Mary Christina

Henry Handel Richardson

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

Mary Christina was going to die. — For sixty years, come March, she had been an inhabitant of the earth, and had suffered her full share of life’s vicissitudes: she had passed from girl to woman, had loved and been loved, had borne children and tended children, had watched young faces lose their youth, and harden, and grow unbeautiful; she had cared for graves; had resigned herself, in the course of years, to the creeping on of age: she had wept, and laughed, and been indifferent, mostly indifferent, as is man’s way; but now she was going to cease to be, and nothing would please her, or sadden her, or leave her merely cold, again.

She knew what was coming, before anyone else; for she had had a presentiment: so, at least, she called it, one grey November afternoon, when, with icy hands outspread, she crouched low over a fire from which she could derive no heat.

That day, while a sharp wind was causing the last, tattered leaves to whirl madly on their stalks, Mary Christina had journeyed to a distant quarter of the town. Her business done, she entered a crowded conveyance. As she sat and let her eyes range over the row of faces opposite her, faces worn with toil, and reddened with exposure to the wind, she said to herself: “My God, how ugly people are!” But, in the same breath, a small, inner voice rebuked her: “Be thankful to be among them, Mary Christina! What, if you were never out of doors again?” To which, elliptically, she made answer: “Better now than in spring, when things are freshening up.”

Mary Christina was going to die.

That night, the hour being come, she took off for the last time the wrappings in which the world had known her, and, with as little covering as she would ever again need, lay down between the sheets that witness the incoming and the outgoing of mortals.

But the lying down and folding of the hands is not enough; it is no such easy matter as that to die. The way out of life is as darkly mysterious as the way in.

Thus, after having ever been one of those stoics who look upon illness as a moral failing, to which it is dishonourable to yield; after having borne her casual ailments as mutely as a suffering animal, Mary Christina now began to fling about on her bed, in such a manner that every one within call was needed to restrain her; and to utter shrill, shameless cries, which echoed through the house. Beads of moisture rolled from her forehead and made round spots on the sheet, or splashed the hands of those who held her.

A stranger, summoned in haste, sat beside her bed. Before him, a scrupulous, womanly reserve dropped like a rent veil.

The well-known faces of her children — children now in the eyes of Mary Christina alone — hung over her. Hand after hand sought hers, sweat-bedewed; and from the lips of the youngest broke man’s most human cry: “Oh, Mother . . . Mother!”

But though these, of all living creatures, had been in Mary Christina’s thoughts ever since they had come into the world; though she had watched, night for night, till she knew their eyes closed in sleep, harassed by the fears that only a mother knows; though, up to the last, her love had thrown out a thousand arms, to safeguard them on their divers ways, she was now as indifferent to them as to the several strangers who moved round her bed. And the withdrawal of her warm affection seemed, to those who had been used to shelter beneath it, like the first significant victory gained by death over life.

For Mary Christina, the centre of existence had shifted: henceforth, her desire was only to herself. First came the idolatrous attention demanded by her body — this strong, personable body, still ablaze with energy, and resolutely desirous of living. It was made the object of a religious care; untiring were the endeavours to ward off the inevitable. The minutest variations in the heat of the blood, in the pulsations of the heart, were verified and controlled. Hitherto, she had lived unconscious of her vital functions; now she, too, shared the palpitating interest in their course. For all these things, now of a morbid importance, were possible disarmers of the great enemy, of the griping, gutting pain, to repel which was her chief concern. This came at intervals. It began somewhere in the distance, far away, drew rapidly nearer, darkening the bed with the shadow of its wings; it hovered over her, circling like a vulture, she lying defenceless and terrified; then, with one swoop, it descended and settled on her, plunging beak and claws into the shuddering flesh. She looked at those about her with wild eyes, dumbly imploring them, praying to them, as to gods, to shield her from it; but they did nothing. It tore at her, sick and faint with anguish; the muscles of her body twisted into knots; she heard her own shrieks rend the air.

For longer than eight long days she fought this fight, returning time and again to the encounter, in which, each single time, she left more of her strength. Gradually, however, the force of her struggles declined, and the hope that had sustained her, the hope of once coming off conqueror, died out. She still swallowed, with avidity, the bitter draughts that were held to her lips; she submitted, gladly, to the importunate services of the nurse, which broke in, by night and by day, on her hard-won rest; she still gave desperate battle, when the agony sucked at her; but it became a mere blind instinct to live, without faith in the issue. — And the watchers round the bed began to avoid her eyes, in which, at moments, the death-secret was legible.

For eight days and over, she disputed each inch of ground, and those whose lot it was to stand and look on, felt the limits of human endurance strain to breaking-point. Then, however, a change was visible. The pain still wrung her, in savage bouts; but Mary Christina did not answer to it, as at first: her nerves were losing their fine power, both to feel, and to interpret the feeling. She ceased to resist so ardently, let the anguish engirdle her, do its worst. Now that her nerves were drowsier, too, she was able, the moment she ceased to suffer, to sink into repose; a tranquil, twilight state, on the borderland between sleeping and waking; and the experiences of a lifetime had numbered no goodlier pleasure than this: the wishless well-being that follows on a vanishing pain.

