself, before she stepped into a carriage in which a stout lady wearing furs was waiting to receive her, only said:
"By-by, Margaret Mary! Take care of Sister Angela."
Next day the Reverend Mother went off to her cottage at Nemi, and the other nuns and novices to their friends in the country, and then Sister Angela and I were alone in the big empty, echoing convent—save for two elderly lay Sisters, who cooked and cleaned for us, and the Chaplain, who lived by himself in a little white hut like a cell which stood at the farthest corner of the garden.
We moved our quarters to a room in the front of the house, so as to look out over the city, and down into the piazza which was full of traffic, and after a while we had many cheerful hours together.
During the days before Christmas we spent our mornings in visiting the churches and basilicas where there were little illuminated models of the Nativity, with the Virgin and the Infant Jesus in the stable among the straw. The afternoons we spent at home in the garden, where the Chaplain, in his black soutane and biretta, was always sitting under the old tree, reading his breviary.
His name was Father Giovanni and he was a tall young man with a long, thin, pale face, and when Sister Angela first took me up to him she said:
"This is our Margaret Mary."
Then his sad face broke into warm sunshine, and he stroked my head, and sent me away to skip with my skipping-rope, while he and Sister Angela sat together under the tree, and afterwards walked to and fro in the avenue between the stone pines and the wall, until they came to his cell in the corner, where she craned her neck at the open door as if she would have liked to go in and make things more tidy and comfortable.
On Christmas Day we had currant cake in honour of the feast, and Sister Angela asked Father Giovanni to come to tea, and he came, and was quite cheerful, so that when the Sister, who was also very happy, signalled to me to take some mistletoe from the bottom of a picture I held it over his head and kissed him from behind. Then he snatched me up in his arms and kissed me back, and we had a great romp round the chairs and tables.
But the Ave Maria began to ring from the churches, and Father Giovanni (according to the rule of our Convent) having to go, he kissed me again, and then I said:
"Why don't you kiss Sister Angela too?"
At that they only looked at each other and laughed, but after a moment he kissed her hand, and then she went downstairs to see him out into the garden.
When she came back her eyes were sparkling and her cheeks were flushed, and, that night, when she took away her black and white whimple and gorget on going to bed, she stood before a looking-glass and wound her beautiful light hair round her finger and curled it over her forehead in the way it was worn by the ladies we saw in the streets.
I think it was two nights later that she told me I was to go to bed early because Father Giovanni was not well and she would have to go over to see him.
She went, and I got into bed, but I could not sleep, and while I lay waiting for Sister Angela I listened to some men who as they crossed the piazza were singing, in tremulous voices, to their mandolines and guitars, what I believed to be love songs, for I had begun to learn Italian.
"Oh bella Napoli. Oh suol beato Onde soiridere volta il creato."
It was late when Sister Angela came back and then she was breathing hard as if she had been running. I asked if Father Giovanni's sickness was worse, and she said no, it was better, and I was to say nothing about it. But she could not rest and at last she said:
"Didn't we forget to say our prayers, Mary?"
So I got up again and Sister Angela said one of the beautiful prayers out of our prayer-book. But her voice was very low and when she came to the words:
"O Father of all mankind, forgive all sinners who repent of their sins," she broke down altogether.
I thought she was ill, but she said it was only a cold she had caught in crossing the garden and I was to go to sleep like a good girl and think no more about her.
But in the middle of the night I awoke, and Sister Angela was crying.
Most of the girls were depressed when they returned to school, but Alma was in high spirits, and on the first night of the term she crept over to my bed and asked what we had been doing during the holidays.
"Not a thing, eh?"
I answered that we had done lots of things and been very happy.
"Happy? In this gloomy old convent? You and Sister Angela alone?"
I told her we had two lay sisters-and then there was Father Giovanni.
"Father Giovanni? That serious old cross-bones?"
I said he was not always serious, and that on Christmas Day he had come to tea and kissed me under the mistletoe.
"Kissed you under the mistletoe!" said Alma, and then she whispered eagerly,
"He didn't kiss Sister Angela, did he?"
I suppose I was flattered by her interest, and this loosened my tongue, for I answered:
"He kissed her hand, though."
"Kissed her hand? My! . . . Of course she was very angry . . . wasn't she angry?"
I answered no, and in my simplicity I proceeded to prove this by explaining that Sister Angela had taken Father Giovanni down to the door, and when he was ill she had nursed him.
"Nursed him? In his own house, you mean?"
"Yes, at night, too, and she stayed until he was better, and caught a cold coming back."
"Well, I never!" said Alma, and I remember that I was very pleased with myself during this interview, for by the moonlight which was then shining into the room, I could see that Alma's eyes were sparkling.
The next night we recommenced our conferences in bed, when Alma told us all about her holiday, which she had spent "way up in St. Moritz," among deep snow and thick ice, skating, bobbing, lugging, and above all riding astride, and dragging a man on skis behind her.
"Such lots of fun," she said. And the best of it was at night when there were dances and fancy-dress balls with company which included all the smart people in Europe, and men who gave a girl such a good time if she happened to be pretty and was likely to have a dot.
Alma had talked so eagerly and the girls had listened so intently, that nobody was aware that Sister Angela had returned to the room until she stepped forward and said:
"Alma Lier, I'm ashamed of you. Go back to your bed, miss, this very minute."
The other girls crept away and I half covered my face with my bed-clothes, but Alma stood up to Sister Angela and answered her back.
"Go to bed yourself, and don't speak to me like that, or you'll pay for your presumption."
"Pay? Presumption? You insolent thing, you are corrupting the whole school and are an utter disgrace to it. I warned you that I would tell the Reverend Mother what you are and now I've a great mind to do it."
"Do it. I dare you to do it. Do it to-night, and to-morrow morning I will do something."
"What will you do, you brazen hussy?" said Sister Angela, but I could see that her lip was trembling.
"Never mind what. If I'm a hussy I'm not a hypocrite, and as for corrupting the school, and being a disgrace to it, I'll leave the Reverend Mother to say who is doing that."
Low as the light was I could see that Sister Angela was deadly pale. There was a moment of silence in which I thought she glanced in my direction, and then stammering something which I did not hear, she left the dormitory.
