Up in Ardmuirland
The following is from Up in Ardmuirland by Michael Barrett:
Chapter XII - Penny
Although Penny's early history is not concerned with Ardmuirland or its neighbourhood, yet her long residence in the district will serve as an excuse for its introduction here, apart from the fact of its undoubted interest. Indeed, any account of Ardmuirland which should ignore so prominent a figure in its social life would fail to give a perfect picture of the place; yet but for the circumstances of her youthful career Penny would never have appeared there at all. Her story, as given here, is pieced together from knowledge gained at various times in intimate conversation; in such a form it is more likely to meet with the reader's appreciation than related in her own words.
Lanedon, in the Midlands, was a humble village enough half a century ago. It lay low, amid gently swelling green hills, and was shaded by luxuriant woodlands; out of the beaten track it slept in rustic seclusion, undisturbed by the events of the outside world, its knowledge of such things being confined to scraps of information which the local newspaper might cull from more up-to-date journals.
It had but one street--if a single straggling line of dwellings along a roadside might be so termed; on one side were cottages, each in its embowering garden, and on the other ran a clear streamlet, which supplied all the residents with abundance of fresh water. Besides these habitations in the village proper, there were others, more pretentious, though simple enough, in the shape of small farms situated in outlying districts which claimed to belong to Lanedon parish, whose dwellers worshiped in the little Norman church.
At one end of the village stood the "British Lion" public-house. It was a quaint old homestead of two stories, with black, oaken interlacing beams in its wattled walls and mullioned windows, retaining the small diamond, leaded panes, long ago discarded by more pretentious contemporaries. Before the door still stood an ancient horse-block, which had served in its time to mount many a lady of olden days; for the inn had once been of no little importance when stage-coaches plying between London and the north, along the old Roman road, daily passed the end of the lane leading to the village. Many a guest of quality, in those days, spent a night in the "British Lion."
Opposite the inn door, on the other side of the road, a signboard swung in a frame upheld by a massive oaken pillar, under the shelter of a cluster of tall elms; on a marine background, the noble beast that stands for the type of national courage and strength was depicted rampant, his fierce claws raised in defiance of all invaders. Under the sign shone out in golden letters the name, "Stephen Dale."
The other end of the straggling street was closed by the old church with its squat tower, whose carven doorways and capitals were wont to attract to the place many a traveller learned in archaeology; for it was a famous building in its way, and was honourably mentioned in most manuals of architecture.
The inn and the church had little in common--less, indeed, than an inn and a church in other villages. Stephen Dale's sole interest in the sacred building was of a temporal nature; he regarded its attractions with satisfaction because they served to bring past his door many a wayfarer who would otherwise never set foot in Lanedon. Such might pass on their way to the church, but would seldom omit to enter the inn on their return journey for a few minutes of rest and refreshment. And a charming place of rest it was! From a stone-paved passage you entered the "house-place," a large square room, also stone-paved, a step lower than the passage. Its wide chimney had settled on either side, where one could sit warm and comfortable--heedless of winter winds--in the glow of the log-fire burning on the iron "dogs" of the low hearth. In summer its sanded pavement made it a gratefully cool retreat from the sunshine outside. Moreover, Stephen Dale's renowned home-brewed ale added to the attractions of the house.
Neither Stephen nor any of his household ever set foot in the church for the purposes of worship; for, strange as it may seem, the Dales, surrounded by English country yokels, whose sole notion of religion lay in a perfunctory attendance at church once on a Sunday--afternoon for preference--to listen uncomprehending to the service, and slumber through the sermon, came of a Catholic stock. Both Stephen and his wife hailed from Lancashire; they had spent many years in service together in a Catholic household about fifty miles distant from Lanedon before they had married and set up housekeeping at the "British Lion.” Nor were they so utterly deprived of the consolations of religion as at first sight might appear; four miles away were the military barracks of Melliford, and a Catholic chapel which had been built there--principally on account of the soldiers--was served every Sunday and holiday from a larger centre, and thither the Dales regularly drove to worship.
Seven children had been born to the worthy couple, but death had snatched all in turn except the last; this was Penelope (our Penny), who, needless to say, was the idol of both parents. The result of their devotion was a rather strict surveillance, to which she was subjected, not only during childhood's years, but with even greater insistence when she had reached maidenhood. For it became necessary then to guard their treasure from any adventurer who might seek to win her in marriage for the sake of the goodly dowry which every one knew must fall to her lot. Her father would often remark with no little show of determination: "Penny shall never throw herself away on any whipper-snapper of a fellow! She'll not be a pauper, and she can afford to wait a bit till she meets her match!"
