I Am Illegitimate
“Besides,” said Mrs. McCullery, wrapping her fox fur boa closer to her. “She is… a foundling.”
Several of the ladies, seated around the table, flinched.
"Poor Tom? I should think he would be relieved to find this out early."
“That is shameful news.”
“Does anyone know… who her father was?” asked one, dropping her voice.
“No one,” whispered another.
“How did we not have this information before? We must ensure that the general public is now duly notified.” And the speaker readjusted her spectacles on her beaked nose as if to suggest that she herself would certify the spreading of the finding.
"I wonder what Mrs. Marple will do now that she knows her son is marrying an illegitimate, though." The woman stirred her tea daintily and clucked her tongue. "This is the ill that comes of ignorance of people's backgrounds!"
“I always knew. I could tell… she had devilry in her eyes.”
“Well, of course, Meredith: the apple is the same breed as the tree.”
“It does make perfect sense,” said one loftily.
“And what different does it make?”
Everyone started and turned, to stare at a young girl at the far side of the table. She was considerably younger than the group of matrons, and had spoken sharply. The women were affronted.
“The difference,” said the buxom and imposing Mrs. Andrews, narrowing her eye at the child, and speaking severely, “The difference is that I would not let my son marry a foundling girl. Nor bring such a brat into my house! The gutter is not welcome in my parlor.”
The women all murmured their agreeance.
“And the difference is I would expect you not to associate with them either,” finished Mrs. Andrews.
The girl, whose cheeks were red, knew that a young person did not oppose an older person, and on such a matter. She felt like her pounding heart must be heard by them all. Her eyes were angry, bold, miserable, and fearful. “Well, I know,” she dared, breathless, “That illegitimacy is the name of a social blot; nothing more. It gives no taint to the child!”
“Gives no taint to the child!” gasped Mrs. Andrews, aghast.
Mrs. Wickham, a motherly-looking woman, took up the case. “Coraline, I myself will have patience with you, for I’ve known you for a long, long time, and these other good ladies in this room do not; but you are speaking fearfully ignorantly. I wonder at your mother’s teaching you.”
“She teaches me nothing,” said the golden-haired, red-cheeked girl stoutly. “It is my own thought.”
The woman sat back dully; the others did, too, puffing up their cheeks and blowing out. “Well, indeed!” “A little social reformer.” “What will she be up for next? Lobbying for public drunkenness?” There were covert titters. “Tea, anyone?”
“Well, Coraline,” said Mrs. Wickham, “Then we all ought to talk to you. Though I myself am loathe to educate in such matters, I do believe that a young girl should be educated. Yet I do confess I am rather shocked you would speak an opinion on the subject; but there we go; modern manners and all. And where will this legislation lead?”
“To further impudence,” rapped out Mrs. McCullery. “And more nice girls,” she cast an eye darkly at Coraline’s corner, “Being encouraged to mix with the lower lot.”
“For you are a nice girl, dear,” said a spinster, Miss Applehart, sweetly, “But you perhaps believe that by dwelling with sinners, your perfume will rub off on them; whereas on the contrary, my dear, it may be just the opposite. Can a rose hold scum to her breast and not smell like sewer afterwards?”
“I do not have our Miss Applehart’s poetic tongue,” said Mrs. McCullery acerbically. “I call them plainly, lower lot, and lower lot they are.”
“You mean the bad girls,” said Coraline dully.
“Just what I mean!” triumphed Mrs. McCullery.
“Why should the father’s sin be visited on the son, though? I thought that was abolished in Biblical times.”
“My dear,” said motherly Mrs. Wickham, oh, so patiently, and smiling fondly, “We do not mean that the baby is guilty of the parents’ sin. Of course not. Such a feat is -”
“Scientifically impossible,” muttered Coraline.
“Modern girls!” nipped Mrs. Girshram to Mrs. Petcot behind her glove.
“Yes - yes,” said Mrs. Wickham. “Just. Scientifically impossible. Perfectly impossible that the baby could have committed the sin that lead to its existence. The child is not guilty of what the parents have done. But here, my dear, is the difficulty, where things become not so cut and dried. You must try to grasp the subtlety of the matter, which you yourself cannot see. You are so young, hun. You see, my dear," she said significantly, "the child was born of sin.”
