The Boy's Mother
The Boy's Mother
BY LAURA SPENCER PORTOR
FOR many days, off and on at frequent intervals, Merington might have been seen striding up the path of a certain garden. Then there was that one day when she met him in the library; the day when her lame brother limped out of the room on his crutches and left her and Merington and a perfectly dead silence.
Merington never knew exactly how he got to the subject; very few men who make a success of it ever do. Why should a man remember just what got him to the point where he is as melted wax before the woman he loves? Merington probably could not have told you any more than that at last he took her in his arms with his own clumsy fierceness, and said a few broken sentences.
It might be recorded that Merington floated home that night. When he got home he sat and floated some more for a long time; and finally, toward two o'clock, he went to bed.
During the next week there was news for him. Merington was probably twice as surprised as the world at large, barring the German Empire, when the world broke into war. Nobody was more confident that there could not be war:
"Good Lord! my dear, we've got past fighting! Why, the murder machines themselves are the best protection. Besides, it would involve everybody! There can't everybody go to war! And with the war-machines we've got nowadays— Oh, well, it won't happen! Don't disturb yourself, my dear. Don't you look anxious!"
And, having settled the question to her comfort, he stirred his tea and took another of the jam sandwiches she offered him and put a kiss on her white forearm before she set the plate again on the tray.
Two weeks later he had answered his country's call. He showed some swagger at his club that day and expressed profound relief. England was coming to her senses, thank Heaven! She had been asleep too long. Look how she had shilly-shallied over the Irish affairs, and bungled and muddled everything else. She had been too patient; and such a lot of talk! But now, by George! there really would be something done! For himself, he asked nothing better than to be permitted to do his share. "For it's not going to amount to more than a jolly good beating for them. We'll be back to tea and jam sandwiches almost before we're there. Look at the Powers they've got against them!"
All this to young Brookby, who was, Merington knew, hard hit by the news. For if young Brookby went—and of course he'd have to go!—there was young Mrs. Brookby to leave, and that new first baby—with five names and just three weeks of life to its count.
"Gad! I" hope they won't dawdle about it! A lot of red tape, you know, and all that sort of thing. I'd like jolly well to start right off!" Merington declared.
By all of which any one not knowing the inner workings of Merington's mind would have judged he had for years past lived with a soldier's hope—the hope of active service.
The fact was Merington never hesitated to tell an untruth when it could do no one harm and could ease the minds of others. It would certainly make things easier for everybody, which was to say for Gwendolen and his mother, if they believed he was really eager to go. Merington's entire moral code was built in a very personal way on others. He had no religious objection whatever to breaking any of the ten commandments. But if the breaking of any one of them brought sorrow or even discomfort to any one else, then the breaking of it was wrong; that was for him the decalogue in a nutshell.
So Merington talked a good deal, by and by, about the wisdom displayed in the ordering out of his regiment. "They've been deucedly slow about it," he observed. "Two whole months! They ought to have sent us out at once."
But for all these harmless lies which he indulged in at the club, at dinner, at tea, here and there and everywhere, Merington did not lie to himself. He knew he hated to go, hated to go. He knew he would infinitely rather crack rocks for the rest of his life—if they would only let him crack them on a certain road, where he could get up now and then and run up a certain lovely lane, past the hawthorn hedge to a certain garden, typically English, where she sat, and where the larkspur and prince's-feather and mignonette of her tending, and roses of an incredible loveliness bloomed, but slight and negligible things, frail and on their way to wither, compared with that ever fresh and ever renewed loveliness of her.
"Oh, hang it!" Merington said, sitting down heavily in his arm-chair one night, with an absent, glazy stare. "I can't go!" Then, more softly, "I can't go!" Then, in a kind of whimpering whisper, "I can't, can't, can't leave you, my dear!"
There was a gentle knock at the door. Merington raised his head sharply:
His mother came into the room. As an excuse, she had a toddy in one hand. She wore a long dressing-gown of a nondescript color. She was a slender woman, and a little gaunt, with a quiet, subdued air about her. The slight stoop of her shoulders, the softness of her step, the little rather dreary gentlenesses and hesitations in her manner, the little inopportune kindnesses that she was forever rendering absently, and the waiting inflections of her voice—all these bespoke a nature unassertive, a character indefinite and receptive rather than positive or self-made. It was as though upon what had once been a fair blank sheet Life had jotted down, through the years and in fine script, many memoranda, but of matters rather commonplace and of no very great consequence to remember.
