- THE WOMAN FROM PURGATORY
- story: THE WOMAN FROM PURGATORY
MRS. BARLOW, the prettiest and the happiest and the best dressed of the young wives of Summerfield, was walking toward the Catholic Church. She was going to consult the old priest as to her duty to an unsatisfactory servant; for Agnes Barlow was a conscientious as well as a pretty and a happy woman.
Foolish people are fond of quoting a foolish gibe: "Be good, and you may be happy; but you will not have a good time." The wise, however, soon become aware that if, in the course of life's journey, you achieve goodness | | 190 and happiness, you will almost certainly have a good time too.
So, at least, Agnes Barlow had found in her own short life. Her excellent parents had built one of the first new houses in what had then been the pretty, old-fashioned village of Summer-field, some fifteen miles from London. There she had been born; there she had spent delightful years at the big convent school over the hill; there she had grown up into a singularly pretty girl; and there, finallyߞit had seemed quite final to Agnesߞshe had met the clever, fascinating young lawyer, Frank Barlow.
Frank had soon become the lover all her girl friends had envied her, and then the husband who was stillߞso he was fond of saying and of proving in a dozen dear little daily waysߞas much in love with her as on the day they were married. They lived in a charming house called The Haven, and they were the proud parents of a fine little boy, named Francis after his father, who never had any of the tiresome ailments which afflict other people's children.
But strange, dreadful things do happenߞnot often, of course, but just now and againߞeven in this delightful world! So thought Agnes Barlow on this pleasant May afternoon; for, as she walked to church, this pretty, happy, | | 191 good woman found her thoughts dwelling uncomfortably on another woman, her sometime intimate friend and contemporary, who was neither good nor happy.
This was Teresa Maldo, the lovely half-Spanish girl who had been her favourite school-mate at the convent over the hill.
Poor, foolish, unhappy, wicked Teresa! Only ten days ago Teresa had done a thing so extraordinary, so awful, so unprecedented, that Agnes Barlow had thought of little else ever since. Teresa Maldo had eloped, gone right away from her home and her husband, and with a married man!
Teresa and Agnes were the same age; they had had the same upbringing; they were both—in a very different way, however—beautiful, and they had each been married, six years before, on the same day of the month.
But how different had been their subsequent fates!
Teresa had at once discovered that her husband drank. But she loved him, and for a while it seemed as if marriage would reform Maldo. Unfortunately, this better state of things did not last: he again began to drink: and the matrons of Summerfield soon had reason to shake their heads over the way Teresa Maldo went on.| | 192
Men, you see, were so sorry for this lovely young woman, blessed (or cursed) with what old-fashioned folk call "the come-hither eye," that they made it their business to console her for such a worthless husband as was Maldo. No wonder Teresa and Agnes drifted apart; no wonder Frank Barlow soon forbade his spotless Agnes to accept Mrs. Maldo's invitations. And Agnes knew that her dear Frank was right; she had never much enjoyed her visits to Teresa's house.
But an odd thing had happened about a fortnight ago. And it was to this odd happening that Agnes's mind persistently recurred each time she found herself alone.
About three days before Teresa Maldo had done the mad and wicked thing of which all Summerfield was still talking, she had paid a long call on Agnes Barlow.
The unwelcome guest had stayed a very long time; she had talked, as she generally did talk now, wildly and rather strangely; and Agnes, looking back, was glad to remember that no one else had come in while her old schoolfellow was there.
When, at last, Teresa Maldo had made up her mind to go (luckily, some minutes before Frank was due home from town), Agnes accompanied her to the gate of The Haven, and | | 193 there the other had turned round and made such odd remarks.
"I came to tell you something!" she had exclaimed. "But, now that I see you looking so happy, so pretty, and—forgive me for saying so, Agnes—so horribly good, I feel that I can't tell you! But, Agnes, whatever happens, you must pity, and—and, if you can, understand me."
It was now painfully clear to Agnes Barlow that Teresa had come that day intending to tell her once devoted friend of the wicked thing she meant to do; and more than once pretty and good Mrs. Barlow had asked herself uneasily whether she could have done anything to stop Teresa on her downward course.
But no; Agnes felt her conscience clear. How would it have been possible for her even to discuss with Teresa so shameful a possibility as that of a woman leaving her husband with another man?
Agnes thought of the two sinners with a touch of fascinated curiosity. They were said to be in Paris, and Teresa was probably having a very good time—a wildly amusing, exciting time.
She even told herself, did this pretty, happy, fortunate young married woman, that it was strange, and not very fair, that vice and plea- | | 194 sure should always go together! It was just a little irritating to know that Teresa would never again be troubled by the kind of worries that played quite an important part in Agnes's own blameless life. Never again, for instance, would Teresa's cook give her notice, as Agnes's cook had given her notice that morning. It was about that matter she wished to see Father Ferguson, for it was through the priest she had heard of the impertinent Irish girl who cooked so well, but who had such an independent manner, and who would not wear a cap!
