Faithful Unto Death

(Note: Major Spoilers for Sentence of Marriage, and for Mud and Gold up to Chapter 24)


I don’t remember the first time I saw her. Not the first time I laid eyes on her, I mean. She would’ve been a babe in arms then.

But the first time I took real note of her, I remember that all right. Like it was yesterday instead of… whenever it was. A bloody long time ago.

We were getting the hay in, making our way up the valley one farm at a time. It was her pa’s place we were all working on that day. We’d stopped for a rest and a bite to eat—you’ve got to rest the horses about that time of the afternoon, it’s heavy work they’re doing. She’d come home from school early that day, and she came running down to the hay paddock to see the other girl—she’d a cousin older than her, a yellow-haired girl you wouldn’t look twice at. Not like mine.

I can see it now in my head. If I just close my eyes for a spell I can see her running down the hill to that paddock. She’d a white pinafore on over her dress, and a bonnet with red ribbons on it. Her and her cousin started dancing round and round, holding hands.

Dancing round and round, laughing like she’d die of being that happy. Her bonnet slipped down her back, and that long, black hair of hers was flying around her face, all tangled up with the red ribbons. Laughing and laughing. I thought I’d never in my life seen a lovelier thing. And I wanted her.

That was the start of it. The wanting was… I don’t have the words for it. Like something burning up my insides, it was. I’d go to the whores sometimes—not too often, mind, you can waste a hell of a lot of money on whores—but that was no cure for it. I didn’t just want a woman, I wanted her. There were nights I couldn’t sleep for it. I’d take a few swigs—I liked to keep the whisky bottle by the bed for when the nights were cold—and lie there and think about her. Think about having her. Picture her with that long, black hair falling down over her white shoulders. The softness of her. That smile of hers. All for me.

I knew I couldn’t have her. Of course I bloody knew it. Her pa with his five hundred acres and two big, strong sons to work it for him. What would he be giving her to me for? I worked my guts out to buy my own farm, but I know her lot looked down on my place. Only a miserable fifty acres. And they’d think I was too old for her, me being only a couple of years short of her pa’s age. I wasn’t fool enough to think I could have her.

But I could think about her, and I could watch her. I’d make some reason to be down by my gate when she came home from school of an afternoon. I didn’t get to see her so regular when she turned twelve and finished up at the school. But once or twice a week I’d get a look at her. It didn’t matter so much that I couldn’t have her, as long as no one else could.

And then he turned up, that fellow from the city. I knew as soon as I laid eyes on the two of them together that he was going to be the one. Him and his flash clothes and fancy manners. Brother to her pa’s young wife—second wife, the first one died years ago. Come down for the haymaking, they said—bloody lot of use he was, mooning around playing up to my woman half the day. She was fifteen by then, blossoming like a flower. Still a little scrap of a thing, but I could see she’d turned into a woman.

Took to him right away, she did. I’d see the two of them standing together, her smiling up at him, him bending down to whisper something in her ear, and her smiling all the more. I’d’ve liked to have stuck a knife in his guts.

It wasn’t bloody fair! Years and years I’d wanted her—all that time I’d never looked twice at another woman. Whores don’t count—that’s like scratching yourself when you’ve an itch down there. And then he turns up and gets her, just like that. Just cocked his finger and she came running. They had a dance at the end of the haymaking. Full of cackling women, but not a bad drop of free beer. She was there with him, dancing round and round with the red ribbons trailing down her back. I watched them the whole evening, then I went home and drained a bottle of whisky so I could sleep.

Wish I had a bottle here now.

I waited all through summer to hear that she was going to wed him and go off to Auckland on the boat. Then I heard he’d gone off home by himself. Maybe to get a house sorted out for her, I thought. I made sure of seeing her more than usual those weeks, knowing she might be leaving for good any time.

She was still smiling then. Smiling like she had a secret. Waiting for him to come back, I knew she was.

Then someone said they heard he’d gone right away, to Australia or some such place. And she stopped smiling. Whenever I saw her she looked pale, with her eyes all red.

I stopped seeing her altogether for a long time after that. Heard she was sick. Pining for him, it sounded like.

It was winter the next time I saw her. I was walking along my boundary fence, checking if any stretches needed mending… well, I was hoping I might see her, to tell the plain truth. And I did. Wandering along by the fence, tears running down her face, stumbling along like she was half asleep. So big with child that she could hardly walk.

