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Slower to decide than most young persons of her independent character, Gwynneth was one of those who are none the less capable of decisive conduct in a definite emergency. She behaved with spirit in the predicament in which her weakness and her strength had combined to place her. She had jilted Sidney; outsiders might not know it; but she had treated him in a way which he and his were never likely to forgive. After that, and that alone, his home could not have been her home any more; but Gwynneth had other and even stronger reasons for determining to leave Long Stow; and there were none why she should not. She had her money. She was of age. She would be a good riddance now. It was her first thought in the garden. The thought hardened to resolve while Sidney, full of bitterness and champagne, was still galling his hired horse back to Cambridge. Gwynneth also was gone within the week.
It was a chance acquaintance to whom the girl had written in her need. She had met in Leipzig a strangely interesting woman: commanding, mysterious, self-contained. This lady, a Mrs. Molyneux by name, had taken notice of Gwynneth, and, at the close of their short acquaintance, had given her a card inscribed in pencil with the name of St. Hilda's Hospital, Campden Hill.
"You have never heard of it," Mrs. Molyneux had said with a smile; "but I shall be very glad if you will come and see me and my hospital some day when you are in town."
Gwynneth had felt honoured, she could scarcely have said why, for she knew no more of this lady than she had seen for herself, which was really very little. But there is a kind of distinction which appeals to the instinct rather than to the conscious perceptions, and Gwynneth had felt both awed and flattered by an invitation which was obviously sincere. She had said that she should love to see the hospital—and had never been near it yet.
"I don't know whether you have ever thought of being a nurse," Mrs. Molyneux had added with Gwynneth's hand in hers; "but if you ever should—or if ever you want to do something, and don't know what else to do—I wish you would write to me, and let me be your friend."
The second invitation had been given with a wonderfully understanding look—a look which seemed to sift the secrets of Gwynneth's heart—a look she would not have cared to meet during the late season. She had promised again, however, very gratefully indeed; and it was her second promise that Gwynneth eventually kept.
"I had such a strong feeling about you," Mrs. Molyneux wrote by return. "I knew that I should hear from you sooner or later . . . I like your frankness in saying that it is no fine impulse, or love of nursing for its own sake, that makes you wish to come. I do not seek to know what it is. Even if you are no nurse you can play the organ in our little chapel as it has not been played yet; and that would be very much to me. So come any day and make your home with us at least for a time." The writer contrived to refer to herself as "Reverend Mother," in emphatic capitals, and her letter was signed "Constance Molyneux, Mother in God."
It happened that Gwynneth had spoken of Mrs. Molyneux to her aunt, who knew a good name when she heard it, and had often asked Gwynneth if she was not going to pay that call on Campden Hill; thus her recklessness in casting herself among strangers was more apparent than real, and little likely to aggravate her prime offence against kith and kin. Nor did it; nevertheless it was a plunge into all but unknown waters. The hospital was a private one, and Mrs. Molyneux both spoke and wrote of it as her own. It was a cancer hospital for women, evidently run upon religious lines, and those not easy to define, since Gwynneth happened to know that the Reverend Mother was not a Roman Catholic. And these things were all she did know when her hansom drew up before a red-brick building with ecclesiastical windows, and a cross over the door, in a leafy road not five minutes' climb from Kensington High Street.
Gwynneth pulled the wrought-iron bell-handle, and next moment caught her breath. The door had been opened by a portress in austere but becoming garb, a young girl like herself, and the pretty face between the quaint cap and collar was smiling a sweet greeting to the newcomer. A few worn steps of snowy stone, and a Gothic doorway, with the oak door standing open, showed more girls within against the wainscot; all were pretty; and all wore blue serge, with white aprons and long cambric cuffs, square bib-collars trimmed with lace, and Normandy caps with streamers of fine lawn. Gwynneth blushed for her own conventional attire, as she was ushered through this hall, past a dispensary where another of the uniformed girls was busy among the bottles, and so into the presence of the Reverend Mother.