Yes, it certainly seemed unfair that Teresa would now be rid of all domestic worries—nay, more, that the woman who had sinned would live in luxurious hotels, motoring and shopping all day, going to the theatre or to a music-hall each night.
At last, however, Agnes dismissed Teresa Maldo from her mind. She knew that it is not healthy to dwell overmuch on such people and their doings.
The few acquaintances Mrs. Barlow met on her way smiled and nodded, but, as she was walking rather quickly, no one tried to stop her. She had chosen the back way to the church because it was the prettiest way, and also because it would take her by a house where a friend of hers was living in lodgings.| | 195
And suddenly the very friend in question—his name was Ferrier—came out of his lodgings. He had a tall, slight, active figure; he was dressed in a blue serge suit, and, though it was still early spring, he wore a straw hat.
Agnes smiled a little inward smile. She was, as we already know, a very good as well as a happy woman. But a woman as pretty as was Agnes Barlow meets with frequent pleasant occasions of withstanding temptation, of which those about her, especially her dear parents and her kind husband, are often curiously unknowing. And the tall, well-set-up masculine figure now hurrying toward her with such eager steps played a considerable part in Agnes's life, if only as constantly providing her with occasions of acquiring merit.
Agnes knew very well—even the least imaginative woman is always acutely conscious of such a fact—that, had she not been a prudent and a ladylike as well as (of course) a very good woman, this clever, agreeable, interesting young man would have made love to her. As it was, he (of course) did nothing of the kind. He did not even try to flirt with her, as our innocent Agnes understood that much-tried verb; and she regarded their friendship as a pleasant interlude in her placid, well-regulated | | 196 existence, and as a most excellent influence on his more agitated life.
Mr. Ferrier lifted his hat. He smiled down into Agnes's blue eyes. What very charming, nay, what beautiful eyes they were! Deeply, exquisitely blue, but unshadowed, as innocent of guile, as are a child's eyes.
"Somehow, I had a kind of feeling that you would be coming by just now," he said in a rather hesitating voice; "so I left my work and came out on chance."
Now, Agnes was very much interested in Mr. Ferrier's work. Mr. Ferrier was not only a writer—the only writer she had ever known; he was also a poet. She had been pleasantly thrilled the day he had given her a slim little book, on each page of which was a poem. This gift had been made when they had known each other only two months, and he had inscribed it: "From G. G. F. to A. M. B."
Mr. Ferrier had a charming studio flat in Chelsea, that odd, remote place where London artists live, far from the pleasant London of the shops and theatres which was all Agnes knew of the great City near which she dwelt. But he always spent the summer in the country, and his summer lasted from the 1st of May till the 1st of October. He had already | | 197 spent two holidays at Summerfield, and had been a great deal at The Haven.
When with Mr. Ferrier, and they were much together during the long week-days when Summerfield is an Adamless Eden, Agnes Barlow made a point of often speaking of dear Frank and of Frank's love for her,—not, of course, in a way that any one could have regarded as silly, but in a natural, happy, simple way.
How easy, how very easy, it is to keep this kind of friendship—friendship between a man and a woman—within bounds! And how terribly sad it was to think that Teresa Maldo had not known how to do that easy thing! But then, Teresa's lover had been a married man separated from his wife, and that doubtless made all the difference. Agnes Barlow could assure herself in all sincerity that, had Mr. Ferrier been the husband of another woman, she would never have allowed him to become her friend to the extent that he was now.
Mr. Ferrier—Agnes never allowed herself to think of him as Gerald (although he had once asked her to call him by his Christian name)—held an evening paper in his hand.
"I was really on my way to The Haven," he observed, "for there are a few verses of mine in this paper which I am anxious you | | 198 should read. Shall I go on and leave it at your house, or will you take it now? And then, if I may, I will call for it some time tomorrow. Should I be likely to find you in about four o'clock?"
"Yes, I'll be in about four, and I think I'll take the paper now."
And then—for she was walking very slowly, and Ferrier, with his hands behind his back, kept pace with her—Agnes could not resist the pleasure of looking down at the open sheet, for the newspaper was so turned about that she could see the little set of verses quite plainly.
The poem was called "My Lady of the Snow," and it told in very pretty, complicated language of a beautiful, pure woman whom the writer loved in a desperate but quite respectful way.
She grew rather red. "I must hurry on, for I am going to church," she said a little stiffly. "Good evening, Mr. Ferrier. Yes, I will keep the paper till to-morrow, if I may. I should like to show it to Frank. He hasn't been to the office to-day, for he isn't very well, and he will like to see an evening paper."
Mr. Ferrier lifted his hat with a rather sad look, and turned back toward the house where he lodged. And as Agnes walked on she felt | | 199 disturbed and a little uncomfortable. Her clever friend had evidently been grieved by her apparent lack of appreciation of his poem.
When she reached the church her parents had helped to build, she went in, knelt down, and said a prayer. Then she got up and walked through into the sacristy. Father Ferguson was almost certain to be there just now.
