"She's a beauty, isn't she?" said Martin.
"Isn't she?" I answered, and in spite of all my troubles I felt entirely happy.
We had steamed down against a strong tide, so we were half an hour late for luncheon, and the officers had gone down to the saloon, but it was worth being a little after time to see the way they all leapt up and received me like a queen—making me feel, as I never felt before, the difference between the politeness of the fashionable idlers and the manners of the men who do things.
"Holloa!" they cried.
"Excuse us, won't you? We thought something had happened and perhaps you were not coming," said the commander, and then he put me to sit between himself and Martin.
The strange thing was that I was at home in that company in a moment, and if anybody imagines that I must have been embarrassed because I was the only member of my sex among so many men he does not know the heart of a woman.
They were such big, bronzed manly fellows with the note of health and the sense of space about them—large space—as if they had come out of the heroic youth of the world, that they set my blood a-tingling to look at them.
They were very nice to me too, though I knew that I only stood for the womankind that each had got at home and was soon to go back to, but none the less it was delightful to feel as if I were taking the first fruits of their love for them.
So it came to pass that within a few minutes I, who had been called insipid and was supposed to have no conversation, was chattering away softly and happily, making remarks about the things around me and asking all sorts of questions.
Of course I asked many foolish ones, which made the men laugh very much; but their laughter did not hurt me the least bit in the world, because everybody laughed on that ship, even the sailors who served the dishes, and especially one grizzly old salt, a cockney from Wapping, who for some unexplained reason was called Treacle.
It made me happy to see how they all deferred to Martin, saying: "Isn't that so, Doctor?" or "Don't you agree, Doctor?" and though it was strange and new to hear Martin (my "Mart of Spitzbergen") called "Doctor," it was also very charming.
After luncheon was over, and while coffee was being served, the commander sent Treacle to his cabin for a photograph of all hands which had been taken when they were at the foot of Mount Erebus; and when it came I was called upon to identify one by one, the shaggy, tousled, unkempt, bearded, middle-aged men in the picture with the smart, clean-shaven young officers who sat round me at the table.
Naturally I made shockingly bad shots, and the worst of them was when I associated Treacle with the commander, which made the latter rock in his seat and the former shake and shout so much that he spilled the coffee.
"But what about the fourth man in the front row from the left?" asked the commander.
"Oh, I should recognise him if I were blindfolded," I answered.
"By his eyes," I said, and after this truly Irish and feminine answer the men shrieked with laughter.
"She's got you there, doc," cried somebody.
"She has sure," said Martin, who had said very little down to that moment, but was looking supremely happy.
At length the time came for the men to go, and I went up on deck to see them off by the launch, and then nobody was left on the ship except Martin and myself, with the cook, the cabin-boy and a few of the crew, including Treacle.
I knew that that was the right time to speak, but I was too greedy of every moment of happiness to break in on it with the story of my troubles, so when Martin proposed to show me over the ship, away I went with him to look at the theodolites and chronometers and sextants, and sledges and skis, and the aeronautic outfit and the captive balloon, and the double-barrelled guns, and the place where they kept the petroleum and the gun cotton for blasting the ice, and the hold forward for the men's provisions in hermetically-sealed tins, and the hold aft for the dried fish and biscuit that were the food for the Siberian dogs, and the empty cage for the dogs themselves, which had just been sent up to the Zoo to be taken care of.
Last of all he showed me his own cabin, which interested me more than anything else, being such a snug little place (though I thought I should like to tidy it up a bit), with his medical outfit, his books, his bed like a shelf, and one pretty photograph of his mother's cottage with the roses growing over it, that I almost felt as if I would not mind going to the Antarctic myself if I could live in such comfortable quarters.
Two hours passed in this way, though they had flown like five minutes, when the cabin-boy came to say that tea was served in the saloon, and then I skipped down to it as if the ship belonged to me. And no sooner had I screwed myself into the commander's chair, which was fixed to the floor at the head of the narrow table, and found the tea-tray almost on my lap, than a wave of memory from our childhood came sweeping back on me, and I could not help giving way to the coquetry which lies hidden in every girl's heart so as to find out how much Martin had been thinking of me.
"I'll bet you anything," I said, (I had caught Martin's style) "you can't remember where you and I first saw each other."
He could—it was in the little dimity-white room in his mother's house with its sweet-smelling "scraas" under the sloping thatch.
"Well, you don't remember what you were doing when we held our first conversation?"
He did—he was standing on his hands with his feet against the wall and his inverted head close to the carpet.
"But you've forgotten what happened next?"
He hadn't—I had invited William Rufus and himself into bed, and they had sat up on either side of me.
Poor William Rufus! I heard at last what had become of him. He had died of distemper soon after I was sent to school. His master had buried him in the back-garden, and, thinking I should be as sorry as he was for the loss of our comrade, he had set up a stone with an inscription in our joint names—all of his own inditing. It ran—he spelled it out to me—
"HERE LICE WILYAM ROOFUS WRECKTED BY IZ OLE FRENS MARTIN CONRAD AND MARY O'NEILL."
Two big blinding beads came into my eyes at that story, but they were soon dashed away by Martin who saw them coming and broke into the vernacular. I broke into it, too, (hardly knowing that the well of my native speech was still there until I began to tap it), and we talked of Tommy the Mate and his "starboard eye," called each other "bogh mulish," said things were "middling," spoke of the "threes" (trees) and the "tunder" (thunder), and remembered that "our Big Woman was a wicked devil and we wouldn't trust but she'd burn in hell."
How we laughed! We laughed at everything; we laughed at nothing; we laughed until we cried; but I have often thought since that this was partly because we knew in our secret hearts that we were always hovering on the edge of tragic things.
Martin never once mentioned my husband or my marriage, or his letters to my father, the Bishop and Father Dan, which had turned out so terribly true; but we had our serious moments for all that, and one of them was when we were bending over a large chart which he had spread out on the table to show me the course of the ship through the Great Unknown, leaning shoulder to shoulder, so close that our heads almost touched, and I could see myself in his eyes as he turned to speak to me.
"You were a little under the weather yesterday, shipmate—what was the cause of it?" he asked.
"Oh, we . . . we can talk of that another time, can't we?" I answered, and then we both laughed again, goodness knows why, unless it was because we felt we were on the verge of unlocking the doors of each other's souls.
Oh that joyful, wonderful, heart-swelling day! But no day ever passed so quickly. At half-past six Martin said we must be going back, or I should be late for dinner, and a few minutes afterwards we were in the launch, which had returned to fetch us.
I had had such a happy time on the ship that as we were steaming off I kissed my hand to her, whereupon Treacle, who was standing at the top of the companion, taking the compliment to himself, returned the salute with affectionate interest, which sent Martin and me into our last wild shriek of laughter.
The return trip was just as delightful as the coming out had been, everything looking different the other way round, for the sunset was like a great celestial fire which had been lighted in the western sky, and the big darkening city seemed to have turned its face to it.
Martin talked all the way back about a scheme he had afoot for going down to the region of the Pole again in order to set up some machinery that was to save life and otherwise serve humanity, and while I sat close up to him, looking into his flashing eyes—they were still as blue as the bluest sea—I said, again and again: "How splendid! How glorious! What a great, great thing it will be for the world."
"Won't it?" he said, and his eyes sparkled like a boy's.
Thus the time passed without our being aware how it was going, and we were back at Westminster Pier before I bethought me that of the sad and serious subject I had intended to speak about I had said nothing at all.
But all London seemed to have been taking holiday that day, for as we drove in a taxi up Parliament Street streams of vehicles full of happy people were returning from the Derby, including costers' donkey carts in which the girls were carrying huge boughs of May blossom, and the boys were wearing the girls' feathery hats, and at the top of their lusty lungs they were waking the echoes of the stately avenue with the "Honeysuckle and the Bee."
"Yew aw the enny, Oi em ther bee, Oi'd like ter sip ther enny from those red lips, yew see."
As we came near our hotel we saw a rather showy four-in-hand coach, called the "Phoebus," drawing up at the covered way in front of it, and a lady on top, in a motor veil, waving her hand to us.
It was Alma, with my husband's and Mr. Eastcliff's party back from the races, and as soon as we met on the pavement she began to pay me high compliments on my improved appearance.
"Didn't I say the river air would do you good, dearest?" she said, and then she added something else, which would have been very sweet if it had been meant sweetly, about there being no surer way to make a girl beautiful than to make her happy.
