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A PROLOGUE TO NOTHING.
Sir Oliver wrote cheerfully. His lawsuit was prospering; his prompt invasion of the field had disconcerted Lady Caroline and her advisers. He had discovered fresh evidence of the late Sir Thomas's insanity. His own lawyers were sanguine. They assured him that, at the worst, the Courts would set aside the '46 will, and fall back for a compromise on that of '44, which gave the woman a life-interest only in the Downton estates. But the case would not be taken this side of the Long Vacation. . . . (It was certain, then, that he could not return in time.)
He had visited Bath and spent some weeks with his mother. He devoted a page or two to criticism of that fashionable city. It was clear he had picked up many threads of his younger days; had renewed old acquaintances and made a hundred new ones. Play, he wrote, was a craze in England; the stakes frightened a home-comer from New England. For his part, he gamed but moderately.
"As for the women, you have spoilt me for them. I see none--not one, dearest--who can hold a taper to you. Their artifices disgust me; and I watch them, telling myself that my Ruth has only to enter their balls and assemblies to triumph--nay, to eclipse them totally. . . . And this reminds me to say that I have spoken with my mother. She had heard, of course, from more than one. Lady Caroline's account had been merely coarse and spiteful; but by that lady's later conduct she was already prepared to discount it. The pair encountered in London, at my Lady Newcastle's; and my mother (who has spirit) refused her bow. Diana, to her credit, appears to have done you more justice; and Mrs. Harry writes reams in your praise. To be sure my mother, not knowing Mrs. Harry, distrusts her judgment for a Colonial's; but I vow she is the soundest of women. . . . In short, dear Ruth, we have only to regularise things and we are forgiven. The good soul dotes on me, and imagines she has but a few years left to live. This softens her. . . .
"There is a rumour--credit it, if you can!--that my Aunt Caroline intends to espouse a Mr. Adam Rouffignac, a foreigner and a wine merchant; I suppose (since he is reputed rich) to arm herself with money to pay her lawyers. What his object can be, poor man, I am unable to conjecture. It is a strange world. While her ugly mother mates at the age of fifty, Diana--who started with all the advantages of looks--withers upon the maiden thorn. . . ."
His letters, every one, concluded with protests of affection. She rejoiced in them. But it was now certain that he could not return in time.
At length, as her day drew near, she wrote to him, conceiving this to be her duty. She knew that he would take a blow from what she had to tell, and covered it up cleverly, lightly covering all her own dread. She hoped the child would be a boy. ("But why do I hope it?" she asked herself as she penned the words, and thought of Dicky.)
She said nothing of Mr. Silk's treachery; nothing of her ostracism. This indeed, during the later months, she recognised for the blessing it was.
Towards the end she felt a strange longing to have her mother near, close at hand, for her lying-in. The poor silly soul could not travel alone. . . . Ruth considered this and hit on the happy inspiration of inviting Mrs. Strongtharm to bring her. Tatty was useless, and among the few women who had been kind Mrs. Strongtharm had been the kindest.
Ruth sat down and penned a letter; and Mrs. Strongtharm, unable to write, responded valiantly. She arrived in a cart, with Mrs. Josselin at her side; and straightway alighting and neglecting Mrs. Josselin, sailed into a seventh heaven of womanly fuss. She examined the baby-clothes critically.
"Made with your own pretty hands--and with all this mort o' servants tumblin' over one another to help ye. But 'tis nat'ral. . . . It came to nothing with me, but I know. And expectin' a boy o' course. . . . La! ye blushin' one, don't I know the way of it!"
When Ruth's travail came on her the three were gathered by candle-light in Sir Oliver's dressing-room. Beyond the door, attended by her maid and a man-midwife, Ruth shut her teeth upon her throes. So the prologue opens.
Mrs. Josselin sits in an armchair, regarding the pattern of the carpet with a silly air of self-importance; Mrs. Strongtharm in a chair opposite. By the window Miss Quiney, pulling at her knuckles, stares out through the dark panes. A clock strikes.
Miss Quiney (with a nervous start). Four o'clock . . . nine hours. . . .
Mrs. Strongtharm. More. The pains took her soon after six. . . . When her bell rang I looked at the clock. I remember.
Miss Quiney. My poor Ruth.
Mrs. Strongtharm. Eh? The first, o' course. . . . But a long labour's often the best.
