The New Magdalen


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Grace obeyed without a word more. There was a momentary silence. A faint flash of light leaped up from the expiring candle, and showed Mercy crouching on the chest, with her elbows on her knees, and her face hidden in her hands.

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The next instant the room was buried in obscurity. As the darkness fell on the two women the nurse spoke. In those extraordinary terms Mercy Merrick opened the confidential interview which Grace Roseberry had forced on her. Its unnatural hardness and sternness of tone passed away from her voice, and its native gentleness and sadness returned, as she made that reply. Still wondering, Grace answered that she had read of such things often, in newspapers and in books. Have you heard of the Women? Her voice, without losing its steadiness, fell to its lowest tones.

Grace sprang to her feet with a faint cry. She stood petrified— incapable of uttering a word.


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Do you still wish to be my friend? Do you still insist on sitting close by me and taking my hand?

At that appeal Grace composed herself, and spoke. I sometimes ask myself if it was all my fault. I sometimes wonder if Society had no duties toward me when I was a child selling matches in the street—when I was a hard-working girl fainting at my needle for want of food. You see me here in a place of trust—patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can.

Here, or elsewhere, what I am can never alter what I was. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. Once let my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me; the kindest people shrink. She waited again. Miss Roseberry was shocked; Miss Roseberry was confused.

But the lost place is not to be regained. My story shall begin at the Refuge. The matron sent me out to service with the character that I had honestly earned—the character of a reclaimed woman. I justified the confidence placed in me; I was a faithful servant. One day my mistress sent for me—a kind mistress, if ever there was one yet. She received me like a mother. Grace began to feel interested in spite of herself. She answered with something like warmth in her tone. She returned to her chair—placed at its safe and significant distance from the chest.

More kindness; and, this time, a pleasant, peaceful life for me. Have I got back?

4 - Mercy and Grace: Wilkie Collins and The New Magdalen

New people came into our neighborhood. There was a young lady among them—my master began to think of another wife. I have the misfortune in my situation to be what is called a handsome woman; I rouse the curiosity of strangers.

In a word, they found me out. The old story again! I learned to speak the French language.

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Sickness had broken out in the Refuge; I made myself useful as a nurse. He would have married me. The nurse, as an honest woman, was bound to tell him the truth. He never appeared again. The old story! I might have committed suicide; I might even have drifted back into my old life—but for one man. At those last words her voice—quiet and even through the earlier part of her sad story—began to falter once more.

The New Magdalen and the Rhetoric of Prostitution: Restoring Mercy Merrick’s Agency

She stopped, following silently the memories and associations roused in her by what she had just said. Had she forgotten the presence of another person in the room? That strange answer, naturally enough, only strengthened the anxiety of Grace to hear more. He did save me; you shall hear how. One Sunday our regular clergyman at the Refuge was not able to officiate. His place was taken by a stranger, quite a young man. I sat in the back row of seats, under the shadow of the gallery, where I could see him without his seeing me. As for me, he touched my heart as no man has touched it before or since.

The hard despair melted in me at the sound of his voice; the weary round of my life showed its nobler side again while he spoke. From that time I have accepted my hard lot, I have been a patient woman. I might have been something more, I might have been a happy woman, if I could have prevailed on myself to speak to Julian Gray. A woman who could have sympathized with her would perhaps have guessed what those words meant. Grace was simply embarrassed by her; and Grace failed to guess. There was no alternative for Mercy but to own the truth in plain words.

She sighed, and said the words. The nurse rose slowly to her feet. Before I saw Julian Gray I only knew men as objects of horror to me. Let us drop the subject. The preacher at the Refuge is nothing but a remembrance now—the one welcome remembrance of my life! I have nothing more to tell you. You insisted on hearing my story—you have heard it. Mercy crossed the room, and slowly raked together the last living embers of the fire. It was not difficult to get me the place, under those circumstances. Society can find a use for me here. And if a stray shot comes my way before the war is over—well!

Society will be rid of me on easy terms. She stood looking thoughtfully into the wreck of the fire—as if she saw in it the wreck of her own life. Common humanity made it an act of necessity to say something to her. Grace considered—advanced a step toward her—stopped—and took refuge in the most trivial of all the common phrases which one human being can address to another.

The sentence, halting there, was never finished.

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Miss Roseberry was just merciful enough toward the lost woman who had rescued and sheltered her to feel that it was needless to say more. The nurse lifted her noble head and advanced slowly toward the canvas screen to return to her duties. Miss Roseberry stood there at a distance, at a loss what to say next. Can you give me the name and the place of an innocent woman? If I only had your chance!


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    You shall wear my clothes as short a time as possible. With those melancholy words—touchingly, not bitterly spoken—she moved to pass into the kitchen, when she noticed that the pattering sound of the rain against the window was audible no more. Dropping the canvas for the moment, she retraced her steps, and, unfastening the wooden shutter, looked out.

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