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The Unlawful Mother by Katharine Tynan

 

In the Island the standard of purity is an extraordinarily high one, and it is almost unheard of that a woman should fall away from it. Purity is the unquestioned prerogative of every Island girl or woman, and it only comes to them as a vague far-off horror in an unknown world that there are places under the sun and the stars where such is not the case. The punishment is appalling in the very few cases where sin has lifted its head amongst these austere people. The lepers' hut of old was no such living death of isolation as surrounds an Island girl who has smirched her good name. Henceforth there is an atmosphere about her that never lifts—of horror for some, of tragedy for others, according to their temperament. There she stands lonely for all her days, with the seal set upon her that can never be broken, the consecration of an awful and tragic destiny.

I knew of such an one who was little more than a child when this horror befell her. She has dark blue eyes and thick black lashes, and very white skin. The soft dark hair comes low on her white forehead. With a gaily-coloured shawl covering her head, and drawn across her chin, as they wear it in the Island, she looks, or looked when I last saw her, a hidden, gliding image of modesty. And despite that sin of the past she is modest. It was the ignorant sin of a child, and out of the days of horror and wrath that followed—her purging—she brought only the maternity that burns like a white flame in her. The virtuous were more wroth against her in old days that she carried her maternity so proudly. Why, not the most honourable and cherished of the young Island mothers dandled her child with such pride. No mother of a young earl could have stepped lighter, and held her head higher, than Maggie when she came down the fishing street, spurning the very stones, as it seemed, so lightly she went with the baby wrapped in her shawl. She did not seem to notice that some of the kindly neighbours stepped aside, or that here and there a woman pulled her little daughter within doors, out of the path of the unlawful mother. Those little pink fingers pushed away shame and contempt. The child was her world.

She was the daughter of a fisherman who died of a chest complaint soon after she was born. Her mother still lives, a hard-featured honest old woman, with a network of fine lines about her puckered eyes. Her hair went quite white the year her daughter's child was born, but I remember it dark and abundant with only a silver thread glistening here and there. She has grown taciturn too; she was talkative enough in the old days when I was a child in the Island, and, often and often, came clattering in by the half-door to shelter from a shower, and sat till fine weather on a stool by the turf ashes, gravely discussing the fishing and the prospects of pigs and young fowl that season.

There are three sons, but Jim was married and doing for himself before the trouble befell the family. Tom and Larry were at home, Tom, gentle and slow-spoken, employed about the Hall gardens. Larry, a fisherman like his father before him. Both were deeply attached to their young sister, and had been used to pet and care for her from her cradle.

There is yet a tradition in the island of that terrible time when Maggie's mother realised the disgrace her daughter had brought on an honest name. There had been a horrified whisper in the Island for some time before, a surmise daily growing more certain, an awe-stricken compassion for the honest people who never suspected the ghastly shadow about to cross their threshold. People had been slow to accept this solution of Maggie's pining and weakness. This one had suggested herb-tea, and that one had offered to accompany Maggie to see the dispensary doctor who came over from Breagh every Tuesday. But Maggie accepted none of their offices, only withdrew herself more and more in a sick horror of herself and life, and roamed about the cliffs where but the gulls and the little wild Island cattle looked on at her restless misery.

Her mother was half-fretted and half impatient of her daughter's ailing. She was a very strong woman herself, and except for a pain in the side which had troubled her of late, she had never known a day of megrims. She listened chafing to the neighbours' advice—and every one of them had their nostrum—and heeded none of them. She had an idea herself that the girl's sickness was imaginary and could be thrown off if she willed it. When the neighbours all at once ceased offering her advice and sympathy she felt it a distinct relief. She had not the remotest idea that she was become the centre of an awe-stricken sympathy, that her little world had fallen back and stood gaping at her and hers as they might at one abnormally stricken: if their gabble ceased very suddenly and no more idlers came in for a chat by the fireside she was not the one to fret; she had always plenty to do without idle women hindering her, and, now the girl had her sick fit on her, all the work fell to the mother's share.

The girl's time was upon her before the mother guessed at the blinding and awful truth. She was a proud, stern, old woman, come of a race strong in rectitude, and she would scarcely have believed an angel if one had come to testify to her daughter's dishonour. But the time came when it could no longer be hidden, when the birth-pains were on the wretched girl, and in the quietness of the winter night, her sin stood forth revealed.