It was long before she returned and when she did so I saw her creep into her cubicle and sit there for quite a great time before going to bed. My heart was thumping hard, for I had a vague feeling that I had been partly to blame for what had occurred, but after a while I fell asleep and remembered no more until I was awakened in the middle of the night by somebody kissing me in my sleep.
It was Sister Angela, and she was turning away, but I called her back, and she knelt by my bed and whispered:
"Hush! I know what has happened, but I don't blame you for it."
I noticed that she was wearing her out-door cloak, and that she was breathing rapidly, just as she did on the night she came from the chaplain's quarters, and when I asked if she was going anywhere she said yes, and if I ever heard anything against Sister Angela I was to think the best of her.
"But you are so good. . . ."
"No, I am not good. I am very wicked. I should never have thought of being a nun, but I'm glad now that I'm only a novice and have never taken the vows."
After that she told me to go to sleep, and then she kissed me again, and I thought she was going to cry, but she rose hurriedly and left the room.
Next morning after the getting-up bell had been rung, and I had roused myself to full consciousness, I found that four or five nuns were standing together near the door of the dormitory talking about something that had happened during the night—Sister Angela had gone!
Half an hour afterwards when full of this exciting event, the girls went bursting down to the Meeting Room they found the nuns in great agitation over an incident of still deeper gravity—Father Giovanni also had disappeared!
A convent school is like a shell on the shore of a creek, always rumbling with the rumour of the little sea it lives under; and by noon the girls, who had been palpitating with curiosity, thought they knew everything that had happened—how at four in the morning Father Giovanni and Sister Angela had been seen to come out of the little door which connected the garden with the street; how at seven they had entered a clothing emporium in the Corso, where going in at one door as priest and nun they had come out at another as ordinary civilians; how at eight they had taken the first train to Civita Vecchia, arriving in time to catch a steamer sailing at ten, and how they were now on their way to England.
By some mysterious instinct of their sex the girls had gathered with glistening eyes in front of the chaplain's deserted quarters, where Alma leaned against the wall with her insteps crossed and while the others talked she smiled, as much as to say, "I told you so."
As for me I was utterly wretched, and being now quite certain that I was the sole cause of Sister Angela's misfortune, I was sitting under the tree in the middle of the garden, when Alma, surrounded by her usual group of girls, came down on me.
"What's this?" she said. "Margaret Mary crying? Feeling badly for Sister Angela, is she? Why, you little silly, you needn't cry for her. She's having the time of her life, she is!"
At this the girls laughed and shuddered, as they used to do when Alma told them stories, but just at that moment the nun with the stern face (she was the Mother of the Novices) came up and said, solemnly:
"Alma Lier, the Reverend Mother wishes to speak to you."
"To me?" said Alma, in a tone of surprise, but at the next moment she went off jauntily.
Hours passed and Alma did not return, and nothing occurred until afternoon "rosary," when the Mother of the Novices came again and taking me by the hand said:
"Come with me, my child."
I knew quite well where we were going to, and my lip was trembling when we entered the Reverend Mother's room, for Alma was there, sitting by the stove, and close beside her, with an angry look, was the stout lady in furs whom I had seen in the carriage at the beginning of the holidays.
"Don't be afraid," said the Reverend Mother, and drawing me to her side she asked me to tell her what I had told Alma about Sister Angela.
I repeated our conversation as nearly as I could remember it, and more than once Alma nodded her head as if in assent, but the Reverend Mother's face grew darker at every word and, seeing this, I said:
"But if Sister Angela did anything wrong I'm sure she was very sorry, for when she came back she said her prayers, and when she got to 'Father of all mankind, forgive all sinners . . .'"
"Yes, yes, that will do," said the Reverend Mother, and then she handed me back to the Mother of the Novices, telling her to warn me to say nothing to the other children.
Alma did not return to us at dinner, or at recreation, or at chapel (when another chaplain said vespers), or even at nine o'clock, when we went to bed. But next morning, almost as soon as the Mother of the Novices had left the dormitory, she burst into the room saying:
"I'm leaving this silly old convent, girls. Mother has brought the carriage, and I've only come to gather up my belongings."
Nobody spoke, and while she wrapped up her brushes and combs in her nightdress, she joked about Sister Angela and Father Giovanni and then about Mildred Bankes, whom she called "Reverend Mother Mildred," saying it would be her turn next.
Then she tipped up her mattress, and taking a novel from under it she threw the book on to my bed, saying:
"Margaret Mary will have to be your story-teller now. By-by, girls!"
Nobody laughed. For the first time Alma's humour had failed her, and when we went downstairs to the Meeting Room it was with sedate and quiet steps.
The nuns were all there, with their rosaries and crosses, looking as calm as if nothing had occurred, but the girls were thinking of Alma, and when, after prayers, during the five minutes of silence for meditation, we heard the wheels of a carriage going off outside, we knew what had happened—Alma had gone.
We were rising to go to Mass when the Reverend Mother said,
"Children, I have a word to say to you. You all know that one of our novices has left us. You also know that one of our scholars has just gone. It is my wish that you should forget both of them, and I shall look upon it as an act of disobedience if any girl in the Convent ever mentions their names again."
All that day I was in deep distress, and when, night coming, I took my troubles to bed, telling myself I had now lost Alma also, and it was all my fault, somebody put her arms about me in the darkness and whispered:
"Mary O'Neill, are you awake?"
It was Mildred, and I suppose my snuffling answered her, for she said:
"You mustn't cry for Alma Lier. She was no friend of yours, and it was the best thing that ever happened to you when she was turned out of the convent."
A child lives from hour to hour, and almost at the same moment that my heart was made desolate by the loss of my two friends it was quickened to a new interest.
Immediately after the departure of Sister Angela and Alma we were all gathered in the Meeting Room for our weekly rehearsal of the music of the Benediction—the girls, the novices, the nuns, the Reverend Mother, and a Maestro from the Pope's choir, a short fat man, who wore a black soutane and a short lace tippet.
Benediction was the only service of our church which I knew, being the one my mother loved best and could do most of for herself in the solitude of her invalid room, but the form used in the Convent differed from that to which I had been accustomed, and even the Tantum ergo and the O Salutaris Hostia I could not sing.
