THE MARTYR

On a Saturday afternoon full of sunshine was presented the rich but
simple picture of Ashprington village under conditions of autumn. The
hamlet lay on a slope under a hillcrest and through it fell steep paths
by meadow and orchard past the cottages to Bow Bridge far distant in
the vale.

Crowning Ashprington rose the church-tower of uniform grey,
battlemented, with a great poplar standing on its right, and a yew tree
throwing shadow upon the western porch. Then fell the land abruptly,
and the whole foreground was filled with an apple orchard, that rippled
to the churchyard walls and spread a rich cloth of scarlet and gold
around them.

At this hour the tree-foundered village seemed oppressed and smothered
with falling leaves. Its over-abundant timber mastered the place and
flung down foliage in such immense masses that the roads and alleys,
drinking fountain, little gardens subtending the street and the roofs
of the cottages were all choked with them.

But it was a dry and joyous hour, the latter rains had yet to fall and
submerge Ashprington in mud and decay. Virginian creeper flamed on the
house fronts and dahlias, michaelmas daisies and chrysanthemums still
flaunted in the gardens.

Through this cheerful scene came Miss Finch and Medora Dingle with
their baskets to pick blackberries. Medora’s home was a stone’s throw
from the church and they now crossed the churchyard to enter certain
fields beyond it.

The well-kept sward spread level with the arms of the apple trees over
the wall, for the ground fell sharply from the graveyard to the orchard
below; and now, at the limits of the burial place, cider apples fell on
the graves and spattered their mounds and flat surfaces with gold.

Daisy stopped at a tomb and removed a windfall of fruit from the broken
marble chips that covered it.

“That’s old Mr. Kellock,” she said. “He wouldn’t like them there, would
he—such a thrifty old man as he was.”

“And such a tidy one,” added Medora.

“He was Mr. Jordan’s grandfather and left him all his money I believe,”
continued Daisy; but her friend knew more about that matter than she
did.

“He hadn’t anything to leave over and above his cottage. That was left
to Jordan Kellock and he sold it, not wanting to be troubled with house
property. It wasn’t worth much.”

They passed through the shining fruit trees and stopped to admire them;
then Medora, since Mr. Kellock had been mentioned, felt she might
return to that subject.

“I often wonder what he’ll do,” she said. “You feel that he won’t be
content to stop at Dene all his life.”

“Why not?” asked Daisy. “He’s got proper good money and is a big man
here.”

“He’d be a big man anywhere,” answered Medora. “It isn’t only a matter
of wages with him,” she added. “Of course we know as a vatman he’s one
of the best in England, and makes as good paper as there is in the
world, I suppose. But he’s got more to him than that, Daisy. He’s not
content with being prosperous and well-thought of. He thinks great
thoughts and has great ambitions. I dare say the people here don’t see
that, for he’s a cut above the most of them.”

“He is,” admitted Daisy. “There’s something, I don’t know what about
him; but it makes me uncomfortable with him.”

“That’s just his greatness acting on you,” explained Medora. “I felt
like that once too, but he did me the kindness to explain himself.”

“We all know he would have given all he’d got to marry you.”

“Don’t speak about that. At any rate I understand him better than any
other woman—or man for that matter. And though it wasn’t to be, I
understand him still; and I know he’s out for big things sooner or
later. He’ll make a mark in the world of labour some day.”

Daisy looked with admiration at Medora.

“I’m sure I shouldn’t know what to answer if he talked to me about such
deep subjects,” she said. “But then you’re married, and you’ve always
got a man in the house to help your brain power.”

