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The First Wife by Katharine Tynan

 

The dead woman had lain six years in her grave, and the new wife had reigned five of them in her stead. Her triumph over her dead rival was well-nigh complete. She had nearly ousted her memory from her husband's heart. She had given him an heir for his name and estate, and, lest the bonny boy should fail, there was a little brother creeping on the nursery floor, and another child stirring beneath her heart. The twisted yew before the door, which was heavily buttressed because the legend ran that when it died the family should die out with it, had taken another lease of life, and sent out one spring green shoots on boughs long barren. The old servants had well-nigh forgotten the pale mistress who reigned one short year; and in the fishing village the lavish benefactions of the reigning lady had quite extinguished the memory of the tender voice and gentle words of the woman whose place she filled. A new era of prosperity had come to the Island and the race that long had ruled it.

Under a high, stately window of the ruined Abbey was the dead wife's grave. In the year of his bereavement, before the beautiful brilliant cousin of his dead Alison came and seized on his life, the widower had spent days and nights of stony despair standing by her grave. She had died to give him an heir to his name, and her sacrifice had been vain, for the boy came into the world dead, and lay on her breast in the coffin. Now for years he had not visited the place: the last wreaths of his mourning for her had been washed into earth and dust long ago, and the grave was neglected. The fisherwives whispered that a despairing widower is soonest comforted; and in that haunted Island of ghosts and omens there were those who said that they had met the dead woman gliding at night along the quay under the Abbey walls, with the shape of a child gathered within her shadowy arms. People avoided the quay at night therefore, and no tale of the ghost ever came to the ears of Alison's husband.

His new wife held him indeed in close keeping. In the first days of his remarriage the servants in the house had whispered that there had been ill blood over the man between the two women, so strenuously did the second wife labour to uproot any trace of the first. The cradle that had been prepared for the young heir was flung to a fishergirl expecting her base-born baby: the small garments into which Alison had sewn her tears with the stitches went the same road. There was many an honest wife might have had the things, but that would not have pleased the grim humour of the second wife towards the woman she had supplanted.

Everything that had been Alison's was destroyed or hidden away. Her rooms were changed out of all memory of her. There was nothing, nothing in the house to recall to her widower her gentleness, or her face as he had last seen it, snow-pale and pure between the long ashen-fair strands of her hair. He never came upon anything that could give him a tender stab with the thought of her. So she was forgotten, and the man was happy with his children and his beautiful passionate wife, and the constant tenderness with which she surrounded every hour of his life.

Little by little she had won over all who had cause to love the dead woman,—all human creatures, that is to say: a dog was more faithful and had resisted her. Alison's dog was a terrier, old, shaggy and blear-eyed: he had been young with his dead mistress, and had seemed to grow old when she died. He had fretted incessantly during that year of her husband's widowhood, whimpering and moaning about the house like a distraught creature, and following the man in a heavy melancholy when he made his pilgrimages to the grave. He continued those pilgrimages after the man had forgotten, but the heavy iron gate of the Abbey clanged in his face, and since he could not reach the grave his visits grew fewer and fewer. But he had not forgotten.

The new mistress had put out all her fascinations to win the dog too, for it seemed that while any living creature clung to the dead woman's memory her triumph was not complete. But the dog, amenable to every one else, was savage to her. All her soft overtures were received with snarling, and an uncovering of the strong white teeth that was dangerous. The woman was not without a heart, except for the dead, and the misery of the dog moved her—his restlessness, his whining, the channels that tears had worn under his faithful eyes. She would have liked to take him up in her arms and comfort him; but once when her pity moved her to attempt it, the dog ran at her ravening. The husband cried out: 'Has he hurt you, my Love?' and was for stringing him up. But some compunction stirred in her, and she saved him from the rope, though she made no more attempts to conciliate him.

After that the dog disappeared from the warm living-rooms, where he had been used to stretch on the rug before the leaping wood-fires. It was a cold and stormy autumn, with many shipwrecks, and mourning in the village for drowned husbands and sons, whose little fishing boats had been sucked into the boiling surges. The roar of the wind and the roar of the waves made a perpetual tumult in the air, and the creaking and lashing of the forest trees aided the wild confusion. There were nights when the crested battalions of the waves stormed the hill-sides and foamed over the Abbey graves, and weltered about the hearthstones of the high-perched fishing village. When there was not storm there was bitter black frost.