On this occasion a litany was added which I had heard before, and then came a hymn of the Blessed Virgin which I remembered well. My mother sang it herself and taught me to sing it, so that when the Maestro, swinging his little ivory baton, began in his alto voice—
"Ave maris stella, Dei Mater alma—"
I joined in with the rest, but sang in English instead of Latin Of all appeals to the memory that of music is the strongest, and after a moment I forgot that I was at school in Rome, being back in my mother's room in Ellan, standing by her piano and singing while she played. I think I must have let my little voice go, just as I used to do at home, when it rang up to the wooden rafters, for utterly lost to my surroundings I had got as far as—
"Virgin of all virgins, To thy shelter take us—"
when suddenly I became aware that I alone was singing, the children about me being silent, and even the Maestro's baton slowing down. Then I saw that all eyes were turned in my direction, and overwhelmed with confusion I stopped, for my voice broke and slittered into silence.
"Go on, little angel," said the Maestro, but I was trembling all over by this time and could not utter a sound.
Nevertheless the Reverend Mother said: "Let Mary O'Neill sing the hymn in church in future."
As soon as I had conquered my nervousness at singing in the presence of the girls, I did so, singing the first line of each verse alone, and I remember to have heard that the congregations on Sunday afternoons grew larger and larger, until, within a few weeks, the church was densely crowded.
Perhaps my childish heart was stirred by vanity in all this, for I remember that ladies in beautiful dresses would crowd to the bronze screen that separated us from the public and whisper among themselves, "Which is she?" "The little one in the green scarf with the big eyes!" "God bless her!"
But surely it was a good thing that at length life had began to have a certain joy for me, for as time went on I became absorbed in the life of the Convent, and particularly in the services of the church, so that home itself began to fade away, and when the holidays came round and excuses were received for not sending for me, the pain of my disappointment became less and less until at last it disappeared altogether.
If ever a child loved her mother I did, and there were moments when I reproached myself with not thinking of her for a whole day. These were the moments when a letter came from Father Dan, telling me she was less well than before and her spark of life had to be coaxed and trimmed or it would splutter out altogether.
But the effect of such warnings was wiped away when my mother wrote herself, saying I was to be happy as she was happy, because she knew that though so long separated we should soon be together, and the time would not seem long.
Not understanding the deeper meaning that lay behind words like these, I was nothing loath to put aside the thought of home until little by little it faded away from me in the distance, just as the island itself had done on the day when I sailed out with Martin Conrad on our great voyage of exploration to St. Mary's Rock.
Thus two years and a half passed since I arrived in Rome before the great fact befell me which was to wipe all other facts out of my remembrance.
It was Holy Week, the season of all seasons for devotion to the Sacred Heart, and our Convent was palpitating with the joy of its spiritual duties, the many offices, the masses for the repose of the souls in Purgatory, the preparations for Tenebrae, with the chanting of the Miserere, and for Holy Saturday and Easter Day, with the singing of the Gloria and the return of the Alleluia.
But beyond all this for me were the arrangements for my first confession, which, coming a little late, I made with ten or twelve other girls of my sodality, feeling so faint when I took my turn and knelt by the grating, and heard the whispering voice within, like something from the unseen, something supernatural, something divine, that I forgot all I had come to say and the priest had to prompt me.
And beyond that again were the arrangements for my first communion, which was to take place on Easter morning, when I was to walk in procession with the other girls, dressed all in white, behind a gilded figure of the Virgin, singing "Ave maris stella," through the piazza into the church, where one of the Cardinals, in the presence of the fathers and mothers of the other children, was to put the Holy Wafer on our tongues and we were to know for the first time the joy of communion with our Lord.
But that was not to be for me.
On the morning of Holy Wednesday the blow fell. The luminous grey of the Italian dawn was filtering through the windows of the dormitory, like the light in a tomb, and a multitude of little birds on the old tree in the garden were making a noise like water falling on small stones in a fountain, when the Mother of the Novices came to my bedside and said:
"You are to go to the Reverend Mother as soon as possible, my child."
Her voice, usually severe, was so soft that I knew something had happened, and when I went downstairs I also knew, before the Reverend Mother had spoken, what she was going to say.
"Mary," she said, "I am Sorry to tell you that your mother is ill."
I listened intently, fearing that worse would follow.
"She is very ill—very seriously ill, and she wishes to see you. Therefore you are to go home immediately."
The tears sprang to my eyes, and the Reverend Mother drew me to her side and laid my head on her breast and comforted me, saying my dear mother had lived the life of a good Christian and could safely trust in the redeeming blood of our Blessed Saviour. But I thought she must have some knowledge of the conditions of my life at home, for she told me that whatever happened I was to come back to her.
"Tell your father you wish to come back to me," she said, and then she explained the arrangements that were being made for my journey.
I was to travel alone by the Paris express which left Rome at six o'clock that evening. The Mother of the Novices was to put me in a sleeping car and see that the greatest care would be taken of me until I arrived at Calais, where Father Donovan was to meet the train and take me home.
I cried a great deal, I remember, but everybody in the Convent was kind, and when, of my own choice, I returned to the girls at recreation, the sinister sense of dignity which by some strange irony of fate comes to all children when the Angel of Death is hovering over them, came to me also—poor, helpless innocent—and I felt a certain distinction in my sorrow.
At five o'clock the omnibus of the Convent had been brought round to the door, and I was seated in one corner of it, with the Mother of the Novices in front of me, when Mildred Bankes came running breathlessly downstairs to say that the Reverend Mother had given her permission to see me off.
Half an hour later Mildred and I were sitting in a compartment of the Wagon-Lit, while the Mother was talking to the conductor on the platform.
Mildred, whose eyes were wet, was saying something about herself which seems pitiful enough now in the light of what has happened since.
She was to leave the Convent soon, and before I returned to it she would be gone. She was poor and an orphan, both her parents being dead, and if she had her own way she would become a nun. In any case our circumstances would be so different, our ways of life so far apart, that we might never meet again; but if . . .
Before she had finished a bell rang on the platform, and a moment or two afterwards the train slid out of the station.