Mrs. Molyneux, the well-dressed woman of the world whom Gwynneth had known in Leipzig, was a lost identity in a habit which marked her sway only by its supreme severity; an order of St. John of Jerusalem hung upon her bosom, and a crucifix dangled at her side. Her hands were hidden beneath some short and shapeless garment reaching to the waist, but one emerged for a moment to greet Gwynneth warmly. "Do you feel as if you had come into a convent?" the Reverend Mother asked, a gentle humour in her lowered voice. It was exactly what Gwynneth did feel, and the sensation was by no means displeasing to her. The Mother herself then showed Gwynneth over the establishment, which was indeed a singular amalgam of the hospital and the nunnery. The dining-room was termed the "refectory"; a cross hung over every bed in the wards upstairs, and in the nurses' cubicles below the wards. Cap and apron, bib-collar and cuffs, were laid out on Gwynneth's bed, and these she found herself expected to don then and there. The Mother returned when she was ready, and showed her the chapel last of all. It was a tiny chapel, but as beautiful as antique carving, rich embroidery, much stained glass, and hanging lights could make it. In her innocence Gwynneth wondered why these lights were burning while the summer sun, shining through the stained glass, filled the chapel with vivid beams of purple and red. She was even puzzled by the unmistakable odour of recent incense; but she said, with truth, that the chapel delighted her.
"I knew it would," the Mother whispered with her penetrating smile.
"How could you know?" Gwynneth asked, smiling also, because she had never touched on religion with Mrs. Molyneux.
"I saw you once in the English church," the Mother said. "It was before I knew you; and yet, you see, I did know you, even then!"
In this chapel there were daily matins, vespers, nones; and at each of the three services attendance was compulsory on the part of all nurses not required at an actual deathbed, and of all patients who were still up and about. French-capped, pink-frocked maid-servants and ward-maids filled the front rows of chairs; the patients sat behind; and on either hand, in the carved oak stalls, were the pretty nurses, the Reverend Mother near the entrance in their midst. The services, conducted by an attendant Anglican of small account, were punctuated by genuflexions and the sacred sign; and it was impossible to follow them in the Book of Common Prayer.
Gwynneth tried hard to lift up her heart in this strange sanctuary. She longed for real religion as she had longed for little in her life before. At the first blush, it seemed as though Providence alone could have led her into so unique a haven of equal sanctity and usefulness; and yet, also from the first, the girl was repelled a little if attracted more. She liked her work; she was a natural nurse, and soon grew used, but never hardened, to hopeless suffering and slow death. There were patients who loved Gwynneth, and not a nurse who was not fond of her, before she had been at St. Hilda's a month. Already she was playing the organ at all three services, and her own music, and the voices floating up to her, at these set times, filled her heart with peace; but she wondered if it was the right kind of peace; she wondered whether this was religion at all. Sometimes the sweet little chapel—for it was all that to Gwynneth's mind—struck her also as a stage of studied effects. The nurses were so pretty, their garb so becoming, and the blue of it had such a perfect foil in the maid-servants' pink. But then the Reverend Mother, in her sombre supremacy, gradually revealed herself as the superb mistress of deliberate effect; and a strange study Gwynneth found her; of foibles and fascination all compact; at once subtle, simple, vain, and noble. It appeared that Mrs. Molyneux was an extremely wealthy widow, whose one consoling hobby was this anomalous retreat upon Campden Hill.
The patients paid nothing; the nurses received nothing; it was a retreat for both, and Gwynneth was not the only one who had sought it primarily, and frankly, for peace of mind and salvation from self. Her hands at least were not the less tender and untiring on that account. Some of her capped and cuffed comrades were no older than herself; many were refreshingly frivolous, and properly free from care. Gwynneth's chief crony was Nurse Ella, a bright young widow, who wore spectacles, and declared herself unable to understand what the Reverend Mother had ever seen in her, as she was neither pretty nor religious, nor as young as the rest.
Nurse Ella had, however, a shrewd wit and a sharp tongue; made wicked fun of the Mother's sacerdotal pretensions when alone with Gwynneth; and thus stimulated the latter to think for herself, if only to refute her friend's arguments. Nurse Ella was above all things an extraordinarily decided character, aggressively so in immaterial issues, but good for Gwynneth by that very fact.