Her dark hair, fine as silk, was gathered loosely round her head; iced cloths were strapped to her brow; her large, worn hands lay folded on the sheet. The watchers stifled their own flickering hopes, and gave up asking her how she did; for she could hardly bring herself to return a pressure of the hand: all else was immaterial to her, so long as the agony was kept at bay, and she not roused from her present sweet reprieve. They moved on tip-toe, fearful of disturbing her; for they believed she slept. But she was not asleep — as one saw, who bent more nearly over her: the dark pupils were fixed, beneath the half-fallen lids, like the unclosed eyes of one already dead.

In these benign moments, when her torture slackened, Mary Christina lay and let pictures pass before her — pictures, fragments, flashes — of the life which, until now, had been hers; and, compared with this intensely personal past, which had its rise in mistiest morning memories, even her children seemed unfamiliar to her — the chance associates of an hour.

Fifty years ago! . . . The walls of the room expanded, then fell in, like the sides of a card house. It was a wide and sunny square; before an old-fashioned house with a shiny brass knocker, under a pale-blue English sky heaped with bulbous masses of cloud, a group of children played. One had hair of a light, flaxen colour, which flapped to her waistline, floated behind her as she ran. She was the wildest and merriest of all; she threw the ball highest; she caught it most surely as it came to earth again. In a spirit of wantonness, elated by her own skill, she threw it so high and so far that it did not return: it had gone over the wall of a neighbouring garden. They were not allowed to enter this garden; the ball, her ball, of which she had been so proud, was lost for ever, and through her own folly. She sat down on the steps, and wept bitterly. Her play-fellows, unable to comfort her, stole away . . .

Years had passed. Overhead, a lowering grey sky; which was yet no greyer than the flat stretch of earth beneath. Snow was in waiting, but, so far, only a few detached flakes had fluttered down. On a hard-frozen pond, people were skating: a young girl stood at the edge, and followed their bird-like dartings and skimmings. She wore a scarlet hood on her head. Seen against the prevailing dullness, this hood burnt like a flame. Two young men passed, swinging their skates; one turned to look at her, and she caught an admiring word. He had bright, merry eyes. She reddened; then, obeying an impulse, took to her heels and ran, never pausing till she had crossed the home threshold. Too big for such frolics, they rebuked her; but she only smiled at them in return, not grasping what they said. Her thoughts were singing; life seemed suddenly to mean undreamed-of wonders — the unravelling of a magic coil . . .

And again the years moved forward. It was summer now. The sun went down, huge, flamboyant, in a violet-streaked sky. At the bottom of a tangled old garden, in a thicket of raspberry-bushes, she stood with heaving breast, striving to repress tears of shame and disappointment. Throughout the afternoon, he had seemed to avoid her, had kept at the side of her friend. Now, she made as if she were gathering fruit; but the basket on her arm was empty: she stared unseeingly at the streaky red and gold of the western sky. While she stood thus, a world of bitterness in her young heart, a hand was laid on hers, and a kind voice said: Mary Christina . . . I missed you . . . I came to look for you. . . . The little fancy basket dropped from her nerveless fingers, dropped among the bushes, and there it was left, to lie and rot. How foolish of her it had been to forget that basket! It was made of green straw; had a pretty twisted handle. Why had she never gone back to look for it? — what had blotted it from her mind? Did it still lie, where it had fallen — a shapeless, sodden mass? Or had strange hands recovered it? . . . Who lived now in the home of her girlhood? Did other young lips meet beneath the flames of the evening sky? . . . other feet tread the familiar paths, whence hers had for ever passed?

The sick woman stirred uneasily, and moved her head. It was deep night; the house was still, the room sunk in shadow. The darkness oppressed her; she tried to look about her, and moaned. At the sound, a soft-footed Sister of Mercy rose from out a patch of gloom, and bent over her, presenting a cup to her dry lips: as she drank, Mary Christina’s fixed and feverish eyes met the stiff white linen of wimple and bands. The draught soothed her, at once her lids half-closed again; and the watcher shrank back into the corner from which she had sprung.

Before she had reached it and sat down again to her beads, Mary Christina seemed to hold a living child in her arms, gathered two tiny feet into the cup-shaped hollow of her hand. A fire burnt in the grate; wine-red curtains were drawn against a night of lashing rain. Out on the highways, and in the storm-swept fields, these icy rain-stripes spelled a shuddering desolation, within, in the safe, warm room, husband and wife knelt to examine each soft line and curve of the miracle that was theirs. — Surely there was no better joy than this joy? . . . See! — how his hand grasps mine! He listens . . . he smiles. Never was such a child born before!

Another turn of the wheel, and the babe was cold to the touch: she stood pressing a little dress to her face, and eating her heart out in vain regret. How she had struggled, and rebelled! She had then believed that no after-grief could equal this grief for the little dead child (so long since become one with the earth it lay in); for this faint life-spark, of which all but herself speedily forgot the existence. It had not been so, many a greater grief had overtaken her: with the passing of the years, it sometimes seemed as though sorrow’s bowed and grey-veiled form would never again quit her side. She had learned that it is easier to see a child die, unspoiled, than to watch it change, grow hard, betray its soul; had even come to rely on death, as on the fundamental stay of life — the bed rock, beneath loose and shifting sands.