Then for the first time I began to realise the weight of the blow that had fallen on me. I was sitting alone in my big compartment, we were running into the Campagna, the heavens were ablaze with the glory of the sunset, which was like fields of glistening fire, but darkness seemed to have fallen on all the world.
Early on Good Friday I arrived at Calais. It was a misty, rimy, clammy morning, and a thick fog was lying over the Channel.
Almost before the train stopped I saw Father Dan, with his coat collar turned up, waiting for me on the platform. I could see that he was greatly moved at the sight of me, but was trying hard to maintain his composure.
"Now don't worry, my child, don't worry," he said. "It will be all ri. . . . But how well you are looking! And how you have grown! And how glad your poor mother will be to see you!"
I tried to ask how she was. "Is she . . ."
"Yes, thank God, she's alive, and while there's life there's hope."
We travelled straight through without stopping and arrived at Blackwater at seven the same evening. There we took train, for railways were running in Ellan now, and down the sweet valleys that used to be green with grass, and through the little crofts that used to be red with fuchsia, there was a long raw welt of upturned earth.
At the station of our village my father's carriage was waiting for us and a strange footman shrugged his shoulders in answer to some whispered question of Father Dan's, and from that I gathered that my mother's condition was unchanged.
We reached home at dusk, just as somebody was lighting a line of new electric lamps that had been set up in the drive to show the way for the carriage under the chestnuts in which the rooks used to build and caw.
I knew the turn of the path from which the house could be first seen, and I looked for it, remembering the last glimpse I had of my mother at her window. Father Dan looked, too, but for another reason—to see if the blinds were down.
Aunt Bridget was in the hall, and when Father Dan, who had grown more and more excited as we approached the end of our journey, asked how my mother was now, poor thing, she answered:
"Worse; distinctly worse; past recognising anybody; so all this trouble and expense has been wasted."
As she had barely recognised me I ran upstairs with a timid and quiet step and without waiting to take off my outer clothes made my way to my mother's bedroom.
I remember the heavy atmosphere of the room as I opened the door. I remember the sense I had of its being lower and smaller than I thought. I remember the black four-foot bedstead with the rosary hanging on a brass nail at the pillow end. I remember my little cot which still stood in the same place and contained some of the clothes I had worn as a child, and even some of the toys I had played with.
A strange woman, in the costume of a nurse, turned to look at me as I entered, but I did not at first see my mother, and when at length I did see her, with her eyes closed, she looked so white and small as to be almost hidden in the big white bed.
Presently Father Dan came in, followed by Doctor Conrad and Aunt Bridget, and finally my father, who was in his shirt sleeves and had a pen in his ear, I remember.
Then Father Dan, who was trembling very much, took me by the hand and led me to my mother's side, where stooping over her, and making his voice very low, yet speaking as one who was calling into a long tunnel, he said:
"My daughter! My daughter! Here is our little Mary. She has come home to see you."
Never shall I forget what followed. First, my mother's long lashes parted and she looked at me with a dazed expression as if still in a sort of dream. Then her big eyes began to blaze like torches in dark hollows, and then (though they had thought her strength was gone and her voice would never be heard again) she raised herself in her bed, stretched out her arms to me, and cried in loud strong tones:
"Mally veen! My Mally veen!"
How long I lay with my arms about my mother, and my mother's arms about me I do not know. I only know that over my head I heard Father Dan saying, as if speaking to a child:
"You are happy now, are you not?"
"Yes, yes, I am happy now," my mother answered.
"You have everything you want?"
Then came my father's voice, saying:
"Well, you've got your girl, Isabel. You wanted her, so we sent for her, and here she is."
"You have been very good to me, Daniel," said my mother, who was kissing my forehead and crying in her joy.
When I raised my head I found Father Dan in great excitement.
"Did you see that then?" he was saying to Doctor Conrad.
"I would have gone on my knees all the way to Blackwater to see it."
"I couldn't have believed it possible," the Doctor replied.
"Ah, what children we are, entirely. God confounds all our reckoning. We can't count with His miracles. And the greatest of all miracles is a mother's love for her child."
"Let us leave her now, though," said the Doctor. "She's like herself again, but still . . ."
"Yes, let us leave them together," whispered Father Dan, and having swept everybody out before him (I thought Aunt Bridget went away ashamed) he stepped off himself on tiptoe, as if treading on holy ground.
Then my mother, who was holding my hand and sometimes putting it to her lips, said:
"Tell me everything that has happened."
As soon as my little tongue was loosed I told her all about my life at the Convent—about the Reverend Mother and the nuns and the novices and the girls (all except Sister Angela and Alma) and the singing of the hymn to the Virgin—talking on and on and on, without observing that, after a while, my mother's eyes had closed again, and that her hand had become cold and moist.
At length she said: "Is it getting dark, Mary?"
I told her it was night and the lamp was burning.
"Is it going out then?" she asked, and when I answered that it was not she did not seem to hear, so I stopped talking, and for some time there was silence in which I heard nothing but the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece, the barking of a sheep dog a long way off, and the husky breathing in my mother's throat.
I was beginning to be afraid when the nurse returned. She was going to speak quite cheerfully, but after a glance at my mother she went out quickly and came back in a moment with Doctor Conrad and Father Dan.
I heard the doctor say something about a change, whereupon Father Dan hurried away, and in a moment there was much confusion. The nurse spoke of taking me to another room but the doctor said:
"No, our little woman will be brave," and then leading me aside he whispered that God was sending for my mother and I must be quiet and not cry.
Partly undressing I climbed into my cot and lay still for the next half hour, while the doctor held his hand on my mother's pulse and the nurse spread a linen cloth over a table and put four or five lighted candles on it.
I remember that I was thinking that if "God sending for my mother" meant that she was to be put into a box and buried under the ground it was terrible and cruel, and perhaps if I prayed to our Lady He would not find it in His heart to do so. I was trying to do this, beginning under my breath, "O Holy Virgin, thou art so lovely, thou art so gracious . . ." when the nurse said:
"Here they are back again."
Then I heard footsteps outside, and going to the window I saw a sight not unlike that which I had seen on the night of the Waits.
