The New Magdalen

Wilkie Collins

Chapter 2 - Magdalen--In Modern Times


"WHEN your mother was alive were you ever out with her after nightfall in the streets of a great city?"

In those extraordinary terms Mercy Merrick opened the confidential interview which Grace Roseberry had forced on her. Grace answered, simply, "I don't understand you."

"I will put it in another way," said the nurse. Its unnatural hardness and sternness of tone passed away from her voice, and its native gentleness and sadness returned, as she made that reply. "You read the newspapers like the rest of the world," she went on; "have you ever read of your unhappy fellow- creatures (the starving outcasts of the population) whom Want has driven into Sin?"

Still wondering, Grace answered that she had read of such things often, in newspapers and in books.

"Have you heard--when those starving and sinning fellow-creatures happened to be women--of Refuges established to protect and reclaim them?"

The wonder in Grace 's mind passed away, and a vague suspicion of something painful to come took its place. "These are extraordinary questions," she said, nervously. "What do you mean?"

"Answer me," the nurse insisted. "Have you heard of the Refuges? Have you heard of the Women?"

"Yes."

"Move your chair a little further away from me." She paused. Her voice, without losing its steadiness, fell to its lowest tones." _I_ was once of those women," she said, quietly.

Grace sprang to her feet with a faint cry. She stood petrified--incapable of uttering a word.

"_I_ have been in a Refuge," pursued the sweet, sad voice of the other woman." _I_ have been in a Prison. Do you still wish to be my friend? Do you still insist on sitting close by me and taking my hand?" She waited for a reply, and no reply came. "You see you were wrong," she went on, gently, "when you called me cruel--and I was right when I told you I was kind."

At that appeal Grace composed herself, and spoke. "I don't wish to offend you--" she began, confusedly.

Mercy Merrick stopped her there.

"You don't offend me," she said, without the faintest note of displeasure in her tone. "I am accustomed to stand in the pillory of my own past life. I sometimes ask myself if it was all my fault. I sometimes wonder if Society had no duties toward me when I was a child selling matches in the street--when I was a hard-working girl fainting at my needle for want of food." Her voice faltered a little for the first time as it pronounced those words; she waited a moment, and recovered herself. "It's too late to dwell on these things now," she said, resignedly. "Society can subscribe to reclaim me; but Society can't take me back. You see me here in a place of trust--patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can. It doesn't matter! Here, or elsewhere, what I _am_ can never alter what I _was_. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn't matter! Once let my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me; the kindest people shrink."

She waited again. Would a word of sympathy come to comfort her from the other woman's lips? No! Miss Roseberry was shocked; Miss Roseberry was confused. "I am very sorry for you," was all that Miss Roseberry could say.

"Everybody is sorry for me," answered the nurse, as patiently as ever; "everybody is kind to me. But the lost place is not to be regained. I can't get back! I can't get back?" she cried, with a passionate outburst of despair--checked instantly the moment it had escaped her. "Shall I tell you what my experience has been?" she resumed. "Will you hear the story of Magdalen--in modern times?"

Grace drew back a step; Mercy instantly understood her.

"I am going to tell you nothing that you need shrink from hearing," she said. "A lady in your position would not understand the trials and the struggles that I have passed through. My story shall begin at the Refuge. The matron sent me out to service with the character that I had honestly earned--the character of a reclaimed woman. I justified the confidence placed in me; I was a faithful servant. One day my mistress sent for me--a kind mistress, if ever there was one yet. 'Mercy, I am sorry for you; it has come out that I took you from a Refuge; I shall lose every servant in the house; you must go.' I went back to the matron--another kind woman. She received me like a mother. 'We will try again, Mercy; don't be cast down.' I told you I had been in Canada?"

Grace began to feel interested in spite of herself. She answered with something like warmth in her tone. She returned to her chair--placed at its safe and significant distance from the chest.

The nurse went on:

"My next place was in Canada, with an officer's wife: gentlefolks who had emigrated. More kindness; and, this time, a pleasant, peaceful life for me. I said to myself, 'Is the lost place regained? _Have_ I got back?' My mistress died. New people came into our neighborhood. There was a young lady among them--my master began to think of another wife. I have the misfortune (in my situation) to be what is called a handsome woman; I rouse the curiosity of strangers. The new people asked questions about me; my master's answers did not satisfy them. In a word, they found me out. The old story again! 'Mercy, I am very sorry; scandal is busy with you and with me; we are innocent, but there is no help for it--we must part.' I left the place; having gained one advantage during my stay in Canada, which I find of use to me here."

"What is it?"

"Our nearest neighbors were French-Canadians. I learned to speak the French language."

"Did you return to London?"

"Where else could I go, without a character?" said Mercy, sadly. "I went back again to the matron. Sickness had broken out in the Refuge; I made myself useful as a nurse. One of the doctors was struck with me--'fell in love' with me, as the phrase is. He would have married me. The nurse, as an honest woman, was bound to tell him the truth. He never appeared again. The old story! I began to be weary of saying to myself, 'I can't get back! I can't get back!' Despair got hold of me, the despair that hardens the heart. I might have committed suicide; I might even have drifted back into my old life--but for one man."

