A disappointment awaited him. Miss Barfoot was not well enough to see any one. Had she been suffering long? he inquired. No; it was only this evening; she had not dined, and was gone to her room. Miss Nunn could not receive him.
He went home, and wrote to his cousin.
The next morning he came upon a passage in the newspaper which seemed to suggest a cause for Miss Barfoot's indisposition It was the report of an inquest. A girl named Bella Royston had poisoned herself. She was living alone, without occupation, and received visits only from one lady. This lady, her name Miss Barfoot, had been supplying her with money, and had just found her a situation in a house of business; but the girl appeared to have gone through troubles which had so disturbed her mind that she could not make the effort required of her. She left a few lines addressed to her benefactress, just saying that she chose death rather than the struggle to recover her position.
It was Saturday. He decided to call in the afternoon and see whether Mary had recovered.
Again a disappointment. Miss Barfoot was better, and had been away since breakfast; Miss Nunn was also absent.
Everard sauntered about the neighbourhood, and presently found himself in the gardens of Chelsea Hospital. It was a warm afternoon, and so still that he heard the fall of yellow leaves as he walked hither and thither along the alleys. His failure to obtain an interview with Miss Nunn annoyed him; but for her presence in the house he would not have got into this habit of going there. As far as ever from harbouring any serious thoughts concerning Rhoda, he felt himself impelled along the way which he had jokingly indicated in talk with Micklethwaite; he was tempted to make love to her as an interesting pastime, to observe how so strong-minded a woman would conduct herself under such circumstances. Had she or not a vein of sentiment in her character? Was it impossible to move her as other women are moved? Meditating thus, he looked up and saw the subject of his thoughts. She was seated a few yards away, and seemingly had not yet become aware of him, her eyes were on the ground, and troubled reverie appeared in her countenance.
'I have just called at the house, Miss Nunn. How is my cousin to-day?'
She had looked up only a moment before he spoke, and seemed vexed at being thus discovered.
'I believe Miss Barfoot is quite well,' she answered coldly, as they shook hands.
'But yesterday she was not so.'
'A headache, or something of the kind.'
He was astonished. Rhoda spoke with a cold indifference. She has risen, and showed her wish to move from the spot.
'She had to attend an inquest yesterday. Perhaps it rather upset her?'
'Yes, I think it did.'
Unable to adapt himself at once to this singular mood of Rhoda's, but resolved not to let her go before he had tried to learn the cause of it, he walked along by her side. In this part of the gardens there were only a few nursemaids and children; it would have been a capital place and time for improving his intimacy with the remarkable woman. But possibly she was determined to be rid of him. A contest between his will and hers would be an amusement decidedly to his taste.
'You also have been disturbed by it, Miss Nunn.'
'By the inquest?' she returned, with barely veiled scorn. 'Indeed I have not.'
'Did you know that poor girl?'
'Some time ago.'
'Then it is only natural that her miserable fate should sadden you.'
He spoke as if with respectful sympathy, ignoring what she had said.
'It has no effect whatever upon me,' Rhoda answered, glancing at him with surprise and displeasure.
'Forgive me if I say that I find it difficult to believe that. Perhaps you ----'
She interrupted him.
'I don't easily forgive anyone who charges me with falsehood, Mr. Barfoot.'
'Oh, you take it too seriously. I beg your pardon a thousand times. I was going to say that perhaps you won't allow yourself to acknowledge any feeling of compassion in such a case.'
'I don't acknowledge what I don't feel. I will bid you good-afternoon.'
He smiled at her with all the softness and persuasiveness of which he was capable. She had offered her hand with cold dignity, and instead of taking it merely for good-bye he retained it.
'You must, you shall forgive me! I shall be too miserable if you dismiss me in this way. I see that I was altogether wrong. You know all the particulars of the case, and I have only read a brief newspaper account. I am sure the girl didn't deserve your pity.'
She was trying to draw her hand away. Everard felt the strength of her muscles, and the sensation was somehow so pleasant that he could not at once release her.
'You do pardon me, Miss Nunn?'
'Please don't be foolish. I will thank you to let my hand go.'
Was it possible? Her cheek had coloured, ever so slightly. But with indignation, no doubt, for her eyes flashed sternly at him. Very unwillingly, Everard had no choice but to obey the command.
'Will you have the kindness to tell me,' he said more gravely, 'whether my cousin was suffering only from that cause?'
'I can't say,' she added after a pause. 'I haven't spoken with Miss Barfoot for two or three days.'
He looked at her with genuine astonishment.
'You haven't seen each other?'
'Miss Barfoot is angry with me. I think we shall be obliged to part.'
'To part? What can possibly have happened? Miss Barfoot angry with you?'
'If I must satisfy your curiosity, Mr. Barfoot, I had better tell you at once that the subject of our difference is the girl you mentioned. Not very long ago she tried to persuade your cousin to receive her again -- to give her lessons at the place in Great Portland Street, as before she disgraced herself. Miss Barfoot, with too ready good-nature, was willing to do this, but I resisted. It seemed to me that it would be a very weak and wrong thing to do. At the time she ended by agreeing with me. Now that the girl has killed herself, she throws the blame upon my interference. We had a painful conversation, and I don't think we can continue to live together.'
Barfoot listened with gratification. It was much to have compelled Rhoda to explain herself, and on such a subject.
'Nor even to work together?' he asked.
'It is doubtful.'
Rhoda still moved forward, but very slowly, and without impatience.
'You will somehow get over this difficulty, I am sure. Such friends as you and Mary don't quarrel like ordinary unreasonable women. Won't you let me be of use?'
'How?' asked Rhoda with surprise.
'I shall make my cousin see that she is wrong.'
'How do you know that she is wrong?'
'Because I am convinced that you must be right. I respect Mary's judgment, but I respect yours still more.'
Rhoda raised her head and smiled.
'That compliment,' she said, 'pleases me less than the one you have uttered without intending it.'
'You must explain.'
'You said that by making Miss Barfoot see she was wrong you could alter her mind towards me. The world's opinion would hardly support you in that, even in the case of men.'
'Now this is better. Now we are talking in the old way. Surely you know that the world's opinion has no validity for me.'
She kept silence.
'But, after all, is Mary wrong? I'm not afraid to ask the question now that your face has cleared a little. How angry you were with me! But surely I didn't deserve it. You would have been much more forbearing if you had known what delight I felt when I saw you sitting over there. It is nearly a month since we met, and I couldn't keep away any longer.'
Rhoda swept the distance with indifferent eyes.
'Mary was fond of this girl?' he inquired, watching her.
'Yes, she was.'
'Then her distress, and even anger, are natural enough. We won't discuss the girl's history; probably I know all that I need to. But whatever her misdoing, you certainly didn't wish to drive her to suicide.'
Rhoda deigned no reply.
'All the same,' he continued in his gentlest tone, 'it turns out that you have practically done so. If Mary had taken the girl back that despair would most likely never have come upon her. Isn't it natural that Mary should repent of having been guided by you, and perhaps say rather severe things?'
'Natural, no doubt. But it is just as natural for me to resent blame where I have done nothing blameworthy.'
'You are absolutely sure that this is the case?'
'I thought you expressed a conviction that I was in the right?'
There was no smile, but Everard believed that he detected its possibility on the closed lips.
'I have got into the way of always thinking so -- in questions of this kind. But perhaps you tend to err on the side of severity. Perhaps you make too little allowance for human weakness.'
'Human weakness is a plea that has been much abused, and generally in an interested spirit.'
This was something like a personal rebuke. Whether she so meant it, Barfoot could not determine. He hoped she did, for the more personal their talk became the better he would be pleased.
'I, for one,' he said, 'very seldom urge that plea, whether in my own defence or another's. But it answers to a spirit we can't altogether dispense with. Don't you feel ever so little regret that your severe logic prevailed?'
'Not the slightest regret.'
Everard thought this answer magnificent. He had anticipated some evasion. However inappropriately, he was constrained to smile.
'How I admire your consistency! We others are poor halting creatures in comparison.'
'Mr. Barfoot,' said Rhoda suddenly, 'I have had enough of this. If your approval is sincere, I don't ask for it. If you are practising your powers of irony, I had rather you chose some other person. I will go my way, if you please.'
She just bent her head, and left him.
Enough for the present. Having raised his hat and turned on his heels, Barfoot strolled away in a mood of peculiar satisfaction. He laughed to himself. She was certainly a fine creature -- yes, physically as well. Her out-of-door appearance on the whole pleased him; she could dress very plainly without disguising the advantages of figure she possessed. He pictured her rambling about the hills, and longed to be her companion on such an expedition; there would be no consulting with feebleness, as when one sets forth to walk with the everyday woman. What daring topics might come up in the course of a twenty-mile stretch across country! No Grundyism in Rhoda Nunn; no simpering, no mincing of phrases. Why, a man might do worse than secure her for his comrade through the whole journey of life.
Suppose he pushed his joke to the very point of asking her to marry him? Undoubtedly she would refuse; but how enjoyable to watch the proud vigour of her freedom asserting itself! Yet would not an offer of marriage be too commonplace? Rather propose to her to share his life in a free union, without sanction of forms which neither for her nor him were sanction at all. Was it too bold a thought?
Not if he really meant it. Uttered insincerely, such words would be insult; she would see through his pretence of earnestness, and then farewell to her for ever. But if his intellectual sympathy became tinged with passion -- and did he discern no possibility of that? An odd thing were he to fall in love with Rhoda Nunn. Hitherto his ideal had been a widely different type of woman; he had demanded rare beauty of face, and the charm of a refined voluptuousness. To be sure, it was but an ideal; no woman that approached it had ever come within his sphere. The dream exercised less power over him than a few years ago; perhaps because his youth was behind him. Rhoda might well represent the desire of a mature man, strengthened by modern culture and with his senses fairly subordinate to reason. Heaven forbid that he should ever tie himself to the tame domestic female; and just as little could he seek for a mate among the women of society, the creatures all surface, with empty pates and vitiated blood. No marriage for him, in the common understanding of the word. He wanted neither offspring nor a 'home'. Rhoda Nunn, if she thought of such things at all, probably desired a union which would permit her to remain an intellectual being; the kitchen, the cradle, and the work-basket had no power over her imagination. As likely as not, however, she was perfectly content with single life -- even regarded it as essential to her purposes. In her face he read chastity; her eye avoided no scrutiny; her palm was cold.
One does not break the heart of such a woman. Heartbreak is a very old-fashioned disorder, associated with poverty of brain. If Rhoda were what he thought her, she enjoyed this opportunity of studying a modern male, and cared not how far he proceeded in his own investigations, sure that at any moment she could bid him fall back. The amusement was only just beginning. And if for him it became earnest, why what did he seek but strong experiences?
Rhoda, in the meantime, had gone home. She shut herself in her bedroom, and remained there until the bell rang for dinner.
Miss Barfoot entered the dining-room just before her; they sat down in silence, and through the meal exchanged but a few sentences, relative to a topic of the hour which interested neither of them.
The elder woman had a very unhappy countenance; she looked worn out; her eyes never lifted themselves from the table.
Dinner over, Miss Barfoot went to the drawing-room alone. She had sat there about half an hour, brooding, unoccupied, when Rhoda came in and stood before her.
'I have been thinking it over. It isn't right for me to remain here. Such an arrangement was only possible whilst we were on terms of perfect understanding.'
