I was so taken by surprise by this infamous suggestion that I could not speak to deny it, and my husband went on to say:
"But it doesn't matter a rush to me who is at the bottom of the accusation contained in this letter. There's only one thing of any consequence—is it true?"
My head was reeling, my eyes were dim, my palms were moist, I felt as if I were throwing myself over a precipice but I answered:
"It is perfectly true."
I think that was the last thing he expected. After a moment he said:
"Then you have broken your marriage vows—is that it?"
"Yes, if you call it so."
"Call it so? Call it so? Good heavens, what do you call it?"
I did not reply, and after another moment he said:
"But perhaps you wish me to understand that this man whom I was so foolish as to invite to my house abused my hospitality and betrayed my wife. Is that what you mean?"
"No," I said. "He observed the laws of hospitality much better than you did, and if I am betrayed I betrayed myself."
I shall never forget the look with which my husband received this confession. He drew himself up with the air of an injured man and said:
"What? You mean that you yourself . . . deliberately . . . Good God!"
He stopped for a moment and then said with a rush:
"I suppose you've not forgotten what happened at the time of our marriage . . . your resistance and the ridiculous compact I submitted to? Why did I submit? Because I thought your innocence, your convent-bred ideas, and your ignorance of the first conditions of matrimony. . . . But I've been fooled, for you now tell me . . . after all my complacency . . . that you have deliberately. . . . In the name of God do you know what you are? There's only one name for a woman who does what you've done. Do you want me to tell you what that name is?"
I was quivering with shame, but my mind, which was going at lightning speed, was thinking of London, of Cairo, of Rome, and of Paris.
"Why don't you speak?" he cried, lifting his voice in his rage. "Don't you understand what a letter like this is calling you?"
My heart choked. But the thought that came to me—that, bad as his own life had been, he considered he had a right to treat me in this way because he was a man and I was a woman—brought strength out of my weakness, so that when he went on to curse my Church and my religion, saying this was all that had come of "the mummery of my masses," I fired up for a moment and said:
"You can spare yourself these blasphemies. If I have done wrong, it is I, and not my Church, that is to blame for it."
"If you have done wrong!" he cried. "Damn it, have you lost all sense of a woman's duty to her husband? While you have been married to me and I have been fool enough not to claim you as a wife because I thought you were only fit company for the saints and angels, you have been prostituting yourself to this blusterer, this . . ."
"That is a lie," I said, stepping up to him in the middle of the floor. "It's true that I am married to you, but he is my real husband and you . . . you are nothing to me at all."
My husband stood for a moment with his mouth agape. Then he began to laugh—loudly, derisively, mockingly.
"Nothing to you, am I? You don't mind bearing my name, though, and when your time comes you'll expect it to cover your disgrace."
His face had become shockingly distorted. He was quivering with fury.
"That's not the worst, either," he cried. "It's not enough that you should tell me to my face that somebody else is your real husband, but you must shunt your spurious offspring into my house. Isn't that what it all comes to . . . all this damnable fuss of your father's . . . that you are going to palm off on me and my name and family your own and this man's . . . bastard?"
And with the last word, in the drunkenness of his rage, he lifted his arm and struck me with the back of his hand across the cheek.
The physical shock was fearful, but the moral infamy was a hundred-fold worse. I can truly say that not alone for myself did I suffer. When my mind, still going at lightning speed, thought of Martin, who loved me so tenderly, I felt crushed by my husband's blow to the lowest depths of shame.
I must have screamed, though I did not know it, for at the next moment Price was in the room and I saw that the housekeeper (drawn perhaps, as before, by my husband's loud voice) was on the landing outside the door. But even that did not serve to restrain him.
"No matter," he said. "After what has passed you may not enjoy to-morrow's ceremony. But you shall go through it! By heaven, you shall! And when it is over, I shall have something to say to your father."
And with that he swung out of the room and went lunging down the stairs.
I was still standing in the middle of the floor, with the blow from my husband's hand tingling on my cheek, when Price, after clashing the door in the face of the housekeeper, said, with her black eyes ablaze:
"Well, if ever I wanted to be a man before to-day!"
News of the scene went like wildfire through the house, and Alma's mother came to comfort me. In her crude and blundering way she told me of a similar insult she had suffered at the hands of the "bad Lord Raa," and how it had been the real reason of her going to America.
"Us married ladies have much to put up with. But cheer up, dearie. I guess you'll have gotten over it by to-morrow morning."
When she was gone I sat down before the fire. I did not cry. I felt as if I had reached a depth of suffering that was a thousand fathoms too deep for tears. I do not think I wept again for many months afterwards, and then it was a great joy, not a great grief, that brought me a burst of blessed tears.
But I could hear my dear good Price crying behind me, and when I said:
"Now you see for yourself that I cannot remain in this house any longer," she answered, in a low voice:
"Yes, my lady."
"I must go at once—to-night if possible."
"You shall. Leave everything to me, my lady."
The bell rang, but of course I did not go down to dinner.
As soon as Price had gone off to make the necessary arrangements I turned the key in the lock of my door, removed my evening gown, and began to dress for my flight.
My brain was numb, but I did my best to confront the new situation that was before me.
Hitherto I had been occupied with the problem of whether I should or should not leave my husband's house; now I had to settle the question of where I was to go to.
I dared not think of home, for (Nessy MacLeod and Aunt Bridget apart) the house of my father was the last place I could fly to at a moment when I was making dust and ashes of his lifelong expectations.
Neither dared I think of Sunny Lodge, although I remembered, with a tug of tenderness, Christian Ann's last message about Mary O'Neill's little room that was always waiting for me—for I thought of how I had broken my pledge to her.
The only place I could think of was that which Martin had mentioned when he wished to carry me away—London. In the mighty world of London I might hide myself from observation and wait until Martin returned from his expedition.
"Yes, yes, London," I told myself in my breathless excitement, little knowing what London meant.
I began to select the clothes I was to carry with me and to wear on my journey. They must be plain, for I had to escape from a house in which unfriendly eyes would be watching me. They must be durable, for during my time of waiting I expected to be poor.
I hunted out some of the quaker-like costumes which had been made for me before my marriage; and when I had put them on I saw that they made a certain deduction from my appearance, but that did not matter to me now—the only eyes I wished to look well in being down in the Antarctic seas.
Then I tried to think of practical matters—how I was to live in London and how, in particular, I was to meet the situation that was before me. Surely never did a more helpless innocent confront such a serious problem. I was a woman, and for more than a year I had been a wife, but I had no more experience of the hard facts of material existence than a child.
I thought first of the bank-book which my father had sent me with authority to draw on his account. But it was then nine o'clock, the banks were closed for the day, and I knew enough of the world to see that if I attempted to cash a cheque in the morning my whereabouts would he traced. That must never happen, I must hide myself from everybody; therefore my bank-book was useless.
"Quite useless," I thought, throwing it aside like so much waste paper.
I thought next of my jewels. But there I encountered a similar difficulty. The jewels which were really mine, having been bought by myself, had been gambled away by my husband at Monte Carlo. What remained were the family jewels which had come to me as Lady Raa; but that was a name I was never more to bear, a person I was never more to think about, so I could not permit myself to take anything that belonged to her.
The only thing left to me was my money. I had always kept a good deal of it about me, although the only use I had had for it was to put it in the plate at church, and to scatter it with foolish prodigality to the boys who tossed somersaults behind the carriage in the road.
Now I found it all over my room—in my purse, in various drawers, and on the toilet-tray under my dressing-glass. Gathered together it counted up to twenty-eight pounds. I owed four pounds to Price, and having set them aside, I saw that I had twenty-four pounds left in notes, gold, and silver.
Being in the literal and unconventional sense utterly ignorant of the value of sixpence, I thought this a great sum, amply sufficient for all my needs, or at least until I secured employment—for I had from the first some vague idea of earning my own living.
"Martin would like that," I told myself, lifting my head with a thrill of pride.
Then I began to gather up the treasures which were inexpressibly more dear to me than all my other possessions.
One of them was a little miniature of my mother which Father Dan had given me for a wedding-present when (as I know now) he would rather have parted with his heart's blood.
Another was a pearl rosary which the Reverend Mother had dropped over my arm the last time she kissed me on the forehead; and the last was my Martin's misspelt love-letter, which was more precious to me than rubies.
Not for worlds, I thought, would I leave these behind me, or ever part with them under any circumstances.
Several times while I was busy with such preparations, growing more and more nervous every moment, Price came on tip-toe and tapped softly at my door.
Once it was to bring me some food and to tell me, with many winks (for the good soul herself was trembling with excitement), that everything was "as right as ninepence." I should get away without difficulty in a couple of hours, and until to-morrow morning nobody would be a penny the wiser.