Some merciful paralysis stiffened the mother's lips when she would have cursed her daughter. She lifted up her voice indeed to curse, but it went from her; her lips jabbered helplessly; over her face came a bluish-gray shade, and she fell in a chair huddled with one hand pressed against her side.

The two men came in on this ghastly scene. The girl was crouched on the floor with her face hidden, shrinking to the earth from the terrible words she expected to hear. The men lifted the sister to her bed in the little room. They forced some spirit between their mother's lips, and in a few minutes the livid dark shade began to pass from her face. Her lips moved. 'Take her,' she panted, 'take that girl and her shame from my honest house, lest I curse her.'

The two men looked at each other. They turned pale through their hardy brownness, and then flushed darkly red. It flashed on them in an instant. This was the meaning of the girl's sickness, of a thousand hints they had not understood. Tom, with characteristic patience, was the first to bend his back to the burden.

'Whisht, mother,' he said, 'whisht. Don't talk about cursing. If there's one black sin under our roof-tree, we won't open the door to another.' He put his arm round her in a tender way. 'Come, achora,' he said, as if he were humouring a child, 'come and lie down. You're not well, you creature.'

'Oh Tom,' said the mother, softening all at once, 'the black shame's on me, and I'll never be well again in this world.'

She let him lift her to her bed in one of the little rooms that went off the kitchen. Then he came back to where Larry stood, with an acute misery on his young face, looking restlessly from the turf sods he was kicking now and again to the door behind which their young sister lay in agony.

'There's no help for it, Larry,' said Tom, touching him on the shoulder. 'We can't trust her and the mother under one roof. We must take her to the hospital. It's low water to-night, and you can get the ass-cart across the sand. You'll take her, Larry, an' I'll stay an' see to the mother.'

They wrapped the girl in all the bedclothes they could find and lifted her into the little cart full of straw. The Island lay quiet under the moon, all white with snow except where a black patch showed a ravine or cleft in the rocks. In the fishing village the doors were shut and the bits of curtains drawn. It was bitterly cold, and not a night for any one to be abroad. The ass-cart went quietly over the snow. The two men walked by it, never speaking; a low moaning came from the woman in the cart. They did not meet a soul on their way to the shore.

At that point the Island sends out a long tongue of rock and sand towards the mainland. At very low water there is but a shallow pool between the two shores; over this they crossed. Sometimes the ass-cart stuck fast in the sand. Then the men lifted the wheels gently, so as not to jerk the cart, and then encouraging the little ass, they went on again. When they had climbed up the rocky shore to the mainland, and the cart was on the level road, they parted. Before Tom turned his face homewards he bent down to Maggie. 'You're goin' where you'll be taken care of, acushla. Don't fret; Larry'll fetch you home as soon as you can travel,' he said. And then, as if he could scarcely bear the sight of her drawn face in the moonlight, he turned abruptly, and went striding down the rocky shore to the strand.

Because Tom and Larry had forgiven out of their great love, it did not therefore follow that the shame did not lie heavily on them. Tom went with so sad a face and so lagging a step that people's hearts ached for him; while young Larry, who was always bright and merry, avoided all the old friends, and when suddenly accosted turned a deep painful red and refused to meet the eyes that looked their sympathy at him.

A few weeks passed and it was time for the girl to leave the hospital. There had been long and bitter wrangles—bitter at least on one side—between the mother and sons. She had sworn at first that she would never live under the roof with the girl, but the lads returned her always the same answer, 'If she goes we go too.' And by degrees their dogged persistence dulled the old woman's fierce anger. Maggie came home, and the cradle was established beside the hearth. At first the brothers had whispered together of righting her, but when she had answered them a question—a dull welt of shame tingling on their cheeks and hers as though some one had cut them with a whip—they knew it was useless. The man had gone to America some months before, and was beyond the reach of their justice.

