Fiction


If Only

Martha closed her journal. She gently placed her shiny silver pen neatly on the centre of its textured black cover. A deep sigh reflected the relief she felt and she knew she had made the right decision.

It was almost finished. She, Martha Rose Herrington, would make a full and complete confession before she died. It was, after all, as much her story as anyone’s. Well, most of it was.

Her sister, Daisy, had carried those awful secrets to the grave with her but she, Martha, could not do that. Her moral conscience would not let her. Those terrible sins had tormented Martha for years. She felt that her immortal soul would never know peace if she did not unburden herself.

‘Let sleeping dogs lie,’ Daisy would say. ‘What’s done is done, Martha, and I don’t intend to spend my remaining years in disgrace from society.’

‘Don’t you think we’re already in disgrace, in God’s eyes, Daisy?’

There had been no reasoning with Daisy on the matter. She had always been stubborn. Mother used to say she was ‘pig-headed and selfish to the core.’

Martha braced one feeble hand on the corner of the writing desk for support. She pushed her frail, thin body upward, to an upright position, thankful that she still had good posture. Her aching joints foretold of wet weather in the days ahead. She needed no forecaster to tell her that.

With slow, careful steps she crossed the room to the window. Pushing aside the heavy curtains, she gazed longingly out across the sea. Not a breath of wind stirred the smooth surface today. It looked like a sheet of blue glass, just as it had when she arrived in this country 73 years ago.

If only she could go back in time, back to Scotland, to before all the secrets and lies had taken over their lives. At least before the worst of it. If only she had been strong enough to tell the truth and stand her ground. But mild-mannered little Martha Rose always did what others wanted her to do. She was meet, obliging, and honest as the day is long – for the most part. She could be counted on to keep secrets and, consequently, her young ears had been subjected to many shocking secrets and horrific confessions.

The sea stretched lazily towards the horizon until it blended with the sky. After a few minutes, Martha turned away from the window. she was tired and needed to rest a while before continuing her revelations.

Lying on her bed, she pulled up the worn patchwork quilt she had brought from Scotland with her. It was worked on both sides in neat little diamonds and had been painstakingly stitched for her wedding night. If only her short-lived marriage to Hedley had lasted longer, her life would have been so different. But she was a bride and a widow at the tender age of 17.

Martha could still hear the calm, quiet voice of the parish priest as he told her that Hedley’s ship had been lost in a terrible storm on its return voyage from the Orient.

‘You are young and strong, my child. You will get over this in time.’ But Martha knew even then that she would never get over Hedley. They had been companions and best friends practically from the time they learned to walk and they had been so much in love.

That had been the start of her troubles, just ten weeks after her wedding. If only she had followed her heart after that incident.

The life of a young widow in turn-of-the-century Scotland was no easy lot. Her brother James and family had moved in with their aging parents and taken over the family farm.

Martha was a good seamstress and could manage to support herself if she was careful with her money. Still, she had to fight off the advances of men wanting quick dalliances or clandestine rendezvous. She tried to disguise her beauty by dressing and acting as much like an old woman as possible.

Night after night she cried herself to sleep, hating the indignities that a woman alone must suffer. When she did sleep, she was haunted by nightmares of encountering a man whom she would be unable to fend off.

Her heart had been set on entering a convent after losing Hedley. Well-meaning friends and family had persuaded her otherwise, saying she was young, with no children, and could still find a good husband. But Martha knew in her heart that what she wanted was the quiet peaceful life which could only be found in a sheltered cloister. She would never love another man. She was torn between satisfying her own inner needs and trying to live up to what she felt others expected of her. In the end, she tried to please others, as she had always done. If only she had followed her heart instead.

Daisy’s letter, inviting Martha to join her in her new home in Upper Canada had seemed like the answer to her prayers. Daisy’s husband, a sailor, spent most of his time at sea. With five young children, and another on the way, Daisy was finding it hard to cope.

Martha sold the little house that she and Hedley had bought, finally letting go of all their hopes and dreams. She secured passage on a ship bound for Canada. It seemed like the right thng to do. She could help Daisy with the children and still take in enough sewing to support herself. Surely, it would be the best of both worlds.

Had she known Daisy’s real reason, Martha would never have come. In less than a week, she realized that marriage and motherhood had not changed her sister at all. She was still the same selfish, self-centered person she had always been. The same 15-year-old beauty who had lured her cousin into the barn to satisfy her curiosity about boys. Martha could remember that day as clearly as if it was yesterday.

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

Daisy peeped in around the kitchen door just as 12-year-old Martha was putting supper on the table. ‘Anyone around?’

‘Not until I call them for supper,’ Martha said. ‘Why?’

‘Good. I don’t want them to see me like this.’ Daisy came all the way in.