Fortunately it was Thursday, when a combined passenger and cargo steamer sailed to Liverpool. Of course the motor-car would not be available to take me to the pier, but Tommy the Mate, who had a stiff cart in which he took his surplus products to market, would be waiting for me at eleven o'clock by the gate to the high road.
The people downstairs, meaning my husband and Alma and her mother, were going off to the pavilion (where hundreds of decorators were to work late and the orchestra and ballet were to have a rehearsal), and they had been heard to say that they would not be back until "way round about midnight."
"But the servants?" I asked.
"They're going too, bless them," said Price. "So eat your dinner in peace, my lady, and don't worry about a thing until I come back to fetch you."
Another hour passed. I was in a fever of apprehension. I felt like a prisoner who was about to escape from a dungeon.
A shrill wind was coming up from the sea and whistling about the house. I could hear the hammering of the workmen in the pavilion as well as the music of the orchestra practising their scores.
A few minutes before eleven Price returned, carrying one of the smaller of the travelling-trunks I had taken to Cairo. I noticed that it bore no name and no initials.
"It's all right," she said. "They've gone off, every mother's son and daughter of them—all except the housekeeper, and I've caught her out, the cat!"
That lynx-eyed person had begun to suspect. She had seen Tommy harnessing his horse and had not been satisfied with his explanation—that he was taking tomatoes to Blackwater to be sent off by the Liverpool steamer.
So to watch events, without seeming to watch them, the housekeeper (when the other servants had gone off to the rehearsal) had stolen upstairs to her room in the West tower overlooking the back courtyard.
But Price had been more than a match for her. Creeping up behind, she had locked the door of the top landing, and now the "little cat" might scream her head off through the window, and (over the noises of the wind and the workmen) it would be only like "tom" shrieking on the tiles.
"We must be quick, though," said Price, tumbling into my travelling-trunk as many of my clothes as it would hold.
When it was full and locked and corded she said:
"Wait," and stepped out on the landing to listen.
After a moment she returned saying:
"Not a sound! Now for it, my lady."
And then, tying her handkerchief over her head to keep down her hair in the wind, she picked up the trunk in her arms and crept out of the room on tiptoe.
The moment had come to go, yet, eager as I had been all evening to escape from my husband's house, I could scarcely tear myself away, for I was feeling a little of that regret which comes to us all when we are doing something for the last time.
Passing through the boudoir this feeling took complete possession of me. Only a few hours before it had been the scene of my deepest degradation, but many a time before it had been the place of my greatest happiness.
"You are my wife. I am your real husband. No matter where you are or what they do with you, you are mine and always will be."
Half-closing the door, I took a last look round—at the piano, the desk, the table, the fireplace, all the simple things associated with my dearest memories. So strong was the yearning of my own soul that I felt as if the soul of Martin were in the room with me at that moment.
I believe it was.
"Quick, my lady, or you'll lose your steamer," whispered Price, and then we crossed the landing (which was creaking again) and crept noiselessly down a back staircase. We were near the bottom when I was startled by a loud knocking, which seemed to come from a distant part of the house. My heart temporarily stopped its beating, but Price only laughed and whispered:
"There she is! We've fairly caught her out, the cat."
At the next moment Price opened an outer door, and after we had passed through she closed and locked it behind us.
We were then in the courtyard behind the house, stumbling in the blinding darkness over cobble-stones.
"Keep close to me, my lady," said Price.
After a few moments we reached the drive. I think I was more nervous than I had ever been before. I heard the withered leaves behind me rustling along the ground before the wind from the sea, and thought they were the footsteps of people pursuing us. I heard the hammering of the workmen and the music of the orchestra, and thought they were voices screaming to us to come back.
Price, who was forging ahead, carried the trunk in her arms as if it had been a child, but every few minutes she waited for me to come up to her, and encouraged me when I stumbled in the darkness.
"Only a little further, my lady," she said, and I did my best to struggle on.
We reached the gate to the high road at last. Tommy the Mate was there with his stiff cart, and Price, who was breathless after her great exertion, tumbled my trunk over the tail-board.
The time had come to part from her, and, remembering how faithful and true she had been to me, I hardly knew what to say. I told her I had left her wages in an envelope on the dressing-table, and then I stammered something about being too poor to make her a present to remember me by.
"It doesn't need a present to help me to remember a good mistress, my lady," she said.
"God bless you for being so good to me," I answered, and then I kissed her.
"I'll remember you by that, though," she said, and she began to cry.
I climbed over the wheel of the stiff cart and seated myself on my trunk, and then Tommy, who had been sitting on the front-board with his feet on the outer shaft, whipped up his horse and we started away.
During the next half-hour the springless cart bobbed along the dark road at its slow monotonous pace. Tommy never once looked round or spoke except to his horse, but I understood my old friend perfectly.
I was in a fever of anxiety lest I should be overtaken and carried back. Again and again I looked behind. At one moment, when a big motor-car, with its two great white eyes, came rolling up after us, my stormy heart stood still. But it was not my husband's car, and in a little while its red tail-light disappeared in the darkness ahead.
We reached Blackwater in time for the midnight steamer and drew up at the landward end of the pier. It was cold; the salt wind from the sea was very chill. Men who looked like commercial travellers were hurrying along with their coat-collars turned up, and porters with heavy trunks on their shoulders were striving to keep pace with them.
I gave my own trunk to a porter who came up to the cart, and then turned to Tommy to say good-bye. The old man had got down from the shaft and was smoothing his smoking horse, and snuffling as if he had caught a cold.
"Good-bye, Tommy," I said—and then something more which I do not wish to write down.
"Good-bye, lil missie," he answered (that cut me deep), "I never believed ould Tom Dug would live to see ye laving home like this . . . But wait! Only wait till himself is after coming back, and I'll go bail it'll be the divil sit up for some of them."
It was very dark. No more than three or four lamps on the pier were burning, but nevertheless I was afraid that the pier-master would recognise me.
I thought he did so as I approached the gangway to the saloon, for he said:
"Private cabin on main deck aft."
Nervous as I was, I had just enough presence of mind to say "Steerage, please," which threw him off the scent entirely, so that he cried, in quite a different voice:
"Steerage passengers forward."
I found my way to the steerage end of the steamer; and in order to escape observation from the few persons on the pier I went down to the steerage cabin, which was a little triangular place in the bow, with an open stove in the middle of the floor and a bleary oil-lamp swinging from a rafter overhead.
The porter found me there, and in my foolish ignorance of the value of money I gave him half a crown for his trouble. He first looked at the coin, then tested it between his teeth, then spat on it, and finally went off chuckling.
The first and second bells rang. I grudged every moment of delay before the steamer sailed, for I still felt like a prisoner who was running away and might even yet be brought back.
Seating myself in the darkest corner of the cabin, I waited and watched. There were only two other steerage passengers and they were women. Judging by their conversation I concluded that they were cooks from lodging-houses on "the front," returning after a long season to their homes in Liverpool. Both were very tired, and they were spreading their blankets on the bare bunks so as to settle themselves for the night.
At last the third bell rang. I heard the engine whistle, the funnel belch out its smoke, the hawsers being thrown off, the gangways being taken in, and then, looking through the porthole, I saw the grey pier gliding behind us.
After a few moments, with a feeling of safety and a sense of danger passed, I went up on deck. But oh, how little I knew what bitter pain I was putting myself to!
We were just then swinging round the lighthouse which stands on the south-east headland of the bay, and the flash of its revolving light in my face as I reached the top of the cabin stairs brought back the memory of the joyous and tumultuous scenes of Martin's last departure.
That, coupled and contrasted with the circumstances of my own flight, stealthily, shamefully, and in the dead of night, gave me a pang that was almost more than I could bear.
But my cup was not yet full. A few minutes afterwards we sailed in the dark past the two headlands of Port Raa, and, looking up, I saw the lights in the windows of my husband's house, and the glow over the glass roof of the pavilion.
What would happen there to-morrow morning when it was discovered that I was gone? What would happen to-morrow night when my father arrived, ignorant of my flight, as I felt sure the malice of my husband would keep him?
Little as I knew then of my father's real motives in giving that bizarre and rather vulgar entertainment, I thought I saw and heard everything that would occur.
I saw the dazzling spectacle, I saw the five hundred guests, I saw Alma and my husband, and above all I saw my father, the old man stricken with mortal maladies, the wounded lion whom the shadow of death itself could not subdue, degraded to the dust in his hour of pride by the act of his own child.
I heard his shouts of rage, his cries of fury, his imprecations on me as one who should never touch a farthing of his fortune. And then I heard the whispering of his "friends," who were telling the "true story" of my disappearance, the tale of my "treacheries" to my husband—just as if Satan had willed it that the only result of the foolish fete on which my father had wasted his wealth like water should be the publication of my shame.
