No position in life is more terrible
to face than that of the widowed mother left alone
in the world with her unborn baby. When the
child is her first one, when, besides the
natural horror and agony of the situation, she has
also to confront the unknown dangers of that new and
dreaded experience, her plight is still
more pitiable. But when the widowed mother is
one who has never been a wife, when in
addition to all these pangs of bereavement and fear,
she has further to face the contempt and hostility
of a sneering world, as Herminia had to face it, then,
indeed, her lot becomes well-nigh insupportable; it
is almost more than human nature can bear up against.
So Herminia found it. She might have died of
grief and loneliness then and there, had it not been
for the sudden and unexpected rousing of her spirit
of opposition by Dr. Merrick’s words.
That cruel speech gave her the will and the power
to live. It saved her from madness. She
drew herself up at once with an injured woman’s
pride, and, facing her dead Alan’s father with
a quick access of energy,
“You are wrong,” she said,
stilling her heart with one hand. “These
rooms are mine, my own, not dear Alan’s.
I engaged them myself, for my own use, and in my
own name, as Herminia Barton. You can stay here
if you wish. I will not imitate your cruelty
by refusing you access to them; but if you remain
here, you must treat me at least with the respect
that belongs to my great sorrow, and with the courtesy
due to an English lady.”
Her words half cowed him. He
subsided at once. In silence he stepped over
to his dead son’s bedside. Mechanically,
almost unconsciously, Herminia went on with the needful
preparations for Alan’s funeral. Her grief
was so intense that she bore up as if stunned; she
did what was expected of her without thinking or feeling
it. Dr. Merrick stopped on at Perugia till his
son was buried. He was frigidly polite meanwhile
to Herminia. Deeply as he differed from her,
the dignity and pride with which she had answered
his first insult impressed him with a certain sense
of respect for her character, and made him feel at
least he could not be rude to her with impunity.
He remained at the hotel, and superintended the arrangements
for his son’s funeral. As soon as that
was over, and Herminia had seen the coffin lowered
into the grave of all her hopes, save one, she returned
to her rooms alone, more utterly alone
than she had ever imagined any human being could feel
in a cityful of fellow-creatures.
She must shape her path now for herself
without Alan’s aid, without Alan’s advice.
And her bitterest enemies in life, she felt sure,
would henceforth be those of Alan’s household.
Yet, lonely as she was, she determined
from the first moment no course was left open for
her save to remain at Perugia. She couldn’t
go away so soon from the spot where Alan was laid, from
all that remained to her now of Alan. Except
his unborn baby, the baby that was half
his, half hers, the baby predestined to
regenerate humanity. Oh, how she longed to fondle
it! Every arrangement had been made in Perugia
for the baby’s advent; she would stand by those
arrangements still, in her shuttered room, partly
because she couldn’t tear herself away from Alan’s
grave; partly because she had no heart left to make
the necessary arrangements elsewhere; but partly also
because she wished Alan’s baby to be born near
Alan’s side, where she could present it after
birth at its father’s last resting-place.
It was a fanciful wish, she knew, based upon ideas
she had long since discarded; but these ancestral
sentiments echo long in our hearts; they die hard with
us all, and most hard with women.
She would stop on at Perugia, and
die in giving birth to Alan’s baby; or else
live to be father and mother in one to it.
So she stopped and waited; waited
in tremulous fear, half longing for death, half eager
not to leave that sacred baby an orphan. It
would be Alan’s baby, and might grow in time
to be the world’s true savior. For, now
that Alan was dead, no hope on earth seemed too great
to cherish for Alan’s child within her.
And oh, that it might be a girl, to
take up the task she herself had failed in!
The day after the funeral, Dr. Merrick
called in for the last time at her lodgings.
He brought in his hand a legal-looking paper, which
he had found in searching among Alan’s effects,
for he had carried them off to his hotel, leaving
not even a memento of her ill-starred love to Herminia.
“This may interest you,” he said dryly.
“You will see at once it is in my son’s
Herminia glanced over it with a burning
face. It was a will in her favor, leaving absolutely
everything of which he died possessed “to my
beloved friend, Herminia Barton.”
Herminia had hardly the means to keep
herself alive till her baby was born; but in those
first fierce hours of ineffable bereavement what question
of money could interest her in any way? She stared
at it, stupefied. It only pleased her to think
Alan had not forgotten her.
The sordid moneyed class of England
will haggle over bequests and settlements and dowries
on their bridal eve, or by the coffins of their dead.
Herminia had no such ignoble possibilities.
How could he speak of it in her presence at a moment
like this? How obtrude such themes on her august
“This was drawn up,” Dr.
Merrick went on in his austere voice, “the very
day before my late son left London. But, of course,
you will have observed it was never executed.”
And in point of fact Herminia now
listlessly noted that it lacked Alan’s signature.