'You must do what you think best, Rhoda,' the other replied gravely, but with no accent of displeasure.
'Yes, I had better take a lodging somewhere. What I wish to know is, whether you can still employ me with any satisfaction?'
'I don't employ you. That is not the word to describe your relations with me. If we must use business language, you are simply my partner.'
'Only your kindness put me into that position. When you no longer regard me as a friend, I am only in your employment.'
'I haven't ceased to regard you as a friend. The estrangement between us is entirely of your making.'
Seeing that Rhoda would not sit down, Miss Barfoot rose and stood by the fireplace.
'I can't bear reproaches,' said the former; 'least of all when they are irrational and undeserved.'
'If I reproached you, it was in a tone which should never have given you offence. One would think that I had rated you like a disobedient servant.'
'If that had been possible,' answered Rhoda, with a faint smile, 'I should never have been here. You said that you bitterly repented having given way to me on a certain occasion. That was unreasonable; in giving way, you declared yourself convinced. And the reproach I certainly didn't deserve, for I had behaved conscientiously.'
'Isn't it allowed me to disapprove of what your conscience dictates?'
'Not when you have taken the same view, and acted upon it. I don't lay claim to many virtues, and I haven't that of meekness. I could never endure anger; my nature resents it.'
'I did wrong to speak angrily, but indeed I hardly knew what I was saying. I had suffered a terrible shock. I loved that poor girl; I loved her all the more for what I had seen of her since she came to implore my help. Your utter coldness -- it seemed to me inhuman -- I shrank from you. If your face had shown ever so little compassion ----'
'I felt no compassion.'
'No. You have hardened your heart with theory. Guard yourself, Rhoda! To work for women one must keep one's womanhood. You are becoming -- you are wandering as far from the true way -- oh, much further than Bell a did!'
'I can't answer you. When we argued about our differences in a friendly spirit, all was permissible; now if I spoke my thought it would be mere harshness and cause of embitterment. I fear all is at an end between us. I should perpetually remind you of this sorrow.'
There was a silence of some length. Rhoda turned away, and stood in reflection.
'Let us do nothing hastily,' said Miss Barfoot. 'We have more to think of than our own feelings.'
'I have said that I am quite willing to go on with my work, but it must be on a different footing. The relation between us can no longer be that of equals. I am content to follow your directions. But your dislike of me will make this impossible.'
'Dislike? You misunderstand me wretchedly. I think rather it is you who dislike me, as a weak woman with no command of her emotions.'
Again they ceased from speech. Presently Miss Barfoot stepped forward.
'Rhoda, I shall be away all to-morrow; I may not return to London until Monday morning. Will you think quietly over it all? Believe me, I am not angry with you, and as for disliking you -- what nonsense are we talking! But I can't regret that I let you see how painfully your behaviour impressed me. That hardness is not natural to you. You have encouraged yourself in it, and you are warping a very noble character.'
'I wish only to be honest. Where you felt compassion I felt indignation.'
'Yes; we have gone through all that. The indignation was a forced, exaggerated sentiment. You can't see it in that light perhaps. But try to imagine for a moment that Bella had been your sister ----'
'That is confusing the point at issue,' Rhoda exclaimed irritably. 'Have I ever denied the force of such feelings? My grief would have blinded me to all larger considerations, of course. But she was happily not my sister, and I remained free to speak the simple truth about her case. It isn't personal feeling that directs a great movement in civilization. If you were right, I also was right. You should have recognized the inevitable discord of our Opinions at that moment.'
'It didn't seem to me inevitable.'
'I should have despised myself if I could have affected sympathy.'
'Affected -- yes.'
'Or have really felt it. That would have meant that I did not know myself. I should never again have dared to speak on any grave subject.'
Miss Barfoot smiled sadly.
'How young you are! Oh, there is far more than ten years between our ages, Rhoda! In spirit you are a young girl, and I an old woman. No, no; we will not quarrel. Your companionship is far too precious to me, and I dare to think that mine is not without value for you. Wait till my grief has had its course; then I shall be more reasonable and do you more justice.'
Rhoda turned towards the door, lingered, but without looking back, and so left the room.
Miss Barfoot was absent as she had announced, returning only in time for her duties in Great Portland Street on Monday morning. She and Rhoda then shook hands, but without a word of personal reference. They went through the day's work as usual.
This was the day of the month on which Miss Barfoot would deliver her four o'clock address. The subject had been announced a week ago: 'Woman as an Invader.' An hour earlier than usual work was put aside, and seats were rapidly arranged for the small audience; it numbered only thirteen -- the girls already on the premises and a few who came specially. All were aware of the tragedy in which Miss Barfoot had recently been concerned; her air of sadness, so great a contrast to that with which she was wont to address them, they naturally attributed to this cause.
As always, she began in the simplest conversational tone. Not long since she had received an anonymous letter, written by some clerk out of employment, abusing her roundly for her encouragement of female competition in the clerkly world. The taste of this epistle was as bad as its grammar, but they should hear it; she read it all through. Now, whoever the writer might be, it seemed pretty clear that he was not the kind of person with whom one could profitably argue; no use in replying to him, even had he given the opportunity. For all that, his uncivil attack had a meaning, and there were plenty of people ready to urge his argument in more respectable terms. 'They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.' To-day, continued Miss Barfoot, it was not her purpose to debate the economic aspects of the question. She would consider it from another point of view, repeating, perhaps, much that she had already said to them on other occasions, but doing so because these thoughts had just now very strong possession of her mind.
This abusive correspondent, who declared that he was supplanted by a young woman who did his work for smaller payment, doubtless had a grievance. But, in the miserable disorder of our social state, one grievance had to be weighed against another, and Miss Barfoot held that there was much more to be urged on behalf of women who invaded what had been exclusively the men's sphere. than on behalf of the men who began to complain of this invasion.
'They point to half a dozen occupations which are deemed strictly suitable for women. Why don't we confine ourselves to this ground? Why don't I encourage girls to become governesses, hospital nurses, and so on? You think I ought to reply that already there are too many applicants for such places. It would be true, but I don't care to make use of the argument, which at once involves us in a debate with the out-crowded clerk. No; to put the truth in a few words, I am not chiefly anxious that you should earn money, but that women in general shall become rational and responsible human beings.
'Follow me carefully. A governess, a nurse, may be the most admirable of women. I will dissuade no one from following those careers who is distinctly fitted for them. But these are only a few out of the vast number of girls who must, if they are not to be despicable persons, somehow find serious work. Because I myself have had an education in clerkship, and have most capacity for such employment, I look about for girls of like mind, and do my best to prepare them for work in offices. And (here I must become emphatic once more) I am glad to have entered on this course. I am glad that I can show girls the way to a career which my opponents call unwomanly.
'Now see why. Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains. And here is the root of the matter. I repeat that I am not first of all anxious to keep you supplied with daily bread. I am a troublesome, aggressive, revolutionary person. I want to do away with that common confusion of the words womanly and womanish, and I see very clearly that this can only be effected by an armed movement, an invasion by women of the spheres which men have always forbidden us to enter. I am strenuously opposed to that view of us set forth in such charming language by Mr. Ruskin -- for it tells on the side of those men who think and speak of us in a way the reverse of charming. Were we living in an ideal world, I think women would not go to sit all day in offices. But the fact is that we live in a world as far from ideal as can be conceived. We live in a time of warfare, of revolt. If woman is no longer to be womanish, but a human being of powers and responsibilities. she must become militant, defiant. She must push her claims to the extremity.
'An excellent governess, a perfect hospital nurse, do work which is invaluable; but for our cause of emancipation they are no good -- nay, they are harmful. Men point to them, and say, Imitate these, keep to your proper world. Our proper world is the world of intelligence, of honest effort, of moral strength. The old types of womanly perfection are no longer helpful to us. Like the Church service, which to all but one person in a thousand has become meaningless gabble by dint of repetition, these types have lost their effect. They are no longer educational. We have to ask ourselves, What course of training will wake women up, make them conscious of their souls, startle them into healthy activity?
'It must be something new, something free from the reproach of womanliness. I don't care whether we crowd out the men or not. I don't care what results, if only women are made strong and self-reliant and nobly independent! The world must look to its concerns. Most likely we shall have a revolution in the social order greater than any that yet seems possible. Let it come, and let us help its coming. When I think of the contemptible wretchedness of women enslaved by custom, by their weakness, by their desires, I am ready to cry, Let the world perish in tumult rather than things go on in this way!'
For a moment her voice failed. There were tears in her eyes. The hearers, most of them, understood what made her so passionate; they exchanged grave looks.
'Our abusive correspondent shall do as best he can. He suffers for the folly of men in all ages. We can't help it. It is very far from our wish to cause hardship to any one, but we ourselves are escaping from a hardship that has become intolerable. We are educating ourselves. There must be a new type of woman, active in every sphere of life: a new worker out in the world, a new ruler of the home. Of the old ideal virtues we can retain many, but we have to add to them those which have been thought appropriate only in men. Let a woman be gentle, but at the same time let her be strong; let her be pure of heart, but none the less wise and instructed. Because we have to set an example to the sleepy of our sex, we must carry on an active warfare -- must be invaders. Whether woman is the equal of man I neither know nor care. We are not his equal in size, in weight, in muscle, and, for all I can say, we may have less power of brain. That has nothing to do with it. Enough for us to know that our natural growth has been stunted. The mass of women have always been paltry creatures, and their paltriness has proved a curse to men. So, if you like to put it in this way, we are working for the advantage of men as well as for our own. Let the responsibility for disorder rest on those who have made us despise our old selves. At any cost -- at any cost -- we will free ourselves from the heritage of weakness and contempt!'
The assembly was longer than usual in dispersing. When all were gone, Miss Barfoot listened for a footstep in the other room. As she could detect no sound, she went to see if Rhoda was there or not.
Yes; Rhoda was sitting in a thoughtful attitude. She looked up, smiled, and came a few paces forward.
'It was very good.'
'I thought it would please you.'
Miss Barfoot drew nearer, and added, --
'It was addressed to you. It seemed to me that you had forgotten how I really thought about these things.'
'I have been ill-tempered,' Rhoda replied. 'Obstinacy is one of my faults.'
Their eyes met.
'I believe,' continued Rhoda, 'that I ought to ask your pardon. Right or wrong, I behaved in an unmannerly way.'
'Yes, I think you did.'
Rhoda smiled, bending her head to the rebuke.
'And there's the last of it,' added Miss Barfoot. 'Let us kiss and be friends.'
When Barfoot made his next evening call Rhoda did not appear. He sat for some time in pleasant talk with his cousin, no reference whatever being made to Miss Nunn; then at length, beginning to fear that he would not see her, he inquired after her health. Miss Nunn was very well, answered the hostess, smiling.
'Not at home this evening?'
'Busy with some kind of study, I think.'
Plainly, the difference between these women had come to a happy end, as Barfoot foresaw that it would. He thought it better to make no mention of his meeting with Rhoda in the gardens.
'That was a very unpleasant affair that I saw your name connected with last week,' he said presently.
'It made me very miserable -- ill indeed for a day or two.'
'That was why you couldn't see me?'
'But in your reply to my note you made no mention of the circumstances.'
Miss Barfoot kept silence; frowning slightly, she looked at the fire near which they were both sitting, for the weather had become very cold.