But the bitterest part of my experience was still to come. In a few minutes we sailed past the headlands of Port Raa, the lights of my husband's house shot out of view like meteors on a murky night, and the steamer turned her head to the open sea.
I was standing by a rope which crossed the bow and holding on to it to save myself from falling, for, being alone with Nature at last, I was seeing my flight for the first time in full light.
I was telling myself that as surely as my flight became known Martin's name would be linked with mine, and the honour that was dearer to me than, my own would be buried in disgrace.
O God! O God! Why should Nature be so hard and cruel to a woman? Why should it be permitted that, having done no worse than obey the purest impulses of my heart, the iron law of my sex should rise up to condemn both me and the one who was dearer to my soul than life itself?
I hardly know how long I stood there, holding on to that rope. There was no sound now except the tread of a sailor in his heavy boots, an inarticulate call from the bridge, an answering shout from the wheel, the rattling of the wind in the rigging, the throbbing of the engine in the bowels of the ship, and the monotonous wash of the waves against her side.
Oh, how little I felt, how weak, how helpless!
I looked up towards the sky, but there seemed to be no sky, no moon, and no stars, only a vaporous blackness that came down and closed about me.
I looked out to the sea, but there seemed to be no sea, only a hissing splash of green spray where the steamer's forward light fell on the water which her bow was pitching up, and beyond that nothing but a threatening and thundering void.
I did not weep, but I felt as other women had felt before me, as other women have felt since, as women must always feel after they have sinned against the world and the world's law, that there was nothing before me but the blackness of night.
"Out of the depths I cry unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my cry."
But all at once a blessed thought came to me. We were travelling eastward, and dark as the night was now, in a few hours the day would dawn, the sun would shine in our faces and the sky would smile over our heads!
It would be like that with me. Martin would come back. I was only going to meet him. It was dark midnight with me now, but I was sailing into the sunrise!
Perhaps I was like a child, but I think that comforted me.
At all events I went down to the little triangular cabin with a cheerful heart, forgetting that I was a runaway, a homeless wanderer, an outcast, with nothing before me but the wilderness of London where I should be friendless and alone.
The fire had gone out by this time, the oil-lamp was swinging to the motion of the ship, the timbers were creaking, and the Liverpool women were asleep.
At eight o'clock next morning I was in the train leaving Liverpool for London.
I had selected a second-class compartment labelled "For Ladies," and my only travelling companion was a tall fair woman, in a seal-skin coat and a very large black hat. She had filled the carriage with the warm odour of eau-de-Cologne and the racks on both sides with her luggage, which chiefly consisted of ladies' hat boxes of various shapes and sizes.
Hardly had we started when I realised that she was a very loquacious and expansive person.
Was I going all the way? Yes? Did I live in Liverpool? No? In London perhaps? No? Probably I lived in the country? Yes? That was charming, the country being so lovely.
I saw in a moment that if my flight was to be carried out to any purpose I should have to conceal my identity; but how to do so I did not know, my conscience never before having had to accuse me of deliberate untruth.
Accident helped me. My companion asked me what was my husband's profession, and being now accustomed to think of Martin as my real husband, I answered that he was a commander.
"You mean the commander of a ship?"
"Ah, yes, you've been staying in Liverpool to see him off on a voyage. How sweet! Just what I should do myself if my husband were a sailor."
Then followed a further battery of perplexing questions.
Had my husband gone on a long voyage? Yes? Where to? The South. Did I mean India, Australia, New Zealand? Yes, and still farther.
"Ah, I see," she said again. "He's probably the captain of a tramp steamer, and will go from port to port as long as he can find a cargo."
Hardly understanding what my companion meant by this, I half agreed to it, and then followed a volley of more personal inquiries.
I was young to be married, wasn't I? Probably I hadn't been married very long, had I? And not having settled myself in a home perhaps I was going up to London to wait for my husband? Yes? How wise—town being so much more cheerful than the country.
"Any friends there?"
"But won't you be lonely by yourself in London?"
"A little lonely perhaps."
Being satisfied that she had found out everything about me, my travelling companion (probably from the mere love of talking) told me something about herself.
She was a fashionable milliner and had a shop in the West End of London. Occasionally she made personal visits to the provinces to take orders from the leading shopkeepers, but during the season she found it more profitable to remain in town, where her connection was large, among people who could pay the highest prices.
By this time we had reached Crewe, and as there was some delay in getting into the station, my travelling companion put her head out of the window to inquire the cause. She was told that a night train from Scotland was in front of us, and we should have to be coupled on to it before we could proceed to London.
This threw her into the wildest state of excitement.
"I see what it is," she said. "The shooting season is over and the society people are coming down from the moors. I know lots and lots of them. They are my best customers—the gentlemen at all events."
"Why, yes," she said with a little laugh.
After some shunting our Liverpool carriages were coupled to the Scotch train and run into the station, where a number of gentlemen in knickerbockers and cloth caps were strolling about the platform.
My companion seemed to know them all, and gave them their names, generally their Christian names, and often their familiar ones.
Suddenly I had a shock. A tall man, whose figure I recognised, passed close by our carriage, and I had only time to conceal myself from observation behind the curtain of the window.
"Helloa!" cried my companion. "There's Teddy Eastcliff. He married Camilla, the Russian dancer. They first met in my shop I may tell you."
I was feeling hot and cold by turns, but a thick veil must have hidden my confusion, for after we left Crewe my companion, becoming still more confidential, talked for a long time about her aristocratic customers, and I caught a glimpse of a life that was on the verge of a kind of fashionable Bohemia.
More than once I recognised my husband's friends among the number of her clients, and trembling lest my husband himself should become a subject of discussion, I, made the excuse of a headache to close my eyes and be silent.
My companion thereupon slept, very soundly and rather audibly, from Rugby to Willesden, where, awakening with a start while the tickets were being collected, she first powdered her face by her fashion-glass and then interested herself afresh in my affairs.
"Did you say, my dear, that you have no friends in London?"
I repeated that I had none.
"Then you will go to an hotel, I suppose?"
I answered that I should have to look for something less expensive.
"In that case," she said, "I think I know something that will suit you exactly."
It was a quiet boarding establishment in Bloomsbury—comfortable house, reasonable terms, and, above all, perfectly respectable. In fact, it was kept by her own sister, and if I liked she would take me along in her cab and drop me at the door. Should she?
Looking back at that moment I cannot but wonder that after what I had heard I did not fear discovery. But during the silence of the last hour I had been feeling more than ever weak and helpless, so that when my companion offered me a shelter in that great, noisy, bewildering city in which I had intended to hide myself, but now feared I might be submerged and lost, with a willing if not a cheerful heart I accepted.
Half an hour afterwards our cab drew up in a street off Russell Square at a rather grimy-looking house which stood at the corner of another and smaller square that was shut off by an iron railing.
The door was opened by a young waiter of sixteen or seventeen years, who was wearing a greasy dress-suit and a soiled shirt front.
My companion pushed into the hall, I followed her, and almost at the same moment a still larger and perhaps grosser woman than my friend, with the same features and complexion, came out of a room to the left with, a serviette in her hand.
"Jane!" cried my companion, and pointing to me she said:
"I've brought you a new boarder."
Then followed a rapid account of where she had met me, who and what I was, and why I had come up to London.
"I've promised you'll take her in and not charge her too much, you know."
"Why, no, certainly not," said the sister.
At the next moment the boy waiter was bringing, my trunk into the house on his shoulder and my travelling companion was bidding me good-bye and saying she would look me up later.
When the door was closed I found the house full of the smell of hot food, chiefly roast beef and green vegetables, and I could hear the clink of knives and forks and the clatter of dishes in the room the landlady had come from.
"You'd like to go up to your bedroom at once, wouldn't you?" she said.
We went up two flights of stairs covered with rather dirty druggeting, along a corridor that had a thin strip of linoleum, and finally up a third flight that was bare to the boards, until we came to a room which seemed to be at the top of the house and situated in its remotest corner.
It was a very small apartment, hardly larger than the room over the hall at home in which Aunt Bridget had made me sleep when I was a child, and it was nearly as cold and cheerless.
The wall-paper, which had once been a flowery pink, was now pale and patternless; the Venetian blind over the window (which looked out on the smaller square) had lost one of its cords and hung at an irregular angle; there was a mirror over the mantelpiece with the silvering much mottled, and a leather-covered easy chair whereof the spring was broken and the seat heavily indented.
"I dare say this will do for the present," said my landlady, and though my heart was in my mouth I compelled myself to agree.
