AN INCOMPLETE MADONNA

“She is a maid
Who hath a look prophetic in her eyes,
A longing for–she knows not what herself;
Yet if by chance when kneeling rapt in prayer,
She raised her eyes to Mother Mary’s face,
Within her breast a thought–till then unguessed,
Amazing all her dreamings virginal,
Would show her, by that vision motherly,
The something needed to complete her life.”

“Then what is she?”

“She is an Incomplete Madonna.”

They were near the end of their journey when Gartney made this reply,
and having reduced the chaos of books and papers into something like
order, they were both sitting up with their garments in a more
presentable condition, smoking cigarettes, and talking about the
Erringtons.

This family, consisting of two people, male and female, bride and
bridegroom, were staying at the Villa Tagni on Lake Como, and Sir Guy
Errington, being a cousin of Gartney’s, had asked his eccentric
relative to pay them a visit while in the vicinity, which he had
consented to do. This being the case, Otterburn, who, unacquainted
with the happy pair, except as to their name and relationship to his
friend, was cross-examining Eustace with a view to finding out as much
as he could about them before being introduced.

Sir Guy, according to his cynical cousin, was a handsome young fellow,
with three ideas of primitive simplicity in his head, namely,
shooting, hunting, and dining. Quite of the orthodox English type,
according to the Gallic “it’s-a-fine-day-let-us-go-and-kill-something”
idea, so Otterburn, having met many such heroes of sporting instincts,
asked no more questions regarding the gentleman, but being moved by
the inevitable curiosity of man concerning woman, put the three
orthodox questions which form a social trinity of perfection in
masculine eyes.

“Is she pretty?”

Silence on the part of Mr. Eustace Gartney.

“Is she young?”

Still silence, but the ghost of a smile on the thin lips.

“Is she rich?”

Oracle again mute, whereupon the exasperated worshipper queries more
comprehensively:

“Then what is she?”

Vague, enigmatic answer of the oracle:

“She is an Incomplete Madonna.”

Otterburn stared in puzzled surprise at this epigrammatic response to
his boyish cross-examination, and after a bewildered pause burst out
laughing.

“You’re too deep for me, Gartney,” he said at length, blowing a cloud
of thin blue smoke. “I don’t understand that intellectual extract of
beef wherein the qualities of one’s friends are boiled down into a
single witty phrase.”

This reply pleased Eustace, especially as he was conscious of having
said rather a neat thing, so glancing out into the brilliant world of
sunshine to see how far they were from their destination, he lighted
another cigarette and explained himself gravely:

“I am very fond of ticketing my friends in that way, as it saves such
a lot of trouble in answering questions; if you asked me what I should
like in my tea, I should not answer ‘the sweet juice of cane
crystallized into white grains.’ No! I should simply say ‘sugar,’
which includes all the foregoing; therefore when you ask me to
describe Lady Errington, I say she is an incomplete Madonna, which is
an admirable description of her in two words.”

“This,” remarked Otterburn, somewhat annoyed, “is a lecture on the use
and abuse of epigrams. I don’t want to know about epigrams, but I do
want to know about Lady Errington. Your two-word description is no
doubt witty, but it doesn’t answer any of my questions.”

“Pardon me, it answers the whole three.”

“I don’t see it.”

“Listen then, oh groper in Cimmerian gloom. You ask if Lady Errington
is young–of course, the Madonna is always painted young. Is she
pretty? The Madonna, as you will see in Italian pictures, is
absolutely lovely. Is she rich? My dear lad, we well know Mary was the
wife of a carpenter, and therefore poor in worldly wealth. Ergo, I
have answered all your questions by the use of the phrase incomplete
Madonna.”

“A very whimsical explanation at best, besides, you have answered more
than I asked by the use of the word incomplete–why is Lady Errington
incomplete?”

“Because she is not yet a mother.”

“Oh, confound your mystic utterances,” cried the Master, comically,
“do descend from your cloudy heights and tell me what you mean. I
gather from your extremely hazy explanation that Lady Errington is
young, pretty, and poor, also that she is not a mother. So far so
good. Proceed, but for heaven’s sake no more epigrams.”

“I’m afraid the beauty of an epigram is lost on you Macjean?”

“Entirely! I am neither a poet nor a student, so don’t waste your
eloquence on me.”