'No doubt,' pursued Everard, glancing at her, 'you refrained out of delicacy -- on my account, I mean.'
'Need we talk of it?'
'For a moment, please. You are very friendly with me nowadays, but I suppose your estimate of my character remains very much the same as years ago?'
'What is the use of such questions?'
'I ask for a distinct purpose. You can't regard me with any respect?'
'To tell you the truth, Everard, I know nothing about you. I have no wish to revive disagreeable memories, and I think it quite possible that you may be worthy of respect.'
'So far so good. Now, in justice, please answer me another question. How have you spoken of me to Miss Nunn?'
'How can it matter?'
'It matters a good deal. Have you told her any scandal about me?'
'Yes, I have.'
Everard looked at her with surprise.
'I spoke to Miss Nunn about you,' she continued, 'before I thought of your coming here. Frankly, I used you as an illustration of the evils I abominate.'
'You are a courageous and plain-spoken woman, cousin Mary,' said Everard, laughing a little. 'Couldn't you have found some other example?'
There was no reply.
'So,' he proceeded, 'Miss Nunn regards me as a proved scoundrel?'
'I never to]d her the story. I made known the general grounds of my dissatisfaction with you, that was all.'
'Come, that's something. I'm glad you didn't amuse her with that unedifying bit of fiction.'
'Yes, fiction,' said Everard bluntly. 'I am not going into details; the thing's over and done with, and I chose my course at the time. But it's as well to let you know that my behaviour was grossly misrepresented. In using me to point a moral you were grievously astray. I shall say no more. Ii you can believe me, do; if you can't, dismiss the matter from your mind.'
There followed a silence of some moments. Then, with a perfectly calm manner, Miss Barfoot began to speak of a new subject. Everard followed her lead. He did not stay much longer, and on leaving asked to be remembered to Miss Nunn.
A week later he again found his cousin alone. He now felt sure that Miss Nunn was keeping out of his way. Her parting from him in the gardens had been decidedly abrupt, and possibly it signified more serious offence than at the time he attributed to her. It was so difficult to be sure of anything in regard to Miss Nunn. If another woman had acted thus he would have judged it coquetry. But perhaps Rhoda was quite incapable of anything of that kind. Perhaps she took herself so very seriously that the mere suspicion of banter in his talk had moved her to grave resentment. Or again, she might be half ashamed to meet him after confessing her disagreement with Miss Barfoot; on recovery from ill-temper (unmistakable ill-temper it was), she had seen her behaviour in an embarrassing light. Between these various conjectures he wavered whilst talking with Mary. But he did not so much as mention Miss Nunn's name.
Some ten days went by, and he paid a call at the hour sanctioned by society, five in the afternoon; it being Saturday. One of his reasons for coming at this time was the hope that he might meet other callers, for he felt curious to see what sort of people visited the house. And this wish was gratified. On entering the drawing-room, whither he was led by the servant straightway, after the manner of the world, he found not only his cousin and her friend, but two strangers, ladies. A glance informed him that both of these were young and good-looking, one being a type that particularly pleased him -- dark, pale, with very bright eyes.
Miss Barfoot received him as any hostess would have done. She was her cheerful self once more, and in a moment introduced him to the lady with whom she had been talking -- the dark one, by name Mrs. Widdowson. Rhoda Nunn, sitting apart with the second lady, gave him her hand, but at once resumed her conversation.
With Mrs. Widdowson he was soon chatting in his easy and graceful way, Miss Barfoot putting in a word now and then. He saw that she had not long been married; a pleasant diffidence and the maidenly glance of her bright eyes indicated this. She was dressed very prettily, and seemed aware of it.
'We went to hear the new opera at the Savoy last night,' she said to Miss Barfoot, with a smile of remembered enjoyment.
'Did you? Miss Nunn and I were there.'
Everard gazed at his cousin with humorous incredulity.
'Is it possible?' he exclaimed. 'You were at the Savoy?'
'Where is the impossibility? Why shouldn't Miss Nunn and I go to the theatre?'
'I appeal to Mrs. Widdowson. She also was astonished.'
'Yes, indeed I was, Miss Barfoot!' exclaimed the younger lady, with a merry little laugh. 'I hesitated before speaking of such a frivolous entertainment.'
Lowering her voice, and casting a smile in Rhoda's direction, Miss Barfoot replied, --
'I have to make a concession occasionally on Miss Nunn's account. It would be unkind never to allow her a little recreation.'
The two at a distance were talking earnestly, with grave countenances. In a few moments they rose, and the visitor came towards Miss Barfoot to take her leave. Thereupon Everard crossed to Miss Nunn.
'Is there anything very good in the new Gilbert and Sullivan opera?' he asked.
'Many good things. You really haven't been yet?'
'No -- I'm ashamed to say.'
'Do go this evening, if you can get a seat. Which part of the theatre do you prefer?'
His eye rested on her, but he could detect no irony.
'I'm a poor man, you know. I have to be content with the cheap places. Which do you like best, the Savoy operas or the burlesques at the Gaiety?'
A few more such questions and answers, of laboured commonplace or strained flippancy, and Everard, after searching his companion's face, broke off with a laugh.
'There now,' he said, 'we have talked in the approved five o'clock way. Precisely the dialogue I heard in a drawing-room yesterday. It goes on day after day, year after year, through the whole of people's lives.'
'You are on friendly terms with such people?'
'I am on friendly terms with people of every kind.' He added, in an undertone, 'I hope I may include you, Miss Nunn?'
But to this she paid no attention. She was looking at Monica and Miss Barfoot, who had just risen from their seats. They approached, and presently Barfoot found himself alone with the familiar pair.
'Another cup of tea, Everard?' asked his cousin.
'Thank you. Who was the young lady you didn't introduce me to?'
'Miss Haven -- one of our pupils.'
'Does she think of going into business?'
'She has just got a place in the publishing department of a weekly paper.'
'But really -- from the few words of her talk that fell upon my ear I should have thought her a highly educated girl.'
'So she is,' replied Miss Barfoot. 'What is your objection?'
'Why doesn't she aim at some better position?'
Miss Barfoot and Rhoda exchanged smiles.
'But nothing could be better for her. Some day she hopes to start a paper of her own, and to learn all the details of such business is just what she wants. Oh, you are still very conventional, Everard. You meant she ought to take up something graceful and pretty -- something ladylike.'
'No, no. It's all right. I thoroughly approve. And when Miss Haven starts her paper, Miss Nunn will write for it.'
'I hope so,' assented his cousin.
'You make me feel that I am in touch with the great movements of our time. It's delightful to know you. But come now, isn't there any way in which I could help?'
'None whatever, I'm afraid.'
'Well, -- "They also serve who only stand and wait."'
If Everard had pleased himself he would have visited the house in Queen's Road every other day. As this might not be, he spent a good deal of his time in other society, not caring to read much. or otherwise occupy his solitude. Starting with one or two acquaintances in London, people of means and position, he easily extended his social sphere. Had he cared to marry, he might, notwithstanding his poverty, have wooed with fair chance in a certain wealthy family, where two daughters, the sole children, plain but well-instructed girls, waited for the men of brains who should appreciate them. So rare in society, these men of brains, and, alas! so frequently deserted by their wisdom when it comes to choosing a wife. It being his principle to reflect on every possibility, Barfoot of course asked himself whether it would not be reasonable to approach one or other of these young women -- the Miss Brissendens. He needed a larger income; he wanted to travel in a more satisfactory way than during his late absence. Agnes Brissenden struck him as a very calm and sensible girl; not at all likely to marry any one but the man who would be a suitable companion for her, and probably disposed to look on marriage as a permanent friendship, which must not be endangered by feminine follies. She had no beauty, but mental powers above the average -- superior, certainly, to her sister's.
It was worth thinking about, but in the meantime he wanted to see much more of Rhoda Nunn. Rhoda he was beginning to class with women who are attractive both physically and mentally. Strange how her face had altered to his perception since the first meeting. He smiled now when he beheld it -- smiled as a man does when his senses are pleasantly affected. He was getting to know it so well, to be prepared for its constant changes, to watch for certain movements of brows or lips when he had said certain things. That forcible holding of her hand had marked a stage in progressive appreciation; since then he felt a desire to repeat the experiment.
The lines occurred to his memory, and he understood them better than heretofore. It would delight him to enrage Rhoda, and then to detain her by strength, to overcome her senses, to watch her long lashes droop over the eloquent eyes. But this was something very like being in love, and he by no means wished to be seriously in love with Miss Nunn.
It was another three weeks before he had an opportunity of private talk with her. Trying a Sunday afternoon, about four, he found Rhoda alone in the drawing-room; Miss Barfoot was out of town. Rhoda's greeting had a frank friendliness which she had not bestowed upon him for a long time; not, indeed, since they met on her return from Cheddar. She looked very well, readily laughed, and seemed altogether in a coming-on disposition. Barfoot noticed that the piano was open.
'Do you play?' he inquired. 'Strange that I should still have to ask the question.'
'Oh, only a hymn on Sunday,' she answered off-hand.
'Why not? I like some of the old tunes very much. They remind me of the golden age.'
'In your own life, you mean?'
'You have once or twice spoken of that time as if you were not quite happy in the present.'
'Of course I am not quite happy. What woman is? I mean, what woman above the level of a petted pussy-cat?'
Everard was leaning towards her on the head of the couch where he sat. He gazed into her face fixedly.
'I wish it were in my power to remove some of your discontents. I would, more gladly than I can tell you.'
'You abound in good nature, Mr. Barfoot,' she replied laughing. 'But unfortunately you can't change the world.'
'Not the world at large. But might I not change your views of it -- in some respects?'
'Indeed I don't see how you could. I think I had rather have my own view than any you might wish to substitute for it.'
In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable.
'My views are not ignoble,' he murmured.
'I hope not. But they are the views of a man.'
'Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.'
'Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.'
'Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.'
'Oh, those words have such different meanings. In your judgment I should seem full of idle prejudice.'
She liked this conversation; he read pleasure in her face, saw in her eyes a glint of merry defiance. And his pulses throbbed the quicker for it.
'You have a prejudice against me, for instance.'
'Pray, did you go to the Savoy?' inquired Rhoda absently.
'I have no intention of talking about the Savoy, Miss Nunn. It is teacup time, but as yet we have the room to ourselves.'
Rhoda went and rang the bell.
'The teacups shall come at once.'
He laughed slightly, and looked at her from beneath drooping lids. Rhoda went on with talk of trifles, until the tea was brought and she had given a cup. Having emptied it at two draughts, he resumed his former leaning position.
'Well, you were saying that you had a prejudice against me. Of course my cousin Mary is accountable for that. Mary has used me rather ill. Before ever you saw me, I represented to your mind something very disagreeable indeed. That was too bad of my cousin.'
Rhoda, sipping her tea, had a cold, uninterested expression.
'I didn't know of this,' he proceeded, 'when we met that day in the gardens, and when I made you so angry.
'I wasn't disposed to jest about what had happened.'
'But neither was I. You quite misunderstood me. Will you tell me how that unpleasantness came to an end?'
'Oh yes. I admitted that I had been ill-mannered and obstinate.'
'How delightful! Obstinate? I have a great deal of that in my character. All the active part of my life was one long fit of obstinacy. As a lad I determined on a certain career, and I stuck to it in spite of conscious unfitness, in spite of a great deal of suffering, out of sheer obstinacy. I wonder whether Mary ever told you that.'
