If Only




The first couple of days were wonderful. Martha spent time getting to know her three nieces and two nephews. Her quiet, patient, brother-in-law left two days after Martha’s arrival, on a voyage that was to last four months. He should be home before the baby was due if everything went according to plan.

After the children were in bed, on their first night alone, Daisy was eager for stories about the people back home. Martha wasn’t much help.

‘You haven’t changed, Martha. You still shy away from gossip, don’t you?’

‘I don’t like talking about people behind their backs, Daisy. It just doesn’t feel right.’

‘but you must have overheard things sometimes,’ Daisy urged. ‘You can’t close your ears.’

Martha twisted her hands nervously in her lap. ‘I tried not to listen, but…’

‘Go on.’

‘Well, you remember Tom Boskins?’

‘Black Tom?’ Daisy smiled. ‘Better than you know.’

Martha’s voice dropped to a mere whisper. ‘Well, I overheard some rumor that he plans to look for you.’

‘Did you hear why?’ Daisy’s neat eyebrows were drawn into a ‘V’.

‘Something about revenge for a child, but I must have got it wrong, because he doesn’t have any children.’

‘Yes, well, he almost did,’ Daisy said. ‘I thought he was smart enough to keep his fool mouth shut. But he’ll do well to stay away from me, or he’ll wind up with more trouble than he knows how to handle.’

Martha frowned. ‘Daisy, what are you saying?’

Daisy settled back in her chair. ‘I’ve been dying to tell someone for years and I know I can trust you to keep quiet. And I need you to help me with this one.’

‘What do you mean?’ Martha’s heart rate tripled.

‘When I worked in the hotel in Glasgow, Black Tom was a sailor. He had money to spend when he was in port and he was lots of fun to be with.’

‘But he’s … Daisy, he’s a black man!’

‘Halfbreed, my dear. Anyway, to make a long story short, I got pregnant.’

Martha’s eyes flew open and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. ‘You have a black child?’

Daisy drew deeply on her cigarette, something she knew had been another shock to her sister’s sensibilities, her newly acquired smoking habit. ‘Well, a bastard child would be bad enough, but a black bastard? I couldn’t let that happen, especially as my passage for Canada was already booked. I found an old crone, a gypsy. She gave me something…’ Daisy shrugged.

‘The money you asked me for,’ Martha whispered. ‘I wish I had known.’

‘But then you would not have given it to me, would you? Anyway, Tom found out and accused me of murdering his child. It was Tom who repaid your money, by the way.’

‘How did he find out? Did you tell him?’

‘Don’t be daft. His dear Mama knew the old hag. I vowed that if he ever breathed a word I’d kill him. I told him one day he’d he married and have lots of children, if that’s what he wanted.’

Martha shook her head sadly. ‘Oh Daisy, what a mess. Tom’s first wife died in childbirth, along with the child. His second wife drowned herself because she was barren. Then Tom had an accident and he’s … well, he’s no longer a man, if you know what I mean.’ Martha blushed furiously.

‘Pity. Tom was by far the best lover I ever had. He was a good man and would have been a good father. But that doesn’t give him the right to blame me for his troubles.’

‘Maybe he feels you are somehow responsible for his lonely, childless state. He feels he’s being punished for past sins. You are the only one left for him to seek revenge against. He’s become a very bitter man since the accident,’ Martha informed her.

Daisy crushed out her cigarette and lit another. ‘Oh well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Meanwhile, I have a problem that must be dealt with now.’

‘I’m not sure I want to hear this.’

‘You must, because I need your help. This child I’m carrying is not George’s. close your mouth, my dear. You look like a fish out of water. Do you really think sailors’ wives spend all their nights alone with their husbands gone for months on end?’ Daisy laughed.

‘I would never have been unfaithful to Hedley,’ Martha stated. ‘No matter how long he was gone. I never will be.’

‘You intend to remain faithful to a dead man?’ Daisy’s disbelief showed in her voice. ‘Martha Rose, the perfect little homemaker. Well, not all women like being celibate for long periods. Besides, sailors have a girl in every port so it’s only fair that the wives have some fun too, discreetly, of course.

‘Don’t you love your husband?’ Martha couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She could only say a silent prayer of thanks that her parents had never known about their elder daughter’s wayward side.

Daisy blew smoke rings in the air and chuckled. ‘I married George because he makes good money. I wanted to live in luxury.’

‘What about George?’

‘What about him? He wanted a home of his own, children to carry on his name, and someone to take care of it all and be a social asset. We both got what we wanted. He’s nice enough. We get along well and don’t fight. But if I don’t take care of this little problem that could be spoiled.’

‘So you don’t want George to know you were unfaithful?’

‘Don’t be silly. George isn’t stupid, my dear,’ Daisy scoffed. ‘I just don’t intend to present him with the proof and, since the father is probably Portuguese, it would be obvious.’ She shook her head. ‘No, that would never do.’

Martha stood up suddenly. ‘I cannot help you do this, Daisy. I simply can’t commit such a terrible sin. God would never forgive us.’

‘Oh, don’t be so pious, Martha!’ Daisy laughed. ‘I’m already an outcast in God’s eyes. Anyway, all you have to do is look after the children while I take care of the rest, just keep them out of the way when the time comes. I’ve made arrangements with someone to … take care of everything else.’

‘I wish you hadn’t told me all of this.’ Martha paced the floor.

‘There’s just one more thing. You…’

‘No! I don’t want to know,’ Martha interrupted. ‘Not until the time comes. I don’t want to know your devious plans. My nightmares will be bad enough as it is from what you’ve already told me. I don’t want to hear any more.’ And she marched upstairs to her room, where she cried herself to sleep. If only she had not left home. Fending off unwanted suitors was a picnic compared to what confronted her now. She had thought she was helping her sister in a time of need but had no idea that she would be damning her soul for eternity.

..........................................................


Martha closed her journal gently. She was physically exhausted and mentally drained. She had not realized that writing this confession would be so taxing. Tears streamed down her hollowed cheeks, falling unheeded on the journal’s sleek, expensive cover.

She could still picture it – the little bundle, the blood-soaked sheet - hastily tied up in canvas, and buried in the family plot out back. A white wooden cross identified it only as Baby Wellworth. If only she could be sure there had been no movement, no life in that bundle it might not weigh so heavily on her heart. But visions of a slight movement had haunted her ever since that night.

Nauseated and sick at heart, Martha had helped Daisy cover up her indiscretion. Certain that her sins had condemned her soul to the flames of Hell for all eternity, Martha had become withdrawn and even more quiet than usual. The only source of joy and happiness in her life was the time she spent with her sister’s children.

Since Daisy’s death, ten years ago, Martha’s conscience had given her no peace. It was too much for her to bear alone. Confession was the only way she could reconcile her sins and make her peace with God before the end. Now that it was written, she could give it to Sarah and let her decide what to do with it next.

Martha had never felt so emotionally worn out but the sense of relief she felt was immense. Perhaps she would be able to sleep not that her writing was finished. She rose from her chair in slow motion. A sharp pain stabbed her chest, radiating outward quickly and hotly.

Having made peace with God, and with her conscience, Martha crumpled daintily into a little heap between the desk and the bed. If only…

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© Fay Herridge

Fiction
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