George Moore, “The Wedding-gown”, in The Untilled Field (1903)


CHAPTER VIII: THE WEDDING-GOWN

IT WAS SAID, but with what truth I cannot say, that the Roche property had been owned by the O’Dwyers many years ago, several generations past, sometime in the eighteenth century. Only a faint legend of this ownership remained; only once had young Mr. Roche heard of it, and it was from his mother he had heard it; among the country people it was forgotten. His mother had told him that his great-great-grandfather, who had made large sums of money abroad, had increased his property by purchase from the O’Dwyers, who then owned, as well as farmed, the hillside on which the Big House stood. The O’Dwyers themselves had forgotten that they were once much greater people than they now were, but the master never spoke to them without remembering it, for though they only thought of themselves as small farmers, dependents on the squire, every one of them, boys and girls alike, retained an air of high birth, which at the first glance distinguished them from the other tenants of the estate. Though they were not aware of it, some sense of their remote origin must have survived in them, and I think that in a still more obscure way some sense of it survived in the country side, for the villagers did not think worse of the O’Dwyers because they kept themselves aloof from the pleasures of the village and its squabbles. The O’Dwyers kept themselves apart from their fellows without any show of pride, without wounding anyone’s feelings.
 The head of the family was a man of forty, and he was the trusted servant, almost the friend, of the young master, he was his bailiff and his steward, and he lived in a pretty cottage by the edge of the lake. O’Dwyer’s aunts, they were old women, of sixty-eight and seventy, lived in the Big House, the elder had been cook, and the younger housemaid, and both were now past their work, and they lived full of gratitude to the young master, to whom they thought they owed a great deal. He believed the debt to be all on his side, and when he was away he often thought of them, and when he returned home he went to greet them as he might go to the members of his own family. The family of the O’Dwyer’s was long lived, and Betty and Mary had a sister far older than themselves, Margaret Kirwin, “Granny Kirwin,” as she was called, and she lived in the cottage by the lake with her nephew, Alec O’Dwyer. She was over eighty, it was said that she was nearly ninety, but her age was not known exactly. Mary O’Dwyer said that Margaret was nearly twenty years older than she, but neither Betty nor Mary remembered the exact date of their sister’s birth. They did not know much about her, for though she was their sister, she was almost a stranger to them. She had married when she was sixteen, and had gone away to another part of the country, and they had hardly heard of her for thirty years. It was said that she had been a very pretty girl, and that many men had been in love with her, and it was known for certain that she had gone away with the son of the game keeper of the grandfather of the present Mr. Roche, so you can understand what a very long while ago it was, and how little of the story of her life had come to the knowledge of those living now.
 It was certainly sixty years since she had gone away with this young man; she had lived with him in Meath for some years, nobody knew exactly how many years, maybe some nine or ten years, and then he had died suddenly, and his death, it appears, had taken away from her some part of her reason. It was known for certain that she left Meath after his death, and had remained away many years. She had returned to Meath about twenty years ago, though not to the place she had lived in before. Some said she had experienced misfortunes so great that they had unsettled her mind. She herself had forgotten her story, and one day news had come to Galway — news, but it was sad news, that she was living in some very poor cottage on the edge of Navan town, where her strange behaviour and her strange life had made a scandal of her. The priest had to inquire out her relations, and it took him some time to do this, for the old woman’s answers were incoherent, but he at length discovered she came from Galway, and he had written to the O’Dwyers. And immediately on receiving the priest’s letter, Alec sent his wife to Navan, and she had come back with the old woman.
 “And it was time indeed that I went to fetch her,” she said. “The boys in the town used to make game of her, and follow her, and throw things at her, and they nearly lost the poor thing the little reason that was left to her. The rain was coming in through the thatch, there was hardly a dry place in the cabin, and she had nothing to eat but a few scraps that the neighbours gave her. Latterly she had forgotten how to make a fire, and she ate the potatoes the neighbours gave her raw, and on her back there were only a few dirty rags. She had no care for anything except for her wedding-gown. She kept that in a box covered over with paper so that no damp should get to it, and she was always folding it and seeing that the moth did not touch it, and she was talking of it when I came in at the door. She thought that I had come to steal it from her. The neighbours told me that that was the way she always was, thinking that someone had come to steal her wedding-gown.”