'She mentioned something of the kind once.'
'You could hardly believe it, I dare say? I am a far more reasonable being now. I have changed in so many respects that I hardly know my old self when I look back on it. Above all, in my thoughts about women. If I had married during my twenties I should have chosen, as the average man does, some simpleton -- with unpleasant results. If I marry now, it will be a woman of character and brains. Marry in the legal sense I never shall. My companion must be as independent of forms as I am myself.'
Rhoda looked into her teacup for a second or two, then said with a smile, --
'You also are a reformer?'
'In that direction.'
He had difficulty in suppressing signs of nervousness. The bold declaration had come without forethought, and Rhoda's calm acceptance of it delighted him.
'Questions of marriage,' she went on to say, 'don't interest me much; but this particular reform doesn't seem very practical. It is trying to bring about an ideal state of things whilst we are yet struggling with elementary obstacles.'
'I don't advocate this liberty for all mankind. Only for those who are worthy of it.'
'And what' -- she laughed a little -- 'are the sure signs of worthiness? I think it would be very needful to know them.'
Everard kept a grave face.
'True. But a free union presupposes equality of position. No honest man would propose it, for instance, to a woman incapable of understanding all it involved, or incapable of resuming her separate life if that became desirable. I admit all the difficulties. One must consider those of feeling, as well as the material. If my wife should declare that she must be released, I might suffer grievously, but being a man of some intelligence, I should admit that the suffering couldn't be helped; the brutality of enforced marriage doesn't seem to me an alternative worth considering. It wouldn't seem so to any woman of the kind I mean.'
Would she have the courage to urge one grave difficulty that he left aside? No. He fancied her about to speak, but she ended by offering him another cup of tea.
'After all, that is not your ideal?' he said.
'I haven't to do with the subject at all,' Rhoda answered, with perhaps a trace of impatience. 'My work and thought are for the women who do not marry -- the 'odd women' I call them. They alone interest me. One mustn't undertake too much.'
'And you resolutely class yourself with them?'
'Of course I do.'
'And therefore you have certain views of life which I should like to change. You are doing good work, but I had rather see any other woman in the world devote her life to it. I am selfish enough to wish ----'
The door opened, and the servant announced, --
'Mr. and Mrs. Widdowson.'
With perfect self-command Miss Nunn rose and stepped forward. Barfoot, rising more slowly, looked with curiosity at the husband of the pretty, black-browed woman whom he had already met. Widdowson surprised and amused him. How had this stiff, stern fellow with the grizzled beard won such a wife? Not that Mrs. Widdowson seemed a remarkable person, but certainly it was an ill-assorted union.
She came and shook hands. As he spoke a few natural words, Everard chanced to notice that the husband's eye was upon him, and with what a look! If ever a man declared in his countenance the worst species of jealous temper, Mr. Widdowson did so. His fixed smile became sardonic.
Presently Barfoot and he were introduced. They had nothing to say to each other, but Everard maintained a brief conversation just to observe the man. Turning at length, he began to talk with Mrs. Widdowson, and, because he was conscious of the jealous eye, assumed an especial sprightliness, an air of familiar pleasantry, to which the lady responded, but with a nervous hesitation.
The arrival of these people was an intense annoyance to him. Another quarter of an hour and things would have come to an exciting pass between Rhoda and himself; he would have heard how she received a declaration of love. Rhoda's self-possession notwithstanding, he believed that he was not without power over her. She liked to talk with him, enjoyed the freedom he allowed himself in choice of subject. Perhaps no man before had ever shown an appreciation of her qualities as woman. But she would not yield, was in no real danger from his love-making. Nay, the danger was to his own peace. He felt that resistance would intensify the ardour of his wooing, and possibly end by making him a victim of genuine passion. Well, let her enjoy that triumph, if she were capable of winning it.
He had made up his mind to outstay the Widdowsons, who clearly would not make a long call. But the fates were against him. Another visitor arrived, a lady named Cosgrove, who settled herself as if for at least an hour. Worse than that, he heard her say to Rhoda, --
'Oh, then do come and dine with us. Do, I beg!'
'I will, with pleasure,' was Miss Nunn's reply. 'Can you wait and take me with you?'
Useless to stay longer. As soon as the Widdowsons had departed he went up to Rhoda and silently offered his hand. She scarcely looked at him, and did not in the least return his pressure.
Rhoda dined at Mrs. Cosgrove's, and was home again at eleven o'clock. When the house was locked up, and the servants had gone to bed, she sat in the library, turning over a book that she had brought from her friend's house. It was a volume of essays, one of which dealt with the relations between the sexes in a very modern spirit, treating the subject as a perfectly open one, and arriving at unorthodox conclusions. Mrs. Cosgrove had spoken of this dissertation with lively interest. Rhoda perused it very carefully, pausing now and then to reflect.
In this reading of her mind, Barfoot came near the truth.
No man had ever made love to her; no man, to her knowledge, had ever been tempted to do so. In certain moods she derived satisfaction from this thought, using it to strengthen her life's purpose; having passed her thirtieth year, she might take it as a settled thing that she would never be sought in marriage, and so could shut the doors on every instinct tending to trouble her intellectual decisions. But these instincts sometimes refused to be thus treated. As Miss Barfoot told her, she was very young for her years, young in physique, young in emotion. As a girl she had dreamt passionately, and the fires of her nature, though hidden beneath aggregations of moral and mental attainment, were not yet smothered. An hour of lassitude filled her with despondency, none the less real because she was ashamed of it. If only she had once been loved, like other women -- if she had listened to an offer of devotion, and rejected it -- her heart would be more securely at peace. So she thought. Secretly she deemed it a hard thing never to have known that common triumph of her sex. And, moreover, it took away from the merit of her position as a leader and encourager of women living independently. There might be some who said, or thought, that she made a virtue of necessity.
Everard Barfoot's advances surprised her not a little. Judging him as a man wholly without principle, she supposed at first that this was merely his way with all women, and resented it as impertinence. But even then she did not dislike the show of homage; what her mind regarded with disdain, her heart was all but willing to feed upon, after its long hunger. Barfoot interested her, and not the less because of his evil reputation. Here was one of the men for whom women -- doubtless more than one -- had sacrificed themselves; she could not but regard him with sexual curiosity. And her interest grew, her curiosity was more haunting, as their acquaintance became a sort of friendship; she found that her moral disapprobation wavered, or was altogether forgotten. Perhaps it was to compensate for this that she went the length of outraging Miss Barfoot's feelings on the death of Bell a Royston.
Certainly she thought with much frequency of Barfoot, and looked forward to his coming. Never had she wished so much to see him again as after their encounter in Chelsea Gardens, and on that account she forced herself to hold aloof when he came. It was not love, nor the beginning of love; she judged it something less possible to avow. The man's presence affected her with a perturbation which she had no difficulty in concealing at the time, though afterwards it distressed and shamed her. She took refuge in the undeniable fact that the quality of his mind made an impression upon her, that his talk was sympathetic. Miss Barfoot submitted to this influence; she confessed that her cousin's talk had always had a charm for her.
Could it be that this man reciprocated, and more than reciprocated, her complex feeling? To-day only accident had prevented him from making an avowal of love -- unless she strangely mistook him. All the evening she had dwelt on this thought; it grew more and more astonishing. Was he worse than she had imagined? Under cover of independent thought, of serious moral theories, did he conceal mere profligacy and heartlessness? It was an extraordinary thing to have to ask such questions in relation to herself. It made her feel as if she had to learn herself anew, to form a fresh conception of her personality. She the object of a man's passion!
And the thought was exultant. Even thus late, then, the satisfaction of vanity had been granted her -- nay, not of vanity alone.
He must be sincere. What motive could he possibly have for playing a part? Might it not be true that he was a changed man in certain respects, and that a genuine emotion at length had control of him? If so, she had only to wait for his next speech with her in private; she could not misjudge a lover's pleading.
The interest would only be that of comedy. She did not love Everard Barfoot, and saw no likelihood of ever doing so; on the whole, a subject for thankfulness. Nor could he seriously anticipate an assent to his proposal for a free union; in declaring that legal marriage was out of the question for him, he had removed his love-making to the region of mere ideal sentiment. But, if he loved her, these theories would sooner or later be swept aside; he would plead with her to become his legal wife.
To that point she desired to bring him. Offer what he might, she would not accept it; but the secret chagrin that was upon her would be removed. Love would no longer be the privilege of other women. To reject a lover in so many respects desirable, whom so many women might envy her, would fortify her self-esteem, and enable her to go forward in the chosen path with firmer tread.
It was one o'clock; the fire had died out and she began to shiver with cold. But a trembling of joy at the same time went through her limbs; again she had the sense of exultation, of triumph. She would not dismiss him peremptorily. He should prove the quality of his love, if love it were. Coming so late, the experience must yield her all it had to yield of delight and contentment.
Monica and her husband, on leaving the house in Queen's Road, walked slowly in the eastward direction. Though night had fallen, the air was not unpleasant; they had no object before them, and for five minutes they occupied themselves with their thoughts. Then Widdowson stopped.
'Shall we go home again?' he asked, just glancing at Monica, then letting his eyes stray vaguely in the gloom.
'I should like to see Milly, but I'm afraid I can hardly take you there to call with me.'
'It's a very poor little sitting-room, you know, and she might have some friend. Isn't there anywhere you could go, and meet me afterwards?'
Frowning, Widdowson looked at his watch.
'Nearly six o'clock. There isn't much time.'
'Edmund, suppose you go home, and let me come back by my. self? You wouldn't mind, for once? I should like so much to have a talk with Milly. If I got back about nine or half-past, I could have a little supper, and that's all I should want.'
He answered abruptly, --
'Oh, but I can't have you going about alone at night.'
'Why not?' answered Monica, with a just perceptible note of irritation. 'Are you afraid I shall be robbed or murdered?'
'Nonsense. But you mustn't be alone.'
'Didn't I always use to be alone?'
He made an angry gesture.
'I have begged you not to speak of that. Why do you say what you know is disagreeable to me? You used to do all sorts of things that you never ought to have been obliged to do, and it's very painful to remember it.'
Monica, seeing that people were approaching, walked on, and neither spoke until they had nearly reached the end of the road.
'I think we had better go home,' Widdowson at length remarked.
'If you wish it; but I really don't see why I shouldn't call on Milly, now that we are here.'
'Why didn't you speak of it before we left home? You ought to be more methodical, Monica. Each morning I always plan how my day is to be spent, and it would be much better if you would do the same. Then you wouldn't be so restless and uncertain.'
'If I go to Rutland Street,' said Monica, without heeding this admonition, 'couldn't you leave me there for an hour?'
'What in the world am I to do?'
'I should have thought you might walk about. It's a pity you don't know more people, Edmund. It would make things so much pleasanter for you.'
In the end he consented to see her safely as far as Rutland Street, occupy himself for an hour, and come back for her. They went by cab, which was dismissed in Hampstead Road. Widdowson did not turn away until he had ocular proof of his wife's admittance to the house where Miss Vesper lived, and even then he walked no farther than the neighbouring streets, returning about every ten minutes to watch the house from a short distance, as though he feared Monica might have some project of escape. His look was very bilious; trudging mechanically hither and thither where fewest people were to be met, he kept his eyes on the ground, and clumped to a dismal rhythm with the end of his walking-stick. In the three or four months since his marriage, he seemed to have grown older; he no longer held himself so upright.