The old house had attics in the gables, seldom visited. You went up from the inhabited portions by a corkscrew staircase, steep as a ladder. The servants did not like the attics. There were creaking footsteps on the floors at night, and sometimes the slamming of a door or the stealthy opening of a window. They complained that locked doors up there flew open, and bolted windows were found unbolted. In storm the wind keened like a banshee, and one bright snowy morning a housemaid, who had business there, found a slender wet footprint on the floor as of some one who had come barefoot through the snow;—and fled down shrieking.

In one of the attics stood a great hasped chest, wherein the dead woman's dresses were mouldering. The chest was locked, and was likely to remain so for long, for the new mistress had flung away the key. From the high attic windows there was a glorious view of sea and land, of the red sandstone valleys where the deer were feeding, of the black tossing woods, of the roan bulls grazing quietly in the park, and far beyond, of the sea, and the fishing fleet, and in the distance the smoke of a passing steamer. But none observed that view. There was not a servant in the house who would lean from the casement without expecting the touch of a clay-cold finger on her shoulder. Any whose business brought them to the attic looked in the corners warily, while they stayed, but the servants did not like to go there alone. They said the room smelt strangely of earth, and that the air struck with an insidious chill: and a gamekeeper being in full view of the attic window one night declared that from the window came a faint moving glow, and that a wavering shadow moved in the room.

It was in this cold attic the dog took up his abode. He followed a servant up there one morning, and broke out into an excited whimpering when he came near the chest. After a while of sniffing and rubbing against it he established himself upon it with his nose on his paws. Afterwards he refused to leave it. Finally the servants gave up the attempt to coax him back into the world, and with a compunctious pity they spread an old rug for him on the chest, and fed him faithfully every day. The master never inquired for him: he was glad to have the brute out of his sight: the mistress heard of the fancy which possessed him, and said nothing: she had given up thinking to win him over. So he grew quite old and grizzled, and half blind as summers and winters passed by. It grew a superstition with the servants to take care of him, and with them on their daily visits he was so affectionate and caressing as to recall the days in which some of them remembered him when his mistress lived, and he was a happy dog, as good at fighting and rat-hunting and weasel-catching as any dog in the Island.

But every night as twelve o'clock struck the dog came down the attic stairs. He was suddenly alert and cheerful, and trotted by an invisible gown. Some said you could hear the faint rustle of silk lapping from stair to stair, and the dog would sometimes bark sharply as in his days of puppyhood, and leap up to lick a hand of air. The servants would shut their doors as they heard the patter of the dog's feet coming, and his sudden bark. They were thrilled with a superstitious awe, but they were not afraid the ghost would harm them. They remembered how just, how gentle, how pure the dead woman had been. They whispered that she might well be dreeing this purgatory of returning to her dispossessed house for another's sake, not her own. Husband and wife were nearly always in their own room when she passed. She went everywhere looking to the fastenings of the house, trying every door and window as she had done in the old days, when her husband declared the old place was only precious because it held her. Presently the servants came to look on her guardianship of the house as holy, for one night some careless person had left a light burning where the wind blew the curtains about, and they took fire, and were extinguished, by whom none knew; but in the morning there was the charred curtain, and Molly, the kitchenmaid, confessed with tears how she had forgotten the lighted candle.

The husband was the last of all to hear of these strange doings, for the new wife took care that they should never be about the house at midnight. But one night as he lay in bed he had forgotten something and asked her to fetch it from below. She looked at him with a disdain out of the mists of her black hair, which she was combing to her knee. Perhaps for a minute she resented his unfaithfulness to the dead. 'No,' she said, with deliberation, 'not till that dog and his companion pass.' She flung the door open, and looked half with fear, half with defiance, at the black void outside. There was the patter of the dog's feet coming down the stairs swiftly. The man lifted himself on his elbow and listened. Side by side with the dog's feet came the swish, swish of a silken gown on the stairs. He looked a wild-eyed inquiry at his second wife. She slammed the door to before she answered him. 'It has been so for years,' she said; 'every one knew but you. She has not forgotten as easily as you have.'

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One day the dog died, worn out with age. After that they heard the ghost no longer. Perhaps her purgatory of seeing the second wife in her place was completed, and she was fit for Paradise, or her suffering had sufficed to win another's pardon. From that time the new wife reigned without a rival, living or dead, near her throne.

 
 
 

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