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The Story of a Modern Woman. Dixon, Ella Hepworth. Wynman, Margaret.
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GLARING spring sunshine and a piercing east wind rioted out of doors, and here and there overflowing flower-baskets made startling patches of colour against the vague blue-grey of the streets, but indoors, in the tall London house, there was only a sickly, yellow twilight, for the orange-toned blinds were scrupulously drawn down. There was awe in the passages, and hushed tones even in the kitchen, as if the dead could hear! Some wreaths and crosses of wax-like, exotic flowers lay on the hall-table, filling the passage with their sensuous odour. Friends calling to inquire had left them there, but they had not yet been taken up to that darkened room where a marble figure—a figure which was strangely unlike Professor Erle—lay stretched, in an enduring silence, on the bed.

Downstairs, in the little study giving on a meagre London yard, a girl was bending over page: 2 a desk. ‘You will, I know, be grieved to hear that my dear father passed suddenly away the night before last,’ she wrote, while a great nerve in her forehead went tick, tick, tick. The visitors who came all day long, leaving bits of paste-board, spoke in low, inquisitive tones. When the bell rang, there were veiled whispers at the hall-door. ‘So terrible—so sudden!’ Mary could hear them inquire how she was keeping up? And Elizabeth's answer: ‘Miss Erle is as well as could be expected.’ The trite, worn-out, foolish sentence almost made her laugh. All the stock phrases of condolence, all the mental trappings of woe, seemed to be ready-made for the ‘sad occasion,’ like the crape skirts and cloaks which had been forwarded immediately from the mourning establishment in Regent Street. ‘Yes, I am as well as could be expected,’ she thought, ‘and father is dead. Father is dead.’
And all the long afternoon she went on mechanically writing: ‘I am sure you will be sorry when I tell you that my dear father—’ on paper bordered with black an inch deep. How he would have disliked that foolish ostentation of mourning; it was contrary to the spirit of his life. ‘To-morrow,’ she said to herself, ‘I must send for some note paper with a narrower edge.’ These letters were to be sent abroad. page: 3 The English newspapers had sufficiently announced the death, for Professor Erle was perhaps the best-known man of science of the day.

In the little back room they had to light the lamp early, there was so much to do, so many details to arrange. The ceremony was to be as simple as might be; above all, no paid priest would stand at the grave to give ‘hearty thanks’ that the great thinker had been ‘delivered out of the miseries of this sinful world.’ The sinful world would have as its spokesman another famous professor, who had asked to be allowed to say a few words. Then there were the newspapers. There was the brisk, smartly-dressed young gentleman who came to do a leader for a daily paper, and who proceeded to make a number of notes in shorthand, asking innumerable questions as his omnivorous glance travelled rapidly round the study. Another press-man—a small, apologetic man with greyish hair and a timid cough—asked to see the house for the Weekly Planet. He begged of Elizabeth on the hall steps, to tell him if the Professor had said anything—anything particular, which would work up as a leader, just at the last? ‘Oh! sir,’ said Elizabeth, ‘didn't you know? Master didn't say anything. He just died in his sleep.’

The daughter went about her tasks with page: 4 a sense of detachment, of intense aloofness. ‘I wonder if I really feel it?’ she thought, ‘and why I have never cried? I should like to, but it is impossible; I shall never, never cry again.’ It was as if Death, with his cruel, searing wings had cauterised her very soul. Sometimes she pictured herself in her long crepe veil at the funeral, and heard in imagination her friends murmuring pitying words, as they all followed the coffin up the Highgate slope. Alison Ives, of course, would be with her; she would stay by her, perhaps, and hold her hand. And probably Vincent Hemming would be near. Yes, he too would be there.

At dinner-time she had to sit down to table alone. She was hungry, and she ate, hardly knowing what was on her plate. Nothing happened as it does in tales and romances. In innumerable novels she had read how the heroine, in a house of mourning, lies on the bed for days and steadily refuses to eat. As for Mary, a demon of unrest possessed her during that horrible week, and it was as if she could not eat nourishing food enough. She never stopped arranging, writing, adding up accounts. It was useless to try and read. Did she but take up a book, that dominant image in her mind—the image of a dear face turned to marble, with the cold, triumphant smile of page: 5 eternity on its lips—shut out the sense of the words as her eyes travelled down the page.