There was some talk of our dining together that night, but I excused myself, and taking leave of Martin, who gave my hand a gentle pressure, I ran upstairs without waiting for the lift, being anxious to get to my own room that I might be alone and go over everything in my mind.
I did so, ever so many times, recalling all that had been said and done by the commander and his comrades, and even by Treacle, but above all by Martin, and laughing softly to myself as I lived my day over again in a world of dream.
My maid came in once or twice, with accounts of the gorgeous Derby dinner that was going on downstairs, but that did not matter to me in the least, and as soon as I had swallowed a little food I went to bed early—partly in order to get rid of Price that I might go over everything again and yet again.
I must have done so far into the night, and even when the wings of my memory were weary of their fluttering and I was dropping off at last, I thought I heard Martin calling "shipmate," and I said "Yes," quite loud, as if he had been with me still in that vague and beautiful shadow-land which lies on the frontier of sleep.
How mysterious, how magical, how wonderful!
Looking back I cannot but think it strange that even down to that moment I did not really know what was happening to me, being only conscious of a great flood of joy. I cannot but think it strange that, though Nature had been whispering to me for months, I did not know what it had been saying. I cannot but think it strange that, though I had been looking for love so long without finding it, I did not recognise it immediately when it had come to me of itself.
But when I awoke early in the morning, very early, while the sunrise was filling my bedroom with a rosy flush, and the thought of Martin was the first that was springing from the mists of sleep to my conscious mind, and I was asking myself how it happened that I was feeling so glad, while I had so many causes for grief, then suddenly—suddenly as the sun streams through the cloud-scud over the sea—I knew that what had long been predestined had happened, that the wondrous new birth, the great revelation, the joyous mystery which comes to every happy woman in the world had come at last to me.
I was in love.
I was in love with Martin Conrad.
My joy was short-lived. No sooner had I become aware that I loved Martin Conrad, than my conscience told me I had no right to do so. I was married, and to love another than my husband was sin.
It would be impossible to say with what terror this thought possessed me. It took all the sunlight out of my sky, which a moment before had seemed so bright. It came on me like a storm of thunder and lightning, sweeping my happiness into the abyss.
All my religion, everything I had been taught about the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage seemed to rise up and accuse me. It was not that I was conscious of any sin against my husband. I was thinking only of my sin against God.
The first effect was to make me realise that it was no longer possible for me to speak to Martin about my husband and Alma. To do this now that I knew I loved him would be deceitful, mean, almost treacherous.
The next effect was to make me see that all thought of a separation must now be given up. How could I accuse my husband when I was myself in the same position? If he loved another woman, I loved another man.
In my distress and fright I saw only one means of escape either from the filthy burden to which I was bound or the consciousness of a sinful heart, and that was to cure myself of my passion. I determined to do so. I determined to fight against my love for Martin Conrad, to conquer it and to crush it.
My first attempt to do this was feeble enough. It was an effort to keep myself out of the reach of temptation by refusing to see Martin alone.
For three or four days I did my best to carry out this purpose, making one poor excuse after another, when (as happened several times a day) he came down to see me—that I was just going out or had just come in, or was tired or unwell.
It was tearing my heart out to deny myself so, but I think I could have borne the pain if I had not realised that I was causing pain to him also.
My maid, whose head was always running on Martin, would come hack to my room, after delivering one of my lying excuses, and say:
"You should have seen his face, when I told him you were ill. It was just as if I'd driven a knife into him."
Everybody seemed to be in a conspiracy to push me into Martin's arms—Alma above all others. Being a woman she read my secret, and I could see from the first that she wished to justify her own conduct in relation to my husband by putting me into the same position with Martin.
"Seen Mr. Conrad to-day?" she would ask.
"Not to-day," I would answer.
"Really? And you such old friends! And staying in the same hotel, too!"
When she saw that I was struggling hard she reminded my husband of his intention of asking Martin to dinner, and thereupon a night was fixed and a party invited.
Martin came, and I was only too happy to meet him in company, though the pain and humiliation of the contrast between him and my husband and his friends, and the difference of the atmosphere in which he lived from that to which I thought I was doomed for ever, was almost more than I could bear.
I think they must have felt it themselves, for though their usual conversation was of horses and dogs and race-meetings, I noticed they were silent while Martin in his rugged, racy poetic way (for all explorers are poets) talked of the beauty of the great Polar night, the cloudless Polar day, the midnight calm and the moonlight on the glaciers, which was the loveliest, weirdest, most desolate, yet most entrancing light the world could show.
"I wonder you don't think of going back to the Antarctic, if it's so fascinating," said Alma.
"I do. Bet your life I do," said Martin, and then he told them what he had told me on the launch, but more fully and even more rapturously—the story of his great scheme for saving life and otherwise benefiting humanity.
For hundreds of years man, prompted merely by the love of adventure, the praise of achievement, and the desire to know the globe he lived on, had been shouldering his way to the hitherto inviolable regions of the Poles; but now the time had come to turn his knowledge to account.
"How?" said my husband.
"By putting himself into such a position," said Martin, "that he will be able to predict, six, eight, ten days ahead, the weather of a vast part of the navigable and habitable world—by establishing installations of wireless telegraphy as near as possible to the long ice-barrier about the Pole from which ice-floes and icebergs and blizzards come, so that we can say in ten minutes from the side of Mount Erebus to half the southern hemisphere, 'Look out. It's coming down,' and thus save millions of lives from shipwreck, and hundreds of millions of money."
"Splendid, by Jove!" said Mr. Eastcliff.
"Yes, ripping, by jingo!" said Mr. Vivian.
"A ridiculous dream!" muttered my husband, but not until Martin had gone, and then Alma, seeing that I was all aglow, said:
"What a lovely man! I wonder you don't see more of him, Mary, my love. He'll be going to the ends of the earth soon, and then you'll be sorry you missed the chance."
Her words hurt me like the sting of a wasp, but I could not resist them, and when some days later Martin called to take me to the Geographical Society, where his commander, Lieutenant —— was to give an account of their expedition, I could not find it in my heart to refuse to go.
Oh, the difference of this world from that in which I had been living for the past six months! All that was best in England seemed to be there, the men who were doing the work of the world, and the women who were their wives and partners.
The theatre was like the inside of a dish, and I sat by Martin's side on the bottom row of seats, just in front of the platform and face to face with the commander.
His lecture, which was illustrated by many photographic lantern slides of the exploring party, (including the one that had been shown to me on the ship) was very interesting, but terribly pathetic; and when he described the hardships they had gone through in a prolonged blizzard on a high plateau, with food and fuel running low, and no certainty that they would ever see home again, I found myself feeling for Martin's hand to make sure that he was there.
Towards the end the commander spoke very modestly of himself, saying he could never have reached the 87th parallel if he had not had a crew of the finest comrades that ever sailed on a ship.
"And though they're all splendid fellows," he said, "there's one I can specially mention without doing any wrong to the rest, and that's the young doctor of our expedition—Martin Conrad. Martin has a scheme of his own for going down to the Antarctic again to make a great experiment in the interests of humanity, and if and when he goes I say, 'Good luck to him and God bless him!'"
At these generous words there was much applause, during which Martin sat blushing like a big boy when he is introduced to the girl friends of his sister.
As for me I did not think any speech could have been so beautiful, and I felt as if I could have cried for joy.
When I got back to the hotel I did cry, but it was for another reason. I was thinking of my father and wondering why he did not wait.
"Why, why, why?" I asked myself.
Next day, Martin came rushing down to my sitting-room with a sheaf of letters in his hand, saying:
"That was jolly good of the boss, but look what he has let me in for?"
They were requests from various newspapers for portraits and interviews, and particularly from one great London journal for a special article to contain an account of the nature and object of the proposed experiment.
"What am I to do?" he said. "I'm all right for stringing gabble, but I couldn't write anything to save my soul. Now, you could. I'm sure you could. You could write like Robinson Crusoe. Why shouldn't you write the article and I'll tell you what to put into it?"
There was no resisting that. And down at the bottom of my secret heart I was glad of the excuse to my conscience that I could not any longer run away from Martin because I was necessary to help him.
So we sat together all day long, and though it was like shooting the rapids to follow Martin's impetuous and imaginative speech, I did my best to translate his disconnected outbursts into more connected words, and when the article was written and read aloud to him he was delighted.
"Stunning! Didn't I say you could write like Robinson Crusoe?"