At those last words her voice--quiet and even through the earlier part of her sad story--began to falter once more. She stopped, following silently the memories and associations roused in her by what she had just said. Had she forgotten the presence of another person in the room? Grace's curiosity left Grace no resource but to say a word on her side.

"Who was the man?" she asked. "How did he befriend you?"

"Befriend me? He doesn't even know that such a person as I am is in existence."

That strange answer, naturally enough, only strengthened the anxiety of Grace to hear more. "You said just now--" she began.

"I said just now that he saved me. He did save me; you shall hear how. One Sunday our regular clergyman at the Refuge was not able to officiate. His place was taken by a stranger, quite a young man. The matron told us the stranger's name was Julian Gray. I sat in the back row of seats, under the shadow of the gallery, where I could see him without his seeing me. His text was from the words, 'Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. 'What happier women might have thought of his sermon I cannot say; there was not a dry eye among us at the Refuge. As for me, he touched my heart as no man has touched it before or since. The hard despair melted in me at the sound of his voice; the weary round of my life showed its nobler side again while he spoke. From that time I have accepted my hard lot, I have been a patient woman. I might have been something more, I might have been a happy woman, if I could have prevailed on myself to speak to Julian Gray."

"What hindered you from speaking to him?"

"I was afraid."

"Afraid of what?"

"Afraid of making my hard life harder still."

A woman who could have sympathized with her would perhaps have guessed what those words meant. Grace was simply embarrassed by her; and Grace failed to guess.

"I don't understand you," she said.

There was no alternative for Mercy but to own the truth in plain words. She sighed, and said the words. "I was afraid I might interest him in my sorrows, and might set my heart on him in return." The utter absence of any fellow-feeling with her on Grace's side expressed itself unconsciously in the plainest terms.

"You!" she exclaimed, in a tone of blank astonishment.

The nurse rose slowly to her feet. Grace's expression of surprise told her plainly--almost brutally--that her confession had gone far enough.

"I astonish you?" she said. "Ah, my young lady, you don't know what rough usage a woman's heart can bear, and still beat truly! Before I saw Julian Gray I only knew men as objects of horror to me. Let us drop the subject. The preacher at the Refuge is nothing but a remembrance now--the one welcome remembrance of my life! I have nothing more to tell you. You insisted on hearing my story--you have heard it."

"I have not heard how you found employment here," said Grace, continuing the conversation with uneasy politeness, as she best might.

Mercy crossed the room, and slowly raked together the last living embers of the fire.

"The matron has friends in France," she answered, "who are connected with the military hospitals. It was not difficult to get me the place, under those circumstances. Society can find a use for me here. My hand is as light, my words of comfort are as welcome, among those suffering wretches" (she pointed to the room in which the wounded men were lying) "as if I was the most reputable woman breathing. And if a stray shot comes my way before the war is over--well! Society will be rid of me on easy terms."

She stood looking thoughtfully into the wreck of the fire--as if she saw in it the wreck of her own life. Common humanity made it an act of necessity to say something to her. Grace considered--advanced a step toward her--stopped--and took refuge in the most trivial of all the common phrases which one human being can address to another.

"If there is anything I can do for you--" she began. The sentence, halting there, was never finished. Miss Roseberry was just merciful enough toward the lost woman who had rescued and sheltered her to feel that it was needless to say more.

The nurse lifted her noble head and advanced slowly toward the canvas screen to return to her duties. "Miss Roseberry might have taken my hand!" she thought to herself, bitterly. No! Miss Roseberry stood there at a distance, at a loss what to say next. "What can you do for me?" Mercy asked, stung by the cold courtesy of her companion into a momentary outbreak of contempt. "Can you change my identity? Can you give me the name and the place of an innocent woman? If I only had your chance! If I only had your reputation and your prospects!" She laid one hand over her bosom, and controlled herself. "Stay here," she resumed, "while I go back to my work. I will see that your clothes are dried. You shall wear my clothes as short a time as possible."

With those melancholy words--touchingly, not bitterly spoken--she moved to pass into the kitchen, when she noticed that the pattering sound of the rain against the window was audible no more. Dropping the canvas for the moment, she retraced her steps, and, unfastening the wooden shutter, looked out.

The moon was rising dimly in the watery sky; the rain had ceased; the friendly darkness which had hidden the French position from the German scouts was lessening every moment. In a few hours more (if nothing happened) the English lady might resume her journey. In a few hours more the morning would dawn.

Mercy lifted her hand to close the shutter. Before she could fasten it the report of a rifle-shot reached the cottage from one of the distant posts. It was followed almost instantly by a second report, nearer and louder than the first. Mercy paused, with the shutter in her hand, and listened intently for the next sound.