It is not to be surprised, therefore, that Penny should hold her pretty head rather high. No mere ploughman would dare to aspire to the hand of a landlord's only daughter, and no marriageable farmer to whom Penny might aspire was to be found in the neighbourhood. As to the military--Penny would have scouted the idea of wedding a common soldier, and was sensible enough to turn a cold shoulder upon the undisguised glances of admiration of youthful and impressionable officers. Thus it came about that she had blossomed into a graceful girl of twenty--small in stature, yet not without good looks--and yet remained heart-whole.
Among their few intimate acquaintances the Dales had a particular attraction for one of the married sergeants of the barracks and his wife--both Catholics. Sergeant Pike and his better-half would not infrequently, especially during the summer months, stroll over to the inn of an evening--sure of a hearty welcome to a cup of tea and a chat. Pike had seen service in India, and his adventures would thrill his rustic audience in the inn, as they listened over pipe and mug to his stirring narratives. His wife was equally entertaining toward Sarah Dale and her daughter, in the little glass-partitioned bar in the corner of the "house-place"; she had been maid to many an officer's lady, and had travelled as far abroad as her husband. Thus while "the tented field" and its dangers held enthralled the larger company of men, present fashions and past adventures--though less exciting than those of the sergeant--were entertaining enough to the smaller audience in the bar. Even 'Melia, the maid-servant of tender years, would share in the social enjoyment, as knitting in hand she stole furtively in from the kitchen and listened unreproved to the interesting discourse. Sometimes it might happen that the Pikes had been able to drive over in a borrowed conveyance on a winter afternoon; in such case a cosy supper in the snug little bar, after the ordinary company had departed, would take the place of tea. The Pikes, in their turn, were always hospitably inclined whenever Stephen Dale, his wife, or daughter, or all of them together, might look in upon them of a Sunday after Mass.
The acquaintance, thus ripened, was destined to influence Penny's future beyond any anticipation on the part of either family. It fell out on one occasion that Mrs. Pike was unable to accompany the sergeant on a visit to the Dales, and to serve as a companion on the walk he brought with him a fellow-sergeant, much younger, whom he introduced to the Dales as "my particular chum--Sergeant Spence.” The newcomer was a decidedly handsome, strapping young soldier, with a merry dark eye, rendered still more striking by his fair hair and tawny moustache. His skin would have been fair, too, had it not undergone a process of bronzing under tropical suns. He could not have been thirty, and looked even younger. He proved also to be unmarried; a fact playfully made known by his companion. "Arthur's never met with a missus to suit him since he got his stripes," he said laughing, as they sat at supper; "he's like me--a bit particular in that respect.” Spence merely greeted the remark with a quiet smile. He seemed a silent young fellow, with a manner superior to his companion's.
Perhaps it was a want of circumspection on the part of Stephen Dale that he should welcome a stranger, and a soldier, too, as a guest at his family meal. But it was his favourite axiom that a sergeant might not be looked down upon "like as if he was a common Tom, Dick, or Harry in the ranks"; so that his hospitality was to be expected in the present instance. Had either anxious parent had the slightest fear of the attractive sergeant's pleasing qualities proving too strong for Penny's "proper pride," their welcome would have been less genuine; but they were altogether without suspicion. Yet, as to Penny herself, it must have been evident from the first that the dark eyes often strayed in her direction, and that with unmistakable interest, even on so short an acquaintance.
After that first visit the handsome young sergeant became a frequent partaker of the hospitality of the "British Lion.” He never omitted to accompany the Pikes, and not seldom walked over on a summer's evening to smoke a pipe with Stephen and feast his eyes surreptitiously upon Stephen's attractive daughter. He proved, on acquaintance, to be an intelligent, well-spoken young fellow, evidently superior to most of his class; this was owing to the fact that he was a farmer's son, left, through a combination of circumstances, orphaned and almost destitute, who had found in the army a welcome means of livelihood.
It was not long before Spence was on as familiar a footing at the "British Lion" as his fellow-sergeant. It was strange that both Stephen Dale and his wife were altogether blind to the real reason for his frequent visits. Penny, on the other hand, had early discerned the state of the young man's feelings toward her; but instinctively she guarded her secret from all. Even when Spence had spoken, and had learned her strong affection for him, she insisted that all knowledge of their mutual understanding should be kept from her parents until she could gauge their feelings in the matter. She was not without uneasiness; for it seemed extremely doubtful whether her father--much as he liked her lover--would consider him suitable as a son-in-law. For her mother's opinion she felt no anxiety; since Sarah Dale was thoroughly under her husband's thumb. Penny's own strong will had come to her from her father alone.