“Well, I won’t,” answered Gartney, smiling. “I’ll have pity on your
limited understanding and tell you all about Alizon Errington’s
marriage in plain English.”

“Do, it will pass the time delightfully until we leave this infernal
train.’

“Lady Errington, my young friend,” said Eustace leisurely, “is what
you, with your sinful misuse of the Queen’s English, would call ‘a
jolly pretty woman,’ of the age of twenty-five, but I may as well say
that she looks much older than that–this is no doubt the peculiar
effect of the life she led before her marriage.”

“On the racket,” interposed Otterburn, scenting a scandal.

“Nothing of the sort,” retorted Gartney, severely. “Lady Errington has
led the life of a Saint Elizabeth.”

“Never heard of her. The worthy Mactab didn’t approve of saints, as
they savoured too much of the Scarlet Woman.”

“At present I will not enlighten your ignorance,” said Eustace drily,
“it would take too long and I might subvert the training of the
excellent Mactab which has been such a signal success with you.”

Otterburn grinned at this fine piece of irony, but offered no further
interruption, so Eustace went on with his story.

“I knew Lady Errington first–by the way, in saying I know her, I
don’t mean personally. I have seen her, heard her speak and met her at
the houses of friends, but I have never been introduced to her.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know if I can give any particular explanation; she didn’t
attract me much as Alizon Mostyn, so I did not seek to know her, nor
did she ever show any desire to make my acquaintance, so beyond
knowing each other by sight we remained strangers, a trick of Fate, I
suppose–that deity is fond of irony.”

“You’re becoming epigrammatic again,” said Otterburn, warningly,
“proceed with the narrative.”

Eustace laughed, and took up the thread of his discourse without
further preamble.

“Lady Errington is the daughter of the late Gabriel Mostyn, who was
without doubt one of the biggest scoundrels who ever infested the
earth, that is saying a great deal considering what I know of my
friends, but I don’t think it is exaggerated. He was a man of good
family, and being a younger son, was, in conformity with that
ridiculous law of English primogeniture, sent out into the world with
a younger son’s portion to make his way, which he did, and a very
black way it was. Why a man with a handsome exterior, a clever brain,
and a consummate knowledge of human nature, should have devoted all
those advantages to leading a bad life I don’t know, but the wicked
fairy who came to Gabriel Mostyn’s cradle, had neutralised all the
gifts of her sisters by the bestowal of an evil soul, for his career,
from the time he left the family roof until the time he died under it,
was one long infamy.

“He was a diplomatist first, and was getting on capitally, being
attaché at the Embassy at Constantinople, when he was caught selling
State secrets to the Russian Government somewhere about the time of
the Crimean War, and as the affair was too glaring to be hushed up, he
was kicked out in disgrace. After this disagreeable episode he led a
desultory sort of existence, wandering about the Continent. He was
well known at the gambling hells, and his compatriots generally gave
him a pretty wide berth when they chanced to meet him. In Germany he
married a charming woman, a daughter of a Baron Von Something, and
settled down for a time. However, to keep his hand in, he worried his
poor wife into her grave, and she died three years after the marriage,
leaving him two children–a son and the present Lady Errington.

“Mrs. Mostyn had some property of her own, which she left to her son,
and in the event of the son’s death the husband was to inherit. It was
a foolish will to make, knowing as she must have done her husband’s
disposition, and it was rather a heartless thing for the mother to
leave her daughter out in the cold. No doubt, however, the astute
Gabriel had something to do with it. At all events he did not trouble
much about his children, but leaving them to the care of their German
relatives, went off to Spain, where he was mixed up in the Carlist
war, much to the delight of everyone, for they thought he might be
killed.

“The devil looks after his own, however, and Mostyn turned up at the
conclusion of the war minus an arm, but as bad as ever. Then he went
off to South America, taking his son with him.”

“There was nothing very bad in that, at all events,” said Otterburn,
who was listening with keen interest.

“Shortly after he arrived at Lima the son disappeared.”

“The devil!” interrupted Angus, sitting up quickly; “he surely didn’t
kill the boy?”

“That is the question,” said Eustace grimly, “nobody knows what he did
with him, but at all events the boy disappeared and was never heard of
again. There was some of that eternal fighting going on between the
South American Republics, and Mostyn said the lad had been shot, but
if he was,” pursued Gartney slowly, “I believe his father did it.”