“Aren’t we all born into sin?” cried a tremulous Mrs. Babbith, her hands held out imploringly. She was the minister's young wife.
“Yes, Mrs. Babbith, we are all born into sin,” said older Mrs. Andrews a little patronizingly. “And then we are baptized and brought into the Presybterian church.” She smiled sycophantically at the younger woman, for Mr. Babbith vicared the local Presbyterian parish.
Mrs. Girshram continued with militancy. “No baptism can wash this blot off; this -”
“Social stigma,” interposed Coraline.
“Coraline,” said Mrs. Wickham gravely, “I am going to have to ask you not interrupt. You may state your opinion; that I give you leave to; though others may think that is not your call, I am not that old-fashioned. But please,” and here her eye got critical, which was embarrassing for Coraline, because Mrs. Wickham had known her since infancy, and had always been kind to her, “Keep to the order of courtesy. Imitate your mother, with whom I am privileged to say I possess a friendship approaching twenty years.”
Coraline was silenced, and her face was entirely a shade of red fire.
“As I was saying,” said Mrs. Girshram victoriously, “This - vicious blot - though it is not personal guilt - none of us would say that, as it is theologically unsound,” casting an ingratiating eye of mutual understanding with the minister’s wife, “Yet the blot must still be considered as weightily as the personal blemish itself, when choosing with whom to associate. The mark of illegitimacy means that a child was born of sin. His conscience is not rooted in goodness,” she declared, very firmly, “And pure values were not his inheritance. You cannot rip a piece off of moldy bread and expect that piece to be clean. Explain to me how it is possible,” she continued, as if addressing a wide assembly, “that a good solid branch can come off of a rotting tree! And I myself,” here she began to really gain steam, and her voice raised, “And I myself will not have my values, and the values of my mother and grandmothers before me, and the long-standing principles of this town - challenged. I will not let my children play with an illegitimate child. My children and those dirty brats are two entirely different beings, and every decent woman here agrees with me.” Coraline opened her mouth to speak, but Mrs. Girshram jumped up, which was rather difficult, being rather a hefty woman. “Coraline Granty!" She looked like a fiery-eyed, fat dragon. "They are children of an evil act. And yes, I will speak so, Mrs. Petcot; don’t try to hush me up; your squirmy Victorianism is of no consequence to me. She is old enough - the child is twenty - to know what is evil and what is not. Do not put blindfolds on children, I say! This world is not a pin-the-tail on the donkey game; they’ll get stuck themselves if they blindly try to find the mark. I will tell her it’s evil if it’s evil. There, I’m modern enough!” She humped and sat down.
A silence pervaded after this passion sizzled out. “Do you see, Coraline?” asked Mrs. Wickham, moving in, speaking softly. “Is this making any sense to you, dear? What Mrs. Girshram is saying is right; but you may not understand. Your mother did keep you so innocent of this world. See…” She struggled for the words to explain. Little Coraline was forcing her to speak, e'en against her modesty. “Those children are lust incarnated," she finally decided on the words. "Though it is harsh to say, it is true. They are the fruits of evil… and the direct off-shoots of sin. I know this world today says we ought to associate with everyone, but, listen to me, Coraline, and this is reality: there are those fit to be with, and those that are not. Young ones sneer at the notion; you want to be so open-minded. But, my dear, though I do believe we should love like Christ and give to orphanages and charities, not everyone must be accepted into one’s intimate acquaintance. There is a difference between volunteering to rock infants at the foundling's home, and inviting a grown foundling into the bosom of your family. Do you see? Surely you believe that, dear.
"And if you are with people who practice, or practiced in the past, immoral acts, you will become tainted yourself. Can a whole apple stay fresh long in a bag of rotten fruit? And I do consider you whole, my dear. Does not the black plague spread? Therefore, however cruel it may seem - and I know it must sound cruel to you; young minds are so sensitive to what they perceive as injustice to others - it is for the good of the nice girls’ souls that the illegitimate children and their mothers are separate from society. Like a healthy quarantine.”