The face, which was white and beginning to be old, was to-night unaffectedly tired. Anxiety had drawn its hands over it. She had hardly slept the night before. She had spent the hours between wakefulness in the moonlight and sundry trips down the hall to his door, where she would stand with her head bent to the door crack, listening. And because each time, tiptoe as she might, Merington's acute hearing was aware of her, she heard him snoring soundly as she stood. This he supposed would comfort her, and it did. Moreover, he could not have borne to have her come and sit by his bed as he believed might be her intention; for in the low wicker chair there beside it in the moonlight his fevered fancy seemed to see the girlish figure, slight, slight and delicate, of Gwendolen—there exquisite and lyric as a stave of song, unbelievably beautiful, yet real as every throb of his heavy pulses; there near to him she seemed to be, and by an exquisite torment that he allowed himself, just so far from him that he could not draw her to him, body and soul both; there like some sacred chalice in the moonlight, waiting the touch of his lips, but not to be touched—not yet—until he had known the baptism of fire.
So, his own face was gaunt a little, and worn, and the likeness between it and his mother's, which was usually a very slight and shadowy thing, was strong now. You looked from one to the other and you seemed to see time pass, and seemed to know what it had been about.
He looked up, but did not stir from his arm-chair. She put the toddy on the table and turned the lamp a bit higher. She was just a little too dull, too preoccupied, too timid, to know he had turned it low purposely.
"The evening is so cool. I only wanted to come to see if you had enough fire," she said, absently. She looked so wholly irrelevant standing there behind him, so unwanted. She was like a solitary tree on a sandy dune. She took no notice of the fire whatever, but turned her head very little, and glanced from one point to another of the shadowy room as you have seen a sea pine-tree turn its head ever so slightly to some mysterious moving air-currents unfelt by any one but itself. It was as though, standing there above him, she felt some presence of calamity, some ominous moving of the great currents of the world that had not yet touched him as he sat there gazing into the fire, but which she knew soon must do so, bowing and quenching his young strength.
"Enough fire?" he said, and raised his head. "Oh, I've plenty, thank you."
It was foolish of them to put each other off. He knew perfectly well, as well as she did, what she had come for.
She came and stood beside him, and remained there mute, gazing into the fire, she also now.
He took one of her hands in his and patted it. It was a thin, worn hand, loaded above its wedding band with a lot of ill-assorted rings.
"Too bad, little Mater," he said. (He liked to call her "little Mater.") "Too bad. But never you mind. We'll come back covered with glory, provided we're not covered with earth first."
She took a quick look of horror at him, which he did not see. Then she forgot herself again and tried to enter into his thoughts.
"It will be very hard indeed for you, Reginald."
"For me? Oh no. I'm itching for it." He dropped her hand and rubbed his own hands together. "Itching for it!" He put a hand on each knee and stared into the fire as though there he could picture and see the coveted struggle.
"But I mean just now." Her glance went to a picture of Gwendolen on his table.
The coals crumbled together. He withdrew his gaze from them. He reached for his tobacco-pouch. There were hunger and need in his soul that some one should speak to him of her, yet he pretended not to know just what his mother meant. He began filling his pipe with great nicety. His mother walked away from him with her peculiar, quiet, subdued step, the train of the dressing-gown trailing along after her softly, dutifully. She paused for a moment at the end of the room by a table, then walked back again and stood near him. With an exceedingly careful forefinger he was pressing the tobacco down in his pipe, very neatly indeed. She watched him, a little dazed, hardly attentive while he lighted it at last and got it going.
"Don't bother about me, Mater," he said when he had let out a long trial puff. "I'll sleep like a top and pack up in the morning. You're a brick!" He said this pressing and relinquishing the pipe-stem with his lips and his eyes once more on the fire.
His mother noted the delicacy and strength of his hands on the chair-arms. She stood close by him, and took the uncommon liberty of putting her hand on his heavy, blond hair.