In due course it was published and made a deep impression, for wherever I went people were talking of it, and though some said "Fudge!" and others, like my husband, said "Dreams!" the practical result was that the great newspaper started a public subscription with the object of providing funds for the realisation of Martin's scheme.
This brought him an immense correspondence, so that every morning he came down with an armful of letters and piteous appeals to me to help him to reply to them.
I knew it would be dangerous to put myself in the way of so much temptation, but the end of it was that day after day we sat together in my sitting-room, answering the inquiries of the sceptical, the congratulations of the convinced, and the offers of assistance that came from people who wished to join in the expedition.
What a joy it was! It was like the dawn of a new life to me. But the highest happiness of all was to protect Martin against himself, to save him from his over-generous impulses—in a word, to mother him.
Many of the letters he received were mere mendicancy. He was not rich, yet he could not resist a pitiful appeal, especially if it came from a woman, and it was as much as I could do to restrain him from ruining himself.
Sometimes I would see him smuggle a letter into his side pocket, with—
"H'm! That will do later."
"What is it?" I would ask.
"Oh, nothing, nothing!" he would answer.
"Hand it out, sir," I would say, and then I would find a fierce delight in sending six freezing words of refusal to some impudent woman who was trying to play upon the tender side of my big-hearted boy.
Oh, it was delightful! My whole being seemed to be renewed. If only the dear sweet hours could go on and on for ever!
Sometimes my husband and Alma would look in upon us at our work, and then, while the colour mounted to my eyes, Martin would say:
"I'm fishing with another man's floats, you see."
"I see," my husband would reply, fixing his monocle and showing his front teeth in a painful grin.
"Just what dear Mary loves, though," Alma would say. "I do believe she would rather he sitting in this sunless room, writing letters for Mr. Conrad, than wearing her coronet at a King's coronation."
"Just so, ma'am; there are women like that," Martin would answer, looking hard at her; and when she had gone, (laughing lightly but with the frightened look I had seen before) he would say, as if speaking to himself:
"I hate that woman. She's like a snake. I feel as if I want to put my foot on it."
At length the climax came. One day Martin rushed downstairs almost beside himself in his boyish joy, to say that all the money he needed had been subscribed, and that in honour of the maturing of the scheme the proprietor of the newspaper was to give a public luncheon at one of the hotels, and though no women were to be present at the "feed" a few ladies were to occupy seats in a gallery, and I was to be one of them.
I had played with my temptation too long by this time to shrink from the dangerous exaltation which I knew the occasion would cause, so when the day came I went to the hotel in a fever of pleasure and pride.
The luncheon was nearly over, the speeches were about to begin, and the ladies' gallery was buzzing like a hive of bees, when I took my seat in it. Two bright young American women sitting next to me were almost as excited as myself, and looking down at the men through a pair of opera-glasses they were asking each other which was Martin, whereupon my vanity, not to speak of my sense of possession, was so lifted up that I pointed him out to them, and then borrowed their glasses to look at the chairman.
He seemed to me to have that light of imagination in his eyes which was always blazing in Martin's, and when he began to speak I thought I caught the note of the same wild passion.
He said they were that day opening a new chapter in the wonderful book of man's story, and though the dangers of the great deep might never be entirely overcome, and the wind would continue to blow as it listed, yet the perils of the one and the movements of the other were going to be known to, and therefore checked by, the human family.
After that, and a beautiful tribute to Martin as a man, (that everybody who had met him had come to love him, and that there must be something in the great solitudes of the silent white world to make men simple and strong and great, as the sea made them staunch and true) he drank to the success of the expedition, and called on Martin to respond to the toast.
There was a great deal of cheering when Martin rose, but I was so nervous that I hardly heard it. He was nervous too, as I could plainly see, for after a few words of thanks, he began to fumble the sheets of a speech which he and I had prepared together, trying to read it, but losing his place and even dropping his papers.
Beads of perspiration were starting from my forehead and I knew I was making noises in my throat, when all at once Martin threw his papers on the table and said, in quite another voice:
"Ship-mates, I mean gentlemen, I never could write a speech in my life, and you see I can't read one, but I know what I want to say and if you'll take it as it comes here goes."
Then in the simple style of a sailor, not always even grammatical yet splendidly clear and bold and natural, blundering along as he used to do when he was a boy at school and could not learn his lessons, but with his blue eyes ablaze, he told of his aims and his expectations.
And when he came to the end he said:
"His lordship, the chairman, has said something about the good effects of the solitudes of Nature on a man's character. I can testify to that. And I tell you this—whatever you are when you're up here and have everything you want, it's wonderful strange the way you're asking the Lord to stretch out His hand and help you when you're down there, all alone and with an empty hungry stomach.
"I don't know where you were last Christmas Day, shipmates . . . I mean gentlemen, but I know where I was. I was in the 85th latitude, longitude 163, four miles south and thirty west of Mount Darwin. It was my own bit of an expedition that my commander has made too much of, and I believe in my heart my mates had had enough of it. When we got out of our sleeping bags that morning there was nothing in sight but miles and miles of rolling waves of snow, seven thousand feet up on a windy plateau, with glaciers full of crevasses shutting us off from the sea, and not a living thing in sight as far as the eye could reach.
"We were six in company and none of us were too good for Paradise, and one—he was an old Wapping sailor, we called him Treacle—had the name of being a shocking old rip ashore. But we remembered what day it was, and we wanted to feel that we weren't cut off entirely from the world of Christian men—our brothers and sisters who would be going to church at home. So I dug out my little prayer-book that my mother put in my kit going away, and we all stood round bare-headed in the snow—a shaggy old lot I can tell you, with chins that hadn't seen a razor for a month—and I read the prayers for the day, the first and second Vespers, and Laudate Dominum and then the De Profundis.
"I think we felt better doing that, but they say the comical and the tragical are always chasing each other, which can get in first, and it was so with us, for just as I had got to an end with the solemn words, 'Out of the depths we cry unto thee, O Lord, Lord hear our cry,' in jumps old Treacle in his thickest cockney, 'And Gawd bless our pore ole wives and sweethearts fur a-wye.'"
If Martin said any more nobody heard it. The men below were blowing their noses, and the women in the gallery were crying openly.
"Well, the man who can talk like that may open all my letters and telegrams," said one of the young American women, who was wiping her eyes without shame.
What I was doing, and what I was looking like, I did not know until the lady, who had lent me the opera-glasses leaned over to me and said:
"Excuse me, but are you his wife, may I ask?"
"Oh no, no," I said nervously and eagerly, but only God knows how the word went through and through me.
I had taken the wrong course, and I knew it. My pride, my joy, my happiness were all accusing me, and when I went to bed that night I felt as if I had been a guilty woman.
I tried to take refuge in religion. Every day and all day I humbly besought the pardon of heaven for the sin of loving Martin Conrad.
The little religious duties which I had neglected since my marriage (such as crossing myself at rising from the table) I began to observe afresh, and being reminded by Martin's story that I had promised my mother to say a De Profundis for her occasionally I now said one every day. I thought these exercises would bring me a certain relief, but they did not.
I searched my Missal for words that applied to my sinful state, and every night on going to bed I prayed to God to take from me all unholy thoughts, all earthly affections. But what was the use of my prayers when in the first dream of the first sleep I was rushing into Martin's arms?
It was true that my love for Martin was what the world would call a pure love; it had no alloy of any kind; but all the same I thought I was living in a condition of adultery—adultery of the heart.
Early every morning I went to mass, but the sense I used to have of returning from the divine sacrifice to the ordinary occupations of life with a new spirit and a clean heart I could feel no longer.
I went oftener to confession than I had done before—twice a week to begin with, then every other day, then every day. But the old joy, the sense of purity and cleansing, did not come. I thought at first the fault might be with my Confessor, for though I knew I was in the presence of God, the whispering voice behind the grating, which used to thrill me with a feeling of the supernatural, was that of a young man, and I asked myself what a young priest could know by experience of the deep temptations of human love.
This was at the new Cathedral at Westminster, so I changed to a little Catholic church in a kind of mews in Mayfair, and there my Confessor was an older man whose quivering voice seemed to search the very depths of my being. He was deeply alarmed at my condition and counselled me to pray to God night and day to strengthen me against temptation.
"The Evil One is besieging your soul, my child," he said. "Fight with him, my daughter."
I tried to follow my ghostly father's direction, but how hard it was to do so! Martin had only to take my hand and look into my eyes and all my good resolutions were gone in a moment.