The course of events was much like that of other instances of the kind. Clandestine letters, less frequent meetings--as opportunity offered--ran the usual risk; in due time, as might have been expected by any but ardent lovers, the secret oozed out. Some busybody or other lost no time in conveying the startling news to Stephen Dale, who had hitherto had no suspicion of the state of things.
To say that Penny's father was disappointed would be an altogether inadequate description of his state of mind; he was thoroughly enraged. Never in her life had his daughter seen him give way to such unrestrained passion; for never before had his hopes and aspirations been so entirely thrown over. He had set his heart upon establishing his darling in a position in life as far above his own as might be possible; now, by her own initiative, she had paved the way to an evident descent in the social scale. Not content with choosing one far beneath her, she had even chosen a Protestant! Yet Stephen had too strong a will to be easily contravened. He was determined to prevent, at all costs, such a disaster. His first impulse was to relieve his mind by telling Spence in no measured language what he thought of his conduct; the latter had perforce to keep silent, however exaggerated the abuse heaped upon him, for his conscience told him that he was in fault. Penny was the next to listen to some very candid truths as to the uprightness of her part in the proceedings. Then when he had given full play to his indignation, Stephen began to make plans for the future which might effectually defeat any attempts on the part of the young people to renew their intimacy. Spence, of course, was absolutely forbidden to set foot again over the threshold of the inn. Penny was kept under strict surveillance until her father was able to carry her off to a sister of his own in distant Lancashire, who could be depended upon to prevent any communication between the lovers. The Pikes--poor people--though absolutely innocent of any complicity, since they knew no more of what was going on than Stephen himself, were made to share in Spence's interdict. No assurances of their total ignorance of the affair would avail; the fact that Pike had been the unfortunate instrument in introducing his comrade to the Dale family was in itself sufficient to kindle Stephen's wrath against him. To add to the sergeant's discomfiture, he could not forget that in his admiration for his "chum" he had been unstinting in his praises; for he had a genuine affectionate regard for Spence, as a thoroughly upright young fellow, and a striking contrast to the majority of the Protestants with whom he was daily brought into contact.
The unhappy Penny, placed under her aunt's vigilant guardianship, was inconsolable. She languished and drooped, during the first week or two of her exile, as though her usually firm will had died within her. So utterly broken did she seem that her aunt began to lose all hope of rousing her to any interest in life; apparently she was submitting in a spirit of blank despair to a fate which she regarded as inevitable. But soon a change came over her. Though still quiet and seemingly docile, she gained by degrees some vestiges of her old cheerfulness and gaiety. Her guardian's watchfulness inadvertently relaxed, for it appeared no longer necessary.
But the unfortunate woman had a sad awakening. One morning the girl went out alone--ostensibly to Mass; the day wore on, and to her aunt's consternation no Penny put in an appearance. An explanation arrived next morning by letter. Penny's lover had contrived to communicate with her and to arrange a meeting in Liverpool, where they had been married; by the time the letter arrived at its destination the couple were on the way to Ireland, whither Spence's regiment had been just transferred.
The two years that followed were, for the most part, years of happiness for the sergeant and his bride. Penny's conscience had been at first greatly troubled by her sacrilegious marriage before a registrar, on account of the inevitable haste with which it had to be carried through. She bitterly deplored her weakness for many a long day, even after she had done all that was possible to atone for her sin by a sincere Confession. Her husband could not be expected to realize as she did the gravity of her offence against religion; but he sympathized with her distress, and did all that lay in his power, by unceasing care and devotion, to comfort her. By degrees his lavish affection tended to deaden for the time the keenness of her remorse.
Their happiness was increased by the birth of a little daughter. The child was the idol of her father, and Penny's life was brightened by the joys of motherhood, in spite of the persistent refusal of Stephen Dale to hold any communication with her or allow his wife to do so.
But all too soon that happiness was to be rudely shattered, and that in a way entirely unforeseen.
Like many another family on the strength of the regiment, the Spences, for lack of accommodation in barracks, were lodged in apartments in the city. One dreary winter evening, when little Annie was about a year old, Penny sat at her knitting by the fireside, the baby in her cot close by, fast asleep. Spence had been taking part in a concert, and was later than usual in coming in, for it was past ten o'clock. In the silence Penny heard the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs outside; they halted at her door, and there was a gentle rapping. She rose and opened the door in response.