"My son! My son! If I were Gwendolen—"
He responded quickly. He was not afraid now. He looked up with a light in his eyes. "I wonder if you'd be goose enough, eh, Mater, to love a fellow as she does? Do you know she thinks I'm wonderful." He half closed his eyes dreamily. "Do you know, when I think that when I come home she'll marry me—! That's why I'll come home. Don't you see? I was only speaking in fun before. I feel as though a bullet couldn't hit me with that around me!" Suddenly his face was sober, beautifully sober, as though an unsuspected curtain somewhere were withdrawn, allowing light from a hidden altar to shine on it.
"I suppose not," his mother said, in a bewildered way. Then she slipped into a strange, dreary monotone. "How proud she'll be! Almost as proud as I!"
"You!" Merington was recalled to himself and laughed. "Oh, Mummy! You are foolish about me, but you don't begin to be as foolish about me as she is. Why, she thinks I'm perfect! And you couldn't, couldn't make her see anything else."
His mother was bewildered again. "Yes, I see," she said, not seeing at all, and trying to smile.
They were both silent for a moment, then she spoke:
"I don't think men ever know exactly what it means to a mother. Your father was a very fine man; but I don't believe even your father could guess. Those long days and nights, I mean." She was looking into the fire intently now, one hand closed on her cheek, dragging her lips down a little bit. "I used to pray so, before I saw you. And I was so afraid you'd be a girl! Of course, if you had been," she said, with quick apology, "I would have loved you. But oh, I wanted a boy. I wanted a boy!" She paused. "And now you are so big and strong! You had a way of reaching up and putting your hand right over my mouth as I held you. You loved to do that. Isn't it ridiculous? And now you are so tall! And I used to hold all of you in my arms, and I'd put your hand spread out on my palm, and it was so soft and so little!"
His thoughts were not with her. His lips no longer tightened and relaxed on his pipe-stem. Indeed, he had taken his pipe from his mouth; the bowl of it was held forgotten in one hand. He was looking into the fire. When he spoke his eyes were narrowed as though better to visualize something:
"Have you noticed her hands, Mummy? Such hands! They are the most wonderful little hands—wonderful little hands!" He remembered, with a sudden swimming of his senses, the soft touch of them in his own.
His mother did not speak at once. When she did, her words, too, were wide of the mark:
"I must not forget to warn Gwendolen that you cannot take iron. You never could. It always made your head ache. And I wonder if she knows how to bandage. You remember how I bandaged your arm that time you hurt it so badly? Doctor Harkness said I did it well. Every one ought to know how to bandage."
"By Jove!"—his eyes were still narrowed speculatively—"if I didn't come back! There is almost something awful in getting a girl's love like that. Hardly seems right. Why, I'd die a thousand times over to save her pain. And here this damnable war—of nobody's making— Sometimes, do you know, I'm not altogether sure it wouldn't be the finer thing to stay at home—"
His mother's eyes were on him strangely now. "My son, you couldn't honorably," she said, softly, as though to herself. "I couldn't let you. It's a mother's duty to give even that—even her son."
"That may be," he said, with a little laugh, "but it is different with her. I tell you, Mater, you can't realize how she loves me!"
His mother started slightly and took an anxious look at him. He seemed to her strangely changed. They had never spoken in this way nor of such things together.
"Why, yes, I could; I could let you stay at home." She glanced anxiously toward the shadows, almost as though some one might have overheard her. "Or you and I could go away somewhere together. We could simply say—"
"I was in jest," he said, abruptly.
She walked away from him. "But aren't we foolish to talk so gloomily! Here, my dear, take your toddy."
He allowed her to put the glass in his hand. He held it on his knee, still looking glazedly into the fire. His mother walked away from him again into the shadows of the big room and up and down slowly, quite apart from him. Once she raised her eyes in a kind of mute horror in the shadows, and put her gaunt hands over her face.
"We mustn't be gloomy," she murmured, "but oh, it would be horrible, horrible!" She began her walk again. As she came near to him he heard her words the plainer that they were so soft: "You see she is young and fresh—she has her whole life ahead of her. I don't mean it would be easy—but in time—"
"It would kill her," he said, distinctly.