Medora, secretly nettled at the preposterous suggestion of Ned
enlarging her mental outlook, turned to the blackberries and felt a
helpless disappointment that even her friend should guess so little
of her difficulties and troubles. For now she began day by day to
weave round herself and her married life a hollow and false tissue of
imaginary tribulations and trials supposed to be sprung from her union
with Edward Dingle. Medora set about a sort of histrionics inspired
by nothing but her own vague unrest and her own amazing ignorance of
reality. Even to herself she could not explain this futile experiment
in emotions, yet she persisted and presently, finding certain of her
circle were deceived, and even hearing words of pity on a woman’s
lips, she deluded herself as to the truth of her gathering misfortunes
and assured her conscience that the disaster came from without and
not within. For at first, in the perpetration of this stupid pose,
conscience pricked before Ned’s puzzled eyes; but presently, when
a silly woman told Medora that she was a martyr, this nonsense of
her own brewing seemed indeed the bitter drink life had set to her
lips. She echoed and amplified the notion of martyrdom. It was just
what she wanted to excuse her own folly to herself. From accepting
the idea, she soon began to credit it. To win the full flavour of
the make-believe this was necessary. Then developed the spectacle of
a masquerading woman, herself creating the atmosphere in which she
desired her world to see her suffer and shine.

As all who acquire a taste for martyrdom, Medora proved amazingly
ingenious in plaiting the scourges and selecting the members of the
inquisition from her own household. She had reached a preliminary stage
in this weak-minded pastime and enjoyed it exceedingly. Ned was much
mystified; but the attitude of Ned mattered little. Her real object and
the goal of the game lay far beyond Ned. Whereunto all this would lead,
Medora did not know; and she told herself that she did not care.

The day was to add a considerable scene to her unfolding drama, though
Mrs. Dingle did not guess it when she set out. She had no premonition
of the interesting adventure that awaited her when presently she
drifted, by hedgerows and lanes, somewhat westward of Ashprington, upon
the high road to Totnes.

They were filling their baskets, and for a time Medora had forgotten
all about herself and was taking a healthy interest in Daisy’s
suspicions concerning a young man who worked at Dene Mill, when a
bicycle bell warned them and there flashed along upon his way home,
Jordan Kellock.

He stopped and they showed him their blackberries and invited him to
help himself. Then, together they walked homeward and Medora became
concerned to part from Daisy if possible. An opportunity occurred ere
long and when the elder pointed out that Miss Finch would gain half a
mile by a short cut, her friend took the hint.

“My basket’s heavy and you’ve got company, so I’ll go this way home,”
said Daisy with great tact. Then she bade them good-bye and descended a
steep lane to Bow Bridge.

Immediately she had gone, Medora’s manner changed from cheerfulness to
a more pensive mien.

“Sometimes it’s so hard to pretend you’re happy,” she explained.

“I’m sorry you’ve got to pretend,” he answered.

He had fought awhile against any sort of secret understanding with
Medora, but something of the kind now existed, though Jordan could not
have explained how it had come about. It seemed not unnatural, however,
because he knew the woman so well and felt so supremely interested in
her happiness. He believed, in his youthful inexperience, that he might
be able to help both Ned and Medora by virtue of his brains and good
sense; and he imagined that his championship of Medora, so to call it,
emanated entirely from his own will to right and justice. Had anybody
hinted to him that Medora was amusing herself with this very delicate
material, he must have refused to believe it. He believed in her good
faith as he believed in the stars, and he trusted himself completely
for a man above the power of temptation. Indeed, as yet he had felt
none.

To-day, however, the young woman went further than she had ventured to
go.

“I can talk to you, Jordan, and I often thank God I can,” she said,
“because there’s nobody else on earth—not one who understands me like
you do.”

Not in the ear of him who really understands her does a woman ever
confess to be understood; but the listener quite agreed with Medora and
believed the truth of what she asserted.

“If thought and true friendship could make me understand, then I do,”
he answered. “Ned’s such a real good chap at heart that—”

“He’s not,” she said positively. “To my bitter grief I know he’s not.
Like you, I thought so, and I made myself go on thinking so, for
loyalty; but it’s no good pretending that any more. He’s deceived you
as he has me. He’s not good hearted, for all his laughter and noise,
else he wouldn’t persecute me.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I’m not going into details,” declared Medora, quite aware that there
were no details to go into; “but he’s that rough and harsh. Loses his
temper if you look at him. He wasn’t like you, and showed me everything
about himself when we were courting. He hid the things that matter, and
if I’d known then half, or a quarter, of what I know now, I wouldn’t
have taken him, Jordan.”