As a result of the fierce struggle between my heart and my soul my health began to fail me. From necessity now, and not from design, I had to keep my room, but even there my love for Martin was always hanging like a threatening sword over my head.
My maid Price was for ever singing his praises. He was so bright, so cheerful, so strong, so manly; in fact, he was perfect, and any woman in the world might be forgiven if she fell in love with him.
Her words were like music in my ears, and sometimes I felt as if I wanted to throw my arms about her neck and kiss her. But at other moments I reproved her, telling her it was very wicked of her to think so much of the creature instead of fixing her mind on the Creator—a piece of counsel which made Price, who was all woman, open her sparkling black eyes in bewilderment.
Nearly every morning she brought me a bunch of flowers, which Martin had bought at Covent Garden, all glittering from the sunshine and damp with the dew. I loved to have them near me, but, finding they tempted me to think more tenderly of him who sent them, I always contrived by one excuse or another to send them into the sitting-room that they might be out of my sight at all events.
After a while Price, remembering my former artifice, began to believe that I was only pretending to be ill, in order to draw Martin on, and then taking a certain liberty with me, as with a child, she reproved me.
"If I were a lady I couldn't have the heart," she said, "I really couldn't. It's all very well for us women, but men don't understand such ways. They're only children, men are, when you come to know them."
I began to look upon poor Price as a honeyed fiend sent by Satan to seduce me, and to say the truth she sometimes acted up to the character. One day she said:
"If I was tied to a man I didn't love, and who didn't love me, and somebody else, worth ten of him was ready and waiting, I would take the sweet with the bitter, I would. We women must follow our hearts, and why shouldn't we?"
Then I scolded her dreadfully, asking if she had forgotten that she was speaking to her mistress, and a married woman; but all the while I knew that it was myself, not my maid, I was angry with, for she had only been giving voice to the thoughts that were secretly tormenting me.
I had been in bed about a week when Price came with a letter in her hand and a look of triumph in her black eyes and said:
"There, my lady! What did I tell you? You've had it all your own way and now you've driven him off. He has left the hotel and gone to live on his ship."
This frightened me terribly, and partly for that reason I ordered her out of the room, telling her she must leave me altogether if she ever took such liberties again. But I'm sure she saw me, as she was going through the door, take up Martin's letter, which I had thrown on to the table, and press it to my lips.
The letter was of no consequence, it was merely to tell me that he was going down to Tilbury for a few days, to take possession of his old ship in the name of his company, but it said in a postscript:
"If there's anything I can do for you, pass me the word and I'll come up like quick-sticks."
"What can I do? What can I do?" I thought. Everything my heart desired my soul condemned as sinful, and religion had done nothing to liberate me from the pains of my guilty passion.
All this time my husband and Alma were busy with the gaieties of the London season, which was then in full swing, with the houses in Mayfair being ablaze every night, the blinds up and the windows open to cool the overheated rooms in which men and women could be seen dancing in closely-packed crowds.
One night, after Alma and my husband had gone to a reception in Grosvenor Square, I had a sudden attack of heart-strain and had to be put to bed, whereupon Price, who had realised that I was really ill, told Hobson, my husband's valet, to go after his master and bring him back immediately.
"It'll be all as one, but I'll go if you like," said Hobson.
In half an hour he came back with my husband's answer. "Send for a doctor."
This put Price into a fever of mingled anger and perplexity, and not knowing what else to do she telegraphed to Martin on his ship, telling him that I was ill and asking what doctor she ought to call in to see me.
Inside an hour a reply came not from Tilbury but from Portsmouth saying:
"Call Doctor —— of Brook Street. Am coming up at once."
All this I heard for the first time when Price, with another triumphant look, came into my bedroom flourishing Martin's telegram as something she had reason to be proud of.
"You don't mean to say that you telegraphed to Mr. Conrad?" I said.
"Why not?" said Price. "When a lady is ill and her husband pays no attention to her, and there's somebody else not far off who would give his two eyes to save her a pain in her little finger, what is a woman to do?"
I told her what she was not to do. She was not to call the doctor under any circumstances, and when Martin came she was to make it plain to him that she had acted on her own responsibility.
Towards midnight he arrived, and Price brought him into my room in a long ulster covered with dust. I blushed and trembled at sight of him, for his face betrayed the strain and anxiety he had gone through on my account, and when he smiled at seeing that I was not as ill as he had thought, I was ashamed to the bottom of my heart.
"You'll be sorry you've made such a long journey now that you see there's so little amiss with me," I said.
"Sorry?" he said. "By the holy saints, I would take a longer one every night of my life to see you looking so well at the end of it."
His blue eyes were shining like the sun from behind a cloud, and the cruellest looks could not have hurt me more.
I tried to keep my face from expressing the emotion I desired to conceal, and asked if he had caught a train easily from Portsmouth, seeing he had arrived so early.
"No. Oh no, there was no train up until eleven o'clock," he said.
"Then how did you get here so soon?" I asked, and though he would not tell me at first I got it out of him at last—he had hired a motor-car and travelled the ninety miles to London in two hours and a half.
That crushed me. I could not speak. I thought I should have choked. Lying there with Martin at arm's length of me, I was afraid of myself, and did not know what I might do next. But at last, with a great effort to control myself, I took his hand and kissed it, and then turned my face to the wall.
That was the beginning of the end, and when, next day towards noon, my husband came with drowsy eyes to make a kind of ungracious apology, saying he supposed the doctor had been sent for, I said:
"James, I want you to take me home."
"Home? You mean . . . Castle Raa?"
He hesitated, and I began to plead with him, earnestly and eagerly, not to deny me what I asked.
"Take me home, I beg, I pray."
At length, seeming to think I must be homesick, he said:
"Well, you know my views about that God-forsaken place, but the season's nearly at an end, and I don't mind going back on one condition—that you raise no objection to my inviting a few friends to liven it up a bit?"
"It is your house," I said. "You must do as you please in it."
"Very good; that's settled," he said, getting up to go. "And I dare say it will do you no harm to be out of the way of all this church-going and confessing to priests, who are always depressing people even when they're not making mischief."
Hardly had my husband left me when Alma came into my sitting-room in the most affectionate and insincere of her moods.
"My poor, dear sweet child," she said. "If I'd had the least idea you were feeling so badly I shouldn't have allowed Jimmy to stay another minute at that tiresome reception. But how good it was of Mr. Conrad to come all that way to see you! That's what I call being a friend now!"
Then came the real object of her visit—I saw it coming.
"I hear you're to have a house-party at Castle Raa. Jimmy's in his room writing piles of invitations. He has asked me and I should love to go, but of course I cannot do so without you wish it. Do you?"
What could I say? What I did say I scarcely know. I only know that at the next minute Alma's arms were round my neck, and she was saying:
"You dear, sweet, unselfish little soul! Come let me kiss you."
It was done. I had committed myself. After all what right had I to raise myself on a moral pinnacle now? And what did it matter, anyway? I was flying from the danger of my own infidelities, not to save my husband from his.
Price had been in the room during this interview and when it was over I was ashamed to look at her.
"I can't understand you, my lady; I really can't," she said.
Next day I wrote a little letter to Martin on the Scotia telling him of our change of plans, but forbidding him to trouble to come up to say good-bye, yet half hoping he would disregard my injunction.
He did. Before I left my bedroom next morning I heard his voice in the sitting-room talking to Price, who with considerable emphasis was giving her views of Alma.
When I joined him I thought his face (which had grown to be very powerful) looked hard and strained; but his voice was as soft as ever while he said I was doing right in going home and that my native air must be good for me.
"But what's this Price tells me—that Madame is going with you?"
I tried to make light of that, but I broke down badly, for his eyes were on me, and I could see that he thought I was concealing the truth.
For some minutes he looked perplexed, as if trying to understand how it came to pass that sickening, as he believed I was, at the sight of my husband's infidelities I was yet carrying the provocative cause of them away with me, and then he said again:
"I hate that woman. She's like a snake. I feel as if I want to put my foot on it. I will, too, one of these days—bet your life I will."
It hurt me to hide anything from him, but how could I tell him that it was not from Alma I was flying but from himself?
When the day came for our departure I hoped I might get away without seeing Martin again. We did get out of the hotel and into the railway station, yet no sooner was I seated in the carriage than (in the cruel war that was going on within me) I felt dreadfully down that he was not there to see me off.