She paused and then resumed her steps. "Oh no, it wouldn't; no, it wouldn't, my son." Her voice was gentle, monotonous. "She would take it fearfully to heart one year, two years. But she is young. Men do not understand. There is one kind of love that you may get over—there is another that you never, never, never can. She would travel and study and meet new people, and have other men to love her."
His voice struck out sharply:
She was near him. She came to his side. Her voice, though it had in it something far-off, was full of anxious apology.
"Now, my dear, it's too absurd to suppose I meant any one could ever be to her what you are! But you know perfectly well what I mean. Study and travel and new people, and— You see, she is young. Compare her with me, for instance. I'm old; at least I'm getting old. I would never care to travel. I am too old to undertake such things. And study— So many studies open nowadays to young people—law, and medicine, and suffrage, and day nurseries—a thousand interests."
"Mummy!" He turned in his chair, but she was at the other end of the room. Certainly she was talking a little daft. He returned to the fire. Gwendolen study medicine! Good Lord! The pink-and-white perfection of her!
His mother came again to his side. Her voice was easy, conciliatory, explanatory. "I mean just this; there are so many general interests for young people. That's what I mean. Lectures, you know, and a hundred more things. Now I had a very good education in my day, but think what a foolish spectacle it would be for me to study now—at my age. I'm too old to have any interest in study at all. Then, you see, she's got her music. Now, of course, I can play only those few little things, 'Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,' and the 'Cachucha,' and 'The Fisher's Hornpipe'—the things your father used to like. And even if I could, my hands are getting stiff, really quite stiff." She rubbed one hand absently over the other.
He was thinking suddenly of the "Chopin thing," and the "Grieg," and the adorable droop of Gwendolen's face above the keyboard, and the way her hand, white as a tuberose, small and sweet, reached down reverently for the last note, and stayed there a long moment before it dropped at last by her side.
"Don't you see?" his mother was saying, and was walking away from him again. "Surely you see. She's got her music."
Merington turned and looked at the retreating figure. He was keenly sensible, for the first time, how stooped the shoulders were, how old she looked. He felt the unreasoning revulsion with which the mind defends itself against a too keen feeling of pity. How utterly without grace old people can be!
"She's got her music," his mother was saying again. "And there are other people coming into her life every day. Whereas when a woman marries and has children— Of course, some people trust their children to nurses. I never could. I never went anywhere. I've never really gone anywhere to speak of since you were a baby. But she is so young. She would go among people all the while. And some day, just as I did, she would marry some fine man and have a child, and—"
Merington rose, stung, bewildered, shocked, angry. He could hardly believe he heard aright. His hand on the back of the chair trembled, and his voice trembled a little, too.
"Mummy! You're making a great success of this! For a man to love a girl, by Jove! like that, and be ordered away to war, and to have his own mother take the trouble to tell him that if he's killed the girl is going to console herself strumming Chopin and Grieg, meeting people, loving another fellow—yes, and marrying him and having children—" His words broke. He glanced angrily at the floor, then back angrily at her. "It's too much of a success you're making!"
This was his exact speech. He could have told it to you himself, up to the day of his death, word for word, accent for accent.
His mother stopped. The train of her dressing-gown seemed to shrink hurriedly about her feet, as frightened as herself. She stood with a dazed look in her eyes, and said, softly:
"Reginald! You couldn't think I meant to rob you. You couldn't think I meant she does not love you, better than any one! Of course she does! Why, if you did not come back—of course you will! It would be too horrible! But if you didn't—you would break her heart. Just think what it would mean to her! Of course I didn't mean that! But I couldn't help seeing that, no matter how broken-hearted she might be—there are other things; never just the same things —no one like you ever in all the wide world, of course—but— Why, she has that lame brother to love, if it's no one else. She is young; she is beautiful; she has soft hands; she has her own self to look at in the glass." She looked around the room. "She has many, many interests—she has music. I only meant that if it happened—It won't!"—she raised her thin hands a little, as though forbidding Heaven to admit the bare thought—"but if it happened, I'd—I'd have—nothing! She has known you just one year, one year this midsummer, at Henley, wasn't it? And don't you see for twenty-eight years and all the nine waiting months before, I've had you—only you—nobody else; no other interests in the world; only you, filling my life. I don't mean—you couldn't think I meant, what you said. But look around my life. Is there anything else in it? Isn't it bare, perfectly bare, except—Don't you see? Don't you see?"