But the child throve as if it had the fairest right to be in the world, and was no little nameless waif whose very existence was a shame. He was a beautiful boy, round and tender, with his mother's dark-blue eyes, and the exquisite baby skin which is softer than any rose-leaf. From very early days he crowed and chuckled and was a most cheerful baby. Left alone in his cradle he would be quietly happy for hours; he slept a great deal, and only announced his waking from sleep by a series of delighted chuckles, which brought his mother running to his side to hoist him in her arms.

He must have been about a year old when I first saw him. Maggie intruded him on no one, though people said that if any one admired her baby it made her their lover for life. I happened to be in the Island for a while, and one evening on a solitary ramble round the cliffs I came face to face with Maggie,—Maggie stepping high, and prettier than ever with that rapt glory of maternity in her face which made ordinary prettiness common beside her.

I saw by the way she wisped the shawl round her full white chin that I was welcome to pass her if I would. But I did not pass her. I stopped and spoke a little on indifferent topics, and then I asked for the baby. A radiant glow of pleasure swept over the young mother's healthily pale face. She untwisted the shawl and lifted a fold of it, and stood looking down at the sleeping child with a brooding tenderness, almost divine. He was indeed lovely, with the flush of sleep upon him and one little dimpled hand thrust against her breast. 'What a great boy!' I said. 'But you must be half killed carrying him.' She laughed out joyfully, a sweet ringing laughter like the music of bells. 'Deed then,' she said, ''tis the great load he is entirely, an' any wan but meself 'ud be droppin' under the weight of him. But it 'ud be the quare day I'd complain of my jewel. Sure it's the light heart he gives me makes him lie light in my arms.'

But Maggie's mother remained untouched by the child's beauty and winsomeness. Mother and daughter lived in the same house absolutely without speech of each other. The girl was gentleness and humility itself. For her own part she never forgot she was a sinner, though she would let no one visit it on the child. I have been told that it was most pathetic to see how she strove to win forgiveness from her mother, how she watched and waited on her month after month with never a sign from the old woman, who was not as strong as she had been. The pain in her side took her occasionally, and since any exertion brought it on she was fain at last to sit quietly in the chimney-corner a good deal more than she had been used to. She had seen the doctor, very much against her will, and he had said her heart was affected, but with care and avoiding great excitement, it might last her to a good old age.

Maggie was glad of the hard work put upon her. She washed and swept and scrubbed and polished all day long, with a touching little air of cheerfulness which never ceased to be sad unless when she was crooning love-songs to the baby. She made no effort to take up her old friends again, though she was so grateful when any one stopped and admired the baby. She quite realised that her sin had set her apart, that nothing in all the world could give her back what she had lost, and set her again by the side of those happy companions of her childhood.

As the time passed she never seemed to feel that her mother was hard and unrelenting. She bore her dark looks and her silence with amazing patience. Usually the old woman seemed never to notice the child; but once Maggie came in and saw her gazing at the sleeping face in the cradle with what seemed to her a look of scorn and dislike. She gave a great cry, like the cry of a wounded thing, and snatching the child, ran out with him bareheaded, carrying him away to the high cliffs covered with flowers full of honey, and there she crooned and cried over him till the soothing of the sweet wind and the sunshine eased her heart, and the blighting gaze that had fallen upon her darling had left no shadow.

For her two brothers she felt and displayed a doglike devotion and gratitude. The big fellows were sometimes almost uneasy under the love of her eyes, and the thousand and one offices she was always doing for them to try to make up to them for her past. They had come to take an intense interest, at first half shamefaced, in the baby. But as he grew older and full of winning ways, one could not always remember that he was a child of shame, and he made just as much sunshine as any lawful child makes in a house. More indeed, for in all the Island was never so beautiful a child. The sun seemed to shed all its rays on his head; his eyes were blue as the sea; his limbs were sturdy and beautiful, and from the time he began to take notice he sent out little tendrils that gathered round the hearts of all those who looked upon him. So kind is God sometimes to a little nameless child.

But to see Maggie while her brothers played with the boy, tossing him in their arms, and letting him spring from one to the other, was indeed a pretty sight. You know the proud confidence with which an animal that loves you looks on at your handling of her little ones—her anxiety quite swallowed up in her pride and confidence and her benevolent satisfaction in the pleasure she is giving you. That is how Maggie watched those delightful romps. But the old woman in the chimney-corner turned away her head; and never forgot that Maggie had stolen God's gift, and that the scarlet letter was on the boy's white forehead.