And the strange, unmistakable odour of death, mixed with the voluptuous scent of waxen hot-house flowers, hung, night and day, about the staircase.

Towards the end of the week, there was more noise and bustle, and at last had come the morning when the house swarmed with undertakers' men, and Mary and her young brother Jimmie, who had arrived from Winchester, sat with a few old friends in the dining-room, waiting for the signal to go. There was the shuffling of men's feet, as they staggered down the narrow London staircase with their heavy burden, and then someone had made the girl swallow some sal volatile, and she was pushed gently into the first mourning carriage, along with her brother. They had made the boy drink some of the sal volatile too, and they both felt strangely elated and highly strung. There were only those two now, and Mary felt warmly drawn to Jimmie, as they sat side by side in their new black clothes, the two chief personages in the ceremony of to-day. She even pretended not to hear when, some gutter urchins making complicated cartwheels as their contribution to the imposing procession, Jimmie, boy-like, gave way to a furtive giggle.

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The drive to Highgate seemed interminable, but at last, when the long procession crept slowly up the hill, it was in a kind of stupor that the girl saw and heard what happened. There was, she remembered afterwards, a long line of people, habited in black, awaiting them in silence inside the cemetery gate; a tolling bell, neighing horses, and a penetrating scent of early lilac. Sunlight on the paths, on the shining marble tombs, on the humble little mounds covered in plush-like grass; then a moving mass of black, a yawning hole, the creaking of ropes, and the mellifluous voice of the eminent professor, speaking his oration over some upturned clay.

‘England—I may say the world—is mourning to day for her illustrious son’—how the people pressed round the yawning gap, and pushed against the guelder rose-tree overhead, so that the flowers fell in a minute white shower on to the oaken coffin below—‘the world is mourning for her illustrious son. Not that those tears will flow in vain, for they will moisten and fructify the precious tree of Truth, a tree which is evermore putting forth fresh branches and new fruits which are indispensable to the physical and moral evolution of humanity.’

In a neighbouring laburnum-bush, a thrush was swelling its brown throat with a joyous morning page: 7 song. Athwart the pale sky dappled with fleecy clouds, the lilac bushes were burgeoning with waxen, pinkish blossoms. The very air throbbed with coming life.

‘Nature,’ continued the orator, in his measured, lecture-room tones, ‘Nature, who works in inexorable ways, has taken to herself a life full of arduous toil, of epoch-making achievement, of immeasurable possibilities, but to what end, and for what purpose, is not given to us, who stand to-day with full hearts and yearnings eye around his last resting-place, to know.’

The sun was warm overhead, the scent of the pink may was strong in the nostrils; a joyous twittering in an adjacent bush told of mating birds, of new life in the nests, of Nature rioting in an insolent triumph.

The orator paused for an instant, coughed, and felt in his breast pocket for his notes. He was anxious, above all things, that the reporters should not print a garbled version of his speech. Round the open grave pressed the devotees of science, the followers of the religion of humanity; grey-skinned, anxious-looking men and women, with lined foreheads and hair prematurely tinged with grey; large heads with bulging foreheads, thin throats and sloping shoulders; the women with nervous, over- overworked page: 8 worked faces, the men with the pathetic, unrestful features of those who are sustained in a life of self-denial by their ethical sense alone. The ceremony of to-day was a great moral demonstration. All classes who think were represented. Side by side stood a white-haired Radical Countess in simple half-mourning and the spare form of a Socialist working woman, with red, ungloved wrists and an inspired look on her worn face. There, with her mother, Lady Jane, was Alison Ives. Lady Jane, who was impressionable, was already exhibiting a pocket-handkerchief, and not far off, Mary caught for one instant the brown, wistful eyes of Vincent Hemming.

The sun grew hotter and hotter overhead. One or two of the mourners began putting up umbrellas. The perfume of pink hawthorn became almost oppressive; an early butterfly hovered over a baby's grave planted with sweet-smelling flowers. A light breeze fluttered a laburnum-bush which hung over a neighbouring marble tomb, a large, opulent, marble tomb, on which was cut in glittering gilt letters: ‘Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.’ And everywhere there was the whiteness of graves. In ridges, in waves, in mounds, they stuck, tooth-like, from the fecund earth. They shone, in gleaming, distant lines, up to the ridge of the hill; page: 9 they crowded in serried battalions, down to the cemetery gates.