She looked all around the big bare room outside himself and the grate-shadows, as though to show him the emptiness.
But Merington's eyes were on her, and his old self was rushing back, rushing back stumblingly. Good God! Could he have been as dull and as brutal as that! He stalked over to the slender, lonely figure and put his arms about it. He drew her over tenderly to the chair in front of the fire. Then he got down on his knees somehow beside her. He had never done such a thing before, yet it came easy to him now.
"Mummy," he said, kissing the thin fingers and then reverently her wedding-ring, "of course I know what you mean!" He patted the delicate veined hand with little soft pats such as he might possibly have given it as a child, but never since.
She looked uncertain, not sure of anything, very unused to such demonstration. She seemed to want to explain it all to him again, but he had explanations to make of his own.
"Did you think I imagined I'd ever get from anybody else such love as you've given me all these years?" He spoke eagerly. He looked solemnly into the fire. "No other woman on earth will ever give me such love as that."
She groped her other hand along the chair-arm and put it on top of his own. The little act was greatly demonstrative in a woman of her type.
"Oh, I didn't mean, my dear, that she doesn't love you better than she loves any one in the world," she said, insistingly.
"But, Mummy, how could she love me as well as you do? Everybody knows what a mother's love is. That is a thing you don't even have to talk about. Everybody knows."
The lines were altering in her face. Something—an expression, a shade of happiness—something was coming into it. Perhaps he did understand, in a way, as much as a woman can ever expect her children to understand.
"Why, I was talking to Barton the other day," he ran on—"you remember Barton, don't you? Barton who went to Spain, you know, to study Spanish literature and the history and all that. Well, Barton was telling me an old Spanish folk story, and, by Jove! do you know it impressed me a lot. It was about a man who loved a girl—and she put him to several severe tests to prove his love for her. Well, he met them all—glad to, you know. Then by and by"—he looked into the fire again and dwelt a little on the words, as a good teller of tales would do, though he had never before told a tale in his life. His mother watched him, as absorbed as a child. He began again impressively—"By and by, as a supreme test, she asked him to bring her in a silver casket the heart of his mother!"
She gave a little shocked start. "Oh, my dear!"
"Well," Merington again slowed down, well pleased with himself and with her attention. "Yes, if you will believe me, the brute even did that. Yes, he did." Another pause, and then lightly, almost glibly: "And then do you know what happened? On the road"—this more slowly and very tellingly—"while he was taking the heart of his mother to the girl he loved—he stumbled and fell, somehow. And right away, from inside the casket, he heard the voice of his mother's heart crying out, distressed: 'Oh, my son! my son! Hast thou hurt thyself?'"
Merington, really pleased with himself, left the tale there, where it fell in dramatic silence. There was nothing to be said; the story said it all. To tell the truth, his mother scarcely grasped it. It was to her son rather than the story that she was listening; she was tasting anew the old, unbelievable wonder—that this grown young man, with his heavy hair and broad shoulders, was the same as the little son of old, once wholly dependent on her. He noticed her abstraction.
"That's what mother love is like," he said, with a fine finality.
"Well, of course," she reiterated, "I've had you all these years. Of course a mother never calls such things sacrifices, but I've done—I've done a good many little things for you."
He put his head back and laughed—a short, hearty laugh. She was delicious in her naïvete. He could see now why his father had loved her.
"Well, I should say you have! Haven't you nursed me through the measles and scarlatina and mumps and malaria? And do you think I'd ever get any other human being in the world to do for me all that you have done?"
"Oh, well, dear, a wife's duties are very great—very sacred." She could afford to be a little generous now.