A group of men were coming towards the house, with Father Dan in the middle of them. Father Dan, with his coat hung over his arms like a cloak, was carrying something white in both hands, and the men were carrying torches to light him on his way.
I knew what it was—it was the Blessed Sacrament, which they were bringing to my mother, and when Father Dan had come into the room, saying "Peace be to this house," and laid a little white box on the table, and thrown off his coat, he was wearing his priest's vestments underneath.
Then the whole of my father's household—all except my father himself—came into my mother's room, including Aunt Bridget, who sat with folded arms in the darkness by the wall, and the servants, who knelt in a group by the door.
Father Dan roused my mother by calling to her again, and after she had opened her eyes he began to read. Sometimes his voice seemed to be choked with sobs, as if the heart of the man were suffering, and sometimes it pealed out loudly as if the soul of the priest were inspiring him.
After Communion he gave my mother Extreme Unction—anointing the sweet eyes which had seen no evil, the dear lips which had uttered no wrong, and the feet which had walked in the ways of God.
All this time there was a solemn hush in the house like that of a church—no sound within except my father's measured tread in the room below, and none without except the muffled murmur which the sea makes when it is far away and going out.
When all was over my mother seemed more at ease, and after asking for me and being told I was in the cot, she said:
"You must all go and rest. Mary and I will be quite right now."
A few minutes afterwards my mother and I were alone once more, and then she called me into her bed and clasped her arms about me and I lay with my face hidden in her neck.
What happened thereafter seems to be too sacred to write of, almost too sacred to think about, yet it is all as a memory of yesterday, while other events of my life have floated away to the ocean of things that are forgotten and lost.
"Listen, darling," she said, and then, speaking in whispers, she told me she had heard all I had said about the Convent, and wondered if I would not like to live there always, becoming one of the good and holy nuns.
I must have made some kind of protest, for she went on to say how hard the world was to a woman and how difficult she had found it.
"Not that your father has been to blame—you must never think that, Mary, yet still . . ."
But tears from her tender heart were stealing down her face and she had to stop.
Even yet I had not realised all that the solemn time foreboded, for I said something about staying with my mother; and then in her sweet voice, she told me nervously, breaking the news to me gently, that she was going to leave me, that she was going to heaven, but she would think of me when she was there, and if God permitted she would watch over me, or, if that might not be, she would ask our Lady to do so.
"So you see we shall never be parted, never really. We shall always be together. Something tells me that wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I shall know all about it."
This comforted me, and I think it comforted my mother also, though God knows if it would have done so, if, with her dying eyes, she could have seen what was waiting for her child.
It fills my heart brimful to think of what happened next.
She told me to say a De Profundis for her sometimes, and to think of her when I sang the hymn to the Virgin. Then she kissed me and told me to go to sleep, saying she was going to sleep too, and if it should prove to be the eternal sleep, it would be only like going to sleep at night and awaking in the morning, and then we should be together again, and "the time between would not seem long."
"So good-night, darling, and God bless you," she said.
And as well as I could I answered her "Good-night!"
* * * * *
When I awoke from the profound slumber of childhood it was noon of the next day and the sun was shining. Doctor Conrad was lifting me out of bed, and Father Dan, who had just thrown open the window, was saying in a tremulous voice:
"Your dear mother has gone to God."
I began to cry, but he checked me and said:
"Don't call her back. She's on her way to God's beautiful Paradise after all her suffering. Let her go!"
So I lost her, my mother, my saint, my angel.
It was Easter Eve, and the church bells were ringing the Gloria.
After my mother's death there was no place left for me in my father's house.
Betsy Beauty (who was now called Miss Betsy and gave herself more than ever the airs of the daughter of the family) occupied half her days with the governess who had been engaged to teach her, and the other half in driving, dressed in beautiful clothes, to the houses of the gentry round about.
Nessy MacLeod, called the young mistress, had become my father's secretary, and spent most of her time in his private room, a privilege which enlarged her pride without improving her manners.
Martin Conrad I did not see, for in reward for some success at school the doctor had allowed him to spend his Easter holidays in London in order to look at Nansen's ship, the Fram, which had just then arrived in the Thames.
Hence it happened that though home made a certain tug at me, with its familiar sights and sounds, and more than once I turned with timid steps towards my father's busy room, intending to say, "Please, father, don't send me back to school," I made no demur when, six or seven days after the funeral, Aunt Bridget began to prepare for my departure.
"There's odds of women," said Tommy the Mate, when I went into the garden to say good bye to him "They're like sheep's broth, is women. If there's a head and a heart in them they're good, and if there isn't you might as well be supping hot water. Our Big Woman is hot water—but she'll die for all."
Within a fortnight I was back at the Convent, and there the Reverend Mother atoned to me for every neglect.
"I knew you would come back to me," she said, and from that hour onward she seemed to be trying to make up to me for the mother I had lost.
I became deeply devoted to her. As a consequence her spirit became my spirit, and, little by little, the religious side of the life of the Convent took complete possession of me.
At first I loved the church and its services because the Reverend Mother loved them, and perhaps also for the sake of the music, the incense, the flowers and the lights on the altar; but after I had taken my communion, the mysteries of our religion took hold of me—the Confessional with its sense of cleansing and the unutterable sweetness of the Mass.
For a long time there was nothing to disturb this religious side of my mind. My father never sent for me, and as often as the holidays came round the Reverend Mother took me with her to her country home at Nemi.
That was a beautiful place—a sweet white cottage, some twenty kilometres from Rome, at the foot of Monte Cavo, in the middle of the remains of a mediaeval village which contained a castle and a monastery, and had a little blue lake lying like an emerald among the green and red of the grass and poppies in the valley below.
In the hot months of summer the place was like a Paradise to me, with its roses growing wild by the wayside; its green lizards running on the rocks; its goats; its sheep; its vineyards; its brown-faced boys in velvet, and its gleesome girls in smart red petticoats and gorgeous outside stays; its shrines and its blazing sunsets, which seemed to girdle the heavens with quivering bands of purple and gold.
Years went by without my being aware of their going, for after a while I became entirely happy.