The speaker was concluding his speech. ‘For though to isolated men,’ he said, raising his voice so that all who were on the edge of the crowd should hear, ‘it may be given here and there to scale the loftiest heights—ay, and ever new height rising upon height in the great undiscovered country which we call the realm of Science; there, too, the Finite touches the Infinite, and must recognise what of tentativeness, what of inconclusiveness belongs to mere human effort. Here, on a sudden, the dark, impenetrable curtain, which none may draw aside, envelops us; here we know not whether all ends with this our last prison house, or if to us may be opened out yet further cycles of aspiring activity.’

In the silence which followed there was heard one long, sweet, penetrating bird-call.

One of the chief mourners, the boy Jimmie, was sobbing loudly when the professor's voice stopped, and with something gripping at her throat, the sister led him away. She reproached herself with having brought him; the young, she thought, should not know what sorrow is. The two spare, black-clad figures stepped aside up the hill.

Out yonder, at their feet, the dun-colour of page: 10 the buildings lost in the murkiness of the horizon line, London was spread out. Here and there a dome, a spire loomed out of the dim bluish-grey panorama. A warm haze hung over the great city; here and there a faint fringe of tree-tops told of a placid park; now and again the shrill whistle of an engine, blown northward by the wind, spoke of the bustle of journeys, of the turmoil of railway-stations, of partings, of arrivals, of the change and travail of human life, of the strangers who come, of the failures who must go.

‘Jim,’ said the girl suddenly, taking the boy by the arm, ‘there's London! We're going to make it listen to us, you and I. We're not going to be afraid of it—just because it's big, and brutal, and strong.’

‘N—no, dearest,’ said the boy, turning up a pretty, sensitive face, and a pink nose all smeared with tears. ‘Of course not.’

The black crowd yonder was swaying, separating, and disintegrating itself into separate sable dots which were now seen descending the paths to the cemetery-gate. And slowly, they too stepped down the gravel path.

They came home to a house that was empty and orderly again; a house in which his door stood open, the pale light of a spring afternoon filling the desolate room. The blinds were page: 11 pulled up, and downstairs, in the kitchen, the servants had begun to talk and laugh.

Towards dusk, Jimmie got engrossed in a new book of adventures, but the girl, restless still, wandered about the house in her black gown looking at everything with strange eyes. Something terrible, unforeseen had happened which altered her whole life. Towards the boy poring over the picture-book she felt much of a mother's feelings; it behoved her to look after him now that his father was gone. How long the time seemed—would the interminable day never end? There must be lots for her to do. And casting about in her mind, she remembered that this was the day on which she always gave out the groceries from her store cupboard; there was the seamstress to pay, too, who was altering a black dress for her up-stairs. So Mary dragged herself down to the kitchens and presently to the top of the house. It would be nice of her, she thought, to go in and speak to the woman who was sewing alone. It was sad for a young woman to be alone.

The pale, pinkish light of a spring evening fell on a drab-complexioned girl, whose fat hand moved, as she sewed, with the regularity of a machine. Now the needle was thrust in the fold of black stuff, and the light fell on her ill-cut nails; now the hand was aloft, in the semi- page: 12 obscurity; it was all tame, monotonous and regular as a clock. She was a docile, humble, uncomplaining creature, who suggested inevitably some patient domestic animal. Her features, rubbed out and effaced with generations of servility, spoke of the small mendacities of the women of the lower classes, of the women who live on ministering to the caprices of the well-to-do. To-day it would seem she had assumed an appropriately dolorous expression.

It sometimes soothed Mary to stitch. Taking up a strip of black merino, she began to hem.

The seamstress's hand continued to move with docile regularity, and, as Mary looked at her, she was curiously reminded of many women she had seen: ladies, mothers of large families, who sat and sewed with just such an expression of unquestioning resignation. The clicking sound of the needle, the swish of the drawn-out thread, the heavy breathing of the work-woman, all added to the impression. Yes, they too were content to exist subserviently, depending always on someone else, using the old feminine stratagems, the well-worn feminine subterfuges, to gain their end. The woman who sews is eternally the same.

The light began to fail now; very soon it would be dark. Mary threw down her work page: 13 with an impatient gesture, and, in the grey twilight, an immense pity seized her for the patient figure bending, near the window, over her foolish strips of flounces, the figure of the woman at her monotonous toil.

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