Now Coraline winced. “Quarantine…” with tears bubbling up in her eyes. “Jesus touched lepers. The most ostracized from society!” She bit her lip.
“Sweetheart, about the plague, I was speaking metaphorically. Of course,” she laughed. “Of course we help the physically sick, like Christ. Anyone with rotten limbs deserves the kindest care. Why, I myself, and Miss Applehart, and Mrs. Babbith, volunteer in the hospital once a week. And we are not afraid to touch even those with typhoid. But to help the spiritually sick is not to give ourselves to them, but to withdraw ourselves from them. See? That is the best remedy; the best medicine.”
“If I ever have friends who are unwed and become mothers - then I should call it a time to be there for them, to be close to them all the more. That does not mean, as you seem to imply, that I am going to go about, tramping, to be impregnated.”
“Oh!” came several voices in shock.
Everyone looked at each other uneasily. Some looked at her in frank disapproval. That word was never used.
“Very well, Coraline,” said Mrs. Wickham, coldly, in a silencing tone. “I see you understand. You do not need to paint it in such vicious terms. And please avoid the use of vulgar language. You were brought up to be a Christian lady.
"And as I was saying," she cleared her throat, and addressed the women, "if someone is spiritually sick, we leave them.”
Mrs. Girshram’s eyes flashed ravenously. “Exactly!” she ate Mrs. Wickham’s last sentence up. “Then they will realize they are not fit to associate with principled people and change their ways. By separating ourselves they will see their error. We withdraw our company to help the sinner. It is Biblical!”
“Jesus ate with sinners! Jesus hugged adulterers!”
“Don’t preach the Gospel to us, Missy!” shrieked Mrs. Andrews.
“Mrs. Andrews, please,” remonstrated the minister’s wife in a murmur barely above a leaf’s whisper.
“No,” said Mrs. Andrews. “Jesus is Jesus. She is a young, impressionable girl, and by this legislature we must make sure they keep the word “illegitimate” on all birth records for everyone to know who’s what, and to keep the bad girls away from the good girls like her. Though you’re starting to make me doubt yourself, Coraline. Truly, I am not seeing a wish in you to be pure, or to keep in good company.”
Coraline swallowed and trembled under the lash of these words. Her whole body had been feeling hot throughout the argument.
“You are head-strong, willful, and think you know what’s right - a very sure sign of immature and unripe youth-hood - and you are going to get into bad company, and not leave it… and who knows what will happen then,” finished Mrs. Andrews, with dark implication in her voice.
Coraline resented this insinuation, but she cried instead, “Aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus? Love people, no matter what? Is branding people, whipping people, abandoning people, withdrawing from people - loving people?”
“If it spurs them on to goodness, YES.”
“So love is perhaps wanting someone’s good, as you say. I would agree. I don’t know; we all feel what love is and know it instinctively; I am no scholar; I do not know for sure exactly. But if you think hurting people because you think it will improve them or make them better is for their own good, then that is your definition. But I tell you it is not usually for their good. But rather, loving people by holding them... hugging them... rubbing a hand over their wounds - because we are all wounded -”
“This is all so fluffy and abstract,” Mrs. McCullery sniffed.
“- Getting to know them not to 'improve' them, like some of your aid societies go on an inhuman crusade to do, but becoming friends with them because people are all worth getting to know -”
“Not everyone is worth getting to know, Coraline. We’re stressing this and stressing this.” Mrs. Wickham spoke now, sounding a little tired. “I know it sounds Victorian, but there are bad people. People to avoid. It’s a simple fact and I know it’s going out of style, but -”
“Everyone is worth getting to know,” said Coraline recklessly. “Everyone; everyone!”
“When it comes down to it,” said Mrs. Wickham, cool as ice, “You, too, would disassociate yourself from friendships you found to be unhealthy, or affecting your mind, or turning your affections toward lower and baser objects.”