I heard frequently from home. Occasionally it was from Betsy Beauty, who had not much to say beyond stories of balls at Government House, where she had danced with the young Lord Raa, and of hunts at which she had ridden with him. More rarely it was from Aunt Bridget, who usually began by complaining of the ever-increasing cost of my convent clothes and ended with accounts of her daughter's last new costume and how well she looked in it.
From Nessy MacLeod and my father I never heard at all, but Father Dan was my constant correspondent and he told me everything.
First of my father himself—that he had carried out many of his great enterprises, his marine works, electric railways, drinking and dancing palaces, which had brought tens of thousands of visitors and hundreds of thousands of pounds to Ellan, though the good Father doubted the advantage of such innovations and lamented the decline of piety which had followed on the lust for wealth.
Next of Aunt Bridget—that she was bringing up her daughter in the ways of worldly vanity and cherishing a serpent in her bosom (meaning Nessy MacLeod) who would poison her heart some day.
Next, of Tommy the Mate—that he sent his "best respec's" to the "lil-missy" but thought she was well out of the way of the Big Woman who "was getting that highty-tighty" that "you couldn't say Tom to a cat before her but she was agate of you to make it Thomas."
Then of Martin Conrad—that he was at college "studying for a doctor," but his heart was still at the North Pole and he was "like a sea-gull in the nest of a wood pigeon," always longing to be out on the wild waves.
Finally of the young Lord Raa—that the devil's dues must be in the man, for after being "sent down" from Oxford he had wasted his substance in riotous living in London and his guardian had been heard to say he must marry a rich wife soon or his estates would go to the hammer.
Such was the substance of the news that reached me over a period of six years. Yet welcome as were Father Dan's letters the life they described seemed less and less important to me as time went on, for the outer world was slipping away from me altogether and I was becoming more and more immersed in my spiritual exercises.
I spent much of my time reading religious books—the life of Saint Teresa, the meditations of Saint Francis of Sales, and, above all, the letters and prayers of our Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque, whose love of the Sacred Heart was like a flaming torch to my excited spirit.
The soul of Rome, too, seemed to enter into my soul—not the new Rome, for of that I knew nothing, but the old Rome, the holy city, that could speak to me in the silence of the night within the walls of my convent-school, with its bells of the Dominican and Franciscan monasteries on either side, its stories of miracles performed on the sick and dying by the various shrines of the Madonna, its accounts of the vast multitudes of the faithful who came from all ends of the earth to the ceremonials at St. Peter's, and, above all, its sense of the immediate presence of the Pope, half a mile away, the Vicar and mouthpiece of God Himself.
The end of it all was that I wished to become a nun. I said nothing of my desire to anybody, not even to the Reverend Mother, but day by day my resolution grew.
Perhaps it was natural that the orphaned and homeless girl should plunge with all this passion into the aurora of a new spiritual life; but when I think how my nature was made for love, human love, the love of husband and children, I cannot but wonder with a thrill of the heart whether my mother in heaven, who, while she was on earth, had fought so hard with my father for the body of her child, was now fighting with him for her soul.
I was just eighteen years of age when my desire to become a nun reached its highest point, and then received its final overthrow.
Mildred Bankes, who had returned to Rome, and was living as a novice with the Little Sisters of the Poor, was about to make her vows, and the Reverend Mother took me to see the ceremony.
Never shall I forget the effect of it. The sweet summer morning, tingling with snow-white sunshine, the little white chapel in the garden of the Convent, covered with flowers, the altar with its lighted tapers, the friends from without clad in gay costumes as for a festival, the bishop in his bright vestments, and then, Mildred herself, dressed as a bride in a beautiful white gown with a long white veil and attended by other novices as bridesmaids.
It was just like a marriage to look upon, except for the absence of a visible bridegroom, the invisible one being Christ. And the taking of the vows was like a marriage service too—only more solemn and sacred and touching—the bride receiving the ring on her finger, and promising to serve and worship her celestial lover from that day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as life should last and through the eternity that was to follow it.
I cried all through the ceremony for sheer joy of its loveliness; and when it was over and we went into the refectory, and Mildred told me she was returning to England to work among the fallen girls of London, I vowed in my heart, though I hardly understood what she was going to do, that I would follow her example.
It was something of a jar to go back into the streets, so full of noise and bustle; and all the way home with the Reverend Mother I was forming the resolution of telling her that very night that I meant to be a nun, for, stirred to the depths of my soul by what I had seen and remembering what my poor mother had wished for me, I determined that no other life would I live under any circumstances.
Then came the shock.
As we drew up at our door a postman was delivering letters. One of them was for the Reverend Mother and I saw in a moment that it was in my father's handwriting. She read it in silence, and in silence she handed it to me. It ran:
"I have come to Rome to take back my daughter. I believe her education will now be finished, and I reckon the time has arrived to prepare her for the change in life that is before her.
"The Bishop of our diocese has come with me, and we propose to pay our respects to you at ten o'clock prompt to-morrow morning.
I saw, as by a flash of light, what was before me, and my whole soul rose in rebellion against it. That my father after all the years during which he had neglected me, should come to me now, when my plans were formed, and change the whole current of my life, was an outrage—an iniquity. It might be his right—his natural right—but if so his natural right was a spiritual wrong—and I would resist it—to my last breath and my last hour I would resist it.
Such were the brave thoughts with which I passed that night, but at ten o'clock next morning, when I was summoned to meet my father himself, it was on trembling limbs and with a quivering heart that I went down to the Reverend Mother's room.
Except that his hair was whiter than before my father was not much changed. He rose as I entered, saying, "Here she is herself," and when I went up to him he put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my face.
"Quite a little Italian woman grown! Like your mother though," he said, and then speaking over my head to the Bishop, who sat on the other side of the room, he added:
"Guess this will do, Bishop, eh?"
"Perfectly," said the Bishop.
I was colouring in confusion at the continued scrutiny, with a feeling of being looked over for some unexplained purpose, when the Reverend Mother called me, and turning to go to her I saw, by the look of pain on her face that she, too, had been hurt by it.
She put me to sit on a stool by the side of her chair, and taking my right hand she laid it in her lap and held it there during the whole of the interview.
The Bishop, whom I had never seen before, was the first to speak. He was a type of the fashionable ecclesiastic, suave, smiling, faultlessly dressed in silk soutane and silver buckled shoes, and wearing a heavy gold chain with a jewelled cross.
