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- The Solitary Summer - 10/18 -
"Not if they do not seek it."
I was silent, for I wished to reply that I believed they would be forgiven in spite of themselves, that probably they were forgiven whether they sought it or not, and that you cannot limit things divine; but who can argue with a parson? These people do not seek forgiveness because it never enters their heads that they need it. The parson tells them so, it is true, but they regard him as a person bound by his profession to say that sort of thing, and are sharp enough to see that the consequences of their sin, foretold by him with such awful eloquence, never by any chance come off. No girl is left to languish and die forsaken by her betrayer, for the betrayer is a worthy young man who marries her as soon as he possibly can; no finger of scorn is pointed at the fallen one, for all the fingers in the street are attached to women who began life in precisely the same fashion; and as for that problematical Day of Judgment of which they hear so much on Sundays, perhaps they feel that that also may be one of the things which after all do not happen.
The servant who had been married and scolded that morning was a groom, aged twenty, and he had met his little wife, she being then seventeen, in the place he was in before he came to us. She was a housemaid there, and must have been a pretty thing, though there were few enough traces of it, except the beautiful eyes, in the little anxious face that I saw for the first time immediately after the wedding, and just before the weary and harassed parson came in to talk things over. I had never heard of her existence until, about ten days previously, the groom had appeared, bathed in tears, speechlessly holding out a letter from her in which she said she could not bear things any longer and was going to kill herself. The wretched young man was at his wit's end, for he had not yet saved enough to buy any furniture and set up housekeeping, and she was penniless after so many months out of a situation. He did not know any way out of it, he had no suggestions to offer, no excuses to make, and just stood there helplessly and sobbed.
I went to the Man of Wrath, and we laid our heads together. "We do not want another married servant," he said.
"No, of course we don't," said I.
"And there is not a room empty in the village."
"No, not one."
"And how can we give him furniture? It is not fair to the other servants who remain virtuous, and wait till they can buy their own."
"No, certainly it isn't fair."
There was a pause.
"He is a good boy," I murmured presently.
"A very good boy."
"And she will be quite ruined unless somebody--"
"I'll tell you what we can do, Elizabeth," he interrupted; "we can buy what is needful and let him have it on condition that he buys it back gradually by some small monthly payment."
"So we can."
"And I think there is a room over the stables that is empty."
"So there is."
"And he can go to town and get what furniture he needs and bring the girl back with him and marry her at once. The sooner the better, poor girl."
And so within a fortnight they were married, and came hand in hand to me, he proud and happy, holding himself very straight, she in no wise yet recovered from the shock and misery of the last few hopeless months, looking up at me with eyes grown much too big for her face, eyes in which there still lurked the frightened look caught in the town where she had hidden herself, and where fingers of scorn could not have been wanting, and loud derision, and utter shame, besides the burden of sickness, and hunger, and miserable pitiful youth.
They stood hand in hand, she in a decent black dress, and both wearing very tight white kid gloves that refused to hide entirely the whole of the rough red hands, and they looked so ridiculously young, and the whole thing was so wildly improvident, that no words of exhortation would come to my lips as I gazed at them in silence, between laughter and tears. I ought to have told them they were sinners; I ought to have told them they were reckless; I ought to have told them by what a narrow chance they had escaped the just punishment of their iniquity, and instead of that I found myself stretching out hands that were at once seized and kissed, and merely saying with a cheerful smile, "_Nun_ _Kinder_, _liebt Euch_, _und seid brav_." And so they were dismissed, and then the parson came, in a fever at this latest example of deadly sin, while I, with the want of moral sense so often observable in woman, could only think with pity of their childishness. The baby was born three days later, and the mother very nearly slipped through our fingers; but she was a country girl, and she fought round, and by and by grew young again in the warmth of married respectability; and I met her the other day airing her baby in the sun, and holding her head as high as though she were conscious of a whole row of feather beds at home, every one of which touched the ceiling.