Coraline felt let down, and the wind blew out of her sails, like a balloon that deflates in admitted defeat. “Yes. Suppose so.” But her spirit drooped only a minute; then her mind re-rallied and her heart gathered itself together to burst into an impassioned speech:
“But at the same time, I do think we know nothing about life until we’ve held a dirty sinner’s hand… until we’ve kissed someone who’s tried to murder us…”
“Youthful dramatization,” smiled Mrs. McCullery, who was amused by “fluffiness”.
“-Until we’ve hugged someone “bad”… all the while realizing that we are the sinner. That we stand shoulder to shoulder with sisters, and that we are not above them, but equal to them: shoulder to shoulder to shoulder.”
“Sisters with adulteresses!” gasped Mrs. Petcot, the most dignified-looking of the group, with gray hair, and a black feather in her hat, in a most chaste gray dress. “What exaggeration! Shall we tolerate this, ladies? Look at her, all in a self-righteous tither, censuring us. So silly.” Mrs. Petcot was the gentlest of the lot, next to Mrs. Babbith (who had not spoken again), but she was stung to speech.
“Exaggeration it is not.” And suddenly Coraline looked and felt taller. She had crossed the Rubicon; she might as well go on, because there was no going back: though she would never be able to face every single woman in this room again. “You are equal to an adulteress in every respect... in everything human about you.” She was filled with fear at how far she was going. “Maybe your endowments of intellect differ, or your gradation of virtue. But you, Mrs. Petcot, are profoundly equal to her in all human worth, and dignity.”
“Dignity! Why, that is where we differ,” said a sickened Mrs. Petcot, feeling like the tea in her stomach was going to end up back on the table, cream and two lumps of sugar and all!
“No, no, dignity is the exact mark, the deep, bottom line, where you are equal. You are both precious as jewels. Jesus died for you both. You are her sister. So treat her like a queen!”
“Idealism, my child. You’re living in your head like the dreamy 20-year old that you are. Unrealistic.”
But Mrs. Petcot - dignified, chaste Mrs. Petcot - was tittering, unhinged. “Listen to her preach to us! Listen - to - her -” The gray-haired woman was disturbed. Coraline did feel bad for this. Mrs. Petcot was small of stature, old, and gentle. She was giggling hysterically, on the verge of a sob.
"Do you see the effect you are having on Mrs. Petcot, Coraline?" said Mrs. Wickham severely.
"What? What? I am not indisposed," gasped Mrs. Petcot, laughing, and blowing her nose. "There is nothing the matter with me - n-n-nothing -" She began sobbing. Sweet Miss Applehart jumped up to take her out and administer draughts of tea and smelling salts and rub cologne on her temples.
"Adelaide Petcot never was robust of mind," said Mrs. McCullery, a very sturdily-minded specimen herself, looking accusingly at Coraline down her beaked nose.
Coraline's conscience did smite her that she had wreaked havoc with Mrs. Petcot's delicate composition. She should not have told Mrs. Petcot she was equal to an adulteress. She knew awful guilt was going to fall upon her after this was over, and that she should stop. “But all I am saying," she said, "All I am asking is that we give these mothers love and gentleness! To know we are sinners, too, and to be so very gentle - as gentle as we want to be treated. When a person feels precious… when a person feels safe to be themselves in your arms, then -”
“You have a gaggle of comfortable sinners,” said motherly Mrs. Wickham dryly.
“Alright, so maybe it doesn’t make radical sainthood. But maybe it does. I know it makes change. And can a person turn pure-white shortly? And neither do your ladies’ methods work authentically! If people in this town turn 'good' and 'reform', it is because you’ve terrorized them, like the old religiouses did, with fire and the rack and with the threat of social ostracism. This want to keep 'illegitimate' on birth records is just a refined sort of mental torture. You want it upheld so that other people don't commit the same sin: the old Puritan mentality of the public whipping post and the scaffold in the square.
And with all your temperance and reform societies... Why, people are afraid to be themselves in your presence! And it’s out of reality that sainthood comes. It’s out of love that true sainthood comes, not out of fear. Instead you try to terrorize people, shame them, and hurt them into goodness."
“Sainthood," sniffed one. "All this talk about sainthood makes us sound like Catholics!” said Mrs. Girshram, trying to be sardonic.