Agnes Barlow had known the old priest all her life. He had baptized her; he had been chaplain at the convent during the years she had been at school there; and now he had come back to be parish priest at Summerfield.
When with Father Ferguson, Agnes somehow never felt quite so good as she did when she was by herself or with a strange priest; and yet Father Ferguson was always very kind to her.
As she came into the sacristy he looked round with a smile. "Well ?" he said. "Well, Agnes, my child, what can I do for you?"
Agnes put the newspaper she was holding down on a chair. And then, to her surprise, Father Ferguson took up the paper and glanced over the front page. He was an intelligent man, and sometimes he found Summerfield a rather shut-in, stifling sort of place.
But the priest's instinctive wish to know | | 200 something of what was passing in the great world outside the suburb where it was his duty to dwell did him an ill turn, for something he read in the paper caused him to utter a low, quick exclamation of intense pain and horror.
"What's the matter?" cried Agnes Barlow, frightened out of her usual self-complacency. "Whatever has happened, Father Ferguson?"
He pointed with shaking finger to a small paragraph. It was headed "Suicide of a Lady at Dover," and Agnes read the few lines with bewildered and shocked amazement.
Teresa Maldo, whom she had visioned, only a few minutes ago, as leading a merry, gloriously careless life with her lover, was dead. She had thrown herself out of a bedroom window in a hotel at Dover, and she had been killed instantly, dashed into a shapeless mass on the stones below.
Agnes stared down at the curt, cold little paragraph with excited horror. She was six-and-twenty, but she had never seen death, and, as far as she knew, the girls with whom she had been at school were all living. Teresa—poor unhappy, sinful Teresa—had been the first to die, and by her own hand.
The old priest's eyes slowly brimmed over with tears. "Poor, unhappy child!" he said, with a break in his voice. "Poor, unfortunate | | 201 Teresa! I did not think, I should never have believed, that she would seek—and find—this terrible way out."
Agnes was a little shocked at his broken words. True, Teresa had been very unhappy, and it was right to pity her; but she had also been very wicked; and now she had put, as it were, the seal on her wickedness by killing herself.
"Three or four days before she went away she came and saw me," the priest went on, in a low, pained voice. "I did everything in my power to stop her, but I could do nothing—she had given her word!"
"Given her word?" repeated Agnes wonderingly.
"Yes," said Father Ferguson; "she had given that wretched, that wickedly selfish man her promise. She believed that if she broke her word he would kill himself. I begged her to go and see some woman—some kind, pitiful, understanding woman—but I suppose she feared lest such a one would dissuade her to more purpose than I was able to do.
Agnes looked at him with troubled eyes.
"She was very dear to my heart," the priest went on. "She was always a generous, unselfish child, and she was very, very fond of you, Agnes."| | 202
Agnes's throat tightened. What Father Ferguson said was only too true. Teresa had always been a very generous and unselfish girl, and very, very fond of her. She wondered remorsefully if she had omitted to do or say anything she could have done or said on the day that poor Teresa had come and spoken such strange, wild words——?
"It seems so awful," she said in a low voice, "so very, very awful to think that we may not even pray for her soul, Father Ferguson."
"Not pray for her soul?" the priest repeated. "Why should we not pray for the poor child's soul? I shall certainly pray for Teresa's soul every day till I die."
"But—but how can you do that, when she killed herself?"
He looked at her surprised. "And do you really so far doubt God's mercy? Surely we may hope—nay, trust—that Teresa had time to make an act of contrition?" And then he muttered something—it sounded like a line or two of poetry—which Agnes did not quite catch; but she felt, as she often did feel when with Father Ferguson, at once rebuked and rebellious.
Of course there might have been time for Teresa to make an act of contrition. But every one knows that to take one's life is a | | 203 deadly sin. Agnes felt quite sure that if it ever occurred to herself to do such a thing she would go straight to hell. Still, she was used to obey this old priest, and that even when she did not agree with him. So she followed him into the church, and side by side they knelt down and each said a separate prayer for the soul of Teresa Maldo.
As Agnes Barlow walked slowly and soberly home, this time by the high road, she tried to remember the words, the lines of poetry, that Father Ferguson had muttered. They at once haunted and eluded her memory. Surely they could not be
She mercy sought and mercy found.
No, Agnes was sure that he had not said "window," and yet window seemed the only word that would fit the case. And he had not said, "she mercy found"; he had said, "he mercy sought and mercy found"—of that Agnes felt sure, and that, too, was odd. But then, Father Ferguson was very odd sometimes, and he was fond of quoting in his sermons queer little bits of verse of which no one had ever heard.
Suddenly she bethought herself, with more annoyance than the matter was worth, that | | 204 in her agitation she had left Mr. Ferrier's newspaper in the sacristy. She did not like the thought that Father Ferguson would probably read those pretty, curious verses, "My Lady of the Snow."
Also, Agnes had actually forgotten to speak to the old priest of her impertinent cook!