"My terms, including meals and all extras, will be a pound a week," she added, and to that also, with a lump in my throat I assented, whereupon my landlady left me, saying luncheon was on and I could come downstairs when I was ready.
A talkative cockney chambermaid, with a good little face, brought me a fat blue jug of hot water, and after I had washed and combed I found my way down to the dining-room.
What I expected to find there I hardly know. What I did find was a large chamber, as dingy as the rest of the house, and as much in need of refreshing, with a long table down the middle, at which some twenty persons sat eating, with the landlady presiding at the top.
The company, who were of both sexes and chiefly elderly, seemed to me at that first sight to be dressed in every variety of out-of-date clothes, many of them rather shabby and some almost grotesque.
Raising their faces from their plates they looked at me as I entered, and I was so confused that I stood hesitating near the door until the landlady called to me.
"Come up here," she said, and when I had done so, and taken the seat by her side, which had evidently been reserved for me, she whispered:
"I don't think my sister mentioned your name, my dear. What is it?"
I had no time to deliberate.
"O'Neill," I whispered back, and thereupon my landlady, raising her voice, and addressing the company as if they had been members of her family, said:
"Mrs. O'Neill, my dears."
Then the ladies at the table inclined their heads at me and smiled, while the men (especially those who were the most strangely dressed) rose from their seats and bowed deeply.
Of all houses in London this, I thought, was the least suitable to me.
Looking down the table I told myself that it must be the very home of idle gossip and the hot-bed of tittle-tattle.
I was wrong. Hardly had I been in the house a day when I realised that my fellow-guests were the most reserved and self-centred of all possible people.
One old gentleman who wore a heavy moustache, and had been a colonel in the Indian army, was understood to be a student of Biblical prophecy, having collected some thousands of texts which established the identity of the British nation with the lost tribes of Israel.
Another old gentleman, who wore a patriarchal beard and had taken orders without securing a living, was believed to be writing a history of the world and (after forty years of continuous labour) to have reached the century before Christ.
An elderly lady with a benign expression was said to be a tragic actress who was studying in secret for a season at the National Theatre.
Such, and of such kind, were my house-mates; and I have since been told that every great city has many such groups of people, the great prophets, the great historians, the great authors, the great actors whom the world does not know—the odds and ends of humanity, thrown aside by the rushing river of life into the gulley-ways that line its banks, the odd brothers, the odd sisters, the odd uncles, the odd aunts, for whom there is no place in the family, in society, or in the business of the world.
It was all very curious and pathetic, yet I think I should have been safe, for a time at all events, in this little corner of London into which chance had so strangely thrown me, but for one unfortunate happening.
That was the arrival of the daily newspaper.
There was never more than a single copy. It came at eight in the morning and was laid on the dining-room mantelpiece, from which (by an unwritten law of the house) it was the duty as well as the honour of the person who had first finished breakfast to take it up and read the most startling part of the news to the rest of the company.
Thus it occurred that on the third morning after my arrival I was startled by the voice of the old colonel, who, standing back to the fire, with the newspaper in his hand, cried:
"Mysterious Disappearance of a Peeress."
"Read it," said the old clergyman.
The tea-cup which I was raising to my mouth trembled in my hand, and when I set it down it rattled against the saucer. I knew what was coming, and it came.
The old colonel read:
_"A telegram from Blackwater announces the mysterious disappearance of the young wife of Lord Raa, which appears to have taken place late on Thursday night or in the early hours of Friday morning.
"It will be remembered that the missing lady was married a little more than a year ago, and her disappearance is the more unaccountable from the fact that during the past month she has been actively occupied in preparing for a fete in honour of her return home after a long and happy honeymoon.
"The pavilion in which the fete was to have been held had been erected on a headland between Castle Raa and a precipitous declivity to the sea, and the only reasonable conjecture is that the unhappy lady, going out on Thursday night to superintend the final preparations, lost her way in the darkness and fell over the cliffs.
"The fact that the hostess was missing was not generally known in Ellan until the guests had begun to arrive for the reception on Friday evening, when the large assembly broke up in great confusion.
"Naturally much sympathy is felt for the grief-stricken husband."_
* * * * *
After the colonel had finished reading I had an almost irresistible impulse to scream, feeling sure that the moment my house-mates looked into my face they must see that I was the person indicated.
They did not look, and after a chorus of exclamations ("Most mysterious!" "What can have become of her?" "On the eve of her fete too!") they began to discuss disappearances in general, each illustrating his point by reference to the subject of his own study.
"Perfectly extraordinary how people disappear nowadays," said one.
"Extraordinary, sir?" said the old colonel, looking over his spectacles, "why should it be extraordinary that one person should disappear when whole nations—the ten tribes for example. . . ."
"But that's a different thing altogether," said the old clergyman. "Now if you had quoted Biblical examples—Elisha or perhaps Jonah. . . ."
After the discussion had gone on for several minutes in this way I rose from the table on my trembling limbs and slipped out of the room.
It would take long to tell of the feverish days that followed—how newspaper correspondents were sent from London to Ellan to inquire into the circumstances of my disappearance; how the theory of accident gave place to the theory of suicide, and the theory of suicide to the theory of flight; how a porter on the pier at Blackwater said he had carried my trunk to the steamer that sailed on Thursday midnight, thinking I was a maid from the great house until I had given him half-a-crown (his proper fee being threepence); how two female passengers had declared that a person answering to my description had sailed with them to Liverpool; how these clues had been followed up and had led to nothing; and how, finally, the correspondents had concluded the whole incident of my disappearance could not be more mysterious if I had been dropped from mid-air into the middle of the Irish Sea.
But then came another development.
My father, who was reported to have received the news of my departure in a way that suggested he had lost control of his senses (raging and storming at my husband like a man demented), having come to the conclusion that I, being in a physical condition peculiar to women, had received a serious shock resulting in a loss of memory, offered five hundred pounds reward for information that would lead to my discovery, which was not only desirable to allay the distress of my heart-broken family but urgently necessary to settle important questions of title and inheritance.
With this offer of a reward came a description of my personal appearance.
"Age 20, a little under medium height; slight; very black hair; lustrous dark eyes; regular features; pale face; grave expression; unusually sunny smile."
It would be impossible for me to say with what perturbation I heard these reports read out by the old colonel and the old clergyman. Even the nervous stirring of my spoon and the agitated clatter of my knife and fork made me wonder that my house-mates did not realise the truth, which must I thought, be plainly evident to all eyes.
They never did, being so utterly immersed in their own theories. But all the same I sometimes felt as if my fellow guests in that dingy house in Bloomsbury were my judges and jury, and more than once, in my great agitation, when the reports came near to the truth, I wanted to cry. "Stop, stop, don't you see it is I?"
That I never did so was due to the fact that, not knowing what legal powers my father might have to compel my return to Ellan, the terror that sat on me like a nightmare was that of being made the subject of a public quarrel between my father and my husband, concerning the legitimacy of my unborn child, with the shame and disgrace which that would bring not only upon me but upon Martin.
I had some reason for this fear.
After my father's offer of a reward there came various spiteful paragraphs (inspired, as I thought, by Alma and written by the clumsier hand of my husband) saying it was reported in Ellan that, if my disappearance was to be accounted for on the basis of flight, the only "shock" I could have experienced must be a shock of conscience, rumour having for some time associated my name with that of a person who was not unknown in connection with Antarctic exploration.
It was terrible.
Day by day the motive of my disappearance became the sole topic of conversation in our boarding-house. I think the landlady must have provided an evening as well as a morning paper, for at tea in the drawing-room upstairs the most recent reports were always being discussed.
After a while I realised that not only my house-mates but all London was discussing my disappearance.
It was a rule of our boarding-house that during certain hours of the day everybody should go out as if he had business to go to, and having nothing else to do I used to walk up and down the streets. In doing so I was compelled to pass certain newsvendors' stalls, and I saw for several days that nearly every placard had something about "the missing peeress."
When this occurred I would walk quickly along the thoroughfare with a sense of being pursued and the feeling which a nervous woman has when she is going down a dark corridor at night—that noiseless footsteps are coming behind, and a hand may at any moment be laid on her shoulder.
But nobody troubled me in the streets and the only person in our boarding-house who seemed to suspect me was our landlady. She said nothing, but when my lip was quivering while the old colonel read that cruel word about Martin I caught her little grey eyes looking aslant at me.
One afternoon, her sister, the milliner, came to see me according to her promise, and though she, too, said nothing, I saw that, while the old colonel and the old clergyman were disputing on the hearthrug about some disappearance which occurred thousands of years ago, she was looking fixedly at the fingers with which, in my nervousness, I was ruckling up the discoloured chintz of my chair.
Then in a moment—I don't know why—it flashed upon me that my travelling companion was in correspondence with my father.