These opposites became fast friends. Often they would talk over the refectory fire—a wood fire in an ancient grate, which cast the right mediæval glow over the polished floor and the dark wainscotting—long after the others were in their cubicles. Nurse Ella had the greatest scorn for the conventual side of St. Hilda's, which Gwynneth would defend warmly, while her heart admitted more than her lips; the discussion would ramify, and become animated on both sides; then all at once Nurse Ella would look at her watch, and no persuasion would induce her to stay another minute. Gwynneth could have sat up half the night, and would plead in vain for ten minutes more; it seldom took Nurse Ella as many seconds to suit her action to her word. She said she would do a thing, and did it; that was Nurse Ella's principle in life.
So there was no exchange of confidences between these two, both reticent natures, and neither unduly inquisitive about the other's affairs. Gwynneth only knew that her friend's married life had been a very short one; for her own part, she had said nothing to let Nurse Ella suppose that she had herself been even asked in marriage. But one night they were speaking of another nurse, who had left St. Hilda's that day, in floods of tears, to be married the following week.
"If I felt like that," Gwynneth had declared, "I wouldn't be married at all."
Nurse Ella looked up quickly, her glasses flaming in the firelight. "What, not after you had given your word?" said she.
"Certainly not, if I felt I had made a mistake." Gwynneth was staring into the fire.
"You would break your solemn promise in a thing like that?" the other persisted.
"Better one promise than two lives," replied Gwynneth, with oracular brevity. Nurse Ella watched her in sidelong astonishment.
"It's easy to talk, my dear! I believe you are the last person who would do anything so dishonourable."
"I don't call it dishonourable."
"But it is, to break your word."
"Suppose you have changed?"
"You have no business to change. Say you'll do a thing, and do it."
The spectacled face had assumed a rigid cast which Gwynneth knew well, and for which Nurse Ella had just the chin.
"But supposing you never really loved——"
"Love is an inexact term; it's not always easy to tell when it applies to your feelings, and when it does not. But when you say you'll marry anybody, that's a definite promise, and nothing in the world should make you break it, unless it's been extracted under false pretences. We are both very positive, aren't we?" and Nurse Ella smiled. "I wonder why you are, Gwynneth?"
"Because," said the girl, impelled to frankness, yet hanging her head, "as a matter of fact, I've been more or less engaged myself."
"And you got out of it?"
"I broke it off."
"Simply because you had changed?"
"No—it was a mistake from the beginning. I had never really cared. That was my shame."
"And you broke your word—you had the courage!"
The tone was a low one of mere surprise. There was more in the look which accompanied the tone. But Gwynneth had her eyes turned inward, and her wonder was not yet.
"It had to be done," she said simply. "It was humiliating enough, but it was not so bad as going on . . . Can anything be so bad as marrying a man you do not love, just because you have made a mistake, and are too proud to admit it?"
"No . . . you are right . . . that is the worst of all."
It might have been a studied picture that the two young women made, in the old oak room, with the firelight falling on their quaint sweet garb, and reddening their pensive faces, only conscious of the inner self. Nurse Ella was standing up, gazing down into the fire, her back turned to Gwynneth; but now her tone was enough. It was neither wistful nor bitter, but only heavy with conviction; and in another moment Nurse Ella was gone, not more abruptly than usual, but without letting Gwynneth see her face again. Then Gwynneth recalled the look with which the other had exclaimed upon her courage, and either she flattered herself, or that look had been one of envy pure and simple. Could it be that her friend's decided character was all self-conscious and acquired? Was her intolerance of the slightest hesitation, in matters of no account, a life's reaction from a fatal irresolution in some crisis of her own career?
Gwynneth never knew; for a fine mutual reserve distinguished the intimacy of this pair, and even drew them together, opposite as they were in so many other respects, more than impulsive confidences on either side. One had suffered; the other was suffering now; each was a little mystery to her friend. And there was one more reason for this: neither was sure of the other's sympathy: at every point of contact they diverged.