At the very moment agreed upon he was waiting close by the house. Five minutes passed; twice he had looked at his watch, and he grew excessively impatient, stamping as if it were necessary to keep himself warm. Another five minutes, and he uttered a nervous ejaculation. He had all but made up his mind to go and knock at the door when Monica came forth.
'You haven't been waiting here long, I hope?' she said cheerfully.
'Ten minutes. But it doesn't matter.'
'I'm very sorry. We were talking on ----'
'Yes, but one must always be punctual. I wish I could impress that upon you. Life without punctuality is quite impossible.'
'I'm very sorry, Edmund. I will be more careful. Please don't lecture me, dear. How shall we go home?'
'We had better take a cab to Victoria. No knowing how long we may have to wait for a train when we get there.'
'Now don't be so grumpy. Where have you been all the time?'
'Oh, walking about. What else was I to do?'
On the drive they held no conversation. At Victoria they were delayed about half an hour before a train started for Herne Hill; Monica sat in a waiting-room, and her husband trudged about the platform, still clumping rhythmically with his stick.
Their Sunday custom was to dine at one o'clock, and at six to have tea. Widdowson hated the slightest interference with domestic routine, and he had reluctantly indulged Monica's desire to go to Chelsea this afternoon. Hunger was now added to his causes of discontent.
'Let us have something to eat at once,' he said on entering the house. 'This disorder really won't do: we must manage better somehow.'
Without replying, Monica rang the dining-room bell, and gave orders.
Little change had been made in the interior of the house since its master's marriage. The dressing-room adjoining the principal bed-chamber was adapted to Monica's use, and a few ornaments were added to the drawing-room. Unlike his deceased brother, Widdowson had the elements of artistic taste; in furnishing his abode he took counsel with approved decorators, and at moderate cost had made himself a home which presented no original features, but gave no offence to a cultivated eye. The first sight of the rooms pleased Monica greatly. She declared that all was perfect, nothing need be altered. In those days, if she had bidden him spend a hundred pounds on reconstruction, the lover would have obeyed, delighted to hear her express a wish.
Though competence had come to him only after a lifetime of narrow means, Widdowson felt no temptation to parsimony. Secure in his all-sufficing income, he grudged no expenditure that could bring himself or his wife satisfaction. On the wedding-tour in Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset -- it lasted about seven weeks -- Monica learnt, among other things less agreeable, that her husband was generous with money.
He was anxious she should dress well, though only, as Monica soon discovered, for his own gratification. Soon after they had settled down at home she equipped herself for the cold season, and Widdowson cared little about the price so long as the effect of her new costumes was pleasing to him.
'You are making a butterfly of me,' said Monica merrily, when he expressed strong approval of a bright morning dress that had just come home.
'A beautiful woman,' he replied, with the nervous gravity which still possessed him when complimenting her, or saying tender things, 'a beautiful woman ought to be beautifully clad.'
At the same time he endeavoured to impress her with the gravest sense of a married woman's obligations. His raptures, genuine enough, were sometimes interrupted in the oddest way if Monica chanced to utter a careless remark of which he could not strictly approve, and such interruptions frequently became the opportunity for a long and solemn review of the wifely status. Without much trouble he had brought her into a daily routine which satisfied him. During the whole of the morning she was to be absorbed in household cares. In the afternoon he would take her to walk or drive, and the evening he wished her to spend either in drawing-room or library, occupied with a book. Monica soon found that his idea of wedded happiness was that they should always be together. Most reluctantly he consented to her going any distance alone, for whatever purpose. Public entertainments he regarded with no great favour, but when he saw how Monica enjoyed herself at concert or theatre, he made no objection to indulging her at intervals of a fortnight or so; his own fondness for music made this compliance easier. He was jealous of her forming new acquaintances; indifferent to society himself, he thought his wife should be satisfied with her present friends, and could not understand why she wished to see them so often.
The girl was docile, and for a time he imagined that there would never be conflict between his will and hers. Whilst enjoying their holiday they naturally went everywhere together, and were scarce an hour out of each other's presence, day or night. In quiet spots by the seashore, when they sat in solitude, Widdowson's tongue was loosened, and he poured forth his philosophy of life with the happy assurance that Monica would listen passively. His devotion to her proved itself in a thousand ways; week after week he grew, if anything, more kind, more tender; yet in his view of their relations he was unconsciously the most complete despot, a monument of male autocracy. Never had it occurred to Widdowson that a wife remains an individual, with rights and obligations independent of her wifely condition. Everything he said presupposed his own supremacy; he took for granted that it was his to direct, hers to be guided. A display of energy, purpose, ambition, on Monica's part, which had no reference to domestic pursuits, would have gravely troubled him; at once he would have set himself to subdue, with all gentleness, impulses so inimical to his idea of the married state. It rejoiced him that she spoke with so little sympathy of the principles supported by Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn; these persons seemed to him well-meaning, but grievously mistaken. Miss Nunn he judged 'unwomanly,' and hoped in secret that Monica would not long remain on terms of friendship with her. Of course his wife's former pursuits were an abomination to him; he could not bear to hear them referred to.
'Woman's sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish. You shall read John Ruskin; every word he says about women is good and precious. If a woman can neither have a home of her own, nor find occupation in any one else's she is deeply to be pitied; her life is bound to be unhappy. I sincerely believe that an educated woman had better become a domestic servant than try to imitate the life of a man.'
Monica seemed to listen attentively, but before long she accustomed herself to wear this look whilst in truth she was thinking her own thoughts. And as often as not they were of a nature little suspected by her prosing companion.
He believed himself the happiest of men. He had taken a daring step, but fortune smiled upon him, Monica was all he had imagined in his love-fever; knowledge of her had as yet brought to light no single untruth, not trait of character that he could condemn. That she returned his love he would not and could not doubt. And something she said to him one day, early in their honeymoon, filled up the measure of his bliss.
'What a change you have made in my life, Edmund! How much I have to thank you for!'
That was what he had hoped to hear. He had thought it himself; had wondered whether Monica saw her position in this light. And when the words actually fell from her lips he glowed with joy. This, to his mind, was the perfect relation of wife to husband. She must look up to him as her benefactor, her providence. It would have pleased him still better if she had not possessed a penny of her own, but happily Monica seemed never to give a thought to the sum at her disposal.
Surely he was the easiest of men to live with. When he first became aware that Monica suffered an occasional discontent, it caused him troublous surprise. As soon as he understood that she desired more freedom of movement, he became anxious, suspicious irritable. Nothing like a quarrel had yet taken place between them, but Widdowson began to perceive that he must exert authority in a way he had imagined would never be necessary. All his fears, after all, were not groundless. Monica's undomestic life, and perhaps the association with those Chelsea people, had left results upon her mind. By way of mild discipline, he first of all suggested a closer attention to the affairs of the house. Would it not be well if she spent an hour a day in sewing or fancy work? Monica so far obeyed as to provide herself with some plain needlework, but Widdowson, watching with keen eye, soon remarked that her use of the needle was only a feint. He lay awake o' nights, pondering darkly.
On the present evening he was more decidedly out of temper than ever hitherto. He satisfied his hunger hurriedly and in silence. Then, observing that Monica ate only a few morsels, he took offence at this.
'I'm afraid you are not well, dear. You have had no appetite for several days.'
'As much as usual, I think,' she replied absently.
They went into the library, commonly their resort of an evening. Widdowson possessed several hundred volumes of English literature, most of them the works which are supposed to be indispensible to a well-informed man, though very few men even make a pretence of reading them. Self-educated, Widdowson deemed it his duty to make acquaintance with the great, the solid authors. Nor was his study of them affectation. For the poets he had little taste; the novelists he considered only profitable in intervals of graver reading; but history, political economy, even metaphysics, genuinely appealed to him. He had always two or three solid books on hand, each with its marker; he studied them at stated hours, and always sitting at a table, a notebook open beside him. A little work once well-known, Todd's 'Student's Manual,' had formed his method and inspired him with zeal.
To-night, it being Sunday, he took down a volume of Barrow's Sermons. Though not strictly orthodox in religious faith, he conformed to the practices of the Church of England, and since his marriage had been more scrupulous on this point than before. He abhorred unorthodoxy in a woman, and would not on any account have suffered Monica to surmise that he had his doubts concerning any article of the Christian faith. Like most men of his kind, he viewed religion as a precious and powerful instrument for directing the female conscience. Frequently he read aloud to his wife, but this evening he showed no intention of doing so. Monica, however, sat unoccupied. After glancing at her once or twice, he said reprovingly, --
'Have you finished your Sunday book?'
'Not quite. But I don't care to read just now.'
The silence that followed was broken by Monica herself.
'Have you accepted Mrs. Luke's invitation to dinner?' she asked.
'I have declined it,' was the reply, carelessly given.
Monica bit her lip.
'Surely we needn't discuss that over again, Monica.'
His eyes were still on the book, and he stirred impatiently.
'But,' urged his wife, 'do you mean to break with her altogether? If so, I think it's very unwise, Edmund. What an opinion you must have of me, if you think I can't see people's faults! I know it's very true, all you say about her. But she wishes to be kind to us, I'm sure -- and I like to see something of a life so different from our own.'
Widdowson drummed on the floor with his foot. In a few moments, ignoring Monica's remarks, he stroked his beard, and asked, with a show of casual interest --
'How was it you knew that Mr. Barfoot?'
'I had met him before -- when I went there on the Saturday.'
Widdowson's eyes fell; his brow was wrinkled.
'He's often there, then?'
'I don't know. Perhaps he is. He's Miss Barfoot's cousin, you know.'
'You haven't seen him more than once before?'
'No. Why do you ask?'
'Oh, it was only that he seemed to speak as if you were old acquaintances.'
'That's his way, I suppose.'
Monica had already learnt that the jealousy which Widdowson so often betrayed before their manage still lurked in his mind. Perceiving why he put these questions, she could not look entirely unconcerned, and the sense of his eye being upon her caused her some annoyance.
'You talked to him, didn't you?' she said, changing her position in the deep chair.
'Oh, the kind of talk that is possible with a perfect stranger. I suppose he is in some profession?'
'I really don't know. Why, Edmund? Does he interest you?'
'Only that one likes to know something about the people that are introduced to one's wife,' Widdowson answered rather acridly.
Their bedtime was half-past ten. Precisely at that moment Widdowson closed his book -- glad to be relieved from the pretence of reading -- and walked over the lower part of the house to see that all was right. He had a passion for routine. Every night, before going upstairs, he did a number of little things in unvarying sequence -- changed the calendar for next day, made perfect order on his writing-table, wound lip his watch, and so on. That Monica could not direct her habits with like exactitude was frequently a distress to him; if she chanced to forget any most trivial detail of daily custom he looked very solemn, and begged her to be more vigilant.
Next morning after breakfast, as Monica stood by the dining-room window and looked rather cheerlessly at a leaden sky, her husband came towards her as if he had something to say. She turned, and saw that his face no longer wore the austere expression which had made her miserable last night, and even during the meal this morning.
'Are we friends?' he said, with the attempt at playfulness which always made him look particularly awkward.