That idea became so insistent towards dinner-time that I made pretence of being ill (which was not very difficult) to retire to my room, where the cockney chambermaid wrung handkerchiefs out of vinegar and laid them on my forehead to relieve my headache—though she increased it, poor thing, by talking perpetually.
Next morning the landlady came up to say that if, as she assumed from my name, I was Irish and a Catholic, I might like to receive a visit from a Sister of Mercy who called at the house at intervals to attend to the sick.
I thought I saw in a moment that this was a subterfuge, but feeling that my identity was suspected I dared not give cause for further suspicion, so I compelled myself to agree.
A few minutes later, having got up and dressed, I was standing with my back to the window, feeling like one who would soon have to face an attack, when a soft footstep came up my corridor and a gentle hand knocked at my door.
"Come in," I cried, trembling like the last leaf at the end of a swinging bough.
And then an astonishing thing happened.
A young woman stepped quietly into the room and closed the door behind her. She was wearing the black and white habit of the Little Sisters of the Poor, but I knew her long, pale, plain-featured face in an instant.
A flood of shame, and at the same time a flood of joy swept over me at the sight of her.
It was Mildred Bankes.
"Mary," said Mildred, "speak low and tell me everything."
She sat in my chair, I knelt by her side, took one of her hands in both of mine, and told her.
I told her that I had fled from my husband's house because I could not bear to remain there any longer.
I told her that my father had married me against my will, in spite of my protests, when I was a child, and did not know that I had any right to resist him.
I told her that my father—God forgive me if I did him a wrong—did not love me, that he had sacrificed my happiness to his lust of power, and that if he were searching for me now it was only because my absence disturbed his plans and hurt his pride.
I told her that my husband did not love me either, and that he had married me from the basest motives, merely to pay his debts and secure an income.
I told her, too, that not only did my husband not love me, but he loved somebody else, that he had been cruel and brutal to me, and therefore (for these and other reasons) I could not return to him under any circumstances.
While I was speaking I felt Mildred's hand twitching between mine, and when I had finished she said:
"But, my dear child, they told me your friends were broken-hearted about you; that you had lost your memory and perhaps your reason, and therefore it would be a good act to help them to send you home."
"It's not true, it's not true," I said.
And then in a low voice, as if afraid of being overheard, she told me how she came to be there—that the woman who had travelled with me in the train from Liverpool, seeing my father's offer of a reward, had written to him to say that she knew where I was and only needed somebody to establish my identity; that my father wished to come to London for this purpose, but had been forbidden by his doctor; that our parish priest, Father Donovan, had volunteered to come instead, but had been prohibited by his Bishop; and finally that my father had written to his lawyers in London, and Father Dan to her, knowing that she and I had been together at the Sacred Heart in Rome, and that it was her work now to look after lost ones and send them safely back to their people.
"And now the lawyer and the doctors are downstairs," she said in a whisper, "and they are only waiting for me to say who you are that they may apply for an order to send you home."
This terrified me so much that I made a fervent appeal to Mildred to save me.
"Oh, Mildred, save me, save me," I cried.
"But how can I? how can I?" she asked.
I saw what she meant, and thinking to touch her still more deeply I told her the rest of my story.
I told her that if I had fled from my husband's house it was not merely because he had been cruel and brutal to me, but because I, too, loved somebody else—somebody who was far away but was coming back, and there was nothing I could not bear for him in the meantime, no pain or suffering or loneliness, and when he returned he would protect me from every danger, and we should love each other eternally.
If I had not been so wildly agitated I should have known that this was the wrong way with Mildred, and it was not until I had said it all in a rush of whispered words that I saw her eyes fixed on me as if they were about to start from their sockets.
"But, my dear, dear child," she said, "this is worse and worse. Your father and your husband may have done wrong, but you have done wrong too. Don't you see you have?"
I did not tell her that I had thought of all that before, and did not believe any longer that God would punish me for breaking a bond I had been forced to make. But when she was about to rise, saying that after all it would be a good thing to send me home before I had time to join my life to his—whoever he was—who had led me to forget my duty as a wife, I held her trembling hands and whispered:
"Wait, Mildred. There is something I have not told you even yet."
"What is it?" she asked, but already I could see that she knew what I was going to say.
"Mildred," I said, "if I ran away from my husband it was not merely because I loved somebody else, but because. . . ."
I could not say it. Do what I would I could not. But holy women like Mildred, who spend their lives among the lost ones, have a way of reading a woman's heart when it is in trouble, and Mildred read mine.
"Do you mean that . . . that there are consequences . . . going to be?" she whispered.
"Does your husband know?"
"And your father?"
Mildred drew her hand away from me and crossed herself, saying beneath her breath:
"Oh Mother of my God!"
I felt more humbled than I had ever been before, but after a while I said:
"Now you see why I can never go back. And you will save me, will you not?"
There was silence for some moments. Mildred had drawn back in her chair as if an evil spirit had passed between us But at length she said:
"It is not for me to judge you, Mary. But the gentlemen will come up soon to know if you are the Mary O'Neill whom I knew at the Sacred Heart, and what am I to say to them?"
"Say no," I cried. "Why shouldn't you? They'll never know anything to the contrary. Nobody will know."
I knew what Mildred meant, and in my shame and confusion I tried to excuse myself by telling her who the other woman was.
"It is Alma," I said.
"Alma? Alma Lier?"
And then I told her how Alma had come back into my life, how she had tortured and tempted me, and was now trying to persuade my husband, who was a Protestant, to divorce me that she might take my place.
And then I spoke of Martin again—I could not help it—saying that the shame which Alma would bring on him would be a greater grief to me than anything else that could befall me in this world.
"If you only knew who he is," I said, "and the honour he is held in, you would know that I would rather die a thousand deaths than that any disgrace should fall on him through me."
I could see that Mildred was deeply moved at this, and though I did not intend to play upon her feelings, yet in the selfishness of my great love I could not help doing so.
"You were the first of my girl friends, Mildred—the very first. Don't you remember the morning after I arrived at school? They had torn me away from my mother, and I was so little and lonely, but you were so sweet and kind. You took me into church for my first visitation, and then into the garden for my first rosary—don't you remember it?"
Mildred had closed her eyes. Her face was becoming very white.
"And then don't you remember the day the news came that my mother was very ill, and I was to go home? You came to see me off at the station, and don't you remember what you said when we were sitting in the train? You said we might never meet again, because our circumstances would be so different. You didn't think we should meet like this, did you?"
Mildred's face was growing deadly white.
"My darling mother died. She was all I had in the world and I was all she had, and when she was gone there was no place for me in my father's house, so I was sent back to school. But the Reverend Mother was very kind to me, and the end of it was that I wished to become a nun. Yes indeed, and never so much as on the day you took your vows."
Mildred's eyes were still closed, but her eyelids were fluttering and she was breathing audibly.
"How well I remember it! The sweet summer morning and the snow-white sunshine, and the white flowers and the white chapel of the Little Sisters, and then you dressed as a bride in your white gown and long white veil. I cried all through the ceremony. And if my father had not come for me then, perhaps I should have been a nun like you now."
Mildred's lips were moving. I was sure she was praying to our Lady for strength to resist my pleading, yet that only made me plead the harder.
"But God knows best what our hearts are made for," I said. "He knows that mine was made for love. And though you may not think it I know God knows that he who is away is my real husband—not the one they married me to. You will not separate us, will you? All our happiness—his and mine—is in your hands. You will save us, will you not?"
Some time passed before Mildred spoke. It may have been only a few moments, but to me it seemed like an eternity. I did not know then that Mildred was reluctant to extinguish the last spark of hope in me. At length she said:
"Mary, you don't know what you are asking me to do. When I took my vows I promised to speak the truth under all circumstances, no matter what the consequences, as surely as I should answer to God at the great Day of Judgment. Yet you wish me to lie. How can I? How can I? Remember my vows, my duty."
I think the next few minutes must have been the most evil of all my life. When I saw, or thought I saw, that, though one word would save me, one little word, Mildred intended to give me away to the men downstairs, I leapt to my feet and burst out on her with the bitterest reproaches.
"You religious women are always talking about your duty," I cried. "You never think about love. Love is kind and merciful; but no, duty, always duty! Love indeed! What do you cold creatures out of the convent, with your crosses and rosaries, know about love—real love—the blazing fire in a woman's heart when she loves somebody so much that she would give her heart's blood for him—yes, and her soul itself if need be."
What else I said I cannot remember, for I did not know what I was doing until I found myself looking out of the window and panting for breath.
Then I became aware that Mildred was making no reply to my reproaches, and looking over my shoulder I saw that she was still sitting in my chair with both her hands covering her face and the tears trickling through her fingers on to the linen of her habit.