"Oh, but Mummy, no man with a mother like you expects his wife to do for him what his mother did." They sat a moment silent. He recalled the cruelty of his first rebuke, the harsh words he had spoken. "Mummy dear," he said, slowly, "I want to tell you something. You must never think that I love her as I love you. I love her as a man ought to love the woman he marries, but no one tells you you've got to love the woman you marry as you love the woman who brought you up. The Bible tells you you've got to leave your mother and father and cleave to her, and that's a good precaution to keep a man from running back to his mother." He smiled a little at his own cleverness. "But that's not meaning a man loves his wife better than his mother. Why, just think how long you've had me! As a rule, a man has only known a girl a year or two." Merington felt very clever somehow in handing back her own argument, with the handle turned toward her.
"Well, of course," his mother said, slipping her hand up to his head, "it really isn't like being a mother. You see, I've had both." (He winced secretly at the implied and absurd assumption that she had ever loved his father as Gwendolen loved him.) "Gwendolen will understand that herself after a while. I know she loves you. But she has never watched you grow each day, nor helped you to learn to walk, nor bought you toys, nor waited for you after school. You see, I was always horribly afraid something might happen—"
"No; and she hasn't nursed me through croup and measles and Heaven knows what," he said, indulgently, rubbing one big hand comfortingly over her thin ones.
She sat a moment looking into the fire. She had hardly dreamed life could be so good. At last she got up. He got up, too, and put his arms around her. Bending back her head, he kissed her on the lips as she had never before been kissed in her life. It was a kiss—he knew this with a clear disloyal consciousness—such as he gave only to the one woman he loved.
She put her arms about him and clung to him passionately like a gentle and old bride. "I've been foolish, so foolish!" she murmured. She brushed one hand over her eyes. "It's the first time I've ever talked like this to you or to any one. We don't usually talk to our children this way. But to-night—the thought of your going away—of your perhaps—"
He broke in on her words very nearly gaily, "But I am coming back to you!" Then, very soberly, "But if I don't—listen— You'll remember that I love you best! You'll never, never forget that!"
"Oh, my dear" (how generous she could afford to be now!), "I wouldn't say that! It might—I don't see how it ever could, but it just might—get back to Gwendolen." She clung to him an instant, then she slipped away, took up the untouched toddy from the table and again handed it to him, and said the little commonplace things that crowd in after great moments. "Take this, my dear; it will make you sleep."
"Yes, I will take it right away," he promised, and smiled.
She left him and went to the door. He sat down in his arm-chair facing the fire. With his fingers still around the glass he waited tensely for the click of the latch of her door down the hall. At last he heard it snap softly. Then he pushed the glass away from him. He put out a big shaking hand, drew the framed photograph of the shy-eyed girl of eighteen toward him until it was hid against his breast, ran his fingers up into his thick hair, bowed his head on his arms like a man in some agony and said, softly:
"Oh, my dear, I can't, I can't, I can't leave you!"
When Lieutenant Brookby dragged Merington back from the charge in which his men had behaved like the Englishmen they were, he was staggering badly himself. He stopped a moment for breath, took his friend under the armpits again, and dragged him a few yards farther. When he had at last got him behind a rock, Brookby staggered around a little dizzily, and finally settled down hard beside him.
There was a dead silence between them for a space, except once a gruff "Damn it!" from Brookby when he flung some blood from his hand as it trickled from a wound in his breast. His lips were beginning to be drawn back.
"Say, Merington, if you get there, go to see her, will you? Tell her— No, there is no need; she knows. But tell her— Oh, good God! the little chap!"
Merington opened his eyes heavily and looked at his friend. "That bad? Oh no, I won't get there. But maybe you will, after all. Say, Brookby, if you do, there are two women, you understand; two. You'll find their names here." He felt blindly for his breast. His breath was coming hard. "Two women, you understand, and they are both going to break their hearts for me. I'd like you to tell 'em both—the—same thing. See? Tell each of them I loved her best. Do you understand? Tell each of them that when I was dying— See? It was with her name— You understand? You're not to let the other one know—"
Brookby did not lift his eyes from the trickling blood now. It seemed to have fascinated him.
"I'll be damned!" he said, thickly. "The little chap is eleven weeks old to-day." His knees and arms contracted in a spasm of pain. He turned over on his face and clutched at the ground. "But I'm damned proud there's no one else but the boy's mother."
There was a moment of dead silence, despite the fearful crack and boom.
Merington's lips were black. They drew together, and once he said, "My dear, I can't!" Then they opened over his white teeth and remained so.