'Of course we are,' Monica answered, smiling, but not regarding him.
'Didn't he behave gruffly last night to his little girl?'
'Just a little.'
'And what can the old bear do to show that he's sorry?'
'Never be gruff again.'
'The old bear is sometimes an old goose as well, and torments himself in the silliest way. Tell him so, if ever he begins to behave badly. Isn't it account-book morning?'
'Yes. I'll come to you at eleven.'
'And if we have a nice, quiet, comfortable week, I'll take you to the Crystal Palace concert next Saturday.'
Monica nodded cheerfully, and went off to look after her housekeeping.
The week was in all respects what Widdowson desired. Not a soul came to the house; Monica went to see no one. Save on two days, it rained, sleeted, drizzled, fogged; on those two afternoons they had an hour's walk. Saturday brought no improvement of the atmosphere, but Widdowson was in his happiest mood; he cheerfully kept his promise about the concert. As they sat together at night, his contentment overflowed in tenderness like that of the first days of marriage.
'Now, why can't we always live like this? What have we to do with other people? Let us be everything to each other, and forget that any one else exists.'
'I can't help thinking that's a mistake,' Monica ventured to reply. 'For one thing, if we saw more people, we should have so much more to talk about when we are alone.'
'It's better to talk about ourselves. I shouldn't care if I never again saw any living creature but you. You see, the old bear loves his little girl better than she loves him.'
Monica was silent.
'Isn't it true? You don't feel that my company would be enough for you?'
'Would it be right if I ceased to care for every one else? There are my sisters. I ought to have asked Virginia to come to-morrow; I'm sure she thinks I neglect her, and it must be dreadful living all alone like she does.'
'Haven't they made up their mind yet about the school? I'm sure it's the right thing for them to do. If the venture were to fail, and they lost money, we would see that they never came to want.'
'They're so timid about it. And it wouldn't be nice, you know, to feel they were going to be dependent upon us for the rest of their lives. I had better go and see Virgie to-morrow morning, and bring her back for dinner.
'If you like,' Widdowson assented slowly. 'But why not send a message, and ask her to come here?'
'I had rather go. It makes a change for me.'
This was a word Widdowson detested. Change, on Monica's lips, always seemed to mean a release from his society. But he swallowed his dissatisfaction, and finally consented to the arrangement.
Virginia came to dinner, and stayed until nightfall. Thanks to her sister's kindness, she was better clad than in former days, but her face signified no improvement of health. The enthusiasm with which Rhoda Nunn had inspired her appeared only in fitful affectations of interest when Monica pressed her concerning the projected undertaking down in Somerset. In general she had a dreamy, reticent look, and became uncomfortable when any one gazed at her inquiringly. Her talk was of the most insignificant things; this afternoon she spent nearly half an hour in describing a kitten which Mrs. Conisbee had given her; care of the little animal appeared to have absorbed her whole attention for many days past.
Another visitor to-day was Mr. Newdick, the City clerk who had been present at Monica's wedding. He and Mrs. Luke Widdowson were the sole friends of her husband that Monica had seen. Mr. Newdick enjoyed coming to Herne Hill. Always lugubrious to begin with, he gradually cheered up, and by the time for departure was loquacious. But he had the oddest ideas of talk suitable to a drawing-room. Had he been permitted, he would have held forth to Monica by the hour on the history of the business firm which he had served for a quarter of a century. This subject alone could animate him. His anecdotes were as often as not quite unintelligible, save to people of City experience. For all that Monica did not dislike the man; he was a good, simple, unselfish fellow, and to her he behaved with exaggeration of respect.
A few days later Monica had a sudden fit of illness. Her marriage, and the long open-air holiday, had given her a much healthier appearance than when she was at the shop; but this present disorder resembled the attack she had suffered in Rutland Street. Widdowson hoped that it signified a condition for which he was anxiously waiting. That, however, did not seem to be the case. The medical man who was called in asked questions about the patient's mode of life. Did she take enough exercise? Had she wholesome variety of occupation? At these inquiries Widdowson inwardly raged. He was tormented with a suspicion that they resulted from something Monica had said to the doctor.
She kept her bed for three or four days, and on rising could only sit by the fireside, silent, melancholy. Widdowson indulged his hope, though Monica herself laughed it aside, and even showed annoyance if he return to the subject. Her temper was strangely uncertain; some chance word in a conversation would irritate her beyond endurance, and after an outburst of petulant displeasure she became obstinately mute. At other times she behaved with such exquisite docility and sweetness that Widdowson was beside himself with rapture.
After a week of convalescence, she said one morning, --
'Couldn't we go away somewhere? I don't think I shall ever be quite well staying here.'
'It's wretched weather,' replied her husband.
'Oh, but there are places where it wouldn't be like this. You don't mind the expense, do you, Edmund?'
'Expense? Not I, indeed! But -- were you thinking of abroad?'
She looked at him with eyes that had suddenly brightened.
'Oh! would it be possible? People do go out of England in the winter.'
Widdowson plucked at his grizzled beard and fingered his watch-chain. It was a temptation. Why not take her away to some place where only foreigners and strangers would be about them? Yet the enterprise alarmed him.
'I have never been out of England,' he said, with misgiving.
'All the more reason why we should go. I think Miss Barfoot could advise us about it. She has been abroad, I know, and she has so many friends.'
'I don't see any need to consult Miss Barfoot,' he replied stiffly. 'I am not such a helpless man, Monica.'
Yet a feeling of inability to grapple with such an undertaking as this grew on him the more he thought of it. Naturally, his mind busied itself with such vague knowledge as he had gathered of those places in the South of France, where rich English people go to escape their own climate: Nice, Cannes. He could not imagine himself setting forth to these regions. Doubtless it was possible to travel thither, and live there when one arrived, without a knowledge of French; but he pictured all sorts of humiliating situations resulting from his ignorance. Above everything he dreaded humiliation in Monica's sight; it would be intolerable to have her comparing him with men who spoke foreign languages, and were at home on the Continent.
Nevertheless, he wrote to his friend Newdick, and invited him to dine, solely for the purpose of talking over this question with him in private. After dinner he broached the subject. To his surprise, Newdick had ideas concerning Nice and Cannes and such places. He had heard about them from the junior partner of his firm, a young gentleman who talked largely of his experiences abroad.
'An immoral lot there,' he said, smiling and shaking his head. 'Queer goings on.'
'Oh, but that's among the foreigners, isn't it?'
Thereupon Mr. Newdick revealed his acquaintance with English literature.
'Did you ever read any of Ouida's novels?'
'No, I never did.'
'I advise you to before you think of taking your wife over there. She writes a great deal about those parts. People get mixed up so, it seems. You couldn't live by yourself. You have to eat at public tables, and you'd have all sorts of people trying to make acquaintance with Mrs. Widdowson. They're a queer lot, I believe.'
He abandoned the thought, at once and utterly. When Monica learnt this -- he gave only vague and unsatisfactory reasons -- she fell back into her despondent mood. For a whole day she scarcely uttered a word.
On the next day, in the dreary afternoon, they were surprised by a call from Mrs. Luke. The widow -- less than ever a widow in externals -- came in with a burst of exuberant spirits, and began to scold the moping couple like an affectionate parent.
'When are you silly young people coming to an end of your honeymoon? Do you sit here day after day and call each other pretty names? Really it's very charming in its way. I never knew such an obstinate case. -- Monica, my black-eyed beauty, change your frock, and come with me to look up the Hodgson Bulls. They're quite too awful; I can't face them alone; but I'm bound to keep in with them. Be off, and let me pitch into your young man for daring to refuse my dinner. Don't you know, sir, that my invitations are like those of Royalty -- polite commands?'
Widdowson kept silence, waiting to see what his wife would do. He could not with decency object to her accompanying Mrs. Luke, yet hated the thought of such a step. A grim smile on his face, he sat stiffly, staring at the wall. To his inexpressible delight, Monica, after a short hesitation, excused herself; she was not well; she did not feel able ----
'Oh!' laughed the visitor. 'I see, I see! Do just as you like, of course. But if Edmund has any nous' -- this phrase she had learnt from a young gentleman, late of Oxford, now of Tattersall's and elsewhere -- 'he won't let you sit here in the dumps. You are in the dumps, I can see.'
The vivacious lady did not stay long. When she had rustled forth again to her carriage, Widdowson broke into a pæan of amorous gratitude. What could he do to show how he appreciated Monica's self-denial on his behalf? For a day or two he was absent rather mysteriously, and in the meantime made up his mind, after consultation with Newdick, to take his wife for a holiday in Guernsey.
Monica, when she heard of this project, was at first moderately grateful, but in a day or two showed by reviving strength and spirits that she looked forward eagerly to the departure. Her husband advertised for lodgings in St. Peter Port; he would not face the disagreeable chances of a hotel. In a fortnight's time all their preparations were made. During their absence, which might extend over a month, Virginia was to live at Herne Hill, in supervision of the two servants.
On the last Sunday Monica went to see her friends in Queen's Road. Widdowson was ashamed to offer an objection; he much disliked her going there alone, but disliked equally the thought of accompanying her, for at Miss Barfoot's he could not pretend to sit, stand, or converse with ease.
It happened that Mrs. Cosgrove was again calling. On the first occasion of meeting with Monica this lady paid her no particular attention; to-day she addressed her in a friendly manner, and their conversation led to the discovery that both of them were about to spend the ensuing month in the same place. Mrs. Cosgrove hoped they might occasionally see each other.
Of this coincidence Monica thought better to say nothing on her return home. She could not be sure that her husband might not, at the last moment, decide to stay at Herne Hill rather than incur the risk of her meeting an acquaintance in Guernsey. On this point he could not be trusted to exercise common sense. For the first time Monica had a secret she desired to keep from him, and the necessity was one which could not but have an unfavourable effect on her manner of regarding Widdowson. They were to start on Monday evening. Through the day her mind was divided between joy in the thought of seeing a new part of the world and a sense of weary dislike for her home. She had not understood until now how terrible would be the prospect of living here for a long time with no companionship but her husband's. On the return that prospect would lie before her. But no; their way of life must somehow be modified; on that she was resolved.
From Herne Hill to St. Peter Port was a change which made of Monica a new creature. The weather could not have been more propitious; day after day of still air and magnificent sky, with temperature which made a brisk walk at any hour thoroughly enjoyable, yet allowed one to sit at ease in the midday sunshine. Their lodgings were in the best part of the town, high up, looking forth over blue sea to the cliffs of Sark. Widdowson congratulated himself on having taken this step; it was like a revival of his honeymoon; never since their settling down at home had Monica been so grateful, so affectionate. Why, his wife was what he had thought her from the first, perfect in every wifely attribute. How lovely she looked as she sat down to the breakfast-table, after breathing sea air at the open windows, in her charming dress, her black hair arranged in some new fashion just to please him! Or when she walked with him about the quays, obviously admired by men who passed them. Or when she seated herself in the open carriage for a drive which would warm her cheeks and make her lips redder and sweeter.
'Edmund,' she said to him one evening, as they talked by the fireside, 'don't you think you take life rather too gravely?'
'Gravely? Don't I seem to enjoy myself?'
'Oh yes; just now. But -- still in a rather serious way. One would think you always had cares on your mind, and were struggling to get rid of them.'
'I haven't a care in the world. I am the most blessed of mortals.'
