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The Nemesis of Motherhood
by [?]

I

THE hospital of the prison was little more than a whitewashed corridor with bald daylight coming through the high gratings. The nurse was neither soft-footed nor soft-hearted.

But the woman occupying one of the cots there was as oblivious of outer circumstances as if she were in the middle of a cloud. It was, in fact, thick cloud that swathed her, body and soul, in black shadow, as she lay there with her baby three days old. If she herself had ever been fair to see, there was small reason to suspect the possibility now; and the little dark atom of humanity she held would perhaps have given any but its mother a feeling of repulsion.

She had been sentenced to a term of years at hard labor for her crime. Although a young woman, she was an old offender. It was held among the officials that there was nothing so bad or so vile that she might not be a part of its wickedness. She had lived on the plane of an animal, an exceedingly cunning and rather vicious animal. Her memories, could she have awakened them, would have revolted any listener however abandoned, and have hardened the heart of an angel.

Yet as she lay there and felt the little new being at her breast, two great tears welled from under her closed eyelids and paused upon her cheeks; a sunbeam through the grating touched them and painted in them the reflection of all heaven. The nurse saw the sunbeam, and drew the shade down; no one looked for any reflection of heaven in that woman’s tears.

She was suffering little from her physical troubles, although prostrate from weakness. She knew that everything was wrong with her; but that did not trouble her; she had been in hell too long, she would have said, to fear now; and, to her, death, not birth, seemed a sleep and a forgetting. But through all her varied experience, this was her first child; and the condition where she found herself was a new hell, and one undreamed of before. This little creature, drawing her life into itself, was something for which she felt a fierce protecting instinct — an unspeakable and angry need of interposing herself between it and the cruelty of the world. Her child — it was foreordained by fate that it must suffer. Her daughter — there was not power enough in the universe to hinder her from sharing her mother’s lot. The child must grow up in the alleys, in the gutters. Her first words would be oaths; little criminals would be her companions; sin must be her daily sight, evil must be her atmosphere; she the bantling of a ribald moment, and by right of descent possessor of her mother’s indecency. Wrong would come to her earlier than it had come to herself — she remembered sharply the first stirring of the vicious impulses in herself, the first temptation; the first yielding; the bad, bitter joy; the end in wretchedness, in despair, in ruin. He had gone free — and where there was one of her there were ten of him — and she felt the multitude of him lying in wait for this girl drawing now from her veins the impulse, the yielding, the riot, the rage; and once more the fierce instinct of protection made her clasp the child so closely that it cried out with a feeble cry.

The nurse came and looked at her curiously and saw the tear and went away. The child dropped off to sleep. But far from sleep was the mother, with a fire ravaging her brain. She saw the way marked out for this child; she saw not only that, but the bleeding feet with which she must tread it.