She must’ve felt she was being looked at. She saw me, and she hitched up her skirts and waddled off fast as she could. I just stood staring after her like an idiot for a spell. Then I went back to the house and had couple of drinks and thought it all out.

That young bugger had got her into that state then sneaked off. He must’ve talked her into keeping quiet about it till he’d got away—probably spun her some yarn about coming back to fetch her. He was well out of her pa’s reach by now.

I’d never thought she’d be a dirty little slut like that. Not her. Me thinking she was pure, waiting for her, wanting her, and all the time she’d been rolling in the grass with him. She was no better than a whore herself.

Soiled, she was. No one would want her now. Except I still wanted her. Even dirty, I wanted her. And then the notion came to me.

I had another drink to steady myself, and I went over to see her pa before I’d time to lose my nerve. I told him I’d take her. I’d put a ring on her finger and give her a decent name.

He looked like he was going to tell me to clear off at first—funny, you’d’ve thought he’d be grateful to get rid of her that easy. But his wife said they’d have a think about it, and to come back the next day. She’d no time for the girl.

Her pa had changed his tune when I went back there. Beamed at me and said the girl would tell me herself—don’t know why he got her to do that. Said some nonsense about letting her make up her own mind.

She was sitting there beside him, hanging on to his hand. She looked down at the floor for a spell, then she stood up and said yes, she would marry me. Thanked me for asking her.

I had to wait months after that before I could have her. They sent her up to Auckland to have the bastard. They gave it away to someone up there, I think. I’d told them right off that I wasn’t going to give another man’s son my name, have him inheriting my farm. Then they said I had to wait till she’d got over it all. It was February before I wed her.

Must have been five years or more I’d been waiting for her by then. To wait for something that long, and then find it’s all a bloody mess. She didn’t want me. She just lay in the bed like a dead thing, and in the morning her eyes were all red and puffy with bawling. I gave her a few slaps, told her I wouldn’t have any of that nonsense. Told her not to try playing the bashful virgin with me.

She learned to behave herself pretty smartly. Found out I expected to be obeyed in my own house. I’d only had her for a couple of days when she went wandering off to her pa’s place for half an hour—wanted to borrow some things for the kitchen, she said when she came back. She started her bawling again when I gave her a shake and told her she wasn’t ever to leave the place without asking me. I hardly touched her that time, don’t know how she came to fall down. She was such a little scrap of a thing.

But I couldn’t stop that bawling of hers. I could have her all I wanted… all I could manage, anyway. But she’d whimper like a baby. Crying for him, she was. Well, she must’ve been. Why else would she be bawling all the time? She learned not to do it in front of me, but I’d hear her in the night. Funny thing, sometimes she’d talk in her sleep, calling out something about a baby. Almost as if she was crying for a baby. It must have been the other fellow she was crying for, though. She wouldn’t have been pining for her bastard, now, would she? They would’ve taken it off her pretty smartly. Anyway, she was carrying my child before we’d been wed a month.

I’ve heard men say a broody woman’s an ugly lump of a thing. She wasn’t. Swelled up with child, she was more of a beauty than ever. I liked watching her get bigger and bigger. I knew it must be a fine son she was carrying.

There was one time when she’d got properly big, she was slow getting the dinner on. I gave her a slap—I was careful with her when she was bearing, but a man can’t always be thinking of such things—and she tripped against the table. Gave me a hell of a fright—thought I’d brought the child on early. But it was all right, she said. Then she took hold of my hand and put it on her belly. Feel it, she said. Feel the baby. Had a kick like a mule, he did. Made me feel swelled up myself, I was that proud of fathering such a fine boy. It wasn’t like her, wanting me to touch her like that. Don’t know what she was after.

She was worse than ever after she’d had the boy. The first time I got into her, when the boy was six weeks old it must have been, she made a hell of a fuss. Well, she didn’t say anything—she wasn’t fool enough to try that. But that whimpering and grizzling nonsense of hers, putting the blankets over her mouth like she didn’t want me to hear her bawling.

It hurt her, she said when I took her up on it. Hurt her! Lot of bloody nonsense. Think I don’t know what I’m doing? I asked her. She had nothing to say to that, of course. That was when I started going to the whores again. Not much pleasure in having a whore, but at least they don’t go bawling about it.

She settled down again after a couple of months. The boy stopped waking up half a dozen times in the night, too. I suppose if I think back on it, that might have been the best of the times. Then, and a bit later. When she was carrying the next boy.