But at the very last moment, just as Alma with her spaniel under her arm, and my husband with his terrier on a strap, were about to step into the train, up came Martin like a gust of mountain wind.
"Helloa!" he cried. "I shall be seeing you soon. Everything's settled about the expedition. We're to sail the first week in September, so as to get the summer months in the Antarctic. But before that I must go over to the island to say good-bye to the old folks, and I'll see you at your father's I suppose."
Then Alma gave my husband a significant glance and said:
"But, Mary, my love, wouldn't it be better for Mr. Conrad to come to Castle Raa? You won't be able to go about very much. Remember your delicate condition, you know."
"Of course, why of course," said my husband. "That's quite true, and if Mr. Conrad will do me the honour to accept my hospitality for a few days. . . ."
It was what I wanted above everything on earth, and yet I said:
"No, no! It wouldn't be fair. Martin will be too busy at the last moment."
But Martin himself jumped in eagerly with:
"Certainly! Delighted! Greatest pleasure in the world."
And then, while Alma gave my husband a look of arch triumph to which he replied with a painful smile, Martin leaned over to me and whispered"
"Hush! I want to! I must!" though what he meant by that I never knew.
He continued to look at me with a tender expression until we said good-bye; but after the carriage door had been closed and the engine had throbbed, and the guard had whistled, I thought I had never seen his strong face so stern as when the train moved from the platform.
We reached Ellan towards the close of the following day. It was the height of the holiday season, and the island seemed to be ablaze with lights.
Two motor-cars were waiting for us at the pier, and in a little while we were driving out of Blackwater through congested masses of people who were rambling aimlessly through the principal streets.
Our way was across a stone bridge that crossed the harbour at its inner end, and then up a hill that led to a headland overlooking the sea. Within half an hour we drew up at a pair of large gate posts which were much decayed and leaning heavily out of the perpendicular.
The chauffeur of the first of our ears got down to open the gate, and after it had clashed to behind us, we began to ascend a very steep drive that was bordered by tall elm trees. It was now almost dark, and the rooks, which had not yet gone off to the mountains, were making their evening clamour.
"Well, my dear, you're at home at last, and much good may it do you," said my husband.
I made no answer to this ungracious speech, but Alma was all excitement.
"So this is Castle Raa! What a fascinating old place!" she said, and as we drove through the park she reached out of the car to catch a first glimpse of the broad terraces and winding ways to the sea which had been reflected in her memory since she was a child.
I felt no such anxiety. Never did a young bride approach the home of her husband with less curiosity, but as our motor-car toiled up the drive I could not help seeing the neglected condition of the land, with boughs of trees lying where they had fallen in the storms, as well as broken gates half off their hinges and swinging to the wind.
The house itself, when we came in sight of it, was a large castellated building with many lesser turrets and one lofty octagonal tower, covered entirely with ivy, which, being apparently unshorn for years, hung in long trailers down the walls, and gave the whole pile the appearance of a huge moss-covered rock of the sea planted on a promontory of the land.
As our car went thundering up to the great hall door nearly the whole of the servants and some of the tenant farmers (under the direction of the tall, sallow man who had been my husband's guardian in former days, and was now his steward) were waiting to welcome us, as well as Lady Margaret Anselm, who was still reserved and haughty in her manner, though pleasant enough with me.
My husband nodded to all, shook hands with some, presented Alma to his aunt as "one of Mary's old school friends," (a designation which, as I could see, had gone ahead of her) and then we passed into the house.
I found the inside corresponded with the outside in its appearance of neglect and decay, the big square hall having rusty and disjointed armour on its wainscotted walls and the mark of water on the floor, which had come from a glass dome over the well of the stairs, for it had rained while we were on the sea.
The drawing-room had faded curtains over the windows, faded velvet on the square sofa and stiff chairs, faded carpets, faded samplers, and faded embroidery on faded screens.
The dining-room (the sedate original of my father's rather garish copy) was a panelled chamber, hung round with rubicund portraits of the male O'Neills from the early ones of the family who had been Lords of Ellan down to the "bad Lord Raa," who had sworn at my grandmother on the high road.
I felt as if no woman could have made her home here for at least a hundred years, and I thought the general atmosphere of the house was that of the days when spendthrift noblemen, making the island a refuge from debt, spent their days in gambling and their nights in drinking bumpers from bowls of whiskey punch to the nameless beauties they had left "in town."
They were all gone, all dead as the wood of the worm-eaten wainscotting, but the sound of their noisy merry-making seemed to cling to the rafters still, and as I went up to my rooms the broad oaken staircase seemed to be creaking under their drunken footsteps.
My own apartments, to which Lady Margaret conducted me, were on the southern side of the house—a rather stuffy bedroom with walls covered by a kind of pleated chintz, and a boudoir with a stone balcony that had a flight of steps going down to a terrace of the garden, which overlooked a glen and had a far view of the sea.
On the opposite side of the landing outside (which was not immediately off the great staircase though open to the view of it) there was a similar suite of rooms which I thought might be my husband's, but I was told they were kept for a guest.
Being left alone I had taken off my outer things and was standing on my balcony, listening to the dull hum of the water in the glen, the rustle of the trees above it, the surge of the sea on the rocks below, the creaking of a rusty weathercock and the striking of a court-yard clock, when I also heard the toot and throb of another motor-car, and as soon as it came up I saw that it contained Aunt Bridget in the half-moon bonnet and Betsy Beauty, who was looking more than ever like a country belle.
When I went down to the drawing-room Lady Margaret was pouring out tea for them, and at sight of me Aunt Bridget cried,
"Sakes alive, here she is herself!"
"But how pale and pinched and thin!" said Betsy Beauty.
"Nonsense, girl, that's only natural," said my Aunt Bridget, with something like a wink; and then she went on to say that she had just been telling her ladyship that if I felt lonely and a little helpless on first coming home Betsy would be pleased to visit me.
Before I could reply my husband came in, followed shortly by Alma, who was presented as before, as "Mary's old school-fellow"; and then, while Betsy talked to Alma and my husband to his kinswoman, Aunt Bridget, in an undertone, addressed herself to me.
"You're that way, aren't you? . . . No? Goodness me, girl, your father will be disappointed!"
Just then a third motor-car came throbbing up to the house, and Betsy who was standing by the window cried:
"It's Uncle Daniel with Mr. Curphy and Nessy."
"Nessy, of course," said Aunt Bridget grumpily, and then she told me in a confidential whisper that she was a much-injured woman in regard to "that ungrateful step-daughter," who was making her understand the words of Scripture about the pang that was sharper than a serpent's tooth.
As the new-comers entered I saw that Nessy had developed an old maid's idea of smartness, and that my father's lawyer was more than ever like an over-fatted fish; but my father himself (except that his hair was whiter) was the same man still, with the same heavy step, the same loud voice and the same tempestuous gaiety.
"All here? Good! Glad to be home, I guess! Strong and well and hearty, I suppose? . . . Yes, sir, yes! I'm middling myself, sir. Middling, sir, middling!"
During these rugged salutations I saw that Alma, with the bad manners of a certain type of society woman, looked on with a slightly impertinent air of amused superiority, until she encountered my father's masterful eyes, which nobody in the world could withstand.
After a moment my father addressed himself to me.
"Well, gel," he said, taking me by the shoulders, as he did in Rome, "you must have cut a dash in Egypt, I guess. Made the money fly, didn't you? No matter! My gold was as good as anybody else's, and I didn't grudge it. You'll clear me of that, anyway."
Then there was some general talk about our travels, about affairs on the island (Mr. Curphy saying, with a laugh and a glance in my direction, that things were going so well with my father that if all his schemes matured he would have no need to wait for a descendant to become the "uncrowned King of Ellan"), and finally about Martin Conrad, whose great exploits had become known even in his native country.
"Extraordinary! Extraordinary!" said my father. "I wouldn't have believed it of him. I wouldn't really. Just a neighbour lad without a penny at him. And now the world's trusting him with fifty thousand pounds, they're telling me!"
"Well, many are called but few are chosen," said Mr. Curphy with another laugh.
After that, and some broken conversation, Aunt Bridget expressed a desire to see the house, as the evening was closing in and they must soon be going back.
Lady Margaret thereupon took her, followed by the rest of us, over the principal rooms of the Castle; and it was interesting to see the awe with which she looked upon everything—her voice dropping to a whisper in the dining-room. I remember, as if the scene of carousing of the old roysterers had been a sort of sanctuary.