 This was all the news of Margaret Kirwin that Alec O’Dwyer’s wife brought back with her. The old woman was given a room in the cottage, and though with food and warmth and kind treatment she became a little less bewildered, a little less like a wild, hunted creature, she never got back her memory sufficiently to tell them all that had happened to her after her husband’s death. Nor did she seem as if she wanted to try to remember, she was garrulous only of her early days when the parish bells rang for her wedding, and the furze was in bloom. This was before the Big House on the hill had been built. The hill was then a fine pasture for sheep, and Margaret would often describe the tinkling of the sheep-bells in the valley, and the yellow furze, and the bells that were ringing for her wedding. She always spoke of the bells, though no one could understand where the bells came from. It was not customary to ring the parish bell for weddings, and there was no other bell, so that it was impossible to say how Margaret could have got the idea into her head that bells were ringing for her when she crossed the hill on her way to the church, dressed in the beautiful gown, which the grandmother of the present Mr. Roche had dressed her in, for she had always been the favourite, she said, with the old mistress, a much greater favourite than even her two sisters had ever been. Betty and Mary were then little children and hardly remembered the wedding, and could say nothing about the bells.
 Margaret Kirwin walked with a short stick, her head lifted hardly higher than the handle and when the family were talking round the kitchen fire she would come among them for a while and say something to them, and then go away, and they felt they had seen someone from another world. She hobbled now and then as far as the garden gate, and she frightened the peasantry, so strange did she seem among the flowers — so old and forlorn, almost cut off from this world, with only one memory to link her to it. It was the spectral look in her eyes that frightened them, for Margaret was not ugly. In spite of all her wrinkles the form of the face remained, and it was easy, especially when her little grand-niece was by, to see that sixty-five years ago she must have had a long and pleasant face, such as one sees in a fox, and red hair like Molly.
 Molly was sixteen, and her grey dress reached only to her ankles. Everyone was fond of the poor old woman; but it was only Molly who had no fear of her at all, and one would often see them standing together beside the pretty paling that separated the steward’s garden from the high road. Chestnut-trees grew about the house, and china roses over the walls, and in the course of the summer there would be lilies in the garden, and in the autumn hollyhocks and sunflowers. There were a few fruit-trees a little further on, and, lower down, a stream. A little bridge led over the stream into the meadow, and Molly and her grand-aunt used to go as far as the bridge, and everyone wondered what the child and the old woman had to say to each other. Molly was never able to give any clear account of what the old woman said to her during the time they spent by the stream. She had tried once to give Molly an account of one long winter when the lake was frozen from side to side. Then there was something running in her mind about the transport of pillars in front of the Big House — how they had been drawn across the lake by oxen, and how one of the pillars was now lying at the bottom of the lake. That was how Molly took up the story from her, but she understood little of it. Molly’s solicitude for the old woman was a subject of admiration, and Molly did not like to take the credit for a kindness and pity which she did not altogether feel. She had never seen anyone dead, and her secret fear was that the old woman might die before she went away to service. Her parents had promised to allow her to go away when she was eighteen, and she lived in the hope that her aunt would live two years longer, and that she would be saved the terror of seeing a dead body. And it was in this intention that she served her aunt, that she carefully minced the old woman’s food and insisted on her eating often, and that she darted from her place to fetch the old woman her stick when she rose to go. When Margaret Kirwin was not in the kitchen Molly was always laughing and talking, and her father and mother often thought it was her voice that brought the old woman out of her room. So the day Molly was grieving because she could not go to the dance the old woman remained in her room, and not seeing her at tea-time they began to be afraid, and Molly was asked to go fetch her aunt.
 “Something may have happened to her, mother. I daren’t go.”
 And when old Margaret came into the kitchen towards evening she surprised everyone by her question: —
 “Why is Molly crying?”
 No one else had heard Molly sob, if she had sobbed, but everyone knew the reason of her grief; indeed, she had been reproved for it many times that day.