She used to get a bit dopey when she was broody. Like the day she told me she was with child again. There’ll be another baby in the spring, she said. Stared up at me with this dopey look on her face, like she wanted… I don’t know what the hell she wanted. Might have thought I’d go soft on her or something. I wasn’t having any of that. I was pleased she was bearing again—of course I was pleased about it. I’d waited a hell of a long time to get sons, I didn’t want to waste any time getting a house load of them. That didn’t mean I was going to let her get away with any nonsense.

Well, two big, strong boys in under three years wasn’t a bad start. Got her with child again pretty smartly, too. There would’ve only been a year and a half between those two.

Then she went and had that third one too early. Six weeks early, the nurse said. Little runt of a thing, that boy was. Like a half-drowned kitten. Didn’t live two hours.

I thought I’d have trouble with her after that. I decided I wasn’t going to let her go on with a lot of nonsense, but it turned out she wasn’t too stupid about it. She stayed in bed for a week or so, then she was the same as she’d ever been. A bit quieter, maybe. But she never was one to talk a lot.

She’d talk to the little fellows, mind. A lot of soft talk, too, till I put a stop to it. She’d smile with them—even laugh sometimes. She’d look like a scrap of a child herself when she was with the little fellows. Especially when she didn’t know I was watching her.

Well, she was with child again within a couple of months, so she had nothing to be miserable about. Until she lost that one. Only carried it a few months. She took to dropping them early around then. Seemed as quick as I got her with child, she’d drop it. I got bloody sick of it—how was I going to get a house full of sons with her carrying on like that? I kept on at her about it, but she wouldn’t sort herself out. She even had the cheek when I was telling her off about it one time to go saying she thought she’d maybe be better if she had a rest from bearing for a spell. I taught her not to try that trick again.

I always had to be watching her. She never tried going off by herself again after that time she wandered off to her pa’s without asking me, but I knew I had to keep an eye on her. She’d played up with that other fellow, hadn’t she? I wasn’t going to be made a fool of.

I don’t know, maybe I should’ve kept her home. I had to take her out sometimes, though. Took her over to see her pa and her brothers. And into town to the store most weeks. Church, too—churchgoing’s good for a woman. There was usually a few drinks and a bite to eat at someone’s place come the end of haymaking. Didn’t seem any harm to take her out to the do that night.

It was down at the end of the valley. Her cousin—the yellow-haired girl—was wed by then, the do was at her man’s place. Must’ve been a couple of dozen people there. Too many men, I could see that as soon as we got there. Women and children, too, but some men on their own. I knew to keep an eye on her, though. I saw what she was up to.

She’d the little fellows on her lap, and she was sitting near some of the men, her brothers and a few others. Bold as brass, too, just about under my nose, she was. Smiling at them. I even saw the little bitch laughing with them.

Laughing with them. All the years I’d waited for her, all that time I’d never looked at another woman, and I’d never got so much as a smile out of her. She’d never wanted me. I could feel a fire in my belly, and it wouldn’t go cold no matter how much beer I poured down my throat. I don’t know how I held my peace till I’d got her out of there.

She must’ve known she’d done wrong. She never said a word to me on the way home. Suppose she didn’t say much most of the time, anyway.

She put the little fellows to bed as soon as we got home, then she started on her bread making. I’d broken open a bottle of whisky. Beer wouldn’t make the burning go cold, but the whisky made it hotter, all right.

She’d her back to me, and I watched her working away at the dough. That thick, black hair of hers piled up on her head. A little bit had come out from the pins, and I could just see it brushing against her cheek. Soft and white like a little girl’s, her face was. She wasn’t much more than twenty, come to that. I could see the shape of her through her dress. I knew the feel of her, too. Soft flesh where I’d haul up her night dress and run my hands over her. Probably even paler than her face.

Two strong boys and half a dozen dead babies she’d borne me, and she could still make me want her like I’d die of it. I put my bottle down on the table and took hold of her by the shoulders, and I turned her around to face me.

If she’d come to me then. If she’d given me a look like she used to give the other fellow. I’d have forgiven her the bastard, forgiven her for not coming to me of her own accord in the first place. But she wouldn’t.

I gave her a kiss. That’s what women are meant to like, isn’t it? That’s what the other fellow had done to her. She didn’t like it from me, though. I felt a shudder running right through her, and when I let go of her she took a step back. She was all red-looking around her mouth from the kiss.

Frightened, she looked. Not like she didn’t know what was to happen to her. Like she knew just what was going to happen, and she didn’t want it. Like she was going to be sick.

