The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
No position in life is more terrible to face than that of the widowed mother left alone in the world with her unborn baby. When the child is her first one,--when, besides the natural horror and agony of the situation, she has also to confront the unknown dangers of that new and dreaded experience,--her plight is still more pitiable. But when the widowed mother is one who has never been a wife,--when in addition to all these pangs of bereavement and fear, she has further to face the contempt and hostility of a sneering world, as Herminia had to face it,--then, indeed, her lot becomes well-nigh insupportable; it is almost more than human nature can bear up against. So Herminia found it. She might have died of grief and loneliness then and there, had it not been for the sudden and unexpected rousing of her spirit of opposition by Dr. Merrick's words. That cruel speech gave her the will and the power to live. It saved her from madness. She drew herself up at once with an injured woman's pride, and, facing her dead Alan's father with a quick access of energy,--
"You are wrong," she said, stilling her heart with one hand. "These rooms are mine,--my own, not dear Alan's. I engaged them myself, for my own use, and in my own name, as Herminia Barton. You can stay here if you wish. I will not imitate your cruelty by refusing you access to them; but if you remain here, you must treat me at least with the respect that belongs to my great sorrow, and with the courtesy due to an English lady."
Her words half cowed him. He subsided at once. In silence he stepped over to his dead son's bedside. Mechanically, almost unconsciously, Herminia went on with the needful preparations for Alan's funeral. Her grief was so intense that she bore up as if stunned; she did what was expected of her without thinking or feeling it. Dr. Merrick stopped on at Perugia till his son was buried. He was frigidly polite meanwhile to Herminia. Deeply as he differed from her, the dignity and pride with which she had answered his first insult impressed him with a certain sense of respect for her character, and made him feel at least he could not be rude to her with impunity. He remained at the hotel, and superintended the arrangements for his son's funeral. As soon as that was over, and Herminia had seen the coffin lowered into the grave of all her hopes, save one, she returned to her rooms alone,-- more utterly alone than she had ever imagined any human being could feel in a cityful of fellow-creatures.
She must shape her path now for herself without Alan's aid, without Alan's advice. And her bitterest enemies in life, she felt sure, would henceforth be those of Alan's household.
Yet, lonely as she was, she determined from the first moment no course was left open for her save to remain at Perugia. She couldn't go away so soon from the spot where Alan was laid,--from all that remained to her now of Alan. Except his unborn baby,-- the baby that was half his, half hers,--the baby predestined to regenerate humanity. Oh, how she longed to fondle it! Every arrangement had been made in Perugia for the baby's advent; she would stand by those arrangements still, in her shuttered room, partly because she couldn't tear herself away from Alan's grave; partly because she had no heart left to make the necessary arrangements elsewhere; but partly also because she wished Alan's baby to be born near Alan's side, where she could present it after birth at its father's last resting-place. It was a fanciful wish, she knew, based upon ideas she had long since discarded; but these ancestral sentiments echo long in our hearts; they die hard with us all, and most hard with women.
She would stop on at Perugia, and die in giving birth to Alan's baby; or else live to be father and mother in one to it.
So she stopped and waited; waited in tremulous fear, half longing for death, half eager not to leave that sacred baby an orphan. It would be Alan's baby, and might grow in time to be the world's true savior. For, now that Alan was dead, no hope on earth seemed too great to cherish for Alan's child within her.
And oh, that it might be a girl, to take up the task she herself had failed in!
The day after the funeral, Dr. Merrick called in for the last time at her lodgings. He brought in his hand a legal-looking paper, which he had found in searching among Alan's effects, for he had carried them off to his hotel, leaving not even a memento of her ill-starred love to Herminia. "This may interest you," he said dryly. "You will see at once it is in my son's handwriting."
Herminia glanced over it with a burning face. It was a will in her favor, leaving absolutely everything of which he died possessed "to my beloved friend, Herminia Barton."
Herminia had hardly the means to keep herself alive till her baby was born; but in those first fierce hours of ineffable bereavement what question of money could interest her in any way? She stared at it, stupefied. It only pleased her to think Alan had not forgotten her.
The sordid moneyed class of England will haggle over bequests and settlements and dowries on their bridal eve, or by the coffins of their dead. Herminia had no such ignoble possibilities. How could he speak of it in her presence at a moment like this? How obtrude such themes on her august sorrow?
"This was drawn up," Dr. Merrick went on in his austere voice, "the very day before my late son left London. But, of course, you will have observed it was never executed."
And in point of fact Herminia now listlessly noted that it lacked Alan's signature.