That conquered me in a moment.
I was seized with such remorse that I wished to throw my arms about her neck and kiss her. I dared not do that, now, but I knelt by her side again and asked her to forgive me.
"Forgive me, sister," I said. "I see now that God has brought us to this pass and there is no way out of it. You must do what you think is right. I shall always know you couldn't have done otherwise. He will know too. And if it must be that disgrace is to fall on him through me . . . and that when he comes home he will find. . . ."
But I could not bear to speak about that, so I dropped my head on Mildred's lap.
During the silence that followed we heard the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs.
"Listen! They're here," said Mildred. "Get up. Say nothing. Leave everything to me."
I rose quickly and returned to the window. Mildred dried her eyes, got up from the chair and stood with her back to the fire-place.
There was a knock at my door. I do not know which of us answered it, but my landlady came into the room, followed by three men in tall silk hats.
"Excuse us, my dear," she said, in an insincere voice. "These gentlemen are making an examination of the house, and they wish to see your room. May they?"
I do not think I made any reply. I was holding my breath and watching intently. The men made a pretence of glancing round, but I could see they were looking at Mildred. Their looks seemed to say as plainly as words could speak:
"Is it she?"
Mildred hesitated for a moment, there was a dreadful silence and then—may the holy Virgin bless her!—she shook her head.
I could bear no more. I turned back to the window. The men, who had looked at each other with expressions of surprise, tried to talk together in ordinary tones as if on common place subjects.
"So there's nothing to do here, apparently."
"Let's go, then. Good day, Sister. Sorry to have troubled you."
I heard the door close behind them. I heard their low voices as they passed along the corridor. I heard their slow footsteps as they went down the stairs. And then, feeling as if my heart would burst, I turned to throw myself at Sister Mildred's feet.
But Sister Mildred was on her knees, with her face buried in my bed, praying fervently.
I did not know then, and it seems unnecessary to say now, why my father gave up the search for me in London. He did so, and from the day the milliner's clue failed him I moved about freely.
Then from the sense of being watched I passed into that of being lost.
Sister Mildred was my only friend in London, but she was practically cut off from me. The Little Sisters had fixed her up (in the interests of her work among the lost ones) in a tiny flat at the top of a lofty building near Piccadilly, where her lighted window always reminded me of a lighthouse on the edge of a dangerous reef. But in giving me her address she warned me not to come to her except in case of urgent need partly because further intercourse might discredit her denial, and partly because it would not be good for me to be called "one of Sister Veronica's girls"—that being Mildred's name as a nun.
Oh the awful loneliness of London!
Others just as friendless have wandered in the streets of the big city. I knew I was not the first, and I am sure I have not been the last to find London the most solitary place in the world. But I really and truly think there was one day of the week when, from causes peculiar to my situation, my loneliness must have been deeper than that of the most friendless refugee.
Nearly every boarder in our boarding-house used to receive once a week or once a month a letter containing a remittance from some unknown source, with which he paid his landlady and discharged his other obligations.
I had no such letter to receive, so to keep up the character I had not made but allowed myself to maintain (of being a commander's wife) I used to go out once a week under pretence of calling at a shipping office to draw part of my husband's pay.
In my childish ignorance of the habits of business people I selected Saturday afternoon for this purpose; and in my fear of encountering my husband, or my husband's friends in the West End streets, I chose the less conspicuous thoroughfares at the other side of the river.
Oh, the wearisome walks I had on Saturday afternoons, wet or dry, down the Seven Dials, across Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall, round the eastern end of the Houses of Parliament, and past Westminster Pier (dear to me from one poignant memory), and so on and on into the monotonous and inconspicuous streets beyond.
Towards nightfall I would return, generally by the footway across Hungerford Bridge, which is thereby associated with the most painful moments of my life, for nowhere else did I feel quite so helpless and so lonely.
The trains out of Charing Cross shrieking past me, the dark river flowing beneath, the steamers whistling under the bridge, the automobiles tooting along the Embankment, the clanging of the electric cars, the arc lamps burning over the hotels and the open flares blazing over the theatres—all the never-resting life of London—and myself in the midst of the tumultuous solitude, a friendless and homeless girl.
But God in His mercy saved me from all that—saved me too, in ways in which it was only possible to save a woman.
The first way was through my vanity.
Glancing at myself in my mottled mirror one morning I was shocked to see that what with my loneliness and my weary walks I was losing my looks, for my cheeks were hollow, my nose was pinched, my eyes were heavy with dark rings underneath them, and I was plainer than Martin had ever seen me.
This frightened me.
It would be ridiculous to tell all the foolish things I did after that to improve and preserve my appearance for Martin's sake, because every girl whose sweetheart is away knows quite well, and it is not important that anybody else should.
There was a florist's shop in Southampton Row, and I went there every morning for a little flower which I wore in the breast of my bodice, making believe to myself that Martin had given it to me.
There was a jeweller's shop there too, and I sold my wedding ring (having long felt as if it burnt my finger) and bought another wedding ring with an inscription on the inside "From Martin to Mary."
As a result of all this caressing of myself I saw after a while, to my great joy, that my good looks were coming back; and it would be silly to say what a thrill of delight I had when, going into the drawing-room of our boarding-house one day, the old actress called me "Beauty" instead of the name I had hitherto been known by.
The second way in which God saved me from my loneliness was through my condition.
I did not yet know what angel was whispering to me out of the physical phase I was passing through, when suddenly I became possessed by a passion for children.
It was just as if a whole new world of humanity sprang into life for me by magic. When I went out for my walks in the streets I ceased to be conscious of the faces of men and women, and it seemed as if London were peopled by children only.
I saw no more of the crowds going their different ways like ants on an ant-hill, but I could not let a perambulator pass without peering under the lace of the hood at the little cherub face whose angel eyes looked up at me.
There was an asylum for children suffering from incurable diseases in the smaller square beside our boarding-house, and every morning after breakfast, no matter how cold the day might be, I would open my window to hear the cheerful voices of the suffering darlings singing their hymn:
"There's a Friend for little children, Above the bright blue sky."
Thus six weeks passed, Christmas approached, and the sad old city began to look glad and young and gay.
Since a certain night at Castle Raa I had had a vague feeling that I had thrown myself out of the pale of the Church, therefore I had never gone to service since I came to London, and had almost forgotten that confession and the mass used to be sweet to me.
But going home one evening in the deepening London fog (for the weather had begun to be frosty) I saw, through the open doors of a Catholic church, a great many lights in a side chapel, and found they were from a little illuminated model of the Nativity with the Virgin and Child in the stable among the straw. A group of untidy children were looking at it with bright beady eyes and chattering under their breath, while a black-robed janitor was rattling his keys to make them behave.
This brought back the memory of Rome and of Sister Angela. But it also made me think of Martin, and remember his speech at the public dinner, about saying the prayers for the day with his comrades, that they might feel that they were not cut off from the company of Christian men.
So telling myself he must be back by this time on that lonely plateau that guards the Pole, I resolved (without thinking of the difference of time) to go to mass on Christmas morning, in order to be doing the same thing as Martin at the same moment.
With this in my mind I returned to our boarding-house and found Christmas there too, for on looking into the drawing-room on my way upstairs I saw the old actress, standing on a chair, hanging holly which the old colonel with old-fashioned courtesy was handing up to her.
They were cackling away like two old hens when they caught sight of me, whereupon the old actress cried:
"Ah, here's Beauty!"
Then she asked me if I would like a ticket for a dress rehearsal on Christmas Eve of a Christmas pantomime.
"The audience will be chiefly children out of the lanes and alleys round about, but perhaps you won't mind that," she said.
I told her I should be overjoyed, and at two o'clock the following afternoon I was in my seat at the corner of the dress-circle of the great theatre, from which I could see both the stage and the auditorium.
The vast place was packed with children from ceiling to floor, and I could see the invisible hands of thousands of mothers who had put the girls into clean pinafores and brushed and oiled the tousled heads of the boys.
How their eager faces glistened! How sad they looked when the wicked sisters left Cinderella alone in the kitchen! How bright when the glittering fairy godmother came to visit her! How their little dangling feet clapped together with joy when the pretty maid went off to the ball behind six little ponies which pranced along under the magical moonlight in the falling snow!
But the part of the performance which they liked best was their own part when, in the interval, the band struck up one of the songs they sang in their lanes and alleys:
"Yew aw the enny, Oi em ther bee, Oi'd like ter sip ther enny from those red lips yew see."
That was so loaded with the memory of one of the happiest days of my life (the day I went with Martin to see the Scotia) that, in the yearning of the motherhood still unborn in me, I felt as if I should like to gather the whole screaming houseful of happy children to my breast.