My father, less impressed, saw nothing but a house in bad repair, and turning to my husband, who had been obviously ill at ease, he said:
"Go on like this much longer, son-in-law, and you'll be charging two-pence a head to look at your ruins. Guess I must send my architect over to see what he can do for you."
Then taking me aside he made his loud voice as low as he could and said:
"What's this your Aunt Bridget tells me? Nine months married and no sign yet? Tut, tut! That won't do, gel, that won't do."
I tried to tell him not to spend money on the Castle if he intended to do so in expectation of an heir, but my heart was in my mouth and what I really said I do not know. I only know that my father looked at me for a moment as if perplexed, and then burst into laughter.
"I see! I see!" he said. "It's a doctor you want. I must send Conrad to put a sight on you. It'll be all right, gel, it'll be all right! Your mother was like that when you were coming."
As we returned to the hall Betsy Beauty whispered that she was surprised Mr. Eastcliff had married, but she heard from Madame that we were to have a house-party soon, and she hoped I would not forget her.
Then Aunt Bridget, who had been eyeing Alma darkly, asked me who and what she was and where she came from, whereupon I (trying to put the best face on things) explained that she was the daughter of a rich New York banker. After that Aunt Bridget's countenance cleared perceptibly and she said:
"Ah, yes, of course! I thought she had a quality toss with her."
The two motor-cars had been drawn up to the door, and the two parties had taken their seats in them when my father, looking about him, said to my husband:
"Your garden is as rough as a thornbush, son-in-law. I must send Tommy the Mate to smarten it up a bit. So long! So long!"
At the next moment they were gone, and I was looking longingly after them. God knows my father's house had never been more than a stepmother's home to me, but at that moment I yearned to return to it and felt like a child who was being left behind at school.
What had I gained, by running away from London? Nothing at all. Already I knew I had brought my hopeless passion with me.
And now I was alone.
Next day Lady Margaret came to my room to say good-bye, telling me she had only stayed at Castle Raa to keep house and make ready for me, and must now return to her own home, which was in London.
I was sorry, for my heart had warmed to her, and when I stood at the door and saw her drive off with my husband to catch the afternoon steamer, I felt I had lost both sympathy and protection.
Alma's feelings were less troubled, and as we turned back into the house I could see that she was saying to herself:
"Thank goodness, she's gone away."
A day or two later Doctor Conrad came, according to my father's instructions, and I was glad to see his close-cropped iron-grey head coming up the stairs towards my room.
Naturally our first conversation was about Martin, who had written to tell his parents of our meeting in London and to announce his intended visit. It was all very exciting, and now his mother was working morning and night at the old cottage, to prepare for the arrival of her son. Such scrubbing and scouring! Such taking up of carpets and laying them down again, as if the darling old thing were expecting a prince!
"It ought to be Sunny Lodge indeed before she's done with it," said the Doctor.
"I'm sure it will," I said. "It always was, and it always will be."
"And how are we ourselves," said the doctor. "A little below par, eh? Any sickness? No? Nausea? No? Headache and a feeling of lassitude, then? No?"
After other questions and tests, the old doctor was looking puzzled, when, not finding it in my heart to keep him in the dark any longer, I told him there was nothing amiss with my health, but I was unhappy and had been so since the time of my marriage.
"I see," he said. "It's your mind and not your body that is sick?"
"I'll speak to Father Dan," he said. "Good-bye! God bless you!"
Less than half an hour after he had gone, Alma came to me in her softest mode, saying the doctor had said I was suffering from extreme nervous exhaustion and ought to be kept from worries and anxieties of every kind.
"So if there's anything I can do while I'm here, dearest, . . . such as looking after the house and the servants. . . . No, no, don't deny me; it will be a pleasure, I assure you. . . . So we'll say that's settled, shall we? . . . You dear, sweet darling creature!"
I was too much out of heart to care what happened, but inside two days I realised that Alma had taken possession of the house, and was ordering and controlling everything.
Apparently this pleased such of the servants as had anything to gain by it—the housekeeper in particular—for Alma was no skinflint and she was making my husband's money flow like water, but it was less agreeable to my maid, who said:
"This is a nice place to be sure, where the mistress takes no interest in anything, and the guest walks over everybody. She'll walk over the mistress herself before long—mark my word but she will."
It would be about a week after our arrival at Castle Raa that Price came to my room to say that a priest was asking for me, and he was such a strange-looking thing that she was puzzled to know if his face was that of a child, a woman or a dear old man.
I knew in a moment it must be Father Dan, so I went flying downstairs and found him in the hall, wearing the same sack coat (or so it seemed) as when I was a child and made cupboards of its vertical pockets, carrying the same funny little bag which he had taken to Rome and used for his surplice at funerals, and mopping his forehead and flicking his boots with a red print handkerchief, for the day was hot and the roads were dusty.
He was as glad to see me as I to see him, and when I asked if he would have tea, he said Yes, for he had walked all the way from the Presbytery, after fasting the day before; and when I asked if he would not stay overnight he said Yes to that, too, "if it would not be troublesome and inconvenient."
So I took his bag and gave it to a maid, telling her to take it to the guest's room on my landing, and to bring tea to my boudoir immediately.
But hardly had I taken him upstairs and we had got seated in my private room, when the maid knocked at the door to say that the housekeeper wished to speak with me, and on going out, and closing the door behind me, I found her on the landing, a prim little flinty person with quick eyes, thin lips and an upward lift of her head.
"Sorry, my lady, but it won't be convenient for his reverence to stay in the house to-night," she said.
"Why so?" I said.
"Because Madame has ordered all the rooms to be got ready for the house-party, and this one," (pointing to the guest's room opposite) "is prepared for Mr. and Mrs. Eastcliff, and we don't know how soon they may arrive."
I felt myself flushing up to the eyes at the woman's impudence, and it added to my anger that Alma herself was standing at the head of the stairs, looking on and listening. So with a little spurt of injured pride I turned severely on the one while really speaking to the other, and said:
"Be good enough to make this room ready for his reverence without one moment's delay, and please remember for the future, that I am mistress in this house, and your duty is to obey me and nobody else whatever."
As I said this and turned back to my boudoir, I saw that Alma's deep eyes had a sullen look, and I felt that she meant to square accounts with me some day; but what she did was done at once, for going downstairs (as I afterwards heard from Price) she met my husband in the hall, where, woman-like, she opened her battery upon him at his weakest spot, saying:
"Oh, I didn't know your wife was priest-ridden."
"Precisely," and then followed an explanation of what had happened, with astonishing embellishments which made my husband pale with fury.
Meantime I was alone with Father Dan in my room, and while I poured out his tea and served him with bread and butter, he talked first about Martin (as everybody seemed to do when speaking to me), saying:
"He was always my golden-headed boy, and it's a mighty proud man I am entirely to hear the good news of him."
More of the same kind there was, all music to my ears, and then Father Dan came to closer quarters, saying Doctor Conrad had dropped a hint that I was not very happy.
"Tell your old priest everything, my child, and if there is anything he can do. . . ."
Without waiting for more words I sank to my knees at his feet, and poured out all my troubles—telling him my marriage had been a failure; that the sanctifying grace which he had foretold as the result of the sacrament of holy wedlock had not come to pass; that not only did I not love my husband, but my husband loved another woman, who was living here with us in this very house.
Father Dan was dreadfully distressed. More than once while I was speaking he crossed himself and said, "Lord and His Holy Mother love us;" and when I came to an end he began to reproach himself for everything, saying that he ought to have known that our lad (meaning Martin) did not write those terrible letters without being certain they were true, and that from the first day my husband came to our parish the sun had been darkened by his shadow.
"But take care," he said. "I've told nobody about the compact we made with your husband—nobody but our Blessed Lady herself—and you mustn't think of that as a way out of your marriage. No, nor of any other way, no matter what, which the world, and the children of the world, may talk about."
"But I can't bear it, I can't bear it," I cried.
"Hush! Hush! Don't say that, my daughter. Think of it as one of the misfortunes of life which we all have to suffer. How many poor women have to bear the sickness and poverty, not to speak of the drunkenness and death, of their husbands! Do they think they have a right to run away from all that—to break the sacred vows of their marriage on account of it? No, my child, no, and neither must you. Some day it will all come right. You'll see it will. And meantime by the memory of your mother—that blessed saint whom the Lord has made one of his own. . . ."
"Then what can I do?"