 “I will not hear any more about it,” said Mrs. O’Dwyer; “she has been very tiresome all day. Is it my fault if I cannot give her a gown to go to the dance?” And then, forgetting that old Margaret could not understand her, she told her that the servants were having a dance at the Big House, and had asked Molly to come to it. “But what can I do? She has got no gown to go in. Even if I had the money there would not be time to send for one now, nor to make one. And there are a number of English servants stopping at the house; there are people from all parts of the country, they have brought their servants with them, and I am not going to see my girl worse dressed than the others, so she cannot go. She has heard all this, she knows it… . I’ve never seen her so tiresome before.” Mrs. O’Dwyer continued to chide her daughter; but her mother’s reasons for not allowing her to go to the ball, though unanswerable, did not seem to console Molly, and she sat looking very miserable. “She has been sitting like that all day,” said Mrs. O’Dwyer, “and I wish that it were to-morrow, for she will not be better until it is all over.”
 “But, mother, I am saying nothing; I will go to bed. I don’t know why you are blaming me. I am saying nothing. I can’t help feeling miserable.”
 “No, she don’t look a bit cheerful,” the old woman said, “and I don’t like her to be disappointed.” This was the first time that old Margaret had seemed to understand since she came to live with them what was passing about her, and they all looked at her, Mrs. O’Dwyer and Alec and Molly. They stood waiting for her to speak again, wondering if the old woman’s speech was an accident, or if she had recovered her mind. “It is a hard thing for a child at her age not to be able to go to the dance at the Big House, now that she has been asked. No wonder Molly is unhappy. I remember the time that I should have been unhappy too, and she is very like me.”
 “But, Granny, what can I do? She can’t go in the clothes she is wearing, and she has only got one other frock, the one she goes to Mass in. I can’t allow my daughter — ”
 But seeing the old woman was about to speak Alec stopped his wife.
 “Let us hear what she has to say,” he whispered.
 “There is my wedding-gown: that is surely beautiful enough for anyone to wear. It has not been worn since the day I wore it when the bells were ringing, and I went over the hill and was married; and I have taken such care of it that it is the same as it was that day. Molly will look very nice in it; she will look as I looked that day.”
 No one spoke; father, mother, and daughter stood looking at the old woman. Her offer to lend her wedding-dress had astonished them as much as her recovery of her senses. Everything she once had, and there were tales that she had once been rich, had melted away from her; nothing but this gown remained. How she had watched over it! Since she had come to live with the O’Dwyers she had hardly allowed them to see it. When she took it out of its box to air it and to strew it with camphor she closed her room door. Only once had they seen it, and then only for a few moments. She had brought it out to show it, as a child brings its toy, but the moment they stretched their hands to touch it she had taken it away, and they had heard her locking the box it was in. But now she was going to lend it to Molly. They did not believe she meant what she was saying. They expected her to turn away and to go to her room, forgetful of what she had said. Even if she were to let Molly put the dress on, she would not let her go out of the house with it. She would change her mind at the last minute.
 “When does this dancing begin?” she asked, and when they told her she said there would be just time for her to dress Molly, and she asked the girl and her mother to come into her room. Mrs. O’Dwyer feared the girl would be put to a bitter disappointment, but if Molly once had the gown on she would not oblige her to take it off.
 “In my gown you will be just like what I was when the bells were ringing.”
 She took the gown out of its box herself, and the petticoat and the stockings and the shoes; there was everything there.
 “The old mistress gave me all these. Molly has got the hair I used to have; she will look exactly like myself. Are they not beautiful shoes?” she said.
 “Look at the buckles. They will fit her very well; her feet are the same size as mine were.”
 And Molly’s feet went into the shoes just as if they had been made for her, and the gown fitted as well as the shoes, and Molly’s hair was arranged as nearly as possible according to the old woman’s fancy, as she used to wear her hair when it was thick and red like Molly’s.
 The girl thought that Granny would regret her gift. She expected the old woman would follow her into the kitchen and ask her to take the things off, and that she would not be able to go to the ball after all. She did not feel quite safe until she was a long way from the house, about half-way up the drive. Her mother and father had said that the dance would not be over until maybe six o’clock in the morning, and they offered her the key of the house; but Granny had said that she would sit up for her.
 “I will doze a bit upon a chair. If I am tired I will lie down upon my bed. I shall hear Molly; I shall not sleep much. She will not be able to enter the house without my hearing her.”
