O, spirits of Unrest and Pain! that grieve for the sorrow dealt out to weak humanity, sweep from my heart the dull veil of individuality, and let my being vibrate with the profound pulsation of those who mourn in the depths. Spirits of Sorrow and Sympathy, twin sisters of the twilight, touch the trembling chords that sound the symphony of wrong, and desolation, and despair. Almighty, God, in Thy wisdom, and surely also in Thy love Thou layest Thine awful finger on a poor human soul, and it is withered in Thy sight even to agony and death as far-seeing, our eyes may not discover. In those supreme moments of trial, when that which we see is black as night, teach us to trust in Thy guidance, give us light to deny the fearful temptation of Chance, and faith to believe that all who labour and are heavy laden may bring their heavy burden trustingly to Thee!
With a prayer, we enter the cell of Alice Walmsley—a cell where no prayer had been uttered, woful to say, for the first five years of her life therein. We look upon the calm, white face and the downcast eyes that, during the hopeless period, had never been raised to Heaven—except once, and then only in defiance and imprecation.
God's hand had caught her up from the happy plain, to fling her into the darkest furrows of affliction; and from these depths the stricken soul had upbraided the judge and rebelled against the sentence.
Alice Walmsley had been born with a heart all kindness and sympathy. From her very infancy she had loved intensely the kindly, the unselfish, and the beautiful. She had lived through her girlhood as happy, healthy, and pure as the primroses beneath her mother's hedgerows. She had approached womanhood as a silver stream ripples to the sea, yearning for its greatness and its troubles and its joys—hurrying from the calm delights of the meadow banks to the mighty main of strength, and saltness, and sweetness.
The moment of communion was reached at last, when her girlish life plunged with delicious expectation into the deep and in one hideous instant she knew that for ever she had parted from the pure and beautiful, and was buried in an ocean of corruption and disappointment, rolled over by waves of unimaginable and inevitable suffering, and wrong.
From the first deep plunge, stifled, agonized, appalled, she rose to the surface, only to behold the land receding from her view—the sweet fields of her innocent and joyous girlhood fading in the distance.
She raised her eyes, and saw the heaven calm and beautiful above her, sprinkled with gem-like stars—and she cried, she screamed to God for help in her helplessness. The answer did not come—the lips of God were dumb—it seemed as if He did not heed nor see the ruin of one puny human life. The sky was as beautiful and serene as before, and the stars were as bright.
Then, from the crest of the wave, as she felt herself slipping back into the dreadful depths again, and for ever, she raised her face to heaven, and shrieked reproach and disbelief and execration!
On the very day of her marriage, before the solemn words of the ceremony had left her memory, she had looked for one dread moment beneath the mask of him who had won her love and trust—some old letters of her husband relating to Will Sheridan had fallen into her hands—and she shrank within herself, affrighted at the knowledge of deceit and habitual falsehood that the glimpse had brought her. It was her first grief and secret, and she hid it in her soul for months before she dared look upon it again.
But a single grief, even though a heavy one, could not crush the light out of so joyous and faithful a heart, She still possessed the woman's angelic gifts of hope and faith. She had, too, the woman's blessed quality of mercy. She forgave, trusting that her forgiveness would bring a change. She prayed, and waited, and hoped—in secret confidence with her own heart. Another influence would be added to hers ere long. When she gave his child into his arms, and joined its supplication to hers, she believed, nay, she knew, that her happiness would be returned to her.
But before that day came, she was left alone. Her husband from the hour she had given herself into his power, bad followed one careless, selfish, and cynical course. She would not, could not believe that this was his natural life, but only a temporary mood.
When first he spoke of going to sea again, on a long voyage, she was pleased, and thought gladly of the change for her, who had never seen the great world. When he coldly said that she was to remain, she became alarmed—she could not be left alone—she implored, she prayed to go with him.
Then came the sneer, the brutal refusal, the master's command, the indelible insult of expressed weariness and dislike. She held her peace.
When the day came, he would have left her, for years of absence, without a kiss; but the poor soul, hungering and waiting for a loving word or look, unable to believe her great affection powerless to win a return, could not bear this blighting memory. She clung to him, sobbing her full heart on his breast; she kissed him and prayed for him, with her hands on his shoulders, and her streaming eyes on his; she—blamed herself, and told him she would be happy till he—returned—the thought of her coming joy would bless her life, and bless and preserve him on the sea. With such words she let him go.