“Surely not–he had no reason.”

“You forget,” observed Eustace sardonically, “I told you the boy
inherited his mother’s money, that was, no doubt, the reason, for
Mostyn came back to Europe alone, claimed the money, and after
obtaining it with some difficulty, soon squandered it on his own
vicious pleasures. Then, as a reward for such conduct, his elder
brother died without issue, and Mr. Gabriel Mostyn, blackguard,
Bohemian and suspected murderer, came in for the family estates.”

“The wicked flourish like a green bay tree,” observed Angus,
remembering the worthy Mactab’s biblical readings in a hazy kind of
way, and misquoting Scripture.

“The wicked man didn’t flourish in this case,” retorted Eustace,
promptly. “Nemesis was on his track although he little knew it. He
took his daughter back with him to England, duly came into possession
of the estate, and tried to white-wash his character with society. His
reputation, however, was too unsavoury for anyone to have anything to
do with him, so in a rage he returned to his old ways and outdid in
infamy all his previous life. No one was cruel enough to enlighten his
daughter, whom he had left in seclusion at the family seat, and she
remained quite ignorant of her father’s conduct, which was a good
thing for her peace of mind.

“For some years Mostyn, defying God and man, pursued his evil career,
but at length Nature, generous in lending but cruel in exacting,
demanded back all she had lent, and he was struck down in the full
tide of his evil prosperity by a stroke of paralysis.”

“Served him jolly well right,” observed Otterburn heartily.

“So everybody thought. Well, he was taken down to his country house,
and there for four terrible years Alizon Mostyn devoted herself to
nursing him. What that poor girl suffered during those four years no
one knows nor ever will know, for despite the blow which had fallen on
him, Gabriel Mostyn was as wicked as ever, and I believe his curses
and blasphemy against his punishment were something awful. No one ever
came to see him but the doctors, although I was told a clergyman did
attempt to make some enquiries after his soul, but retreated in dismay
before the foul language used by the old reprobate. His daughter put
up with all this, and in spite of the persuasions of her friends, who
tried to take her away from that terrible bed-side, she attended him
to the end with devoted affection. She saw him die, and from all
accounts his death-bed was enough to have given her the horrors for
the rest of her life, for only his lower extremities being paralysed,
they said he tore the bedclothes to ribbons in his last paroxysm,
cursing like a fiend the whole time.”

“And did she stay through it all?”

“Yes! till the breath was out of his wicked old body. I believe his
last breath was a curse, and just before he died it took two men to
hold him down by main force in the bed.”

“Great heavens! how awful,” ejaculated Otterburn in a shocked tone;
“what a terrible scene for that poor girl to witness–and afterwards?”

“Oh, afterwards she came up to London,” replied Gartney, after a
pause; “the old man had got rid of all the property, and even the Hall
was so heavily mortgaged that it had to be sold. She stayed with some
relatives, and there was some talk of her becoming a Sister of Mercy.
I dare say she would have done so, her vocation evidently being in the
Florence Nightingale line, had she not met with my cousin Errington,
who fell in love with her, and three months ago married her.”

“Curious history,” commented Angus idly. “I don’t wonder she looks
older than she is, after coming through all that misery, but I hope
she doesn’t make her past life a text upon which to prose about
religion.”

“No, I don’t think she does. I have been told she is somewhat serious,
but a charming woman to talk to.”

“Not the sort of woman likely to be attracted by a sporting blade like
Errington.”

Gartney held his peace at this remark and looked thoughtfully at his
cigarette.

“Does she love him?” asked the Master, noticing the silence of his
companion.

“Does she love him?” replied Gartney, meditatively. “I hardly know.
Guy isn’t a bad sort of fellow as men go, he’s a straightforward,
athletic, stupid young Englishman.”

“Married to a saint.”

“Oh, I assure you he admires and loves the saint immensely, judging
from his enthusiastic letters to me about her perfections. She is fair
to look on, she is a thoroughly pure, good woman, and will, without
doubt, make an excellent mother. What more can a man desire?

“I’m afraid you’d desire a good deal more.”

“Ah but then you see I’m not a man, but a combination of
circumstances.”

“I don’t understand.”

“No? It is rather difficult of comprehension, I admit. What I mean is,
that the circumstances of my having been an orphan of my bringing up,
my command of money, and above all the circumstances of the age I live
in, have all made me the curious creature I am.”