“That makes it, I need hardly
say, of no legal value,” the father went on,
with frigid calm. “I bring it round merely
to show you that my son intended to act honorably
towards you. As things stand, of course, he
has died intestate, and his property, such as it is,
will follow the ordinary law of succession. For
your sake, I am sorry it should be so; I could have
wished it otherwise. However, I need not remind
you” he picked his phrases carefully
with icy precision “that under circumstances
like these neither you nor your child have any claim
whatsoever upon my son’s estate. Nor have
I any right over it. Still” he
paused for a second, and that incisive mouth strove
to grow gentle, while Herminia hot with shame, confronted
him helplessly “I sympathize with
your position, and do not forget it was Alan who brought
you here. Therefore, as an act of courtesy to
a lady in whom he was personally interested . . . if
a slight gift of fifty pounds would be of immediate
service to you in your present situation, why, I think,
with the approbation of his brothers and sisters,
who of course inherit ”
Herminia turned upon him like a wounded
creature. She thanked the blind caprice which
governs the universe that it gave her strength at
that moment to bear up under his insult. With
one angry hand she waved dead Alan’s father
inexorably to the door. “Go,” she
said simply. “How dare you? how dare you?
Leave my rooms this instant.”
Dr. Merrick still irresolute, and
anxious in his way to do what he thought was just,
drew a roll of Italian bank notes from his waistcoat
pocket, and laid them on the table. “You
may find these useful,” he said, as he retreated
Herminia turned upon him with the
just wrath of a great nature outraged. “Take
them up!” she cried fiercely. “Don’t
pollute my table!” Then, as often happens to
all of us in moments of deep emotion, a Scripture
phrase, long hallowed by childish familiarity, rose
spontaneous to her lips. “Take them up!”
she cried again. “Thy money perish with
Dr. Merrick took them up, and slank
noiselessly from the room, murmuring as he went some
inarticulate words to the effect that he had only
desired to serve her. As soon as he was gone,
Herminia’s nerve gave way. She flung herself
into a chair, and sobbed long and violently.
It was no time for her, of course,
to think about money. Sore pressed as she was,
she had just enough left to see her safely through
her confinement. Alan had given her a few pounds
for housekeeping when they first got into the rooms,
and those she kept; they were hers; she had not the
slightest impulse to restore them to his family.
All he left was hers too, by natural justice; and
she knew it. He had drawn up his will, attestation
clause and all, with even the very date inserted in
pencil, the day before they quitted London together;
but finding no friends at the club to witness it,
he had put off executing it; and so had left Herminia
entirely to her own resources. In the delirium
of his fever, the subject never occurred to him.
But no doubt existed as to the nature of his last
wishes; and if Herminia herself had been placed in
a similar position to that of the Merrick family, she
would have scorned to take so mean an advantage of
the mere legal omission.
By this time, of course, the story
of her fate had got across to England, and was being
read and retold by each man or woman after his or
her own fashion. The papers mentioned it, as
seen through the optic lens of the society journalist,
with what strange refraction. Most of them descried
in poor Herminia’s tragedy nothing but material
for a smile, a sneer, or an innuendo. The Dean
himself wrote to her, a piteous, paternal note, which
bowed her down more than ever in her abyss of sorrow.
He wrote as a dean must, gray hairs brought
down with sorrow to the grave; infinite mercy of Heaven;
still room for repentance; but oh, to keep away from
her pure young sisters! Herminia answered with
dignity, but with profound emotion. She knew
her father too well not to sympathize greatly with
his natural view of so fatal an episode.
So she stopped on alone for her dark
hour in Perugia. She stopped on, untended by
any save unknown Italians whose tongue she hardly
spoke, and uncheered by a friendly voice at the deepest
moment of trouble in a woman’s history.
Often for hours together she sat alone in the cathedral,
gazing up at a certain mild-featured Madonna, enshrined
above an altar. The unwedded widow seemed to
gain some comfort from the pitying face of the maiden
mother. Every day, while still she could, she
walked out along the shadeless suburban road to Alan’s
grave in the parched and crowded cemetery. Women
trudging along with crammed creels on their backs
turned round to stare at her. When she could
no longer walk, she sat at her window towards San
Luca and gazed at it. There lay the only friend
she possessed in Perugia, perhaps in the universe.
The dreaded day arrived at last, and
her strong constitution enabled Herminia to live through
it. Her baby was born, a beautiful little girl,
soft, delicate, wonderful, with Alan’s blue
eyes, and its mother’s complexion. Those
rosy feet saved Herminia. As she clasped them
in her hands tiny feet, tender feet she
felt she had now something left to live for, her
baby, Alan’s baby, the baby with a future, the
baby that was destined to regenerate humanity.
So warm! So small! Alan’s
soul and her own, mysteriously blended.
Still, even so, she couldn’t
find it in her heart to give any joyous name to dead
Alan’s child. Dolores she called it, at
Alan’s grave. In sorrow had she borne
it; its true name was Dolores.