"Reverend Mother," he said, "you would gather from Mr. O'Neill's letter that he wishes to remove his daughter immediately—I presume there will be no difficulty in his doing so?"
The Reverend Mother did not speak, but I think she must have bent her head.
"Naturally," said the Bishop, "there will be a certain delay while suitable clothes are being made for her, but I have no doubt you will give Mr. O'Neill your help in these preparations."
My head was down, and I did not see if the Reverend Mother bowed again. But the two gentlemen, apparently satisfied with her silence, began to talk of the best date for my removal, and just when I was quivering with fear that without a word of protest I was to be taken away, the Reverend Mother said:
"You are aware that this child"—here she patted my trembling hand—"has been with me for ten years?"
"I am given to understand so."
"And that during that time she has only once been home?"
"I was not aware—but no doubt it is as you say."
"In short, that during the greater part of her life she has been left to my undivided care?"
"You have been very good to her, very, and I'm sure her family are extremely grateful."
"In that case, Monsignor, doesn't it seem to you that I am entitled to know why she is being so suddenly taken away from me, and what is the change in life which Mr. O'Neill referred to in his letter?"
The smile which had been playing upon the Bishop's face was smitten away from it by that question, and he looked anxiously across at my father.
"Tell her," said my father, and then, while my heart thumped in my bosom and the Reverend Mother stroked my hand to compose me, the Bishop gave a brief explanation.
The time had not come when it would be prudent to be more definite, but he might say that Mr. O'Neill was trying to arrange a happy and enviable future for his daughter, and therefore he wished her to return home to prepare for it.
"Does that mean marriage?" said the Reverend Mother.
"It may be so. I am not quite prepared to . . ."
"And that a husband has already been found for her?"
"That too perhaps. I will not say . . ."
"Monsignor," said the Reverend Mother, sitting up with dignity "is that fair?"
"Is it fair that after ten years in which her father has done nothing for her, he should determine what her life is to be, without regard to her wish and will?"
I raised my eyes and saw that the Bishop looked aghast.
"Reverend Mother, you surprise me," he said. "Since when has a father ceased to be the natural guardian of his child? Has he not been so since the beginning of the world? Doesn't the Church itself build its laws on that foundation?"
"Does it?" said the Reverend Mother shortly. And then (I could feel her hand trembling as she spoke): "Some of its servants do, I know. But when did the Church say that anybody—no matter who—a father or anybody else—should take the soul of another, and control it and govern it, and put it in prison? . . ."
"My good lady," said the Bishop, "would you call it putting the girl in prison to marry her into an illustrious family, to give her an historic name, to surround her with the dignity and distinction . . ."
"Bishop," said my father, raising his hand, "I guess it's my right to butt in here, isn't it?"
I saw that my father's face had been darkening while the Reverend Mother spoke, and now, rolling his heavy body in his chair so as to face her, he said:
"Excuse me, ma'am, but when you say I've done nothing for my gel here I suppose you'll allow I've kept her and educated her?"
"You've kept and educated your dogs and horses, also, I dare say, but do you claim the same rights over a human being?"
"I do, ma'am—I think I do. And when the human being happens to be my own daughter I don't allow that anybody else has anything to say."
"If her mother were alive would she have nothing to say?"
I thought my father winced at that word, but he answered:
"Her mother would agree to anything I thought best."
"Her mother, so far as I can see, was a most unselfish, most submissive, most unhappy woman," said the Reverend Mother.
My father glanced quickly at me and then, after a moment, he said:
"I'm obliged to you, ma'am, much obliged. But as I'm not a man to throw words away I'll ask you to tell me what all this means. Does it mean that you've made plans of your own for my daughter without consulting me?"
"Then perhaps it means that the gel herself . . ."
"That may be so or not—I cannot say. But when you sent your daughter to a convent-school . . ."
"Wrong, ma'am, wrong for once. It was my wife's sister—who thinks the gel disobedient and rebellious and unruly . . ."
"Then your wife's sister is either a very stupid or a very bad-hearted woman."
"I have known your daughter longer than she has, and there isn't a word of truth in what she says."
It was as much as I could do not to fall on the Reverend Mother's neck, but I clung to her hand with a convulsive grasp.
"May be so, ma'am, may be no," said my father. "But when you talk about my sending my daughter to a convent-school I would have you know that I've been so busy with my business . . ."
"That you haven't had time to take care of the most precious thing God gave you."
"Ma'am," said my father, rising to his feet, "may I ask what right you have to speak to me as if . . ."
"The right of one who for ten years has been a mother to your motherless child, sir, while you have neglected and forgotten her."
At that my father, whose bushy eyebrows were heavily contracted, turned to the Bishop.
"Bishop," he said, "is this what I've been paying my money for? Ten years' fees, and middling high ones too, I'm thinking?"
And then the Bishop, apparently hoping to make peace, said suavely:
"But aren't we crossing the river before we reach the bridge? The girl herself may have no such objections. Have you?" he asked, turning to me.
I was trembling more than ever now, and at first I could not reply.
"Don't you wish to go back home with your father?"
"No, sir," I answered.
"And why not, please?"
"Because my father's home is no home to me—because my aunt has always been unkind to me, and because my father has never cared for me or protected me, and because . . ."
"Well, what else?"
"Because . . . because I wish to become a nun."
There was silence for a moment, and then my father broke into bitter laughter.
"So that's it, is it? I thought as much. You want to go into partnership with the Mother in the nun business, eh?"
"My mother wished me to become a nun, and I wish it myself, sir."
"Your mother was a baby—that's what she was."
"My mother was an angel, sir," I said, bridling up, "and when she was dying she hoped I should become a nun, and I can never become anything else under any circumstance."
"Bah!" said my father, with a contemptuous lift of the hand, and then turning to the Reverend Mother he said:
"Hark here, ma'am. There's an easy way and a hard way in most everything. I take the easy way first, and if it won't work I take the hard way next, and then it's stiff pulling for the people who pull against me. I came to Rome to take my daughter home. I don't feel called upon to explain why I want to take her home, or what I'm going to do with her when I get her there. I believe I've got the rights of a father to do what I mean to do, and that it will be an ugly business for anybody who aids and abets my daughter in resisting her father's will. So I'll leave her here a week longer, and when I come back, I'll expect her to be ready and waiting and willing—ready and waiting and willing, mind you—to go along with me."