Miss Quiney. There has not been a sound for hours.
Mrs. Strongtharm. She's brave. They say, too, that a man-child, if he's a real strong one, will wait for daybreak; but that's old women's notions, I shouldn't wonder.
Miss Quiney. A man-child? You think it will be?
Mrs. Strongtharm. (She exchanges a glance with Mrs. Josselin, who has looked up suddenly and nods.) Certain.
Mrs. Josselin. Certain, certain! I wonder, now, what they'll call him! After Sir Oliver, perhaps. Her own father's name was Michael. In my own family--that's the Pocock's--the men were mostly Williams and Georges. Called after the Kings of England.
Mrs. Strongtharm (yawns). Oliver Cromwell was as good as any king, and better. Leastways my mar says so. For my part, I don't bother my head wi' these old matters.
Miss Quiney (tentatively). Do you know, I was half hoping it would be a girl, just like my darling. (To herself) God forgive me, when I think--
Mrs. Strongtharm (interrupting the thought). She won't be hoping for a girl. You don't understand these things, beggin' your pardon, ma'am.
Miss Quiney (meekly). No.
Mrs. Josselin. You don't neither of you understand. How should you?
Mrs. Strongtharm (stung). I understand as well as a fool, I should hope! (She turns to Miss Quiney.) 'Twas a nat'ral wish in ye, ma'am, that such a piece o' loveliness should bear just such another. But wait a while; they're young and there's time. . . . My lady wants a boy first, like every true woman that loves her lord. There's pride an' wonder in it. All her life belike she's felt herself weak an' shivered to think of battles, and now, lo an' behold, she's the very gates o' strength with an army marchin' forth to conquer the world. Ha'n't ye never caught your breath an' felt the tears swellin' when ye saw a regiment swing up the street?
Miss Quiney. Ah! . . . Is it like that?
Mrs. Strongtharm. It's like all that, an' more. . . . An' though I've wet my pillow afore now with envy of it, I thank the Lord for givin' a barren woman the knowledge.
Mrs. Josselin (with a silly laugh). What wonderful patterns they make in the carpets nowadays! Look at this one, now--runnin' in and out so that the eye can't hardly follow it; and all for my lord's dressing-room! Cost a hundred pound, I shouldn't wonder.
Mrs. Strongtharm. T'cht!
Mrs. Josselin. He must be amazing fond of her. Fancy, my Ruth! . . . It's a pity he's not home, to take the child.
Mrs. Strongtharm. Men at these times are best out o' the way.
Mrs. Josselin. When my first was born, Michael--that's my husband--stayed home from sea o' purpose to take it. My first was a girl. No, not Ruth; Ruth was born after my man died, and I had her christened Ruth because some one told me it stood for "sorrow." I had three before Ruth--a girl an' two boys, an' buried them all.
Miss Quiney (listening). Hush!
Mrs. Josselin (not hearing, immersed in her own mental flow). If you call a child by a sorrowful name it's apt to ward off the ill-luck. Look at Ruth now--christened in sorrow an' married, after all, to the richest in the land!
Miss Quiney (in desperation). Oh, hush! hush!
A low moan comes from the next room. The women sit silent, their faces white in the dawn that now comes stealing in at the window, conquering the candle-light by little and little.
Mrs. Strongtharm. I thought I heard a child's cry. . . . They cry at once.
Miss Quiney. Ah? I fancied it, too--a feeble one.
Mrs. Strongtharm (rising after a long pause). Something is wrong. . . .
As she goes to listen at the door, it opens, and the man-midwife enters. His face is grave.
Mrs. Strongtharm and Miss Quiney ask him together, under their breath--Well?
He answers: It is well. We have saved her life, I trust.
--And the child?
--A boy. It lived less than a minute. . . . Yet a shapely child. . . .
Miss Quiney clasps her hands. Shall she, within her breast, thank God? She cannot. She hears the voice saying,--
A very shapely child. . . . But the labour was difficult. There was some pressure on the brain, some lesion.
They would have denied Ruth sight of the poor little body, but she stretched out her arms for it and insisted. Then as she held it, flesh of her flesh, to her breast and felt it cold, she--she, whose courage had bred wonder in them, even awe--she who had smiled between her pangs, murmuring pretty thanks--wailed low, and, burying her face, lay still.
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