But oh why, why, why, does not Providence warn us when we are on the edge of tragic things?
The pantomime rehearsal being over I was hurrying home (for the evening was cold, though I was so warm within) when I became aware of a number of newsmen who were flying up from the direction of the Strand, crying their papers at the top of their voice.
I did not usually listen to such people, but I was compelled to do so now, for they were all around me.
"Paper—third e'shen—loss of the Sco-sha."
The cry fell on me like a thunderbolt. An indescribable terror seized me. I felt paralysed and stood dead still. People were buying copies of the papers, and at first I made a feeble effort to do the same. But my voice was faint; the newsman did not hear me and he went flying past.
"Paper—third e'shen—reported loss of the Sco-sha."
After that I dared not ask for a paper. Literally I dared not. I dared not know the truth. I dared not see the dreadful fact in print.
So I began to hurry home. But as I passed through the streets, stunned, stupefied, perspiring, feeling as if I were running away from some malignant curse, the newsmen seemed to be pursuing me, for they were darting out from every street.
"Paper—third e'shen—loss of the Sco-sha."
Faster and faster I hurried along. But the awful cry was always ringing in my ears, behind, before, and on either side.
When I reached our boarding-house my limbs could scarcely support me. I had hardly strength enough to pull the bell. And before our young waiter had opened the door two news men, crossing the square, were crying:
"Paper—third edition—reported loss of the 'Scotia.'"
As I passed through the hall the old colonel and the old clergyman were standing by the dining-room door. They were talking excitedly, and while I was going upstairs, panting hard and holding on by the handrail, I heard part of their conversation.
"Scotia was the name of the South Pole ship, wasn't it?"
"Certainly it was. We must send young John out for a paper."
Reaching my room I dropped into my chair. My faculties had so failed me that for some minutes I was unable to think. Presently my tired brain recalled the word "Reported" and to that my last hope began to cling as a drowning sailor clings to a drifting spar.
After a while I heard some of our boarders talking on the floor below. Opening my door and listening eagerly I heard one of them say, in such a casual tone:
"Rather sad—this South Pole business, isn't it?"
"Yes, if it's true."
"Doesn't seem much doubt about that—unless there are two ships of the same name, you know."
At that my heart leapt up. I had now two rafts to cling to. Just then the gong sounded, and my anxiety compelled me to go down to tea.
As I entered the drawing-room the old colonel was unfolding a newspaper.
"Here we are," he was saying. "Reported loss of the Scotia—Appalling Antarctic Calamity."
I tried to slide into the seat nearest to the door, but the old actress made room for me on the sofa close to the tea-table.
"You enjoyed the rehearsal? Yes?" she whispered.
"Hush!" said our landlady, handing me a cup of tea, and then the old colonel, standing back to the fire, began to read.
_"Telegrams from New Zealand report the picking up of large fragments of a ship which were floating from the Antarctic seas. Among them were the bulwarks, some portions of the deck cargo, and the stern of a boat, bearing the name 'Scotia.'
"Grave fears are entertained that these fragments belong to the schooner of the South Pole expedition, which left Akaroa a few weeks ago, and the character of some of the remnants (being vital parts of a ship's structure) lead to the inference that the vessel herself must have foundered."_
"Well, well," said the old clergyman, with his mouth full of buttered toast.
The walls of the room seemed to be moving around me. I could scarcely see; I could scarcely hear.
"Naturally there can be no absolute certainty that the 'Scotia' may not be still afloat, or that the members of the expedition may not have reached a place of safety, but the presence of large pieces of ice attached to some of the fragments seem to the best authorities to favour the theory that the unfortunate vessel was struck by one of the huge icebergs which have lately been floating up from the direction of the Admiralty Mountains, and in that case her fate will probably remain one of the many insoluble mysteries of the ocean."
"Now that's what one might call the irony of fate," said the old clergyman, "seeing that the object of the expedition . . ."
"While the sympathy of the public will be extended to the families of all the explorers who have apparently perished in a brave effort to protect mankind from one of the worst dangers of the great deep, the entire world will mourn the loss (as we fear it may be) of the heroic young Commander, Doctor Martin Conrad, who certainly belonged to the ever-diminishing race of dauntless and intrepid souls who seem to be born will that sacred courage which leads men to render up their lives at the lure of the Unknown and the call of a great idea."
I felt as if I were drowning. At one moment there was the shrieking of waves about my face; at the next the rolling of billows over my head.
"Though it seems only too certain . . . this sacred courage quenched . . . let us not think such lives as his are wasted . . . only wasted lives . . . lives given up . . . inglorious ease . . . pursuit of idle amusements. . . . Therefore let loved ones left behind . . . take comfort . . . inspiring thought . . . if lost . . . not died in vain . . . Never pleasure but Death . . . the lure that draws true hearts. . . ."
I heard no more. The old colonel's voice, which had been beating on my brain like a hammer, seemed to die away in the distance.
"How hard you are breathing. What is amiss?" said our landlady.
I made no reply. Rising to my feet I became giddy and held on to the table cloth to prevent myself from falling.
The landlady jumped up to protect her crockery and at the same moment the old actress led me from the room. I excused myself on the ground of faintness, and the heat of the house after my quick walk home from the theatre.
Back in my bedroom my limbs gave way and I sank to the floor with my head on the chair. There was no uncertainty for me now. It was all over. The great love which had engrossed my life had gone.
In the overwhelming shock of that moment I could not think of the world's loss. I could not even think of Martin's. I could only think of my own, and once more I felt as if something of myself had been torn out of my breast.
"Why? Why?" I was crying in the depths of my heart—why, when I was so utterly alone, so helpless and so friendless, had the light by which I lived been quenched.
After a while the gong sounded for dinner. I got up and lay on the bed. The young waiter brought up some dishes on a tray. I sent them down again. Then time passed and again I heard voices on the floor below.
"Rough on that young peeress if Conrad has gone down, eh?"
"Don't you remember—the one who ran away from that reprobate Raa?"
"Ah, yes, certainly. I remember now."
"Of course, Conrad was the man pointed at, and perhaps if he had lived to come back he might have stood up for the poor thing, but now. . . ."
"Ah, well, that's the way, you see."
The long night passed.
Sometimes it seemed to go with feet of lead, sometimes with galloping footsteps. I remember that the clocks outside seemed to strike every few minutes, and then not to strike at all. At one moment I heard the bells of a neighbouring church ringing merrily, and by that I knew it was Christmas morning.
I did not sleep during the first hours of night, but somewhere in the blank reaches of that short space between night and day (like the slack-water between ebb and flow), which is the only time when London rests, I fell into a troubled doze.
I wish I had not done so, for at the first moment of returning consciousness I had that sense, so familiar to bereaved ones, of memory rushing over me like a surging tide. I did not cry, but I felt as if my heart were bleeding.
The morning dawned dark and foggy. In the thick air of my room the window looked at me like a human eye scaled with cataract. It was my first experience of a real London fog and I was glad of it. If there had been one ray of sunshine that morning I think my heart would have broken.
The cockney chambermaid came with her jug of hot water and wished me "a merry Christmas." I did my best to answer her.
The young waiter came with my breakfast. I told him to set it down, but I did not touch it.
Then the cockney chambermaid came back to make up my room and, finding me still in bed, asked if I would like a fire. I answered "Yes," and while she was lighting a handful between the two bars of my little grate she talked of the news in the newspaper.
"It don't do to speak no harm of the dead, but as to them men as 'ad a collusion with a iceberg in the Australier sea, serve 'em jolly well right I say. What was they a-doing down there, risking their lives for nothing, when they ought to have been a-thinking of their wives and children. My Tom wanted to go for a sailor, but I wouldn't let him! Not me! 'If you're married to a sailor,' says I, ''alf your time you never knows whether you 'as a 'usband or 'asn't.' 'Talk sense,' says Tom. 'I am a-talking sense,' says I, 'and then think of the kiddies,' I says."
After a while I got up and dressed and sat long hours before the fire. I tried to think of others beside myself who must be suffering from the same disaster—especially of Martin's mother and the good old doctor. I pictured the sweet kitchen-parlour in Sunny Lodge, with the bright silver bowls on the high mantelpiece. There was no fire under the slouree now. The light of that house was out, and two old people were sitting on either side of a cold hearth.
I passed in review my maidenhood, my marriage, and my love, and told myself that the darkest days of my loneliness in London had hitherto been relieved by one bright hope. I had only to live on and Martin would come back to me. But now I was utterly alone, I was in the presence of nothingness. The sanctuary within me where Martin had lived was only a cemetery of the soul.
"Why? Why? Why?" I cried again, but there was no answer.
