Chapter 42




CHILDLESS MOTHER.


In the sad and cheated days that followed, she, with the milk of motherhood wasting in her, saw with new eyes--saw many things heretofore hidden from her.

She did not believe in any scriptural God. But she believed--she could not help believing--in an awful Justice overarching all human life with its law, as it overarched the very stars in heaven. And this law she believed to rest in goodness, accessible to the pure conscience, but stern against the transgressor.

Because she believed this, she had felt that the marriage rite, with such an one as Mr. Silk for intercessor between her vows and a clean Heaven, could be but a sullying of marriage. Yes, and she felt it still; of this, at any rate, she was sure.

But in her pride--as truly she saw it, in her pride of chastity--she had left the child out of account. He had inherited the world to face, not armed with her weapon of scorn. He had not won freedom through a scourge. He had grown to his fate in her womb, and in the womb she had betrayed him.

She had been blind, blind! She had lived for her lover and herself. To him and to her (it had seemed) this warm, transitory life belonged; a fleeting space of time, a lodge leased to bliss. . . . Now she fronted the truth, that between the selfish rapture of lovers Heaven slips a child, smiling at the rapture, provident for the race. Now she read the secret of woman's nesting instinct; the underlying wisdom stirring the root of it, awaking passion not to satisfy passion, but that the world may go on and on to its unguessed ends. Now she could read ironically the courtship of man and maid, dallying by river-paths, beside running water, overarched by boughs that had protected a thousand such courtships. Each pair in turn--poor fools! --had imagined the world theirs, compressed into their grasp; whereas the wise world was merely flattering, coaxing them, preparing for the child.

She should have been preparing, too. For what are women made but for motherhood? She? She had had but a hand to turn, a word to utter, and this child--healthily begotten, if ever child was, and to claim, if ever child could, the best--has broken triumphing through the gate of her travail. But she had betrayed him. The new-born spirit had arrived expectant, had cast one look across the threshold, and with one wail had fled. Through and beyond her answering wail, as she laid her head on the pillow, she heard the lost feet, the small betrayed feet, pattering away into darkness.

When she grew stronger, it consoled her a little to talk with Mrs. Strongtharm; not confiding her regrets and self-reproaches, but speculating much on this great book of Maternity into which she had been given a glimpse. The metaphor was Mrs. Strongtharm's.

"Ay," said that understanding female, "a book you may call it, and a wonderful one; written by all the women, white an' black, copper-skin an' red-skin, that ever groped their way in it with pangs an' joys; for every one writes in it as well as reads. What's more, 'tis all in one language, though they come, as my man would say, from all the airts o' Babel."

"I wonder," mused Ruth, "if somewhere in it there's a chapter would tell me why, when I lie awake and think of my lost one, 'tis his footsteps I listen for--feet that never walked!"

"Hush ye, now. . . . Isn't it always their feet, the darlings! Don't the sound of it, more'n their voices, call me to door a dozen times a day? . . . I never bore child; but I made garments in hope o' one. Tell me, when you knitted his little boots, wasn't it different from all the rest?"

"Ah, put them away!"

"To be sure, dearie, to be sure--all ready for the next."

"I shall never have another child."

Mrs. Strongtharm smiled tolerantly.

"Never," Ruth repeated; "never; I know it."

With the same assurance of prophesy she answered her lover on his return, a bare two months later.

"But you must have known. . . . Even your letters kept it secret. Yet, had you written, the next ship would have brought me. Surely you did not doubt that?"

"No."

"Then why did you not tell me?"

It was the inevitable question. She had forestalled it so often in her thoughts that, when uttered at last, it gave her a curious sensation of re-enacting some long-past scene.

"I thought you did not care for children."

He was pacing the room. He halted, and stared at her in sheer astonishment. Many a beautiful woman touches the height of her beauty after the birth of her first child; and this woman had never stood before him in loveliness that, passing comprehension, so nearly touched the divine. But her perversity passed comprehension yet farther.

"Do you call that an answer?" he demanded.

"No. . . . You asked, and I had to say something; but it is no answer. Forgive me. It was the best I could find."

He still eyed her, between wrath and admiration.

"I think," she said, after a pause, "the true answer is just that I did wrongly--wrongly for the child's sake."

"That's certain. And your own?"

"My own? That does not seem to me to count so much. . . . Neither of us believe that a priest can hallow marriage; but once I felt that the touch of a certain one could defile it."

"You have never before reproached me with that."

"Nor mean to now. I chose to run from him; but, dear, I do not ask to run from the consequences."

"The blackguard has had his pretty revenge. Langton told me of it. . . . All the prudes of Boston gather up their skirts, he says."