But after this last precise vision of the waxen babe that awaited her in the land of shadows, the memories came crowding thick and fast: she could not follow each singly to an end. The later years, too, had been so like, one to another; and they had flashed past with a dizzy quickness: one day she had been thirty, and it seemed only on the morrow that she was sixty — an old woman stretched out to face death. With the far-reaching sight granted to dying eyes, she lay and looked back at the confused pattern of her life, as at some richly-worked arras, and surveyed it; but without emotion. Now, the many happenings that composed it struck no answering chord in her; and it passed belief to think that she had once been stirred to the depths of her soul by them. In this hour of profounder knowledge, she saw that they had only been dreams and shadows — delusive images that had tricked her brain. Nothing of them had persisted; nothing been real or lasting: her hand had caught the frayed edge of no perdurable garment. The wonders had been a chimera; the evils, too. And their hold upon her had been an imaginary one: her inmost self, the vitalest part of her, had remained unmoved by them, and unharmed. She had not striven in mortal combat; for there had never been a combat to engage in. That was still another illusion — perhaps the greatest of all. Life, tapped at its core, stripped of its rainbow gauds, meant — she knew it now — a standing dumbly by, to let these dream-things pass. Now that she was done with it, with life and living, and could view it as a whole, she saw that this was what it came to: one was never really of it; it only seemed so, at the moment. One’s soul held aloof, shy, proud, chill, while past it bore an unsubstantial pageant of varying places, and their accompanying ghosts. Sometimes, these shapes held out their arms to us; sometimes, we stretched yearning hands to them. For a brief suspense, there appeared to be an entanglement; then, one or other yielded, and the procession went on as before. Love had no more reality, no more enduring-power, than the lover’s arms; the dream-child we reared, changed and passed; joy passed and pain, and the windy excitements of the day. — And memory, turning on the steps of death’s threshold, for a last backward look at the sun-tipped mirage, could impossibly distinguish one transient image from another. Now, they all seemed alike; they WERE alike: there had been no real difference between them. joy and grief, love and hate, rapture and despair, were, in very truth, one and the same — the thin, blue spire of smoke, that ascended from a phantasmal fire.

And having achieved this ultimate wisdom, the dying woman was lapped by a great peace: not again would she choose to be of life. Now, she asked for rest — only rest. Not immortality: no fresh existence, to be endured and fought out in some new shadow-land, among unquiet spirits; but deep, deep rest, with the heavy brown earth flattened down above her, and every wish stilled at last. Without substance, without meaning, it had all been an idle beating of the air; but it was over now; and she thanked God that it was so. Never again, the laceration of a sunset, the agony of a fading autumn day. Only sleep; the sleep of nothingness: an eternal forgetting . . .

She lay and let death’s torpor steal over her, dimly noting its progress. But towards evening, when the cold blue eastern shadows fell, she made the instinctive effort of the dying: sought to flee the unfleeable, while there was yet time.

“I will get up and go away . . . far away.”

She was raised in her bed and propped by loving arms; then laid down again; for she was unable to support the weight of her own body: her head, all a-tremble, sank from side to side, like a top-heavy flower on its stalk. — And the sensation of sinking, of being sucked under by a current she could not stem, began anew. It was as if she were caught and swept round in a whirlpool: for a time she would ride high, on the same level; then came the dizzy, downward drop, and she was by so much nearer to the black, serpent-like, central shaft, so much farther from the blue roof of the sky. Down . . . down . . . down! — a giddy whirl towards the horrors of the dark; and so it would go on, in ever-contracting circles, till the awful moment when she whirled no more, and when the churning waters met, with a crash of thunder, above her head.

Then, the vertigo ceased, and a merciful weakness came to her aid. Her thoughts, drawing to an inseparable tangle, escaped her, and were re-absorbed in the Supreme Thought, from which they had primarily come forth. Though her eyes remained open, doctor and nurse no longer hushed their voices when they spoke of her: for them, she was already numbered among those mute or inarticulate things, which, because they cannot make protest, are held insensible to hurt and affront.

Life ebbed lingeringly, unwillingly. A muddy pallor overspread her face; her breath came snortingly; the pinched nose strained upwards. But the heart beat on, throbbing through the dead body till long after midnight.

Then this, too, ceased.

The weeping watchers retired, with the sense of relief in their breasts that accompanies death accomplished; and the withdrawal of their lamentations left a great vacancy in the room. The black-robed woman who remained, raked out the embers of the fire, and pushed back the chairs from the bed. On the eyes of the thing that had been Mary Christina, she laid two squares of damped muslin; and, as she did so, she made fervid intercession with the other Mary — the Gracious Namesake of this poor soul that had gone unblessed into the darkness. The coverings decently stretched and folded, she turned out the gas, and set a night-light in a glass of water. — It threw living shadows on the wall.

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005