Thus I passed my Christmas Day (for which I had formed such different plans), and I hardly knew if it was for punishment or warning that I was at last compelled to think of something besides my own loss.
My unborn child!
No man on earth can know anything about that tragic prospect, though millions of women must have had to face it. To have a child coming that is doomed before its birth to be fatherless—there is nothing in the world like that.
I think the bitterest part of my grief was that nobody could ever know. If Martin had lived he would have leapt to acknowledge his offspring in spite of all the laws and conventions of life. But being dead he could not be charged with it. Therefore the name of the father of my unborn child must never, never, never be disclosed.
The thickening of the fog told me that the day was passing.
It passed. The houses on the opposite side of the square vanished in a vaporous, yellow haze, and their lighted windows were like rows of bloodshot eyes looking out of the blackness.
Except the young waiter and the chambermaid nobody visited me until a little before dinner time. Then the old actress came up, rather fantastically dressed (with a kind of laurel crown on her head), to say that the boarders were going to have a dance and wished me to join them. I excused myself on the ground of headache, and she said:
"Young women often suffer from it. It's a pity, though! Christmas night, too!"
Not long after she had gone, I heard, through the frequent tooting of the taxis in the street, the sound of old-fashioned waltzes being played on the piano, and then a dull thudding noise on the floor below, mingled with laughter, which told me that the old boarders were dancing.
I dare say my head was becoming light. I had eaten nothing for nearly forty hours, and perhaps the great shock which chance had given me had brought me near to the blank shadowland which is death.
I remember that in some vague way there arose before me a desire to die. It was not to be suicide—my religion saved me from that—but death by exhaustion, by continuing to abstain from food, having no desire for it.
Martin was gone—what was there to live for? Had I not better die before my child came to life? And if I could go where Martin was I should be with him eternally.
Still I did not weep, but—whether audibly or only in the unconscious depths of my soul—more than once I cried to Martin by name.
"Martin! Martin! I am coming to you!"
I was in this mood (sitting in my chair as I had done all day and staring into the small slow fire which was slipping to the bottom of the grate) when I heard a soft step in the corridor outside. At the next moment my door was opened noiselessly, and somebody stepped into the room.
It was Mildred, and she knelt by my side and said in a low voice:
"You are in still deeper trouble, Mary—tell me."
I tried to pour out my heart to her as to a mother, but I could not do so, and indeed there was no necessity. The thought that must have rushed into my eyes was instantly reflected in hers.
"It is he, isn't it?" she whispered, and I could only bow my head.
"I thought so from the first," she said. "And now you are thinking of . . . of what is to come?"
Again I could only bow, but Mildred put her arms about me and said:
"Don't lose heart, dear. Our Blessed Lady sent me to take care of you. And I will—I will."
MEMORANDUM BY MARTIN CONRAD
Surely Chance must be the damnedest conspirator against human happiness, or my darling could never have been allowed to suffer so much from the report that my ship was lost.
What actually happened is easily told.
Two days after we left Akaroa, N.Z., which was the last we saw of the world before we set our faces towards the Unknown, we ran into a heavy lumpy sea and made bad weather of it for forty-eight hours.
Going at good speed, however, we proceeded south on meridian 179 degrees E., latitude 68, when (just as we were sighting the Admiralty Mountains, our first glimpse of the regions of the Pole) we encountered a south-westerly gale, which, with our cumbersome deck cargo, made the handling of the ship difficult.
Nevertheless the Scotia rode bravely for several hours over the mountainous seas, though sometimes she rolled fifty degrees from side to side.
Towards nightfall we shipped a good deal of water; the sea smashed in part of our starboard bulwarks, destroyed the upper deck, washed out the galley, carried off two of our life boats and sent other large fragments of the vessel floating away to leeward.
At last the pumps became choked, and the water found its way to the engine-room. So to prevent further disaster we put out the fires, and then started, all hands, to bale out with buckets.
It was a sight to see every man-jack at work on that job (scientific staff included), and you would not have thought our spirits were much damped, whatever our bodies may have been, if you had been there when I cried, "Are we downhearted, shipmates?" and heard the shout that came up from fifty men (some of them waist deep in the water):
We had a stiff tussle until after midnight, but we stuck hard, and before we turned into our bunks, we had fought the sea and beaten it.
Next morning broke fine and clear, with that fresh crisp air of the Antarctic which is the same to the explorer as the sniff of battle to the warhorse, and no sign of the storm except the sight of some lead-white icebergs which had been torn from the islands south-west of us.
Everybody was in high spirits at breakfast, and when one of the company started "Sweethearts and Wives" all hands joined in the chorus, and (voice or no voice) I had a bit of a go at it myself.
It is not the most solemn music ever slung together, but perhaps no anthem sung in a cathedral has ascended to heaven with a heartier spirit of thanksgiving.
When I went up on deck again, though, I saw that enough of our "wooden walls" had gone overboard to give "scarey people" the impression (if things were ever picked up, as I knew they would be, for the set of the current was to the north-east) that we had foundered, and that made me think of my dear one.
We had no wireless aboard, and the ship would not be going back to New Zealand until March, so I was helpless to correct the error; but I determined that the very first message from the very first station I set up on the Antarctic continent should be sent to her to say that I was safe and everything going splendid.
What happened on Christmas day is a longer story.
On the eighteenth of December, having landed some of my deck cargo and provisions, and sent up my ship to winter quarters, I was on my way, with ponies, dogs, and sledges and a large company of men, all in A1 condition, to the lower summit of Mount Erebus, for I intended to set up my first electric-power-wave station there—that being high enough, we thought, to permit of a message reaching the plateau of the Polar zone and low enough (allowing for the curvature of the earth) to cover the maximum distance in a northerly direction.
It was a long reach, but we chose the rocky ridges and moraines, trying to avoid the crevassed glaciers, and all went well until the twentieth, when just as we were reaching the steeper gradients a strong wind sprang up, blowing straight down the course before us.
All day long we toiled against it, but the weather grew worse, with gusts of sleet and snow, until the wind reached the force of a hurricane and the temperature fell to 28 degrees below zero.
There was nothing to do but to wait for the blizzard to blow itself out, so we plugged down our tents in the shelter of the rocky side of a ravine that had an immense snow-field behind it.
The first night was bad enough, for the canvas of one tent flew into ribbons, and the poor chaps in it had to lie uncovered in their half-frozen sleeping-bags until morning.
All through the twenty-first, twenty-second, and twenty-third the storm continued, sweeping with terrific force down the ravine, and whirling the snow in dense masses from the snow-field overhead.
Christmas Eve was worse, with the temperature down to 38 degrees below zero and the wind up to eighty miles an hour in gusts, and during the greater part of Christmas Day we were all confined to our sleeping-bags and half buried in the snow that had drifted in on us.
As a consequence we had no religious service, and if anybody said a De Profundis it was between his crackling lips under his frozen beard. We had no Christmas dinner either, except a few Plasmon biscuits and a nip of brandy and water, which were served out by good old O'Sullivan who had come with me as doctor to the expedition.
On St. Stephen's Day I made a round of the camp and found the ponies suffering terribly and the dogs badly hit. The storm was telling on the men too, for some of them were down with dysentery, and the toes of one poor chap were black from frostbite.
I was fit enough myself, thank God, but suffering from want of sleep or rather from a restless feeling which broken sleep brought with it.
The real truth is that never since I sailed had I been able to shake off the backward thought that I ought not to have left my dear one behind me. In active work, like the gale, I could dismiss the idea of her danger; but now that I had nothing to do but to lie like a log in a sleeping-bag, I suffered terribly from my recollection of her self-sacrifice and my fear of the consequences that might come of it.
This was not so bad in the daytime, for even in the midst of the whirling snow and roaring wind I had only to close my eyes, and I could see her as she came up the road in the sunshine that Sunday morning when she was returning from church in her drooping hat and fluttering veil, or as she looked at me with her great "seeing eyes" at the last moment of all when she compelled me to come away.
But the night was the devil. No sooner did I drop off to sleep than I awoke with a start at the sound of her voice calling me by my name.
It was always a voice of distress, and though I am no dreamer and I think no crank, I could not get away from the idea that she was crying to me to come back.
That was about the one thing in the world that was impossible to me now, and yet I knew that getting assurance from somewhere that my dear one was being cared for was the only way to set my mind at rest for the job that was before me.
It may seem ridiculous that I should have thought of that, but everybody who has ever been with Nature in her mighty solitudes, aloof from the tides of life, knows that the soul of man is susceptible down there to signs which would seem childish amid the noise and bustle of the world.
It was like that with me.
I shared my tent with O'Sullivan, the chief of our scientific staff, and Treacle, who thought it his duty to take care of me, though the work was generally the other way about.