"That makes it, I need hardly say, of no legal value," the father went on, with frigid calm. "I bring it round merely to show you that my son intended to act honorably towards you. As things stand, of course, he has died intestate, and his property, such as it is, will follow the ordinary law of succession. For your sake, I am sorry it should be so; I could have wished it otherwise. However, I need not remind you"--he picked his phrases carefully with icy precision--"that under circumstances like these neither you nor your child have any claim whatsoever upon my son's estate. Nor have I any right over it. Still"--he paused for a second, and that incisive mouth strove to grow gentle, while Herminia hot with shame, confronted him helplessly--"I sympathize with your position, and do not forget it was Alan who brought you here. Therefore, as an act of courtesy to a lady in whom he was personally interested . . . if a slight gift of fifty pounds would be of immediate service to you in your present situation, why, I think, with the approbation of his brothers and sisters, who of course inherit--"
Herminia turned upon him like a wounded creature. She thanked the blind caprice which governs the universe that it gave her strength at that moment to bear up under his insult. With one angry hand she waved dead Alan's father inexorably to the door. "Go," she said simply. "How dare you? how dare you? Leave my rooms this instant."
Dr. Merrick still irresolute, and anxious in his way to do what he thought was just, drew a roll of Italian bank notes from his waistcoat pocket, and laid them on the table. "You may find these useful," he said, as he retreated awkwardly.
Herminia turned upon him with the just wrath of a great nature outraged. "Take them up!" she cried fiercely. "Don't pollute my table!" Then, as often happens to all of us in moments of deep emotion, a Scripture phrase, long hallowed by childish familiarity, rose spontaneous to her lips. "Take them up!" she cried again. "Thy money perish with thee!"
Dr. Merrick took them up, and slank noiselessly from the room, murmuring as he went some inarticulate words to the effect that he had only desired to serve her. As soon as he was gone, Herminia's nerve gave way. She flung herself into a chair, and sobbed long and violently.
It was no time for her, of course, to think about money. Sore pressed as she was, she had just enough left to see her safely through her confinement. Alan had given her a few pounds for housekeeping when they first got into the rooms, and those she kept; they were hers; she had not the slightest impulse to restore them to his family. All he left was hers too, by natural justice; and she knew it. He had drawn up his will, attestation clause and all, with even the very date inserted in pencil, the day before they quitted London together; but finding no friends at the club to witness it, he had put off executing it; and so had left Herminia entirely to her own resources. In the delirium of his fever, the subject never occurred to him. But no doubt existed as to the nature of his last wishes; and if Herminia herself had been placed in a similar position to that of the Merrick family, she would have scorned to take so mean an advantage of the mere legal omission.
By this time, of course, the story of her fate had got across to England, and was being read and retold by each man or woman after his or her own fashion. The papers mentioned it, as seen through the optic lens of the society journalist, with what strange refraction. Most of them descried in poor Herminia's tragedy nothing but material for a smile, a sneer, or an innuendo. The Dean himself wrote to her, a piteous, paternal note, which bowed her down more than ever in her abyss of sorrow. He wrote as a dean must,--gray hairs brought down with sorrow to the grave; infinite mercy of Heaven; still room for repentance; but oh, to keep away from her pure young sisters! Herminia answered with dignity, but with profound emotion. She knew her father too well not to sympathize greatly with his natural view of so fatal an episode.
So she stopped on alone for her dark hour in Perugia. She stopped on, untended by any save unknown Italians whose tongue she hardly spoke, and uncheered by a friendly voice at the deepest moment of trouble in a woman's history. Often for hours together she sat alone in the cathedral, gazing up at a certain mild-featured Madonna, enshrined above an altar. The unwedded widow seemed to gain some comfort from the pitying face of the maiden mother. Every day, while still she could, she walked out along the shadeless suburban road to Alan's grave in the parched and crowded cemetery. Women trudging along with crammed creels on their backs turned round to stare at her. When she could no longer walk, she sat at her window towards San Luca and gazed at it. There lay the only friend she possessed in Perugia, perhaps in the universe.
The dreaded day arrived at last, and her strong constitution enabled Herminia to live through it. Her baby was born, a beautiful little girl, soft, delicate, wonderful, with Alan's blue eyes, and its mother's complexion. Those rosy feet saved Herminia. As she clasped them in her hands--tiny feet, tender feet--she felt she had now something left to live for,--her baby, Alan's baby, the baby with a future, the baby that was destined to regenerate humanity.
So warm! So small! Alan's soul and her own, mysteriously blended.
Still, even so, she couldn't find it in her heart to give any joyous name to dead Alan's child. Dolores she called it, at Alan's grave. In sorrow had she borne it; its true name was Dolores.