“I’ve seen people turn to hate your God, Mrs. Girshram - yes, you - because they wanted to find your source of cruelty and decided your guiding principle: religion: must be it."
“It is not ‘my’ God, Coraline,” said Mrs. Girshram with great dignity and iciness.
“No, no; it is everyone’s God, and you have made people hate Him, by your own representation of Him, and interpretation of Him. Rather than modeling His own love, and His ultimate indulgence and compassion... His mercy and trust. His chances after chances after chances. His understanding. Can you imagine Christ acting like you?” Every time she said something like this, her mouth gulped at the fear in her throat.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Wickham sternly. “In the temple.”
Coraline again sat, defeated by the truth of those words. She did not know what to say. Then she slowly spoke, feeling out her thoughts, not knowing if she was right or wrong: “That is true; in the temple, He was angry, shocked, and rough. But what other time did He act like that? What other recorded time? So I would say, maybe severe methods should not be thrown completely out the window, but used sparingly - oh, so rarely - like the one time Jesus is recorded to have knotted a cord and whipped the ox and moneylenders out of the temple. But severity should not be so common, so quick on the forefront of your tongue, to correct and censure, as it is in this town.
"Jesus is recorded to have acted like that once. So maybe - and I do not know; I am young and do not know - only once or twice in your lifetime you’ll need to rebuke someone harshly; for it is so extremely dangerous and risky. There is the threat that you can become self-righteous. And, worse, the person you are rebuking can turn in angry hurt and hate everything you are pretending to represent, as you speak sharply 'in the name of God'.
"Because if you look at the other incidents of Jesus’ harshest, harshest words - are they to prostitutes, to tax collectors, to murderers? No. His sharpest language is reserved for the Pharisees and the hypocrites: 'pure' and judgmental: people that talk about God in one breathe, and then scorn and judge others in the next: hatred under their piety and principles: derision and tearing-down: us.
“Don’t you see how crucial this is? The only reason I am so passionate is because I have seen destruction. And no amount of my kindness is going to wash off the cruel spot you have put on God! ‘So this is how he treats orphans!’ Oh, my ladies!”
“That’s it; I’ve had enough of this, myself.” Mrs. Wickham had no impatience in her voice, but she stood up to leave. “I’m sorry to say, my dear Coraline, but I find you very changed, and very different from your dear mother. It grieves me to see you suddenly so obstinate and lead astray. I’ve never had those two words said to me in my life; though you,” she smiled, “accuse me of almost everything else: insensitivity, arrogance, and presumption. And you yourself speak of gentleness towards others! Of not censuring others! Hoity-toity. Well, we will hear no more. I don’t know why we have sat for so long. Come, ladies.” The seven of them, in a flutter (Mrs. Wickham, Mrs. Girshram, Mrs. Andrews, Mrs. McCullery, Mrs. Babbith - reluctantly - and Mrs. Petcot and Miss Applehart, who had returned) got their handbags and stood up. They had sat so silently, for a miraculously long time, but now the spell had broken and whispers flew as silk crackled.
“I’d like to slap her across that passionate face of hers! She thinks she's on a holy crusade, insulting our values and what is good and true!”
“I would never have been allowed to talk so, back then.”
“Cheeky, arrogant -”
“I am affronted.”
“Wait till I tell my husband, and my neighbor Mrs. Twit.”
“And the Ladies’ Moral and Town Reform Society.”
“I am so angry, I could cry, myself.”
Mrs. Wickham turned to Coraline before leaving. The offended women were not yet out the door. Her face was a mask of charity. “I know you have been brought up differently than this, dear. If you at all the sort of girl I think you to be, you will recant these suppositions and in time agree with us.”
Coraline looked down, and would not look up. “I don’t think you know what sort of girl I am, Mrs. Wickham,” she said softly.
Mrs. Wickham folded up her lips and folded her hands over her handbag. “Is that my fault?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
This hurt Coraline more than anything curt Mrs. Wickham could have said, because it made it sound like Coraline had been deceptive about her character. But she rallied herself against this hurt. “No; neither is it mine,” she said. “You just have never heard me speak on this matter.”
