She should have been preparing, too. For what are women made but for motherhood? She? She had had but a hand to turn, a word to utter, and this child—healthily begotten, if ever child was, and to claim, if ever child could, the best—has broken triumphing through the gate of her travail. But she had betrayed him. The new-born spirit had arrived expectant, had cast one look across the threshold, and with one wail had fled. Through and beyond her answering wail, as she laid her head on the pillow, she heard the lost feet, the small betrayed feet, pattering away into darkness.
When she grew stronger, it consoled her a little to talk with Mrs. Strongtharm; not confiding her regrets and self-reproaches, but speculating much on this great book of Maternity into which she had been given a glimpse. The metaphor was Mrs. Strongtharm’s.
“Ay,” said that understanding female, “a book you may call it, and a wonderful one; written by all the women, white an’ black, copper-skin an’ red-skin, that ever groped their way in it with pangs an’ joys; for every one writes in it as well as reads. What’s more, ’tis all in one language, though they come, as my man would say, from all the airts o’ Babel.”
“I wonder,” mused Ruth, “if somewhere in it there’s a chapter would tell me why, when I lie awake and think of my lost one, ’tis his footsteps I listen for—feet that never walked!”
“Hush ye, now. . . . Isn’t it always their feet, the darlings! Don’t the sound of it, more’n their voices, call me to door a dozen times a day? . . . I never bore child; but I made garments in hope o’ one. Tell me, when you knitted his little boots, wasn’t it different from all the rest?”
“Ah, put them away!”
“To be sure, dearie, to be sure—all ready for the next.”
“I shall never have another child.”
Mrs. Strongtharm smiled tolerantly.
“Never,” Ruth repeated; “never; I know it.”
With the same assurance of prophesy she answered her lover on his return, a bare two months later.
“But you must have known. . . . Even your letters kept it secret. Yet, had you written, the next ship would have brought me. Surely you did not doubt that?”
“Then why did you not tell me?”
It was the inevitable question. She had forestalled it so often in her thoughts that, when uttered at last, it gave her a curious sensation of re-enacting some long-past scene.
“I thought you did not care for children.”
He was pacing the room. He halted, and stared at her in sheer astonishment. Many a beautiful woman touches the height of her beauty after the birth of her first child; and this woman had never stood before him in loveliness that, passing comprehension, so nearly touched the divine. But her perversity passed comprehension yet farther.
“Do you call that an answer?” he demanded.