On the landing without stood a woman, whom she had never before seen--a shabby-looking woman, dressed in soiled and worn garments, which had once been bright and stylish. Her appearance, apart from her dress, was far from attractive; her lean face had dull red blotches upon it, her eyes looked wild and shining, and her grey hair straggled out from her tawdry bonnet. It scarcely needed the evidence of a strong smell of spirits to prove that she had been taking drink.
Penny instinctively shrank back from the threshold, but still held the door in her hand. The woman made no attempt to enter. Fixing her too bright eyes upon Penny's face with a scrutinizing glance, she said in a raucous whisper:
"I was told that Sergeant Spence was likely to be here; but it seems I've come to the wrong rooms."
Penny was silent for a moment, dreading she knew not what.
"Sergeant Spence may be here any moment," she answered, rousing herself. She was praying that he might come quickly.
"Oh, indeed! So he may be here any moment," said the woman in louder tones. "I suppose my fine fellow is courting you now," she went on, staring boldly into Penny's frightened face. "Well, I've no fault to find with his taste. He used to have an eye for a pretty face, and you're a good-looking girl, though you're but a little one."
"What do you want with Sergeant Spence?" asked Penny, as her courage began to return. Why should she fear this coarse, black-eyed woman. She could have nothing in common with Arthur. But why should she seek him thus openly in his own dwelling? Her fears began to return.
The strange visitor advanced across the threshold; Penny retreated before her. The colour deepened in her already florid face as the woman cried fiercely:
"What do I want with him? I mean to force him to take me back to my rightful place, that's what I want with him!"
Her voice, raised angrily, awoke the child, who gave a shrill cry of fright. The woman stared at the cot in astonishment. Penny stooped and lifted the little one, and faced the stranger once more as she pressed the child to her bosom.
"Is that your baby?" the woman almost whispered, as she caught the gleam of Penny's wedding ring. Then she cried wrathfully:
"What! Has he dared to marry you? Oh, the treacherous villain! Surely you're not Arthur Spence's wife!"
In spite of the fear that fell upon her, Penny grew at once strangely calm. This must be some disreputable relative of her husband's--though she had thought him alone in the world. He was an orphan. This could not be Arthur's mother! He could have nothing in common with a woman so low as this! It was some bold, bad creature trying to frighten her. Thus spoke her trembling heart, but her voice was quiet and restrained as she said in reply:
"I do not see how it affects you that Arthur Spence is my husband, and this is our child."
The simple dignity with which she spoke and her apparent calmness seemed to soften the woman and still her anger somewhat. Drawing nearer, she laid her hand with something of gentleness upon Penny's arm, and tears started to her eyes as she exclaimed:
"My dear, the man's a scoundrel! You are no wife of his. He married me when he was a stripling of eighteen, and he cast me off in less than a year. He ruined me, and now he's ruined you--poor dear!"
"It's false, it's false!" cried Penny with fierce eyes and glowing colour. "You certainly know nothing of my husband. You'll never turn me against him with your wicked lies! He's good and true--I'm sure of it, say what you like!"
"I only wish you were right, my dear," replied the other, evidently softened by Penny's unshaken fidelity. "But God knows I'm speaking the truth; for here is the proof."
She drew from her pocket a folded paper and held it open before Penny's eyes.
It was a marriage certificate. It described Arthur Spence as wedded to Clara Millar, and the date was twelve years ago. The shock, though intense, was merely momentary. So strong was Penny's trust in her husband that not even this manifest evidence, as it seemed, could shake it. Another man might bear the same name--Arthur might have some disreputable cousin or other relative. She would believe nothing against the uprightness of her Arthur.
"I do not believe," she said firmly, looking steadfastly at the other woman, "that my husband could wrong any woman."
"I declare to you before God," cried the stranger excitedly, "that Sergeant Arthur Spence, whom you call your husband, married me on the day set down here!” And she rapped with one hand on the paper she held in the other. "But I have a stronger proof. Read that!"
She had taken an envelope from her pocket as she spoke, and drawing from it a paper she held it before Penny.
With shaking hands the poor little wife took it. It was a letter--the handwriting familiar to her. She turned to the signature; it was her husband's own.
"Read it through," persisted the woman. "See whether I am telling the truth or lies."
Penny's knees were shaking under her. She sank into a chair, and clasping her baby more closely to her breast she read the letter. It was dated a few days before she and Arthur were married.