So Gwynneth used to wonder whether Nurse Ella was in reality a widow at all, and Nurse Ella was quite sure that Gwynneth was still in love, probably with the man she had jilted, according to the wise way of women; she was so ready to speak of love in the abstract; and once she spoke so passionately. This was in Kensington Gardens, one foggy Sunday, when the two nurses were on their way to church; for they were allowed to worship where they listed after matins at St. Hilda's. Nurse Ella rented a sitting under a fashionable preacher who discoursed with much wisdom and some acidity on topics of the hour; but Gwynneth was still seeking her spiritual ideal. They would walk together as far as the Bayswater Road, where their ways diverged, unless Nurse Ella could induce Gwynneth to go with her; on this particular morning they were arguing about a novel when the houses loomed upon them through the bare trees and the fog.
"She never would have forgiven him," Nurse Ella had declared, in crisp settlement of the point at issue. "No young wife would forgive a young husband who behaved like that. So it may be the cleverest novel in the language, but it isn't true to life." Whereupon Gwynneth, who had been defending a masterpiece with laudable spirit, walked some yards in silence. "Are you sure that it matters how people behave," she then inquired, "if you really love them?"
"How they behave?" echoed her friend. "Why, Gwynneth, of course! Nothing does matter except behaviour."
"It wouldn't to me," Gwynneth exclaimed, almost through her teeth.
"But surely what one does is everything!"
"Not in love," averred Gwynneth, whose convictions were few but firm; "and those two are more in love than any other couple I know in fiction or real life. No; you love people for what they are, not for what they do."
Nurse Ella laughed outright.
"That may be good metaphysics," said she, "but it's shocking common-sense! Our actions are the only possible test of our character, as its fruit is the only test of a tree."
In Gwynneth's eyes burnt wondrous fires, and on her cheeks; and her breath was coming very quickly. But most persons look straight ahead as they walk and talk, and between these two fell the kindly fog besides.
"Suppose you loved somebody," the young girl cried at last; "and suppose you suddenly discovered he had once done something dreadful—unspeakable. Would that alter your feeling towards him?"
"It could never fail to do so, Gwynneth."
"It would not alter mine!"
Nurse Ella turned her head. But in the road the fog seemed thicker than in the gardens. And, apart from its vigour, Gwynneth's tone had sounded impersonal enough.
"I believe it would," her friend persisted, "when the time came."
"And I know that it would not," said Gwynneth, half under her breath and half through her teeth.
"Well, Gwynneth," said Nurse Ella, with a laugh, "we were evidently born to differ. In my view that would be the one sort of excuse for changing one's mind about a man—whereas you see others!"
"But I am not talking about one's mind," cried Gwynneth; "the feeling I mean, the feeling those two have in the book, lies infinitely deeper than the mind."
"And no crime could alter it?"
"Not if he atoned—not if the rest of his life were one long atonement."
"But, Gwynneth, that would make all the difference."
Gwynneth walked on in silence. She was reconsidering her own last words.
"Atonement or no atonement," she exclaimed at length, "it would make no difference—if I loved the man. Atonement or no atonement!" repeated Gwynneth defiantly.
Nurse Ella had a passion for the last word, but they were come to her corner, and there was Gwynneth glowing through the fog, her eyes alight, her cheeks flaming, a new being in the puzzled eyes of her friend.
"Come with me, Gwynneth," begged Nurse Ella, at length; "don't go off by yourself. Come, dear, and hear a shrewd, hard-headed sermon, without sentiment or superstition!"
Gwynneth smiled. That was the last thing to meet her mood.
"Then where shall you go?"
"Either St. Simeon's or All Souls'," said Gwynneth. "I haven't made up my mind."
Nurse Ella shook her head over an admission as characteristic as her disapproval. This was the Gwynneth that she knew.
"When do you make it up!" exclaimed Nurse Ella without inquiry.
"When it's a matter of the least importance," said Gwynneth, choosing to reply. "What can it signify which church I go to, what difference can it possibly make? As a matter of fact I rather think of going to All Souls'."
"I thought you didn't care about music and nothing else?"
"I don't know that there is nothing else. I think of going to see. I have often thought of it before, but St. Simeon's is rather nearer, and I generally end by going there. I shall decide on the way."
"What a girl you are, Gwynneth!" exclaimed Nurse Ella, with frank impatience. "You never seem to know your own mind—never!"
Gwynneth made no reply; but she kindled afresh, and this time very tenderly, as she went her own way through the fog.
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