Firmly and faithfully the loving heart kept this last promise. Months passed, and her lonely home grew very dear to her. Her young heart refused to remember the pain of the past, and would recall, day after day, untiringly, the few poor pleasures of her wedded life. She would not allow herself to think how much even of these pleasures was due to others than her husband—to her mother and her old friends.
But all her sorrow died, and her doubt and fear fled away, on the day when she took to her yearning breast the sweet baby that was hers and his. God's eye seemed too full of love that day. The harvest of her young life was the bursting of a flower of exquisite joy. Her baby was a prayer—God had come near to her, and had sent her an angelic present. Her life for many days was a ceaseless crooning melody of soft happiness, mingled with prayers for her husband absent on the sea.
Then came the lightning, and blasted her fabric of joy, and shrivelled her future life into hopelessness before her face. One moment it rose fair and sightly and splendid; the next, it was scattered at her scorched feet, a pile of blackened and pitiful ruin. O, day of sorrow, would it had been of death!
It was a bright and happy morning, and she sat in her pleasant little room, with the baby in her arms. She had been dreaming awake. She was full of peace and thankfulness for her exceeding joy.
Suddenly, a shadow fell upon her—someone had entered the room. She looked up, and met a terrible face—a woman's face, glaring at her and her child. She could not scream—she was paralyzed with terror. The face was crowded with passion—every dreadful line seemed to possess a voice of wrath and hatred.
Alice had no power to defend herself; but she folded her baby closer to her breast, and looked straight at the dreadful face.
"You think you are his wife!" cried the woman, with a laugh of hideous derision. "You think he loves you! You lie! You lie! He is my husband! He never was yours! He is mine, mine! And he lied to you!"
More was said by the woman—much more; but it all resolved itself into this in Alice's confused memory. Papers the stranger produced, and held before Alice's eyes. She read the written words—they were transferred to her brain in letters of fire. Nearer and nearer came the dreadful woman, and more threatening the insults she hissed into Alice's face. She laid her hand on the baby's shoulder, and crushed it, cursing it.
Still Alice could not scream. Her heart gave irregular throbs—her brain was beginning to reel. Nearer, still nearer, the hateful face—the words struck her in the eyes like missiles—they sprang like knives at her heart—her body grew weak, the baby fell from her breast and lay upon her knees — O God! the silent agony—the terrible stranger had seized the child—the mother's senses failed—the sunlight grew dark—the sufferer fell unconscious at her enemy's feet.
When she raised her head, after hours of a merciful blank, she was alone—her baby lay dead before her—and the love and trust of her life lay stark and strangled by its side.
What more? Nay, there was no more to be borne. The worst had come. The flaming rocket had spent its last spark in the dark sky—the useless stick was falling to the earth, to be forgotten forever.
Friends! What had they to say? Kindness was dead. Shame had no existence. Sorrow, disgrace, infamy, what had she to do with these? But they had taken her, had seized her as their prey, and she would make no resistance.
With bonds of faith and love and trust and hope, Alice Walmsley's life had been firmly bound to all that was good and happy. The destroyer's knife had severed all these at one merciless sweep; and the separated and desolated heart sank like lead into the abyss of despair.
Then followed a blank—intermixed with turmoil of formal evidence and legal speeches, and voices of clinging friends, who implored her to speak and clear herself of the dreadful charge. At this word, her mind cleared—she looked at and understood her position—and she refused to speak—she would not plead "not guilty" when charged with killing her own child. Her mother, broken with years and with this affliction, tottered from the rails of the dock, against which she had leant, and sank heart-broken on the floor of the court. She was carried to the open air by weeping strangers—carried past Alice, who never looked upon her dear face again.
Still she stood silent, tearless, but conscious of every act and relation. Anguish had changed her in one day from a girl into a strong self-reliant woman. To her own soul she said: "My life is in ruin—nothing can now increase the burden. If I speak, another will stand here—another who has been wronged as I have been. She was wretched before she became guilty. Let me undergo—let me never see the face of one who knew me, to remind me of the past. Between freedom and memory, and imprisonment and forgetfulness—I choose the latter."
These thoughts never became words in Alice's mind; but this was the mental process which resulted in her silence in the dock. The trial was short—she was found guilty. Then came the solitude and silence of the great prison.
Four white walls, a stone floor, a black iron door, a heavily barred window, through which she looked up at the moon and stars at night—and, enclosed within these walls, a young and beautiful girl, a tender heart that had never throbbed with a lawless desire, a conscience so sensitive, and a mind so pure, that angels might have communed with her.
Shall not this prisoner find peace in solitude, and golden sermons in the waves of pain?