"What matter? Are we not happier missing them? . . . Honester, surely, and by that much at any rate the happier."

"Marry me, and I promise to force them all back to your feet."

She laughed quietly, almost to herself, a little wearily. "Can you not see, my dear lord, that I ask for no such triumph? It is good of you--oh, I see how good!--to desire it for me. But did we want these people in our forest days?"

"One cannot escape the world," he muttered.

"What? Not when the world is so quick to cast one out?"

"Ruth," he said, coming and standing close to her, "I do not believe you have given me the whole answer even yet. The true reason, please!"

"Must a woman give all her reasons? . . . She follows her fate, and at each new turning she may have a dozen, all to be forgotten at the next."

"I am sure you harbour some grudge--some reservation?" His eyes questioned her.

She kept him waiting for some seconds.

"My lord, women have no consistency but in this--they are jealous when they love. As your slave, I demand nothing; as your mistress, I demand only you. But if you wished also to set me high among women, you should have given me all or nothing. . . . You did not offer to take me with you. I was not worthy to be shown to that proud folk, your family."

"If you had breathed a wish, even the smallest hint of one--"

"I had no wish, save that you should offer it. I had only some pride. I was--I am--well content; only do not come back and offer me these women of Boston, or anything second best in your eyes, however much the gift may cost you."

"Have it as you will," said he, after a long pause. "I was wrong, and I beg your pardon. But I was less wrong than your jealousy suspects. My family will welcome you. Forgive me that I thought it well--that it might save you any chance of humiliation--to prepare them."

She swept him a curtsy. "They are very good," she said.

He detected the irony, yet he persisted, holding his temper well in control. "But all this presupposes, you see, that you marry me. . . . Ruth, you confess that you were wrong, for the child's sake. He is dead; and, on the whole, so much the better, poor mite! But for another, should another be born--"

"There would be time," she said quietly. "But we shall never have another."

She had hardened strangely. It was as if the milk of motherhood, wasting in her, had packed itself in a crust about her heart. He loved her; she never ceased to love him; but whereas under the public scourge something had broken, letting her free of opinion, to love the good and hate the evil for their own sakes, under this second and more mysterious visitation, she kept her courage indeed, but certainty was hers no longer; nor was she any longer free of opinion, but hardened her heart against it consciously, as against an enemy.

Not otherwise can I account for the image of Ruth Josselin--my Lady Vyell--Lady Good-for-Nothing--as under these various names it flits, for the next few years, through annals, memoirs, correspondence, scandalous chronicles; now vindicated, now glanced at with unseemly nods and becks, anon passionately denounced; now purely shining, now balefully, above and between the clouds of those times; but always a star and an object of wonder.

"In all Massachusetts," writes the Reverend Hiram Williams, B.D., in his tract entitled A Shoe Over Edom, "was no stronghold of Satan to compare with that built on a slope to the rearward of Boston, by Sir O--V--, Baronet. Here with a woman, born of this Colony, of passing wit and beauty (both alike the dower of the Evil One), he kept house to the scandal of all devout persons, entertaining none but professed Enemies of our Liberties, Atheists, Gamesters." Here one may pause and suspect the reverend castigator of confusing several dislikes in one argument. It is done sometimes, even in our own day, by religious folk who polemise in politics. "Cards they played on the Sabbath. Plays they rehearsed too, by Shakespeare, Dryden, Congreve and others, whose names may guarantee their lewdness. . . . The woman, I have said, was fair; but of that sort their feet go down ever to Hell. . . ."

"My Noll's Belle Sauvage," writes Langton to Walpole, "continues a riddle. I shall never solve it; yet 'till I have solved it, expect me not. 'Tis certain she loves him; and because she loves him, her loyalty allows not hint of sadness even to me, his best friend. Guess why she likes me? 'Tis because (I am sure of it) even in the old clouded days I never took money from Noll, nor borrowed a shilling that I didn't repay within the week. She is a puzzle, I say; but somehow the key lies in this--She is a woman that pays her debts. . . .

"They sail for Europe next spring; but not, as I understand for England, where his family may not receive her, and where by consequence he will not expose her to their slights. If I have made you impatient to set eyes on her, you must e'enpack and pay that long-promised visit to Florence. She is worth the pilgrimage."

They sailed in the early spring of 1752--Langton with them--and duly came to port in the Tagus. From Lisbon, after a short stay, they travelled to Paris, and from Paris across Switzerland to Italy, visiting in turn Turin, Venice, Ravenna, Florence, Rome, Naples, and returning from that port to Lisbon, where (the situation so charmed him) Sir Oliver bought and furnished a villa overlooking the Tagus.