'So you ought to think yourself. But when we get back again, how will it be? You won't be angry with me? I really don't think I can live again as we were doing.'
'Not live as ----'
His brow darkened; he looked at her in astonishment.
'We ought to have more enjoyment,' she pursued courageously. 'Think of the numbers of people who live a dull, monotonous life just because they can't help it. How they would envy us, with so much money to spend, free to do just what we like! Doesn't it seem a pity to sit there day after day alone ----'
'Don't, my darling!' he implored. 'Don't! That makes me think you don't really love me.
'Nonsense! I want you to see what I mean. I am not one of the silly people who care for nothing but amusement, but I do think we might enjoy our lives more when we are in London. We shan't live for ever, you know. Is it right to spend day after day sitting there in the house ----'
'But come, come; we have our occupations. Surely it ought to be a pleasure to you to see that the house is kept in order. There are duties ----'
'Yes, I know. But these duties I could perform in an hour or two.'
'Quite thoroughly enough.'
'In my Opinion, Monica, a woman ought never to be so happy as when she is looking after her home.'
It was the old pedantic tone. His figure, in sympathy with it, abandoned an easy attitude and became awkward. But Monica would not allow herself to be alarmed. During the past week she had conducted herself so as to smooth the way for this very discussion. Unsuspecting husband!
'I wish to do my duty,' she said in a firm tone, 'but I don't think it's right to make dull work for oneself, when one might be living. I don't think it is living to go on week after week like that. If we were poor, and I had a lot of children to look after as well as all the housework to do, I believe I shouldn't grumble -- at least, I hope I shouldn't. I should know that I ought to do what there was no one else to do, and make the best of it. But
'Make the best of it!' he interrupted indignantly. 'What an expression to use! It would not only be your duty, dear, but your privilege!'
'Wait a moment, Edmund. If you were a shopman earning fifteen shillings a week, and working from early morning to late at night, should you think it not Only your duty but your privilege?'
He made a wrathful gesture.
'What comparison is there? I should be earning a hard livelihood by slaving for other people. But a married woman who works in her own home, for her husband's children ----'
'Work is work, and when a woman is overburdened with it she must find it difficult not to weary of home and husband and children all together. But of course I don't mean to say that my work is too hard. All I mean is, that I don't see why any one should make work, and why life shouldn't be as full of enjoyment as possible.'
'Monica, you have got these ideas from those people at Chelsea. That is exactly why I don't care for you to see much of them. I utterly disapprove of ----'
'But you are mistaken. Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn are all for work. They take life as seriously as you do.'
'Work? What kind of work? They want to make women unwomanly, to make them unfit for the only duties women ought to perform. You know very well my opinions about that kind of thing.'
He was trembling with the endeavour to control himself, to speak indulgently.
'I don't think, Edmund, there's much real difference between men and women. That is, there wouldn't be, if women had fair treatment.'
'Not much difference? Oh, come; you are talking nonsense. There's as much difference between their minds as between their bodies. They are made for entirely different duties.'
'Oh, that word Duty!'
Pained unutterably, Widdowson bent forward and took her hand. He spoke in a tone of the gravest but softest rebuke. She was giving entertainment to thoughts that would lead her who knew whither, that would undermine her happiness, would end by making both of them miserable. He besought her to put all such monstrous speculations out of her mind.
'Dear, good little wife! Do be guided by your husband. He is older than you, darling, and has seen so much more of the world.'
'I haven't said anything dreadful, dear. My thoughts don't come from other people; they rise naturally in my own head.'
'Now, what do you really want? You say you can't live as we were doing. What change would you make?'
'I should like to make more friends, and to see them often. I want to hear people talk, and know what is going on round about me. And to read a different kind of books; books that would really amuse me, and give me something I could think about with pleasure. Life will be a burden to me before long if I don't have more freedom.'
'Yes, I don't think there's any harm in saying that.'
'Freedom?' He glared at her. 'I shall begin to think that you wish you had never married me.'
'I should only wish that if I were made to feel that you shut me up in a house and couldn't trust me to go where I chose. Suppose the thought took you that you would go and walk about the City some afternoon, and you wished to go alone, just to be more at ease, should I have a right to forbid you, or grumble at you? And yet you are very dissatisfied if I wish to go anywhere alone.'
'But here's the old confusion. I am a man; you are a woman.'
'I can't see that that makes any difference. A woman ought to go about just as freely as a man. I don't think it's just. When I have done my work at home I think I ought to be every bit as free as you are -- every bit as free. And I'm sure, Edmund, that love needs freedom if it is to remain love in truth.'
He looked at her keenly.
'That's a dreadful thing for you to say. So, if I disapprove of your becoming the kind of woman that acknowledges no law, you will cease to love me?'
'What law do you mean?'
'Why, the natural law that points out a woman's place, and' -- he added, with shaken voice -- 'commands her to follow her husband's guidance.'
'Now you are angry. We mustn't talk about it any more just now.'
She rose and poured out a glass of water. Her hand trembled as she drank. Widdowson fell into gloomy abstraction. Later, as they lay side by side, he wished to renew the theme, but Monica would not talk; she declared herself too sleepy, turned her back to him, and soon slept indeed.
That night the weather became stormy; a roaring wind swept the Channel, and when day broke nothing could be seen but cloud and rain. Widdowson, who had rested little, was in a heavy, taciturn mood; Monica, on the other hand, talked gaily, seeming not to observe her companion's irresponsiveness. She was glad of the wild sky; now they would see another aspect of island life -- the fierce and perilous surges beating about these granite shores.
They had brought with them a few books, and Widdowson, after breakfast, sat down by the fire to read. Monica first of all wrote a letter to her sister; then, as it was still impossible to go out, she took up one of the volumes that lay on a side-table in their sitting-room, novels left by former lodgers. Her choice was something or other with yellow back. Widdowson, watching all her movements furtively, became aware of the pictured cover.
'I don't think you'll get much good out of that,' he remarked, after one or two efforts to speak.
'No harm, at all events,' she replied good-humouredly.
'I'm not so sure. Why should you waste your time? Take "Guy Mannering," if you want a novel.'
'I'll see how I like this first.'
He felt himself powerless, and suffered acutely from the thought that Monica was in rebellion against him. He could not understand what had brought about this sudden change. Fear of losing his wife's love restrained him from practical despotism, yet he was very near to uttering a definite command.
In the afternoon it no longer rained, and the wind had less violence. They went out to look at the sea. Many people were gathered about the harbour, whence was a fine view of the great waves that broke into leaping foam and spray against the crags of Sark. As they stood thus Occupied, Monica heard her name spoken in a friendly voice -- that of Mrs. Cosgrove.
'I have been expecting to see you,' said the lady. 'We arrived three days ago.'
Widdowson, starting with surprise, turned to examine the speaker. He saw a woman of something less than middle age, unfashionably attired, good-looking, with an air of high spirits; only when she offered her hand to him did he remember having met her at Miss Barfoot's. To be graceful in a high wind is difficult for any man; the ungainliness with which he returned Mrs. Cosgrove's greeting could not have been surpassed, and probably would have been much the same even had he not, of necessity, stood clutching at his felt hat.
The three talked for a few minutes. With Mrs. Cosgrove were two persons, a younger woman and a man of about thirty -- the latter a comely and vivacious fellow, with rather long hair of the orange-tawny hue. These looked at Monica, but Mrs. Cosgrove made no introduction.
'Come and see me, will you?' she said, mentioning her address. 'One can't get much in the evenings; I shall be nearly always at home after dinner, and we have music -- of a kind.'
Monica boldly accepted the invitation, said she would be glad to come. Then Mrs. Cosgrove took leave of them, and walked landwards with her companions.
Widdowson stood gazing at the sea. There was no misreading his countenance. When Monica had remarked it, she pressed her lips together, and waited for what he would say or do. He said nothing, but presently turned his back upon the waves and began to walk on. Neither spoke until they were in the shelter of the streets; then Widdowson asked suddenly, --
'Who is that person?'
'I only know her name, and that she goes to Miss Barfoot's.'
'It's a most extraordinary thing,' he exclaimed in high irritation. 'There's no getting out of the way of those people.'
Monica also was angry; her cheeks, reddened by the wind, grew hotter.
'It's still more extraordinary that you should object so to them.'
'Whether or no -- I do object, and I had rather you didn't go to see that woman.'
'You are unreasonable,' Monica answered sharply. 'Certainly I shall go and see her.'
'I forbid you to do so! If you go, it will be in defiance of my wish.'
'Then I am obliged to defy your wish. I shall certainly go.'
His face was frightfully distorted. Had they been in a lonely spot, Monica would have felt afraid of him. She moved hurriedly away in the direction of their lodgings, and for a few paces he followed; then he checked himself, turned round about, took an opposite way.
With strides of rage he went along by the quay, past the hotels and the smaller houses that follow, on to St. Sampson. The wind, again preparing for a tempestuous night, beat and shook and at moments all but stopped him; he set his teeth like a madman, and raged on. Past the granite quarries at Bordeaux Harbour, then towards the wild north extremity of the island, the sandy waste of L'Ancresse. When darkness began to fall, no human being was in his range of sight. He stood on one spot for nearly a quarter of an hour, watching, or appearing to watch, the black, low-flying scud.
Their time for dining was seven. Shortly before this Widdowson entered the house and went to the sitting-room; Monica was not there. He found her in the bed-chamber, before the looking-glass. At the sight of his reflected face she turned instantly.
'Monica!' He put his hands on her shoulders, whispering hoarsely, 'Monica! don't you love me?'
She looked away, not replying.
And of a sudden he fell on his knees before her, clasped her about the waist, burst into choking sobs.
'Have you no love for me? My darling! My dear, beautiful wife! Have you begun to hate me?'
Tears came to her eyes. She implored him to rise and command himself.
'I was so violent, so brutal with you. I spoke without thinking ----'
'But why should you speak like that? Why are you so unreasonable? If you forbid me to do simple things, with not the least harm in them, you can't expect me to take it like a child. I shall resist; I can't help it.'
He had risen and was crushing her in his arms, his hot breath on her neck, when he began to whisper, --
'I want to keep you all to myself. I don't like these people -- they think so differently -- they put such hateful ideas into your mind -- they are not the right kind of friends for you ----'
'You misunderstand them, and you don't in the least understand me. Oh, you hurt me, Edmund!'
He released her body, and took her head between his hands.
'I had rather you were dead than that you should cease to love me! You shall go to see her; I won't say a word against it. But, Monica, be faithful, be faithful to me!'
'Faithful to you?' she echoed in astonishment. 'What have I said or done to put you in such a state? Because I wish to make a few friends as all women do ----'
'It's because I have lived so much alone. I have never had more than one or two friends, and I am absurdly jealous when you want to get away from me and amuse yourself with strangers. I can't talk to such people. I am not suited for society. If I hadn't met you in that strange way, by miracle, I should never have been able to marry. If I allow you to have these friends ----'
'I don't like to hear that word. Why should you say allow? Do you think of me as your servant, Edmund?'
'You know how I think of you. It is I who am your servant, your slave.'
'Oh, I can't believe that!' She pressed her handkerchief to her cheeks, and laughed unnaturally. 'Such words don't mean anything. It is you who forbid and allow and command, and ----'
'I will never again use such words. Only convince me that you love me as much as ever.'