 It was extraordinary to hear her speak like this, and, a little frightened by her sudden sanity, they waited up with her until midnight. Then they tried to persuade her to go to bed, to allow them to lock up the house; but she sat looking into the fire, seeming to see the girl dancing at the ball quite clearly. She seemed so contented that they left her, and for an hour she sat dreaming, seeing Molly young and beautifully dressed in the wedding-gown of more than sixty years ago.
 Dream after dream went by, the fire had burned low, the sods were falling into white ashes, and the moonlight began to stream into the room. It was the chilliness that had come into the air that awoke her, and she threw several sods of turf on to the fire. An hour passed, and old Margaret awoke for the last time.
 “The bells are ringing, the bells are ringing,” she said, and she went to the kitchen door; she opened it, and stood in the garden under the rays of the moon. The night of her marriage was just such a night as this one, and she had stood in the garden amid the summer flowers, just as she did now.
 “The day is beginning,” she said, mistaking the moonlight for the dawn, and, listening, it seemed to her that she heard once more the sound of bells coming across the hill. “Yes, the bells are ringing,” she said; “I can hear them quite clearly, and I must hurry and get dressed — I must not keep him waiting.”
 And returning to the house, she went to her box, where her gown had lain so many years; and though no gown was there it seemed to her that there was one, and one more beautiful than the gown she had cherished. It was the same gown, only grown more beautiful. It had grown into softer silk, into a more delicate colour; it had become more beautiful, and she held the dream-gown in her hands and she sat with it in the moonlight, thinking how fair he would find her in it. Once her hands went to her hair, and then she dropped them again.
 “I must begin to dress myself; I must not keep him waiting.”
 The moonlight lay still upon her knees, but little by little the moon moved up the sky, leaving her in the shadow.
 It was at this moment, as the shadows grew denser about old Margaret, that the child who was dancing at the ball came to think of her who had given her her gown, and who was waiting for her. It was in the middle of a reel she was dancing, and she was dancing it with Mr. Roche, that she felt that something had happened to her aunt.
 “Mr. Roche,” she said, “you must let me go away; I cannot dance any more to-night. I am sure that something has happened to my aunt, the old woman, Margaret Kirwin, who lives with us in the Lodge. It was she who lent me this gown. This was her wedding-gown, and for sixty-five years it has never been out of her possession. She has hardly allowed anyone to see it; but she said that I was like her, and she heard me crying because I had no gown to go to the ball, and so she lent me her wedding-gown.”
 “You look very nice, Molly, in the wedding-gown, and this is only a fancy.” Seeing the girl was frightened and wanted to go, he said: “But why do you think that anything has happened to your aunt?”
 “She is very old.”
 “But she is not much older than she was when you left her.”
 “Let me go, Mr. Roche; I think I must go. I feel sure that something has happened to her. I never had such a feeling before, and I could not have that feeling if there was no reason for it.”
 “Well, if you must go.”
 She glanced to where the moon was shining and ran down the drive, leaving Mr. Roche looking after her, wondering if after all she might have had a warning of the old woman’s death. The night was one of those beautiful nights in May, when the moon soars high in the sky, and all the woods and fields are clothed in the green of spring. But the stillness of the night frightened Molly, and when she stopped to pick up her dress she heard the ducks chattering in the reeds. The world seemed divided into darkness and light. The hawthorn-trees threw black shadows that reached into the hollows, and Molly did not dare to go by the path that led through a little wood, lest she should meet Death there. For now it seemed to her that she was running a race with Death, and that she must get to the cottage before him. She did not care to take the short cut, but she ran till her breath failed her. She ran on again, but when she went through the wicket she knew that Death had been before her. She knocked twice; receiving no answer she tried the latch, and was surprised to find the door unlocked. There was a little fire among the ashes, and after blowing the sod for some time she managed to light the candle, and holding it high she looked about the kitchen.
 “Auntie, are you asleep? Have the others gone to bed?”
 She approached a few steps, and then a strange curiosity came over her, and though she had always feared death she now looked curiously upon death, and she thought that she saw the likeness which her aunt had often noticed.
 “Yes,” she said, “she is like me. I shall be like that some day if I live long enough.”
 And then she knocked at the door of the room where her parents were sleeping.

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