After saying this my father faced about and with his heavy flat step went out of the room, whereupon the Bishop bowed to the Reverend Mother and followed him.
My heart was by this time in fierce rebellion—all that the pacifying life of the convent-school had done for me in ten years being suddenly swept away—and I cried:
"I won't do it! I won't do it!"
But I had seen that the Reverend Mother's face had suddenly become very white while my father spoke to her at the end and now she said, in a timid, almost frightened tone:
"Mary, we'll go out to Nemi to-day. I have something to say to you."
In the late afternoon of the same day we were sitting together for the last time on the terrace of the Reverend Mother's villa.
It was a peaceful evening, a sweet and holy time. Not a leaf was stirring, not a breath of wind was in the air; but the voice of a young boy, singing a love-song, came up from somewhere among the rocky ledges of the vineyards below, and while the bell of the monastic church behind us was ringing the Ave Maria, the far-off bell of the convent church at Gonzano was answering from the other side of the lake—like angels calling to each other from long distances in the sky.
"Mary," said the Reverend Mother, "I want to tell you a story. It is the story of my own life—mine and my sister's and my father's."
I was sitting by her side and she was holding my hand in her lap, and patting it, as she had done during the interview of the morning.
"They say the reason so few women become nuns is that a woman is too attached to her home to enter the holy life until she has suffered shipwreck in the world. That may be so with most women. It was not so with me.
"My father was what is called a self-made man. But his fortune did not content him. He wanted to found a family. If he had had a son this might have been easy. Having only two daughters, he saw no way but that of marrying one of us into the Italian nobility.
"My sister was the first to disappoint him. She fell in love with a young Roman musician. The first time the young man asked for my sister he was contemptuously refused; the second time he was insulted; the third time he was flung out of the house. His nature was headstrong and passionate, and so was my father's. If either had been different the result might not have been the same. Yet who knows? Who can say?"
The Reverend Mother paused for a moment. The boy's voice in the vineyard was going on.
"To remove my sister from the scene of temptation my father took her from Rome to our villa in the hills above Albano. But the young musician followed her. Since my father would not permit him to marry her he was determined that she should fly with him, and when she hesitated to do so he threatened her. If she did not meet him at a certain hour on a certain night my father would be dead in the morning."
The Reverend Mother paused again. The boy's voice had ceased; the daylight was dying out.
"My sister could not bring herself to sacrifice either her father or her lover. Hence she saw only one way left—to sacrifice herself."
The Reverend Mother patted my hand. "Isn't that what women in tragic circumstances are always doing?" she said.
"By some excuse—I don't know what—she persuaded our father to change rooms with her that night—he going upstairs to her bedroom in the tower, and she to his on the ground floor at the back, opening on to the garden and the pine forest that goes up the hill.
"What happened after that nobody ever knew exactly. In the middle of the night the servants heard two pistol shots, and next morning my sister was found dead—shot to the heart through an open window as she lay in my father's bed.
"The authorities tried in vain to trace the criminal. Only one person had any idea of his identity. That was my father, and in his fierce anger he asked himself what he ought to do in order to punish the man who had killed his daughter.
"Then a strange thing happened. On the day before the funeral the young musician walked into my father's room. His face was white and wasted, and his eyes were red and swollen. He had come to ask if he might be allowed to be one of those to carry the coffin. My father consented. 'I'll leave him alone,' he thought. 'The man is punished enough.'
"All the people of Albano came to the funeral and there was not a dry eye as the cortege passed from our chapel to the grave. Everybody knew the story of my sister's hopeless love, but only two in the world knew the secret of her tragic death—her young lover, who was sobbing aloud as he staggered along with her body on his shoulder, and her old father, who was walking bareheaded and in silence, behind him."
My heart was beating audibly and the Reverend Mother stroked my hand to compose me—perhaps to compose herself also. It was now quite dark, the stars were coming out, and the bells of the two monasteries on opposite sides of the lake were ringing the first hour of night.
"That's my sister's story, Mary," said the Reverend Mother after a while, "and the moral of my own is the same, though the incidents are different.
"I was now my father's only child and all his remaining hopes centred in me. So he set himself to find a husband for me before the time came when I should form an attachment for myself. His choice fell on a middle-aged Roman noble of distinguished but impoverished family.
"'He has a great name; you will have a great fortune—what more do you want?' said my father.
"We were back in Rome by this time, and there—at school or elsewhere—I had formed the conviction that a girl must passionately love the man she marries, and I did not love the Roman noble. I had also been led to believe that a girl should be the first and only passion of the man who marries her, and, young as I was, I knew that my middle-aged lover had had other domestic relations.
"Consequently I demurred, but my father threatened and stormed, and then, remembering my sister's fate, I pretended to agree, and I was formally engaged.
"I never meant to keep my promise, and I began to think out schemes by which to escape from it. Only one way seemed open to me then, and cherishing the thought of it in secret, I waited and watched and made preparations for carrying out my purpose.
"At length the moment came to me. It was mid-Lent, and a masked ball was given by my fiance's friends in one of the old Roman palaces. I can see it still—the great hall, ablaze with glowing frescoes, beautiful Venetian candelabras, gilded furniture, red and yellow damask and velvet, and then the throng of handsome men in many uniforms and beautiful women with rows of pearls falling from their naked throats.
"I had dressed myself as a Bacchante in a white tunic embroidered in gold, with bracelets on my bare arms, a tiger-skin band over my forehead, and a cluster of grapes in my hair.
"I danced every dance, I remember, most of them with my middle-aged lover, and I suppose no one seemed so gay and happy and heedless. At three o'clock in the morning I returned home in my father's carriage. At six I had entered a convent.
"Nobody in the outer world ever knew what had become of me, and neither did I know what happened at home after I left it. The rule of the convent was very strict. Sometimes, after morning prayers, the Superior would say, 'The mother of one of you is dead—pray for her soul,' and that was all we ever heard of the world outside.