Mrs. Ralston shook her head.
“But it is so,” Stella insisted. “I—What am I?” A tremor of passion crept unawares into her low voice. “I am a woman who has been denied everything. I have been cast out like Eve, but without Eve’s compensations. If I had been given a child to love, I might have had hope. But now I have none—I have none. I am hard and bitter,—old before my time, and I shall never now be anything else.”
“Oh, darling, no!” Very swiftly Mrs. Ralston checked her. “Indeed you are wrong. We can make of our lives what we will. Believe me, the barren woman can be a joyful mother of children if she will. There is always someone to love.”
Stella’s lips were quivering. She turned her face aside. “Life is very difficult,” she said.
“It gets simpler as one goes on, dear,” Mrs. Ralston assured her gently. “Not easy, oh no, not easy. We were never meant to make an easy-chair of circumstance however favourable. But if we only press on, it does get simpler, and the way opens out before us as we go. I have learnt that at least from life.” She paused a moment, then bent suddenly down and spoke into Stella’s ear. “May I tell you something about myself—something I have never before breathed to any one—except to God?”
Stella turned instantly. “Yes, tell me!” she murmured back, clasping closely the thin hand that had so tenderly stroked her own.
Mrs. Ralston hesitated a second as one who pauses before making a supreme effort. Then under her breath she spoke again. “Perhaps it will not interest you much. I don’t know. It is only this. Like you, I wanted—I hoped for—a child. And—I married without loving—just for that. Stella, my sin was punished. The baby came—and went—and there can never be another. I thought my heart was broken at the time. Oh, it was bitter—bitter. Even now—sometimes—” She stopped herself. “But no, I needn’t trouble you with that. I only want to tell you that very beautiful flowers bloom sometimes out of ashes. And it has been so with me. My rose of love was slow in growing, but it blossoms now, and I am training it over all the blank spaces. And it grew out of a barren soil, dear, out of a barren soil.”
Stella’s arms were close about her as she finished. “Oh, thank you,” she whispered tremulously, “thank you for telling me that.”
But though she was deeply stirred, no further confidence could she bring herself to utter. She had found a friend—a close, staunch friend who would never fail her; but not even to her could she show the blackness of the gulf into which she had been hurled. Even now there were times when she seemed to be still falling, falling, and always, waking or sleeping, the nightmare horror of it clung cold about her soul.
THE BARREN SOIL