“Don’t say that,” he begged again.

“I’ve got to say it. And I’ll say more. It’s a relief to speak where
your honesty is known, and no false meaning is put to your words. I’ll
say this, that I made a dreadful mistake, and every year that goes over
my head will show it clearer. I can bear it, of course. We women are
built to suffer and keep our mouths shut. It’s only men that run about
with their troubles. Yes, I can bear it, Jordan, and I shall bear it to
my grave; but it’s hard for a girl of my age to look ahead through all
the years of her life and see nothing but dust and ashes. And though
I’m brave enough to face it, I’m too frank and open-natured to hide it,
and the bitter thing is that people guess that I’m not happy.”

“Don’t put it as strongly as that, Medora. Don’t actually say you’re an
unhappy woman.”

“You’re either happy, or else you’re not—at any rate, when you’re
young,” she said. “I see the old get into a sort of frozen condition
sooner or later, when they’re neither one nor the other, being sunk to
a kind of state like a turnip in ground; but the young are different.
They feel. Why, Daisy, only a few minutes ago, saw my mind was
troubled, though I tried ever so to hide it. You know people know it.”

“I won’t deny that. Everybody’s more or less sorry. But between husband
and wife, of course, no wise man or woman ventures to come.”

“Yes, they do,” she answered. “My own mother for one. Kindness made
alive to everybody else no doubt, but not to me. She doesn’t blame my
husband anyway, so she must blame me, I suppose.”

“I wouldn’t say that. It may be no matter for blame—just the point of
view. The great thing is to get at a person’s point of view, Medora.”

“And don’t I try? Don’t I interest myself in Ned? I’ve got a brain,
Jordan.”

“I know that very well.”

“And I can’t help seeing only too bitter clear, that my husband’s not
interested in anything that wants brains to it. He’s all for sport and
talk and pleasure. I like to think about interesting subjects—human
nature and progress, and the future of labour, and so on. And if I try
to talk about anything that really matters, he just yawns and starts
on shooting birds and football. For the less brains a person has got,
the more they want to be chattering. I’ve married a boy in fact, when I
thought I’d married a man; and my charge against Ned is that he hid the
truth of himself from me, and made me think he was interested in what
interested me, when he was not.”

She had mentioned the subjects which she knew attracted Jordan. It was
indeed his wearisome insistence on such things that had made her turn
of old to the less intelligent and more ingenuous Dingle. In reality
she had no mind for abstractions or social problems.

“As we grow older, we naturally go for the subjects that matter,” said
Kellock. “I’ve always wanted to leave the world better than I found it,
you know, Medora.”

“And so you will—you’re built to do it,” declared she. “And I shall
watch you do it, Jordan. And though I’ve lost it all, I shall see some
other woman at your right hand helping you to make a name in the world.
And I shall envy her—yes, I shall. I can say that to you, because I
can trust you never to repeat it.”

“You shake me up to the roots of my being when you talk like this,” he
assured her. “Oh, my God, Medora, it seems a cruel sort of thing that
just at the critical time, and before it was too late, you couldn’t
have seen and felt what you see and feel now. It was bad enough then.
You’ll never know or guess what I felt when you had to say ‘no’ to
me. But I had one thing to keep me going then—the certainty you were
too clever to make a mistake. I said to myself a million times: ‘She
knows best; she knows that Dingle will make her a happier woman than I
could.’ But now—now—when you say what you’ve said. Where am I now?”

They talked in this emotional strain for ten minutes, and she wove with
native art a web of which both warp and woof were absurdly unreal. Her
nature was such that in a task of this sort she succeeded consummately.
By a thousand little touches—sighs, looks, and shakes or droops of
the head—she contributed to her comedy. She abounded in suggestions.
Her eyes fell, her sentences were left unfinished. Then came heroic
touches, and a brave straight glance with resolution to take up the
staggering weight of her cross and bear it worthily to the end.