She had been one day and night in Millbank. The severe matron or warder of the Pentagon opened her cell door in the morning, and handed her two books, a Bible and prayer-book.
The window of the cell, outside the bars, was open. Without a word to the warder, the prisoner threw the books out of the open window.
"They are not true; I shall pray no more," she said, not fiercely, but firmly, as they fell into the yard within the Pentagon.
She was reported to the authorities. They sent the Bible reader to pray with her, in the cell, according to the rule laid down in convict prisons; but she remained silent. They punished her—for the dreadful word "Murder" was printed on her door-card; they shut her up in a dark cell for days and weeks, till her eyes dilated and her body shrank under the meagre food. Remember, a few weeks before, she was a simple, God-fearing country girl. Neither prayer nor punishment could bring her into relenting, but only deepened the earnestness of her daily answer—
"I shall pray no more."
Her case was brought before the Chief Director, Sir Joshua Hobb. This disciplinarian visited her dark cell, and, with a harsh "Ho, there!" flashed a brilliant lamp on the entombed wretch. She sat on a low seat in the centre of the dark cell, her face bowed into her hands, perhaps to shut out the painfully sudden glare.
"She won't pray, eh?" said the great reformer, looking at the slight figure that did not move. "We'll see." He evidently took a special interest in this case.
An hour later, the prisoner was taken from her cell, and dragged or pushed by two strong female warders till she stood.
In an arched passage beneath the prison. Her clothing was rudely torn from her shoulders to the waist; her wrists were strapped to staples in the wall; and, before her weakened and benumbed brain had realized the unspeakable outrage, the lash had swept her delicate flesh into livid stripes.
Then, for one weak moment, her womanhood conquered, and she shrieked, as if in supplication, the name of Him she had so bitterly refused to worship.
But the scream of her affliction was not a prayer—it was the awful utterance of a parting spirit, the cry of a wrecked and tortured soul, an imprecation born of such agony as was only utterable in a curse. May God pity and blot out the sin!
They carried her senseless body to the hospital, where unconsciousness befriended her for many weeks. A brain fever racked her; she lived the terrors of the past every hour; a weaker body would have sunk under the strain; but her time had not yet come.
The fever left her at last—her consciousness returned; the austere, philanthropic women and hackneyed preachers laboured by her bedside in rigid charity and sonorous prayer, during which her eyes remained closed and her lips motionless.
As her strength returned, she moved about the ward, feeling a pleasant relief when she could do a kindness to another inmate weaker than herself. She would warm the drinks, smooth the pillows, or carefully give the medicines as prescribed, to her unfortunate sisters. And all this she performed silently. She never smiled, and no one but her own heart knew that her labour for others gave her comfort.
When her health was quite restored, she had become valuable to the physicians and warders. She was asked to remain in the hospital rather than to go back and work in the cells.
She chose the hospital, and entered at once on her regular duties as a nurse.
Why did she choose the busy hospital, instead of the solitary cell? Because she was still a woman. Trust in God had been taken from her; but she remained unselfish, or, rather, her life had assumed an exalted selfishness, possible only to highly organized natures. Though God was deaf, she could not believe that good was dead, for she still felt sympathy for her fellow sufferers. God had made the world, but had forgotten it, and the spirit of evil had taken His place.
"They say you don't believe in religion?" said a dying woman to her one day; "then maybe you don't believe that God has punished me like this for my evil ways?"
Alice Walmsley looked at the unfortunate—then searched her own heart before answering. Her affliction was her own; God had deserted her—had He also deserted this poor wretch?
"God has not punished you," she answered; "you have brought on your own punishment."
"Then God will give me my child in the other world?" cried the woman, with pitiful earnestness. "Oh, say He, will, and I shall die happy!"
Alice did not answer, but the iron of the question pierced her soul. There lived beneath all the burden of her suffering a love that thrilled her day and night, a yearning that never slept, a memory and pity of unspeakable tenderness for her dead child. It was grief in love and love in grief. She had tried to reason it away, but in vain. God, who had tortured her, or allowed her torture, had seized her babe for ransom. While she was wronged before Him, He held a hostage for her silence.
How should she answer this dying woman's question?
She walked from the ward straight to the matron's office, and asked to be sent to the cells—she could work no more in the hospital.
Expostulation, argument, threats, had no effect on her determination. Her resolution troubled every one in the hospital, for her services were highly prized. But she had settled the question. The mind may delay in solving a problem, but the soul's solution is instantaneous and unalterable. She was sent to the cell.