Martha’s eyes were like two grey saucers that nearly filled the top half of her face. Daisy’s hair was all messed up. Bits of dried grass clung to her hair and her rumpled clothing. ‘What happened to you?’ Martha asked.

‘Just a little experiment,’ Daisy informed her calmly. ‘Have you never wondered, Martha, why we are told that it’s a woman’s duty to lie with her husband and endure it, yet those fallen women we see on the streets, who lie with men for money, look so pleased with themselves?’

‘Daisy!’ Martha gasped. ‘What have you done?’

Daisy giggled. ‘Oh, I didn’t go into town where the sailors hang out. Nothing that adventurous. Lucas was more than willing to go along with me, especially when I threatened to tell that he was the one who dropped the cat in the well.’

‘Cousin Lucas? But that’s … Daisy Ellen Moreton! You’ve committed a double sin – lying with a man before marriage, and with a close blood relative.’

‘Ah, but sin can be such fun, little sister. You really ought to try it sometime.’

‘Aren’t you afraid he might tell?’ Martha shuddered. She would never have the same feeling for Cousin Lucas again. He would always appear wicked and sinful in her eyes from this day on. She would never forgive either of them.

‘If he so much as breathes a word, I’ll say it was rape, and he knows how good I am at lying.’ Daisy shrugged her shoulders. ‘Now give me a minute to clean up before you call the family. And you better not tell anyone either,’ she added.

Martha watched her go upstairs. She didn’t even want to know about Daisy’s awful sins, let alone tell anyone. She would never be able to talk about such things. But she would say an extra long prayer for her wayward sister tonight, and many more nights thereafter.
..........................................................

Then Martha came to Canada where she was, for better or worse, caught up in her sister’s schemes once more. Martha knew she would just have to make the best of it until she could save enough money for return passage home as soon as the time was right.

Martha raised a shaky hand to smooth the silver hair from her brow. If only she had returned to Scotland, but the right time had never seemed to come. Both her parents had passed on within a few years of her departure and her brother’s wife had made it clear that Martha had no place with them. Besides, she had always thought of herself as providing Daisy’s children with some sort of moral training which their mother never gave them. She had succeeded with some of them.

Sleep eluded Martha today. Slowly, she raised herself to a sitting position. Was it her imagination, or did her old bones creak a little louder than they had yesterday? A warm flush crept over her throat and face, a warning signal that her blood pressure was probably up again.

‘You worry too much,’ Daisy used to say. ‘You care far too much about other people, Martha, and not enough about your own pleasure. That’s your problem.’

‘With good reason,’ replied Martha. She enjoyed helping others. ‘Aren’t you ever afraid of getting caught?’

‘I don’t intend to get caught, little sister,’ Daisy would reply haughtily. ‘I’m too careful for that.’

The room swayed as Martha stood up. Her bony knuckles turned white as she gripped the edge of the dresser. The dizziness passed after a few moments and she took several deep breaths to steady herself.

She would have to visit the doctor again... soon. Daisy’s youngest daughter, Sarah, had been begging her to do so for several months. But Martha had to finish her self-appointed soul cleansing first. It was more important to her than life itself now.

After a brief visit to the washroom, Martha resumed her seat at the antique desk. She ran her fingers over its polished surface lovingly. She detested modern furniture, all metal, glass or plastic. It was hideous, so cold and impersonal. She recalled the oak desk Hedley had given her as a wedding gift and hoped someone had cared for it. Polished wood took on such warmth and character over the years.

Martha picked up her pen. Time to write the final chapter. Her eyes filled with tears as she began to write and her mind drifted back to the terrible events as if it were yesterday.
..........................................................

When the ship docked, Daisy and George were waiting for her. Daisy, as usual, was decked out in the latest fashion, knee-length dress and single long strand of pearls, with her hair cut in the stylish new ‘bob’. George was quite dashing in his three-piece black suit and top hat. Martha felt a little self-conscious in her black mourning dress, not quite as short as Daisy’s, but she was a little more conservative than her flambouyant sister.

A neighbour’s daughter was watching the children at home. George had borrowed his brother’s automobile to make the trip faster and easier. The 1922 Ford Model T was three years old, but it was his brother’s pride and joy. Loaning it was not something he did easily. However, he had deemed Martha’s arrival to be a worthy cause.

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 at 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. The old gypsy knew his dear Mama. I vowed that if he ever breathed a word I’d kill him. I told him one day he’d be 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. He never married again.’ Martha said.

‘Pity. Tom 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 reclusive and bitter man,’ 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 enough. But if I don’t take care of this little problem that could upset the apple cart.’

‘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.’ 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 things.’

‘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 all 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 heavily-stained 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 but even that changed as they grew up.

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...

© 2019, F. Herridge
Story Quilt, July 2019 [Online]

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