In the next room I went into an old woman lay in bed with her head tied up in bandages. The room had not much in it, or it would have been untidier; it looked neglected and gloomy, and some dirty plates, suggestive of long-past dinners, were piled on the table.
"Oh, such headaches!" groaned the old woman when she saw me, and moved her head from side to side on the pillow. I could see she was not undressed, and had crept under her feather bag as she was. I went to the bedside and felt her pulse--a steady pulse, with nothing of feverishness in it.
"Oh, such draughts!" moaned the old woman, when she saw I had left the door open.
"A little air will make you feel better," I said; the atmosphere in the shut-up room was so indescribable that my own head had begun to throb.
"Oh, oh!" she moaned, in visible indignation at being forced for a moment to breathe the pure summer air.
"I have something at home that will cure your headache," I said, "but there is nobody I can send with it to-day. If you feel better later on, come round and fetch it. I always take it when I have a headache"-- ("Why, Elizabeth, you know you never have such things!" whispered my conscience, appalled. "You just keep quiet," I whispered back, "I have had enough of you for one day.")--"and I have some grapes I will give you when you come, so that if you possibly can, do."
"Oh, I can't move," groaned the old woman, "oh, oh, oh!" But I went away laughing, for I knew she would appear punctually to fetch the grapes, and a walk in the air was all she needed to cure her.
How the whole village hates and dreads fresh air! A baby died a few days ago, killed, I honestly believe, by the exceeding love of its mother, which took the form of cherishing it so tenderly that never once during its little life was a breath of air allowed to come anywhere near it. She is the watchman's wife, a gentle, flabby woman, with two rooms at her disposal, but preferring to live and sleep with her four children in one, never going into the other except for the christenings and funerals which take place in her family with what I cannot but regard as unnecessary frequency. This baby was born last September in a time of golden days and quiet skies, and when it was about three weeks old I suggested that she should take it out every day while the fine weather lasted. She pointed out that it had not yet been christened, and remembering that it is the custom in their class for both mother and child to remain shut up and invisible till after the christening, I said no more. Three weeks later I was its godmother, and it was safely got into the fold of the Church. As I was leaving, I remarked that now she would be able to take it out as much as she liked. The following March, on a day that smelt of violets, I met her near the house. I asked after the baby, and she began to cry. "It does not thrive," she wept, "and its arms are no thicker than my finger."
"Keep it out in the sun as much as you can," I said; "this is the very weather to turn weak babies into strong ones."
"Oh, I am so afraid it will catch cold if I take it out," she cried, her face buried in what was once a pocket-handkerchief.
"When was it out last?"
"Oh--" she stopped to blow her nose, very violently, and, as it seemed to me, with superfluous thoroughness. I waited till she had done, and then repeated my question.
"Oh--" a fresh burst of tears, and renewed exhaustive nose-blowing.
I began to suspect that my question, put casually, was of more importance than I had thought, and repeated it once more.
"I--can't t-take it out," she sobbed, "I know it--it would die."
"But has it not been out at all, then?"
She shook her head.
"Not once since it was born? Six months ago?"
She shook her head.
"_Poor_ baby!" I exclaimed; and indeed from my heart I pitied the little thing, perishing in a heap of feathers, in one close room, with four people absorbing what air there was. "I am afraid," I said, "that if it does not soon get some fresh air it will not live. I wonder what would happen to my children if I kept them in one hot room day and night for six months. You see how they are out all day, and how well they are."
"They are so strong," she said, with a doleful sniff, "that they can stand it."
I was confounded by this way of looking at it, and turned away, after once more begging her to take the child out. She plainly regarded the advice as brutal, and I heard her blowing her nose all down the drive. In June the father told me he would like the doctor; the child grew thinner every day in spite of all the food it took. A doctor was got from the nearest town, and I went across to hear what he ordered. He ordered bottles at regular intervals instead of the unbroken series it had been having, and fresh air. He could find nothing the matter with it, except unusual weakness. He asked if it always perspired as it was
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