I grabbed her by the bodice and I shook her. Why did she shrink from me? I asked her, but she wouldn’t answer me properly. I yelled at her, told her she was a dirty little bitch, told her she wanted any man except her lawful husband.

She started going on with a lot of nonsense, said she didn’t know what she’d done wrong. What about those men she’d been playing up to all night? They were her brothers and her cousins, she said. That other fellow wasn’t your brother, was he? You opened your legs to him pretty smartly, didn’t you? She wouldn’t answer me, and I started slapping her. How many other men had you before I got the leavings? Just one, she whispered. Just one.

I spat on her, got her fair in the face. There was blood coming out of the corner of her mouth by then. I had hold of her by the hair. The pins had come out, and it was falling down over her shoulders. Her head kept swinging one way then the other, depending how my fist landed on it.

She didn’t make a sound after that. Just stood there, swaying from side to side but not saying a word. Maybe she didn’t want the little fellows waking up. Didn’t want to frighten them. Maybe if she’d begged me, said she’d be a better wife from now on. Maybe. I don’t know.

I let go of her. I don’t know how much later it was, but I let go of her. She sort of slid down the wall and lay on the floor. Her face was all swollen and funny-looking. One eye was closed up, but she stared at me out of the other one. Calm, she seemed. Like she was waiting for me to haul her up again and hit her some more, but she wasn’t much bothered about it. I gave her a kick in the belly—not as hard as all that, but she skidded across the floor and went thump against the table leg. Such a little thing, she was. You hardly had to touch her to knock her down.

I was having a bit of trouble standing up myself by then, what with the whisky and getting my head in such a muddle over it all. I got as far as my bed and just fell down on it, didn’t even take my boots off. Must’ve been asleep inside ten minutes.

Don’t know how long I slept, but I know I woke up before I wanted to. It was the noise woke me. Wailing and wailing, like a banshee howl. It rattled the bones in my head, that noise did. I had to make it stop.

I followed the noise out to the kitchen. I was shouting out to shut up, but it did no good. I walked in there and I stopped in my tracks.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget it as long as I… now, there’s a bloody silly thing to say. Well, I won’t forget it. The little fellows were there, they’d woken up and got themselves out of bed. They were kneeling on the floor either side of her, pressing at her, clutching at her dress, and she was lying between them, cold and stiff. There was a trail of blood coming out of her mouth, thick and sticky and all tangled up in her hair. It looked like a red ribbon gone old and dark. And there was blood around her lower parts, right through her dress it’d come. The little fellows had it all over their hands and their faces. It was them making the banshee noise. Howling for their ma.

She’d been bearing, the doctor said at the trial. In amongst all the blood, they found a scrap of a child. I didn’t know she was bearing. She hadn’t said anything. The lawyer fellow looked grim when the doctor told them in court about the baby. Juries aren’t always too keen on hanging a man for killing his wife, he said to me afterwards. Gives their own wives the wrong idea about things. But a man killing his child as well, that’s another story.

I’m not worried about swinging. It’s the waiting gets me down most. I wish they’d get on with the job. Only another couple of days now.

Had a parson come to see me the other day. Told him to bugger off, but he hung around, talking crap like they do. Didn’t I want to make my peace with the Almighty? he wanted to know. What for? I only did what I had to. She drove me to it, didn’t she? She wouldn’t come to me. She wouldn’t want me. Wanting her, and not wanting anyone else to have her, what’s to repent in that? I stuck to her, and I’ll stick to her while there’s breath in my body. That won’t be for much longer now.

Don’t you believe in the afterlife? That was the other fool question he asked me. What, Heaven and the other place? That’s right, he said.

What’s Heaven like? I wanted to know. A place full of flowers and happiness, he said. A place of children playing.

Little girls running around with ribbons in their hair?

I suppose there are, he said.

That’s where she’s gone, then.

He said from all he’d heard of her, he was sure my wife was already there. Said some rubbish about the saints in Heaven forgiving all wrongs done them on Earth. Don’t know what he was on about.

That’s where she’s gone, I told him again. They won’t let me in there, then. And I turned my back on him.

He kept on at me for a bit after that. Was there nothing he could do for me? Nothing at all?

Bring her back.

That shut him up. He didn’t have any fancy words to say to that. He cleared off around then.

I’m not worried about hanging. It’s over soon enough, the warder tells me. The hangman knows his job. Dying? Why would I be worried about dying? What do I want to carry on being alive for? There’s no point to it. Not without her.