"Pray, my child, pray for strength to bear your trials and to resist all temptation. Say a rosary for the Blessed Virgin every morning before breaking your fast. I'll say a rosary, too. You'll see yet this is only God's love for you, and you'll welcome His holy will."
While my dear father and friend was counselling me so I heard my husband speaking in his loud, grating tones on the landing outside, and before I could rise from my knees he had burst open the door and entered the room.
His face was deadly white and he was like a man out of his right mind.
"Mary," he said, looking down at me where I knelt with my hands crossed on my bosom, "when did I give you permission to introduce a priest into my house? Isn't it enough for a man to have a wife who is a Catholic without having the church and its ministers shunted into his home without his permission?"
I was so taken aback by this furious assault that at first I could not speak, but Father Dan interposed to defend me, saying with beautiful patience, that his visit had been quite unexpected on my part, and that I had asked him to stay overnight only because he was an old man, and had had a long walk from his parish.
"I'm much obliged to your reverence," said my husband, who was quivering with fury, "but my wife is perfectly capable of answering for herself without your assistance, and as for your parish you would have done better to stay there instead of coming to meddle in this one."
"Aren't you measuring me by your own yard, sir?" said Father Dan, and at that straight thrust my husband broke into ungovernable rage.
"Everybody knows what a Popish priest is," he said. "A meddlesome busybody who pokes his nose into other men's secrets. But priest or no priest, I'll have no man coming to my house to make mischief between husband and wife."
"Are you sure," said Father Dan, "that some woman isn't in your house already, making mischief between wife and husband?"
That thrust too went home. My husband looked at me with flashing eyes and then said:
"As I thought! You've been sent for to help my wife to make a great to-do of her imaginary grievances. You're to stay in the house too, and before long we'll have you setting up as master here and giving orders to my servants! But not if I know it! . . . Your reverence, if you have any respect for your penitent, you'll please be good enough to leave my wife to my protection."
I saw that Father Dan had to gulp down his gathering anger, but he only said:
"Say no more, my lord. No true priest ever comes between a man and the wife whom God has given him. It's his business to unite people, not to put them apart. As for this dear child, I have loved her since she was an infant in arms, and never so much as at the present speaking, so I don't need to learn my duty from one who appears to care no more for her than for the rind of a lemon. I'll go, sir," said the old man, drawing himself up like a wounded lion, "but it's not to your protection I leave her—it's to that of God's blessed and holy love and will."
My husband had gone before the last words were spoken, but I think they must have followed him as he went lunging down the stairs.
During this humiliating scene a hot flush of shame had come to my cheeks and I wanted to tell Father Dan not to let it grieve him, but I could do nothing but stoop and kiss his hand.
Meantime two or three of the servants had gathered on the landing at the sound of my husband's voice, and among them was the flinty housekeeper holding the Father's little bag, and she gave it back to him as he passed her.
Then, all being over, the woman came into my room, with an expression of victorious mischief in her eyes and said:
"Your ladyship had better have listened to them as knows, you see."
I was too benumbed by that cruel stroke to reply, but Price said enough for both of us.
"If them as knows," she said, "don't get out of this room inside two seconds they'll get their ugly faces slapped."
* * * * *
I thought I had reached the end of my power of endurance, and that night, before going to bed, while my maid was taking down my hair, and I was thinking of Martin and asking myself if I should put up with my husband's brutalities any longer, I heard her say:
"If I were a lady married to the wrong man, I'd have the right one if I had to go through the divorce court for him."
Now that was so exactly the thought that was running riot in my own tormented mind, that I flew at her like a wild cat, asking her how she dared to say anything so abominably wicked, and telling her to take her notice there and then.
But hardly had she left the room, when my heart was in my mouth again, and I was trembling with fear lest she should take me at my word and then the last of my friends would be gone.
Within the next few days the house-party arrived. There would be twenty of them at least, not counting valets and ladies' maids, so that large as Castle Raa was the house was full.
They were about equally divided as to sex and belonged chiefly to my husband's class, but they included Mr. Eastcliff's beautiful wife, Camilla, and Alma's mother, who, much to Alma's chagrin, had insisted upon being invited.
My husband required me to receive them, and I did so, though I was only their nominal hostess, and they knew it and treated me accordingly.
I should be ashamed to speak of the petty slights they put upon me, how they consulted Alma in my presence and otherwise wounded my pride as a woman by showing me that I had lost my own place in my husband's house.
I know there are people of the same class who are kind and considerate, guileless and pure, the true nobility of their country—women who are devoted to their homes and children, and men who spend their wealth and strength for the public good—but my husband's friends were not of that kind.
They were vain and proud, selfish, self-indulgent, thoroughly insincere, utterly ill-mannered, shockingly ill-informed, astonishingly ill-educated (capable of speaking several languages but incapable of saying a sensible word in any of them), living and flourishing in the world without religion, without morality, and (if it is not a cant phrase to use) without God.
What their conduct was when out shooting, picnicking, driving, riding, motoring, and yachting (for Mr. Eastcliff had arrived in his yacht, which was lying at anchor in the port below the glen), I do not know, for "doctor's orders" were Alma's excuse for not asking me to accompany them.
But at night they played bridge (their most innocent amusement), gambled and drank, banged the piano, danced "Grizzly Bears," sang duets from the latest musical comedies, and then ransacked the empty houses of their idle heads for other means of killing the one enemy of their existence—Time.
Sometimes they would give entertainments in honour of their dogs, when all the animals of all the guests (there seemed to be a whole kennel of them) would be dressed up in coats of silk and satin with pockets and pocket-handkerchiefs, and then led downstairs to the drawing-room, where Alma's wheezy spaniel and my husband's peevish terrier were supposed to receive them.
Sometimes they would give "freak dinners," when the guests themselves would be dressed up, the men in women's clothes, the women in men's, the male imitating the piping treble of the female voices, and the female the over-vowelled slang of the male, until, tiring of this foolishness, they would end up by flinging the food at the pictures on the walls, the usual pellet being softened bread and the favourite target the noses in the family portraits, which, hit and covered with a sprawling mess, looked so ridiculous as to provoke screams of laughter.
The talk at table was generally of horses and dogs, but sometimes it was of love, courtship and marriage, including conjugal fidelity, which was a favourite subject of ridicule, with both the women and the men.
Thus my husband would begin by saying (he often said it in my hearing) that once upon a time men took their wives as they took their horses, on trial for a year and a day, and "really with some women there was something to say for the old custom."
Then Mr. Vivian would remark that it was "a jolly good idea, by Jove," and if he "ever married, by the Lord that's just what he would do."
Then Mr. Eastcliff would say that it was a ridiculous superstition that a woman should have her husband all to herself, "as if he were a kind of toothbrush which she could not share with anybody else," and somebody would add that she might as reasonably want her dentist or her hairdresser to be kept for her own use only.
After that the ladies, not to be left behind, would join in the off-hand rattle, and one of them would give it as her opinion that a wife might have an incorrigibly unfaithful husband, and yet be well off.
"Ugh!" said Alma one night, shrugging her shoulders. "Think of a poor woman being tied for life to an entirely faithful husband!"
"I adore the kind of man who goes to the deuce for a woman—Parnell, and Gambetta and Boulanger and that sort," said a "smart" girl of three or four-and-twenty, whereupon Camilla Eastcliff (she was a Russian) cried:
"That's vhy the co-respondents in your divorce courts are so sharming. They're like the villayns in the plays—always so dee-lightfully vicked."
Oh, the sickening horror of it all! Whether it was really moral corruption or only affectation and pose, it seemed equally shocking, and though I bore as much of it as I could with a cheerful face, I escaped as often as possible to the clean atmosphere of my own room.
But even there I was not always allowed to be alone, for Alma's mother frequently followed me. She was a plump little person in a profuse ornamentation of diamond rings and brooches, with little or no education, and a reputation for saying risky things in blundering French whereof the principal humour lay in the uncertainty as to whether she knew their meaning or not.
Nevertheless she was the only good-hearted woman in the house, and I really believe she thought she was doing a kind act in keeping me company. But oh, how I suffered from her long accounts of her former "visits" to my house, whereby I learned, without wishing to, what her origin had been (the daughter of a London postman); what position she had held in Castle Raa in her winsome and reckless youth (one that need not be defined); how she had met her husband in New York and he had married her to save the reputation of his child; and finally how the American ladies of society had refused to receive her, and she had vowed to be revenged on them by marrying Alma to the highest title in Europe that could be bought with money.