"Well," said Mrs. Wickham dismissively, waving her hand airily, "Now I have. Goodbye." She lightly turned to leave.
“Wait! I’ve not done.” Coraline shot up from her seat with renewed force. “I’ve not mentioned the babies you want to brand. And I mean the word 'brand' - sear 'illegitimate' onto their little baby pudgy arm. A child feels it painfully enough, not being the 'honorable' product of a marriage. He struggles with a sense of guilt and worthlessness and shame. But to add the extra burden of public shame, public ostracism to an innocent child! God knows that some of them have cried at night because of something that was not their fault.”
The ladies once again stood spellbound, their hats looking ridiculous with their bright purple and green colors, and their mouths open wide, in comparison with the slender, bare-headed golden girl on fire.
“I guarantee you, as you walk out onto that street, you will see a dozen children that play there every day, and at least two of them will be illegitimate. Pick him out for me. Pick him out! Spot him by his 'badness'. No. You cannot do it. Because, there are no sinning babies. Only sinful parents. They are the proof that God decided to bless rather than curse. They are the sunrises after blackness. They are light from ashes, the new springing growth out of the birch stump - with no shame on them. And you - you - want to punish innocents for their father’s sin. All babies, innocent: fresh and clean record in this world, with no burden from the family tree: none. They are themselves. Their record is handed to them to write on, alone. You, though, want 'illegitimate' on their birth record, so that their fiances much see it, so it is on their passports. You want to keep them away from playing with your children, from marrying your sons.
"I know an older woman named Edna, who had an adopted sister named Charlotte - a most gentle and pure girl - engaged to be married. But when the young man’s parents saw her birth record, before the marriage ceremony, they refused to let him marry her, because they saw that she was nameless, a foundling, a 'stranger of blood'. Her fiance did not care and loved her unconditionally, but his mother screamed, 'You’ll wreck his life!' and Charlotte (the knowledge of her illegitimacy was new to her) could not bear the sense of shame being heaped upon her, and her own misperception of her worthlessness, that she despaired. She shot herself before her wedding. My dear ladies, so do not whisper about a girl’s birth. Accept Tom's fiancee, please. Edna, Charlotte’s sister, is now going to court to lobby that that word be struck off the birth record statuses. It must happen. Every baby is as precious as gold, and deserves an equal chance in this world. They are all loved by God. All equal. Yes, your clean little Davids and Troys, all born under the banns of marriage, are equal in every respect to the infant born in the gutter, a dirty 'foundling brat' as you say.”
“I won’t hear of it!”
“Don’t insult my precious Edwin, you - you hussy!”
“My dear ladies!” gasped Coraline, as a last battle pitch, throwing out her arms, as they went to the door - “One day, you will go to heaven, and you will all see that your pride, and your lifting yourselves above, thinking you are better, worthier - has flown past other’s sin… is ten thousand times worse. And then - then you will have to beg the tramp’s forgiveness. Then you’ll have to kneel down and kiss the adulteress’ feet.
And you may do this, but you will never be able to atone towards the innocent children. Towards them, there is no atonement. And people will wonder why you are there - people will wonder why you’re there -!”
At this last angry outburst, Coraline ran out of the room and upstairs and threw herself onto a bed, while all of the women swept out in high offense.
“Now I’ve judged, and I’ve censured, and I’ve bothered these ladies’ minds, and I’ve been cruel. And I have literally condemned them to hellfire.” She wept a torrent of hot tears over the sin of her words to the women, and over the horrible argument that would now render her friendless among those honorable ladies of the town. But worst of all, she wept because she herself had sinned. She would go and say sorry to them all the next day for saying that angels would wonder why they were in heaven. That was wrong. After all, they did volunteer in hospitals and orphanages.
She resolved to be more equitable in the future, with love for everyone on her tongue and in her heart.
But why, oh, why, was it so much easier to love an adulteress than a hypocrite?
In 1933, Edna Gladney pressed her case in the Texas legislature to remove the word “illegitimate” from the birth records and, despite hot opposition from the town, she succeeded.