"Dear Clara," it ran. "This is the last time I shall write to you. Unless you stick to the agreement we made, I shall stop sending you money. Do not try to meet me, and do not mention again our unhappy marriage--even to me--or I shall shake you off entirely. So use your common-sense, and keep quiet. You will find that I shall do something desperate if you keep on annoying me as you have done lately. I tell you plainly: I will never see you again."
What a moment of agony for the poor stricken wife! There could no longer he room for doubt. She had indeed been fooled and deceived! Her innate courage rose and sustained her under the weight of the trial. She would leave that house--now, once and for all--before her betrayer could return! Never, never would she look upon his smiling, treacherous face again!
Animated with fresh strength, she rose and hastily began her preparations. She fetched the baby's warm wraps from the inner room and began to dress the child. The other woman looked on in silence--dazed for the moment by Penny's brisk movements. At last she found a voice.
"What are you doing?" she cried. "Surely you will not take the child out to-night!"
Penny made no answer, but fetched her own outdoor clothes and dressed hastily.
"Where are you going, on such a night?" cried the other excitedly.
"Anywhere," answered Penny, her lips white and her eyes flashing. "Anywhere out of reach of that man."
"No, no!" the woman expostulated. "Wait till morning! I'll see him then and settle everything."
"What can you settle that can make me stay?" asked Penny, in bitter wrath. "Do you think that I would spend another night under this roof? Wait here and see him, if you wish--you have the right to be here, not I! He will never see me again."
She ran back into her bedroom for the little purse. In it were a few pounds she had saved up to buy the man an easy chair for his coming birthday. How often she had pictured his pleasure when he would be able to lean back comfortably in it on the opposite side of the fireplace and smoke his evening pipe, his handsome face beaming love and admiration. The vision filled her with fresh loathing. She scarcely bade the other woman good-night, but clasping her babe hurried from the room. Swiftly down the stairs she ran, heedless of the cries of the woman she had left behind, and out into the wind and rain of the dreary street--fit emblem, in its forlorn wretchedness, of the future which loomed hopeless before her.
* * * * * *
Two things added to the poignancy of Penny's unavailing grief in after years: the innocence of Arthur Spence of any deception (except silence regarding his past), and the fact that she never knew this until he had given his life in his country's service. It was then too late to reap comfort in her supreme sorrow from the knowledge of his uprightness both to herself and to the wretched woman who had caused her unreflecting flight on that fatal night.
For many months she had been hidden from all her former acquaintances in the Convent of Mercy, whose Superior she had long been intimate with. There she had nursed her baby through an illness which at last proved fatal. Grief at the loss of her little one, added to her already heavy burden of trouble, had told upon her own health, and for weeks she had needed to be nursed herself. After her recovery, as she shrank from returning home, the good Sisters obtained for her the post of nurse with our family.
Two years later Stephen Dale died suddenly. Penny had written to him and to her mother more than once, but got no answer; the intimation of her father's death was the first communication she had received since leaving home. Later on a letter was forwarded to her, which had been found among her father's papers. It was from Spence, and was dated the day following her flight. In an agony of mind the man had searched for her everywhere, and failing to discover any trace of her whereabouts, had written to her under cover to her father. He, poor man, could not send it--even had he been willing--having no idea of her address.
The letter was a pitiful appeal to Penny to return, and contained a full explanation of his conduct. The marriage with the woman Millar--never a happy one--had proved invalid, owing to the survival of her former husband to a later date. This, however, only became known to Spence after the woman's intemperate habits had told upon her brain, and landed her in an asylum. She had really believed that her husband--a worthless fellow--had died on the day stated. It was characteristic of the chivalrous nature of the man that Spence shrank from telling her, after her recovery, of the error; content to send her an annual allowance on condition that they should remain apart--as they had agreed to do long before. Although the woman had no legal claim upon him, he had continued this allowance even after his marriage with Penny, hoping to secure by this means freedom from molestation.
It was natural that Penny, knowing all the circumstances, should desire to communicate with her husband and become reconciled. My dear old father, to whom she had confided her trouble, at once inquired through the War Office as to where Arthur Spence was then stationed. The answer told of his death in action three months earlier.
Penny--poor soul!--when giving me these details many years later, utterly broke down, as she accused herself of having wronged--however unwittingly--by her suspicions the brave and upright man whose loss she still keenly deplored, and whose soul (I make no doubt) she will never omit to recommend to God in her daily prayers as long as life is granted to her.