"I was just like your father, my dear. I never did no manner of harm to those people. They used to think I thought myself better blood nor they were, but I never thought no such thing, I assure you. Only when they turned nasty after my marriage I made up my mind—just as your father did—as Alma should marry a bigger husband nor any of them, even if he wasn't worth a dime and 'adn't a 'air on 'is 'ead."
But even these revelations about herself were less humiliating than her sympathy with me, which implied that I was not fitted to be mistress of a noble house—how could it be expected of me?—whereas Alma was just as if she had been born to it, and therefore it was lucky for me that I had her there to show me how to do things.
"Alma's gotten such ton! Such distangy manners!" she would say.
The effect of all this was to make me feel, as I had never felt before, the intolerable nature of the yoke I was living under. When I looked into the future and saw nothing before me but years of this ignoble bondage, I told myself that nothing—no sacrament or contract, no law of church or state—could make me endure it.
From day to day my maid came to me with insidious hints about Alma and my husband. I found myself listening to them. I also found myself refreshing my memory of the hideous scene in Paris, and wondering why I had condoned the offence by staying an hour longer under my husband's protection.
And then there was always another force at work within me—my own secret passion. Though sometimes I felt myself to be a wretched sinner and thought the burden I had to bear was heaven's punishment for my guilty love, at other times my whole soul rose in revolt, and I cried out not merely for separation from my husband but for absolute sundering.
Twice during the painful period of the house-party I heard from Martin. His first letter was full of accounts of the far-reaching work of his expedition—the engaging of engineers, electricians, geologists and masons, and the shipping of great stores of wireless apparatus—for his spirits seemed to be high, and life was full of good things for him.
His second letter told me that everything was finished, and he was to visit the island the next week, going first to "the old folks" and coming to me for a few days immediately before setting sail.
That brought matters to a head, and compelled me to take action.
It may have been weak of me, but not wanting a repetition of the scene with Father Dan, (knowing well that Martin would not bear it with the same patience) I sent the second letter to Alma, asking if the arrangement would be agreeable. She returned it with the endorsement (scribbled in pencil across the face), "Certainly; anything to please you, dear."
I submitted even to that. Perhaps I was a poor-spirited thing, wanting in proper pride, but I had a feeling that it was not worth while to waste myself in little squibs of temper, because an eruption was coming (I was sure of that) in which Martin would be concerned on my side, and then everybody and everything would be swept out of the path of my life for ever.
Martin came. In due course I read in the insular newspapers of his arrival on the island—how the people had turned out in crowds to cheer him at the pier, and how, on reaching our own village the neighbours (I knew the names of all of them) had met him at the railway station and taken him to his mother's house, and then lighted fires on the mountains for his welcome home.
It cut me to the heart's core to think of Martin amid thrilling scenes like those while I was here among degrading scenes like these. My love for Martin was now like a wound and I resolved that, come what might, before he reached Castle Raa I should liberate myself from the thraldom of my false position.
Father Dan's counsels had faded away by this time. Though I had prayed for strength to bear my burden there had been no result, and one morning, standing before the figure of the Virgin in my bedroom, I felt an impulse to blow out her lamp and never to light it again.
The end of it all was that I determined to see the Bishop and my father's advocate, Mr. Curphy, and perhaps my father himself, that I might know one way or the other where I was, and what was to become of me. But how to do this I could not see, having a houseful of people who were nominally my guests.
Fortune—ill-fortune—favoured me. News came that my father had suddenly fallen ill of some ailment that puzzled the doctors, and making this my reason and excuse I spoke to my husband, asking if I might go home for two or three days.
"Why not?" he said, in the tone of one who meant, "Who's keeping you?"
Then in my weakness I spoke to Alma, who answered:
"Certainly, my sweet girl. We shall miss you dreadfully, but it's your duty. And then you'll see that dear Mr. . . . What d'ye callum?"
Finally, feeling myself a poor, pitiful hypocrite, I apologised for my going away to the guests also, and they looked as if they might say: "We'll survive it, perhaps."
The night before my departure my maid said:
"Perhaps your ladyship has forgotten that my time's up, but I'll stay until you return if you want me to."
I asked her if she would like to stay with me altogether and she said:
"Indeed I should, my lady. Any woman would like to stay with a good mistress, if she is a little quick sometimes. And if you don't want me to go to your father's I may be of some use to you here before you come back again."
I saw that her mind was still running on divorce, but I did not reprove her now, for mine was turning in the same direction.
Next morning most of the guests came to the hail door to see me off, and they gave me a shower of indulgent smiles as the motor-car moved away.
Before going to my father's house I went to the Bishop's. Bishop's Court is at the other side of the island, and it was noon before I drove under its tall elm trees, in which a vast concourse of crows seemed to be holding a sort of general congress.
The Bishop was then at his luncheon, and after luncheon (so his liveried servant told me) he usually took a siesta. I have always thought it was unfortunate for my interview that it came between his food and his sleep.
The little reception-room into which I was shown was luxuriously, not to say gorgeously, appointed, with easy chairs and sofas, a large portrait of the Pope, signed by the Holy Father himself, and a number of pictures of great people of all kinds—dukes, marquises, lords, counts—as well as photographs of fashionable ladies in low dress inscribed in several languages to "My dear Father in God the Lord Bishop of Ellan."
The Bishop came to me after a few minutes, smiling and apparently at peace with all the world. Except that he wore a biretta he was dressed—as in Rome—in his long black soutane with its innumerable buttons, his silver-buckled shoes, his heavy gold chain and jewelled cross.
He welcomed me in his smooth and suave manner, asking if he could offer me a little refreshment; but, too full of my mission to think of eating and drinking, I plunged immediately into the object of my visit.
"Monsignor," I said, "I am in great trouble. It is about my marriage."
The smile was smitten away from the Bishop's face by this announcement.
"I am sorry," he said. "Nothing serious, I trust?"
I told him it was very serious, and straightway I began on the spiritual part of my grievance—that my husband did not love me, that he loved another woman, that the sacred sacrament of my marriage. . . .
"Wait," said the Bishop, and he rose to close the window, for the clamour of the crows was deafening—a trial must have been going on in the trees. Returning to his seat he said:
"Dear lady, you must understand that there is one offence, and only one, which in all Christian countries and civilised communities is considered sufficient to constitute a real and tangible grievance. Have you any evidence of that?"
I knew what he meant and I felt myself colouring to the roots of my hair. But gulping down my shame I recounted the story of the scene in Paris and gave a report of my maid's charges and surmises.
"Humph!" said the Bishop, and I saw in a moment that he was going to belittle my proofs.
"Little or no evidence of your own, apparently. Chiefly that of your maid. And ladies' maids are notorious mischief-makers."
"But it's true," I said. "My husband will not deny it. He cannot."
"So far as I am able to observe what passes in the world," said the Bishop, "men in such circumstances always can and do deny it."
I felt my hands growing moist under my gloves. I thought the Bishop was trying to be blind to what he did not wish to see.
"But I'm right, I'm sure I'm right," I said.
"Well, assuming you are right, what is it, dear lady, that you wish me to do?"
For some minutes I felt like a fool, but I stammered out at length that I had come for his direction and to learn what relief the Church could give me.
"H'm!" said the Bishop, and then crossing one leg over the other, and fumbling the silver buckle of his shoe, he said:
"The Church, dear lady, does indeed provide alleviation in cases of dire necessity. It provides the relief of separation—always deploring the necessity and hoping for ultimate reconciliation. But to sanction the separation of a wife from her husband because—pardon me, I do not say this is your case—she finds that he does not please her, or because—again I do not say this is your case—she fancies that somebody else pleases her better. . . ."
"Monsignor," I said, feeling hot and dizzy, "we need not discuss separation. I am thinking of something much more serious."
Never shall I forget the expression of the Bishop's face. He looked aghast.
"My good lady, surely you are not thinking of divorce?"
I think my head must have dropped as in silent assent, for in a peremptory and condemnatory manner the Bishop took me to task, asking if I did not know that the Catholic Church did not recognise divorce under any circumstances, and if I had forgotten what the Holy Father himself (pointing up to the portrait) had said to me—that when I entered into the solemn contract of holy matrimony I was to do so in the full consciousness that it could not be broken but by death.
"The love in which husband and wife contract to hold each other in holy wedlock is typified by the love of Christ for His Church, and as the one can never be broken, neither can the other."