The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
I do not propose to dwell at any length upon the next ten or twelve years of Herminia Barton's life. An episode or two must suffice; and those few told briefly.
She saw nothing of her family. Relations had long been strained between them; now they were ruptured. To the rest of the Bartons, she was even as one dead; the sister and daughter's name was never pronounced among them. But once, when little Dolores was about five years old, Herminia happened to pass a church door in Marylebone, where a red-lettered placard announced in bold type that the Very Reverend the Dean of Dunwich would preach there on Sunday. It flashed across her mind that this was Sunday morning. An overpowering desire to look on her father's face once more--she had never seen her mother's--impelled Herminia to enter those unwonted portals. The Dean was in the pulpit. He looked stately and dignified in his long white hair, a noticeable man, tall and erect to the last, like a storm-beaten pine; in spite of his threescore years and ten, his clear-cut face shone thoughtful, and striking, and earnest as ever. He was preaching from the text, "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling." And he preached, as he always did, eloquently. His river of speech flowed high between banks out of sight of the multitude. There was such perfect sincerity, such moral elevation in all he said, that Herminia felt acutely, as she had often felt before, the close likeness of fibre which united her to him, in spite of extreme superficial differences of belief and action. She felt it so much that when the sermon was over she waited at the vestry door for her father to emerge. She couldn't let him go away without making at least an effort to speak with him.
When the Dean came out, a gentle smile still playing upon his intellectual face,--for he was one of the few parsons who manage in their old age to look neither sordid nor inane,--he saw standing by the vestry door a woman in a plain black dress, like a widow of the people. She held by the hand a curly-haired little girl of singularly calm and innocent expression. The woman's dark hair waved gracefully on her high forehead, and caught his attention. Her eyes were subtly sweet, her mouth full of pathos. She pressed forward to speak to him; the Dean, all benignity, bent his head to listen.
"Father!" Herminia cried, looking up at him.
The Dean started back. The woman who thus addressed him was barely twenty-eight, she might well have been forty; grief and hard life had made her old before her time. Her face was haggard. Beautiful as she still was, it was the beauty of a broken heart, of a Mater Dolorosa, not the roundfaced beauty of the fresh young girl who had gone forth rejoicing some ten years earlier from the Deanery at Dunwich to the lecture-rooms at Girton. For a moment the Dean stared hard at her. Then with a burst of recognition he uttered aghast the one word "Herminia!"
"Father," Herminia answered, in a tremulous voice, "I have fought a good fight; I have pressed toward the mark for the prize of a high calling. And when I heard you preach, I felt just this once, let come what come might, I must step forth to tell you so."
The Dean gazed at her with melting eyes. Love and pity beamed strong in them. "Have you come to repent, my child?" he asked, with solemn insistence.
"Father," Herminia made answer, lingering lovingly on the word, "I have nothing to repent of. I have striven hard to do well, and have earned scant praise for it. But I come to ask to-day for one grasp of your hand, one word of your blessing. Father, father, kiss me!"
The old man drew himself up to his full height, with his silvery hair round his face. Tears started to his eyes; his voice faltered. But he repressed himself sternly. "No, no, my child," he answered. "My poor old heart bleeds for you. But not till you come with full proofs of penitence in your hands can I ever receive you. I have prayed for you without ceasing. God grant you may repent. Till then, I command you, keep far away from me, and from your untainted sisters."
The child felt her mother's hand tremble quivering in her own, as she led her from the church; but never a word did Herminia say, lest her heart should break with it. As soon as she was outside, little Dolly looked up at her. (It had dwindled from Dolores to Dolly in real life by this time; years bring these mitigations of our first fierce outbursts.) "Who was that grand old gentleman?" the child asked, in an awe-struck voice.
And Herminia, clasping her daughter to her breast, answered with a stifled sob, "That was your grandpa, Dolly; that was my father, my father."
The child put no more questions just then as is the wont of children; but she treasured up the incident for long in her heart, wondering much to herself why, if her grandpa was so grand an old gentleman, she and her mamma should have to live by themselves in such scrubby little lodgings. Also, why her grandpa, who looked so kind, should refuse so severely to kiss her mammy.
It was the beginning of many doubts and questionings to Dolores. A year later, the Dean died suddenly. People said he might have risen to be a bishop in his time, if it hadn't been for that unfortunate episode about his daughter and young Merrick. Herminia was only once mentioned in his will; and even then merely to implore the divine forgiveness for her. She wept over that sadly. She didn't want the girls' money, she was better able to take care of herself than Elsie and Ermyntrude; but it cut her to the quick that her father should have quitted the world at last without one word of reconciliation.
However, she went on working placidly at her hack-work, and living for little Dolly. Her one wish now was to make Dolly press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling she herself by mere accident had missed so narrowly. Her own life was done; Alan's death had made her task impossible; but if Dolly could fill her place for the sake of humanity, she would not regret it. Enough for her to have martyred herself; she asked no mercenary palm and crown of martyrdom.
And she was happy in her life; as far as a certain tranquil sense of duty done could make her, she was passively happy. Her kind of journalism was so commonplace and so anonymous that she was spared that worst insult of seeing her hack-work publicly criticised as though it afforded some adequate reflection of the mind that produced it, instead of being merely an index of taste in the minds of those for whose use it was intended. So she lived for years, a machine for the production of articles and reviews; and a devoted mother to little developing Dolly.
On Dolly the hopes of half the world now centred.