Medora was charming, and in her subconscious soul she knew that
her performance carried conviction in every word and gesture. She
revelled in her acting, and rejoiced in the effect it occasioned on
the listener. Long ago, Kellock had set her, as she guessed, as a
lovely fly in amber, never to change, though now for ever out of his
reach. He had accepted his loss, but he continued to regard her as
his perfect woman, and she cherished the fact as a great possession.
Perhaps, had it been otherwise, she had not entered upon her present
perilous adventure; but she knew that Jordan Kellock was a knight of
weak causes, and one who always fought for the oppressed, when in his
power to do so; and now she had created a phantom of oppression, which
his bent of mind and attitude to herself prevented him from recognising
as largely unreal.

Kellock was young; he had loved Medora in the full measure of a
reserved nature, and to-day she deluded him to the limit of his
possibilities. Her complete triumph indeed almost frightened her. For a
few moments he became as earnestly concerned as on the great occasion
when he had asked her to marry him. Then she calmed the man down, and
told him that he must not waste his time on her troubles.

“It’s selfish of me to tell you these things—perhaps it’s wrong,”
she said, truly enough; but he would not grant that. His emotion was
intense; his pain genuine. Her intuition told her that here was a man
who might err—if ever he erred—in just such a situation as she was
creating. She was surprised to find the ease with which it was possible
to rouse him, and felt this discovery enough for that day. She grew
elated, but uneasy at the unexpected power she possessed. Her sense of
humour even spoke in a still, small voice, for humour she had.

Chance helped her to end the scene, and, a hundred yards from home, Ned
himself appeared with his gun over his shoulder and a hare in his hand.

Dingle was in cheerful spirits.

“A proper afternoon I’ve had,” he said. “Ernest Trood asked me to go
out shooting along with him and some friends, and we’ve enjoyed sport,
I promise you. A rare mixed bag. We began in the bottom above the
Mill, and got a woodcock first go off, and then we worked up and had a
brace and a half of partridges, a brace of pheasants, and a hare, and
eight rabbits. I knew what you’d like, Medora, and I took a partridge,
and the hare for my lot. I shot them, and four rabbits and one of the
pheasants.”

“What a chap for killing you are,” said Jordan, while Ned dragged a
partridge from his pocket and handed it to his wife.

Nobody loved nice things better than she, but she took the bird
pensively and stroked its grey and russet feathers.

“Poor little bird, your troubles are ended,” she said. Then she
assumed a cheerful air, which struck Jordan as unspeakably pathetic.

“I’ve been busy, too. Look at my blackberries.”

Ned praised the blackberries, and in his usual impulsive fashion
offered Kellock the hare; but Jordan declined it.

“Thrown away upon me,” he said.

“Come and help us to eat it one night then,” suggested Dingle, and
Medora echoed his wish.

“I’m sure you’re very kind. I’ll come up to supper any evening, if you
mean it.”

Then he mounted his bicycle and rode off down the hill.

“He came along from Totnes, while Daisy and I were picking
blackberries, and he stopped and would carry my basket for me,” she
explained.

“He looked a bit down in the mouth, didn’t he?”

“He was. He’s such a man to feel other people’s troubles.”

“Whose? Not yours, I should hope?”

She laughed.

“Good powers, no! I’m not one to tell my troubles—you know that, or
ought to. I’m a proud woman, whatever you may be. It isn’t personal
things, but general questions that bother him. Poverty and want and
injustice, and all that. I cheered him up, and tried to make him
forget.”

“He’ll do better to leave such subjects alone,” said Dingle. “The woes
of the world in general ain’t his job; and if he tries to make them his
job, he may find it won’t pay him to do so.”

“That’s your pettifogging opinion; but if every man in good employment
was as selfish as you, the poor might remain poor for ever,” she
answered.

“Well, don’t you be a fool, anyway, there’s a dear. You’ve got to look
after me, not the poor in general. And nobody can look after me better
than you, when you please. It’s a choice between beer and tea this
minute, so choose which I’m to have.”

“Tea,” she said. “If you can be patient for a little.”

They went in together, and he was pleased to find Medora amiable and
willing, though ignorant that her good temper sprang not from his
inspiration.

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