As the years passed and the boy throve and grew tall, I heard of Maggie becoming very devout. 'A true penitent,' said Father Tiernay to me, 'and I believe that in return for the patience and gentleness with which she has striven to expiate her sin God has given her a very unusual degree of sanctity.' In the intervals of her work she was permitted as a great privilege to help about the altar linen, and keep the church clean. She used to carry the boy with her when she went to the church, and I have come upon him fast asleep in a sheltered corner, while his mother was sweeping and dusting, with a radiant and sanctified look on a face that had grown very spiritual.

But still the old mother remained inexorable. I am sure in her own mind she resented as a profanation her daughter's work about the church. She herself had never entered that familiar holy place since her daughter's disgrace. Sunday and holiday all these years she had trudged to Breagh, a long way round by the coast, for mass. All expostulations have been vain, even Father Tiernay's own. Whatever other people may forget, the sin has lost nothing of its scarlet for her.

It was the last time I was on the Island that I was told of Maggie's marriage. Not to an Island man: oh no, no Island man would marry a girl with a stain on her character, not though she came to be as high in God's favour as the blessed Magdalen herself. He was the mate of a Scotch vessel, a grave, steady, strong-faced Highlander. He had come to the Island trading for years, and knew Maggie's story as well as any Islander. But he had seen beyond the mirk of the sin the woman's soul pure as a pearl.

Maggie could not believe that any man, least of all a man like Alister, wanted to marry her. 'I am a wicked woman,' she said with hot blushes, 'and you must marry a good woman.'

'I mean to marry a good woman, my lass,' he said, 'the best woman I know. And that is your bonny self.' Maggie hesitated. He smoothed back her hair with a fond proprietary touch. 'We'll give the boy a name,' he said, 'and before God, none will ever know he's not my own boy.'

That settled it. Jack was a big lad of six now, and would soon begin to understand things, and perhaps ask for his father. It opened before her like an incredible exquisite happiness that perhaps he need never know her sin. She put her hand into Alister's and accepted him in a passion of sobbing that was half joy, half sorrow.

The brothers were all in favour of the marriage. They loved her too much not to want her to have a fair chance in a new life. Here on the Island, though she were a saint, she would still be a penitent. It came hardest on Tom,—for Larry was soon to bring home a wife of his own, but neither man talked much of what he felt. They put aside their personal sorrow and were glad for Maggie and her boy.

But Maggie's mother was consistent to the last. No brazen and flaunting sinner could have seemed to her more a lost creature than the girl who had been so dutiful a daughter, so loving a sister, so perfect a mother, all those years. Tom told her the news. 'I wash my hands of her,' she said. 'Let her take her shame under an honest man's roof if she will. I wish her neither joy nor sorrow of it.' And more gentle words than these Tom could not bring her to say.

So Maggie was married, the old woman preserving her stony silence and apparent unconcern. She only spoke once,—the day the girl was made a wife. It was one of her bad days, and she had to lie down after an attack of her heart. Maggie dressed to go to the church and meet her bridegroom. She was not to return to the cottage, and her modest little luggage and little Jack's were already aboard the Glasgow brig. At the last, hoping for some sign of softening, the girl went into the dim room where her mother lay, ashen-cheeked. The mother turned round on her her dim eyes. 'What do you want of me?' she asked, breaking the silence of years. The girl helplessly covered her eyes with her hands. 'Did you come for my blessing?' gasped the old woman. 'It is liker my curse you'd take with you. But I promised Tom long ago that I would not curse you. Go then. And I praise God that Larry will soon give me an honest daughter instead of you, my shame this many a year.'

That was the last meeting of mother and daughter. They say Alister is a devoted husband, but he comes no more to the Island. He has changed out of his old boat, and his late shipmates say vaguely that he has removed somewhere Sunderland or Cardiff way, and trades to the North Sea. Tom is very reticent about Maggie, though Miss Bell, the postmistress, might tell, if she were not a superior person, and as used to keeping a secret at a pinch as Father Tiernay himself, how many letters he receives with the post-mark of a well-known seaport town.

Poor Maggie! Said I not that in the Island the way of transgressors is hard?

 
 
 

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