A Poor Wise Man by Mary Roberts Rinehart
In her bed in the maternity ward Edith at first lay through the days, watching the other women with their babies, and wondering over the strange instinct that made them hover, like queer mis-shaped ministering angels, over the tiny quivering bundles. Some of them were like herself, or herself as she might have been, bearing their children out of wedlock. Yet they faced their indefinite futures impassively, content in relief from pain, in the child in their arms, in present peace and security. She could not understand.
She herself felt no sense of loss. Having never held her child in her arms she did not feel them empty.
She had not been told of her mother's death; men were not admitted to the ward, but early on that first morning, when she lay there, hardly conscious but in an ecstasy of relief from pain, Ellen had come. A tired Ellen with circles around her eyes, and a bag of oranges in her arms.
"How do you feel?" she had asked, sitting down self-consciously beside the bed. The ward had its eyes on her.
"I'm weak, but I'm all right. Last night was awful, Ellen."
She had roused herself with an effort. Ellen reminded her of something, something that had to do with Willy Cameron. Then she remembered, and tried to raise herself in the bed.
"Willy!" she gasped. "Did he come home? Is he all right?"
"He's all right. It was him that found you were here. You lie back now; the nurse is looking."
Edith lay down and closed her eyes, and the ecstasy of relief and peace gave to her pale face an almost spiritual look. Ellen saw it, and patted her arm with a roughened hand.
"You poor thing!" she said. "I've been as mean to you as I knew how to be. I'm going to be different, Edith. I'm just a cross old maid, and I guess I didn't understand."
"You've been all right," Edith said.
Ellen kissed her when she went away.
So for three days Edith lay and rested. She felt that God had been very good to her, and she began to think of God as having given her another chance. This time He had let her off, but He had given her a warning. He had said, in effect, that if she lived straight and thought straight from now on He would forget this thing she had done. But if she did not -
Then what about Willy Cameron? Did He mean her to hold him to that now? Willy did not love her. Perhaps he would grow to love her, but she was seeing things more clearly than she had before, and one of the things she saw was that Willy Cameron was a one-woman man, and that she was not the woman.
"But I love him so," she would cry to herself.
The ward moved in its orderly routine around her. The babies were carried out, bathed and brought back, their nuzzling mouths open for the waiting mother-breast. The nurses moved about, efficient, kindly, whimsically maternal. Women went out when their hour came, swollen of feature and figure, and were wheeled back later on, etherealized, purified as by fire, and later on were given their babies. Their faces were queer then, frightened and proud at first, and later watchful and tenderly brooding.
For three days Edith's struggle went on. She had her strong hours and her weak ones. There were moments when, exhausted and yet exalted, she determined to give him up altogether, to live the fiction of the marriage until her mother's death, and then to give up the house and never see him again. If she gave him up she must never see him again. At those times she prayed not to love him any longer, and sometimes, for a little while after that, she would have peace. It was almost as though she did not love him.
But there were the other times, when she lay there and pictured them married, and dreamed a dream of bringing him to her feet. He had offered a marriage that was not a marriage, but he was a man, and human. He did not want her now, but in the end he would want her; young as she was she knew already the strength of a woman's physical hold on a man.
Late on the afternoon of the third day Ellen came again, a swollen-eyed Ellen, dressed in black with black cotton gloves, and a black veil around her hat. Ellen wore her mourning with the dogged sense of duty of her class, and would as soon have gone to the burying ground in her kitchen apron as without black. She stood in the doorway of the ward, hesitating, and Edith saw her and knew.
Her first thought was not of her mother at all. She saw only that the God who had saved her had made her decision for her, and that now she would never marry Willy Cameron. All this time He had let her dream and struggle. She felt very bitter.
Ellen came and sat down beside her.
"She's gone. Edith," she said; "we didn't tell you before, but you have to know sometime. We buried her this afternoon."
Suddenly Edith forgot Willy Cameron, and God, and Dan, and the years ahead. She was a little girl again, and her mother was saying:
"Brush your teeth and say your prayers, Edie. And tomorrow's Saturday. So you don't need to get up until you're good and ready."
She lay there. She saw her mother growing older and more frail, the house more untidy, and her mother's bright spirit fading to the drab of her surroundings. She saw herself, slipping in late at night, listening always for that uneasy querulous voice. And then she saw those recent months, when her mother had bloomed with happiness; she saw her struggling with her beloved desserts, cheerfully unconscious of any failure in them; she saw her, living like a lady, as she had said, with every anxiety kept from her. There had been times when her thin face had been almost illuminated with her new content and satisfaction.
Suddenly grief and remorse overwhelmed her.
"Mother!" she said, huskily. And lay there, crying quietly, with Ellen holding her hand. All that was hard and rebellious in Edith Boyd was swept away in that rush of grief, and in its place there came a new courage and resolution. She would meet the future alone, meet it and overcome it. But not alone, either; there was always -
It was a Sunday afternoon, and the nurse had picked up the worn ward Bible and was reading from it, aloud. In their rocking chairs in a semi-circle around her were the women, some with sleeping babies in their arms, others with tense, expectant faces.
"Let not your heart be troubled," read the nurse, in a grave young voice. "Ye believe in God. Believe also in Me. In my Father's house - "
There was always God.
Edith Boyd saw her mother in the Father's house, pottering about some small celestial duty, and eagerly seeking and receiving approval. She saw her, in some celestial rocking chair, her tired hands folded, slowly rocking and resting. And perhaps, as she sat there, she held Edith's child on her knee, like the mothers in the group around the nurse. Held it and understood at last.