“Oh I you admit then that you are curious.”

“So much so that I doubt if any woman in existence would satisfy me as
a companion for more than a few days. A fast woman irritates me, a
clever woman enrages me, and a good one bores me.”

“And Lady Errington?”

“Is happier with her stupid adoring husband than she would be with a
bundle of contradictions like myself.”

“Yet she does not love this stupid adoring husband.”

“I never said that,” observed Eustace hastily.

“Not in words, certainly, but you hinted—-

“I hinted nothing, because I’m not sure–how can I be when I tell you
I don’t know Lady Errington?”

“You appear to have studied her pretty closely at all events.”

“A mere whim on my part, I assure you; besides, Guy has written to me
about his wife, and I–well I’ve gathered a lot of nonsensical ideas
from his letters.”

“Then there is a possibility that she does not love him,” persisted
Otterburn, a trifle maliciously.

“How annoying you are, Macjean,” said Eustace in a vexed tone. “Of
course there are always possibilities. In this case, however, I can
only refer you to Heine, ‘There is always one who loves and one who is
loved.”

Otterburn saw that Eustace was rather annoyed at his persistency, so
did not press the point, but contented himself with observing:

“Well, I think I know Lady Errington’s character pretty well by this
time. She is a charming woman with a bad history, a serious face, and
a wifely regard for an adoring husband. Am I right?”

“Well, yes–to a certain extent.”

“Still, all this does not explain the whole of your incomplete Madonna
phrase. Tell me exactly what you mean.”

Eustace thought for a moment, and then began to speak in his slow
languid voice.

“Last time I was in Italy,” he said dreamily, “I one day strolled into
a village church built on the side of a hill above the blue waters of
a still lake. Outside it was a hot, brilliant day, something like
this, but within all was coolness and dim twilight.

“At a side altar tall candles glimmered before a shrine of the Virgin,
and cast their pale glow on a large picture of the Madonna which was
hanging upon the wall of the chapel. I don’t know the name of the
artist who painted the figure, but it made a great impression upon me.
I’m afraid I was impressionable in those days. We all lose our finer
feelings as the years go by.

“Well, the painter had depicted the Mother standing alone, with sombre
clouds beneath her white feet, her hands, long and pale, folded across
her breast, and her face with a yearning expression lifted to a ray of
light from the mystic dove of the Holy Ghost, which pierced the
darkness of the sky. There was no infant Jesus in her arms, such as we
generally see in altar-pieces, and I fancy the idea of the artist was
to depict Mary as a pure solitary woman, before the announcement of
the Conception. In her eyes, sad and deep, dwelt an expression of
intense yearning, and on her beautiful face the look of a woman
longing for the pleasures of maternity.

“I never forgot the hopeless craving of that gaze, the hungry longing
for the fondling arms and inarticulate cries of a child. Only once
have I seen such a look on a human countenance, and that was on Lady
Errington’s before her marriage; she had the same hungry look in her
eyes which can only be appeased by the birth of a child, and which
will give her that special love and affection needed to complete her
life. Therefore I call her an incomplete Madonna, for when she becomes
a mother that yearning gaze will pass away for ever, and be succeeded
by the serene beatitude that painters give the face of the Virgin when
she clasps the child Jesus to her breast, encircled by the adoring
hosts of heaven.”

“That is a very poetical interpretation of a picture,” said Otterburn
when Eustace had ended. “I doubt however if I should draw the same
conclusions were I to see the picture.”

“You will not see the picture I refer to but you will meet Lady
Errington, then you can give me your opinion.”

“I’m afraid it will not coincide with yours. But if all her love is
thus centred on the coming of a child, when it is born she will love
it passionately to the exclusion of her husband.”

“Perhaps!” replied Eustace calmly. “However we shall see. It is a
curious study of a woman’s character, and I am anxious to see if my
idea is a correct one. Of this, however, I am certain, that the day a
child is born to Alizon Errington will be a sad day for her husband if
he worships her over much, for he will have to be satisfied with the
crumbs of love that fall from the child’s table.”

“Ah! that is one of those things yet to be proved,” said Otterburn
rising, as the train, approaching Chiasso, slowed gradually down. “But
here we are at the end of our journey.”

“For which the Lord be thanked,” replied Eustace, and jumped out on to
the platform.