As she passes through Paris we get a glimpse of her in the Memoirs of that agreeable rattle, Arnauld de Jouy:--

"I must not forget to tell of an amusing little comedy of error played at the Opera-house this season (1752). All Paris was agog to see the famous English--or rather Irish--beauty, my Lady Coventry, newly arrived in the Capital. She was one of the Gunning sisters, over whom all London had already lost its head so wildly that I am assured a shoemaker made no small sum by exhibiting their pantoufles to the porters and chairmen at three sous a gaze. . . . On a certain night, then, it was rumoured that she would pay her first visit to the Opera, but none could say whose box she intended to honour. . . . It turned out to be the Duc de Luxembourg's, and upon my lady's entrance--a little late--the whole audience rose to its feet in homage, though Visconti happened just then to be midway in an aria. The singer faltered at the interruption, perplexed; her singing stopped, and lifting her eyes to the lines of boxes she dropped a sweeping curtsy--to the opposite side of the house! . . . All eyes turn, and behold! right opposite to Beauty Number One, into the box of Mme. the Marechale de Lowendahl there has just entered a Beauty Number Two, not one whit less fair--so regally fair indeed that the audience, yet standing, turn from one to the other, uncertain which to salute. Nor were they resolved when the act closed.

"Meantime my Lady Coventry (for in truth the first-comer was she) has sent her husband out to the foyer, to make enquiries. He comes back and reports her to be the lady of Sir Oliver Vyell, a great American Governor [But here we detect de Jouy in a slight error] newly arrived from his Province; that she is by birth an American, and has never visited Europe before. 'She must be Pocahontas herself, then,' says the Gunning, and very prettily sends across after the second Act, desiring the honour of her acquaintance. Nay, this being granted, she goes herself to the Marechale's box, and the pair sit together in full view of all--a superb challenge, and made with no show (as I believe, with no feeling) of jealousy. The audience is entranced. . . . Report said later that my Lady Coventry, who was given to these small indiscretions, asked almost in her first breath, yet breathlessly, her rival's age. Her rival smiled and told it. 'Then you are older than I--but how long have you been married?' This, too, her rival told her. 'Then,' sighed the Gunning, 'perhaps you do not love your lord as I love my Cov. It is wearing to the looks; but 'faith, I cannot help it!'"

From Lisbon Sir Oliver paid several flying visits to England, where his suit against Lady Caroline still dragged. Nor was it concluded until the summer of 1754, when the Gentleman's Magazine yields us the following:--

"June 4. A cause between Sir Oliver Vyell, baronet, plaintiff, and the lady of the late Sir Thomas, defendant, was tried in the Court of King's Bench by a special jury. The subject of the litigation was a will of Sir Thomas, suspected to be made when he was not of sound mind; and it appeared that he had made three--one in 1741, another in 1744, and a third in 1746. In the first only a slender provision was made for his lady, by the second a family estate in Devonshire, of 2,000 pounds per annum, was given her for her life, and by the third the whole estate real and personal was left to be disposed of at her discretion without any provision for the heir-at-law. The jury, after having withdrawn for about an hour and a half, set aside the last and confirmed the second. In a hearing before the Lord Chancellor some time afterwards in relation to the costs, it was deemed that the lady should pay them all, both at common law and in Chancery."

Thus we see our Ruth by glimpses in these years which were far from being the best or the happiest of her life--"an innocent life, yet far astray."

But one letter of hers abides, kept in contrition by the woman to whom she wrote it, and in this surely the noble soul of her mounts like a star and shines, clear above the wreck of her life.


"MY DEAR MRS. HARRY,--"

"Let there be few words between us. My child did not live, and I shall never bear my lord another; therefore, outside of your feelings and mine, what you did or left undone matters not at all in this world. You talk of the next, and there you go beyond me; but if there be a next world, and my forgiveness can help you there, why you had it long ago! . . . 'You reproach yourself constantly,' you say; 'You should have told him and you withheld the letter;' 'You did wickedly'--and the rest. Oh, my dear, will you not see that I have been a mother, too, and understand? In your place I might have done the same. Yes? No? At any rate I should have known the temptation.

"Yours affectionately,"
"RUTH."


The law business ended, she and Sir Oliver sailed for Boston and spent a few weeks at Eagles. He had resigned the Collectorship of Customs, but with no intent to return and make England his home. His attachment to Eagles had grown; he was perpetually making fresh plans to enlarge and adorn it; and he proposed henceforth, laying aside all official cares, to spend his summers in New England, his winters in the softer climate of Lisbon.




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