'It is so miserable to begin quarrelling ----'
'Never again! Say you love me! Put your arms round my neck -- press closer to me ----'
She kissed his cheek, but did not utter a word.
'You can't say that you love me?'
'I think I am always showing it. Do get ready for dinner now; it's past seven. Oh, how foolish you have been!'
Of course their talk lasted half through the night. Monica held with remarkable firmness to the position she had taken; a much older woman might have envied her steadfast yet quite rational assertion of the right to live a life of her Own apart from that imposed upon her by the duties of wedlock. A great deal of this spirit and the utterance it found was traceable to her association with the women whom Widdowson so deeply suspected; prior to her sojourn in Rutland Street she could not even have made clear to herself the demands which she now very clearly formulated. Believing that she had learnt nothing from them, and till of late instinctively opposing the doctrines held by Miss Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, Monica in truth owed the sole bit of real education she had ever received to those few weeks of attendance in Great Portland Street. Circumstances were now proving how apt a pupil she had been, even against her will. Marriage, as is always the case with women capable of development, made for her a new heaven and a new earth; perhaps on no single subject did she now think as on the morning of her wedding-day.
'You must either trust me completely,' she said, 'or not at all. If you can't and won't trust me, how can I possibly love you?'
'Am I never to advise?' asked her husband, baffled, and even awed, by this extraordinary revelation of a woman he had supposed himself to know thoroughly.
'Oh, that's a very different thing from forbidding and commanding!' she laughed. 'There was that novel this morning. Of course I know as well as you do that "Guy Mannering" is better; but that doesn't say I am not to form my opinion of other books. You mustn't be afraid to leave me the same freedom you have yourself.'
The result of it all was that Widdowson felt his passionate love glow with new fire. For a moment he thought himself capable of accepting this change in their relations. The marvellous thought of equality between man and wife, that gospel which in far-off days will refashion the world, for an instant smote his imagination and exalted him above his native level.
Monica paid for the energy she had put forth by a day of suffering. Her head ached intolerably; she had feverish symptoms, and could hardly raise herself from the bed. It passed, and she was once more eager to go forth under the blue sky that followed the tempest.
'Will you go with me to Mrs. Cosgrove's this evening?' she asked of her husband.
He consented, and after dinner they sought the hotel where their acquaintance was staying. Widdowson was in extreme discomfort, partly due to the fact that he had no dress clothes to put on; for far from anticipating or desiring any such intercourse in Guernsey, he had never thought of packing an evening suit. Had he known Mrs. Cosgrave this uneasiness would have been spared him. That lady was in revolt against far graver institutions than the swallow-tail; she cared not a button in what garb her visitors came to her. On their arrival, they found, to Widdowson's horror, a room full of women. With the hostess was that younger lady they had seen on the quay, Mrs. Cosgrove's unmarried sister; Miss Knott's health had demanded this retreat from the London winter. The guests were four -- a Mrs. Bevis and her three daughters -- all invalidish persons, the mother somewhat lackadaisical, the girls with a look of unwilling spinsterhood.
Monica, noteworthy among the gathering for her sweet, bright prettiness, and the finish of her dress, soon made herself at home; she chatted gaily with the girls -- wondering indeed at her own air of maturity, which came to her for the first time. Mrs. Cosgrove, an easy woman of the world when circumstances required it, did her best to get something out of Widdowson who presently thawed a little.
Then Miss Knott sat down to the piano, and played more than tolerably well; and the youngest Miss Bevis sang a song of Schubert, with passable voice but in very distressing German -- the sole person distressed by it being the hostess.
Meanwhile Monica had been captured by Mrs. Bevis, who discoursed to her on a subject painfully familiar to all the old lady's friends.
'Do you know my son, Mrs. Widdowson? Oh, I thought you had perhaps met him. You will do so this evening, I hope. He is over here on a fortnight's holiday.'
'Do you live in Guernsey?' Monica inquired.
'I practically live here, and one of my daughters is always with me. The other two live with their brother in a flat in Bayswater. Do you care for flats, Mrs. Widdowson?'
Monica could only say that she had no experience of that institution.
'I do think them such a boon,' pursued Mrs. Bevis. 'They are expensive but the advantages and comforts are so many. My son wouldn't on any consideration give up his flat. As I was saying, he always has two of his sisters to keep house for him. He is quite a young man, not yet thirty, but -- would you believe it? -- we are all dependent upon him! My son has supported the whole of the family for the last six or seven years, and that by his own work. It sounds incredible, doesn't it? But for him we should be quite unable to live. The dear girls have very delicate health; simply impossible for them to exert themselves in any way. My son has made extraordinary sacrifices on our account. His desire was to be a professional musician, and every one thinks he would have become eminent; myself, I am convinced of it -- perhaps that is only natural. But when our circumstances began to grow very doubtful, and we really didn't know what was before us, my son consented to follow a business career -- that of wine merchant, with which his father was connected. And he exerted himself so nobly, and gave proof of such ability, that very soon all our fears were at an end; and now, before he is thirty, his position is quite assured. We have no longer a care. I live here very economically -- really sweet lodgings on the road to St. Martin's; I do hope you will come and see me. And the girls go backwards and forwards. You see we are all here at present. When my son returns to London he will take the eldest and the youngest with him. The middle girl, dear Grace -- she is thought very clever in water-colours, and I am quite sure, if it were necessary, she could pursue the arts in a professional spirit.'
Mr. Bevis entered the room, and Monica recognized the sprightly young man whom she had seen on the quay. The hostess presented him to her new friends, and he got into talk with Widdowson. Requested to make music for the company, he sang a gay little piece, which, to Monica at all events, seemed one of the most delightful things she had ever heard.
'His own composition,' whispered Miss Grace Bevis, then sitting by Mrs. Widdowson.
That increased her delight. Foolish as Mrs. Bevis undoubtedly was, she perchance had not praised her son beyond his merits. He looked the best of good fellows; so kind and merry and spirited; such a capable man, too. It struck Monica as a very hard fate that he should have this family on his hands. What they must cost him! Probably he could not think of marrying, just on their account.
Mr. Bevis came and took a place by her side.
'Thank you so very much,' she said, 'for that charming song. Is it published?'
'Oh dear, no!' He laughed and shook his thick hair about. 'It's one of two or three that I somehow struck out when I was studying in Germany, ages ago. You play, I hope?'
Monica gave a sad negative.
'Oh, what does it matter? There are hosts of people who will always be overjoyed to play when you ask them. It would be a capital thing if only those children were allowed to learn an instrument who showed genuine talent for music.'
'In that case,' said Monica, 'there certainly wouldn't be hosts of people ready to play for me.'
'No.' His merry laugh was repeated. 'You mustn't mind when I contradict myself; it's one of my habits. Are you here for the whole winter?'
'Only a few weeks, unfortunately.'
'And do you dread the voyage back?'
'To tell the truth, I do. I had a very unpleasant time coming.'
'As for myself, how I ever undertake the thing I really don't know. One of these times I shall die; there's not a shadow of doubt of that. The girls always have to carry me ashore, one holding me by the hair and one by the boots. Happily, I am so emancipated that my weight doesn't distress them. I pick up flesh in a day or two, and then my health is stupendous -- as at present. You see how marvellously fit I look.'
'Yes, you look very well,' replied Monica, glancing at the fair, comely face.
'It's deceptive. All our family have wretched constitutions. If I go to work regularly for a couple of months without a holiday, I sink into absolute decrepitude. An office-chair has been specially made for me, to hold me up at the desk. -- I beg your pardon for this clowning, Mrs. Widdowson,' he suddenly added in another voice. 'The air puts me in such spirits. What air it is! Speaking quite seriously, my mother was saved by coming to live here. We believed her to be dying, and now I have hopes that she will live ever so many years longer.'
He spoke of his mother with evident affection, glancing kindly towards her with his blue eyes.
Only once or twice had Monica ventured to exchange a glance with her husband. It satisfied her that he managed to converse; what his mood really was could not be determined until afterwards. When they were about to leave she saw him, to her surprise, speaking quite pleasantly with Mr. Bevis. A carriage was procured to convey them home, and as soon as they had started, Monica asked her husband, with a merry look, how he had enjoyed himself.
'There is not much harm in it,' he replied dryly.
'Harm? How like you, Edmund, to put it that way! Now confess you will be glad to go again.'
'I shall go if you wish.'
'Unsatisfactory man! You can't bring yourself to admit that it was pleasant to be among new people. I believe, in your heart, you think all enjoyment is wrong. The music was nice, wasn't it?'
'I didn't think much of the girl's singing, but that fellow Bevis wasn't bad.'
Monica examined him as he spoke, and seemed to suppress a laugh.
'No, he wasn't at all bad. I saw you talking with Mrs. Bevis. Did she tell you anything about her wonderful son?'
'Oh, then I must tell you the whole story.'
And she did so, in a tone half of jest, half of serious approval.
'I don't see that he has done anything more than his duty,' remarked Widdowson at the end. 'But he isn't a bad fellow.'
For private reasons, Monica contrasted this attitude towards Bevis with the disfavour her husband had shown to Mr. Barfoot, and was secretly much amused.
Two or three days after they went to spend the morning at Petit Bot Bay, and there encountered with Bevis and his three sisters. The result was an invitation to go back and have lunch at Mrs. Bevis's lodgings; they accepted it, and remained with their acquaintances till dusk. The young man's holiday was at an end; next morning he would face the voyage which he had depicted so grotesquely.
'And alone!' he lamented to Monica. 'Only think of it. The girls are all rather below par just now; they had better stay here for the present.'
'And in London you will be alone too?'
'Yes. It's very sad. I must bear up under it. The worst of it is, I am naturally subject to depression. In solitude I sink, sink. But the subject is too painful. Don't let us darken the last hours with such reflections.'
Widdowson retained his indulgent opinion of the facetious young wine merchant. He even laughed now and then in recalling some phrase or other that Bevis had used to him.
Subsequently, Monica had several long conversations with the old lady. Impelled to gossipy frankness about all her affairs, Mrs. Bevis allowed it to be understood that the chief reason for two of the girls always being with their brother was the possibility thus afforded of their 'meeting people' -- that is to say, of their having a chance of marriage. Mrs. Cosgrove and one or two other ladies did them social service.
'They never will marry!' said Monica to her husband, rather thoughtfully than with commiseration.
'Why not? They are nice enough girls.'
'Yes, but they have no money; and' -- she smiled -- 'people see that they want to find husbands.'
'I don't see that the first matters; and the second is only natural.'
Monica attempted no rejoinder, but said presently --
'Now they are just the kind of women who ought to find something to do.'
'Something to do? Why, they attend to their mother and their brother. What could be more proper?'
'Very proper, perhaps. But they are miserable, and always will be.'
'Then they have no right to be miserable. They are doing their duty, and that ought to keep them cheerful.'
Monica could have said many things, but she overcame the desire, and laughed the subject aside.
Nor till mid-winter did Barfoot again see his friends the Micklethwaites. By invitation he went to South Tottenham on New Year's Eve, and dined with them at seven o'clock. He was the first guest that had entered the house since their marriage.
From the very doorstep Everard became conscious of a domestic atmosphere that told soothingly upon his nerves. The little servant who opened to him exhibited a gentle, noiseless demeanour which was no doubt the result of careful discipline. Micklethwaite him self, who at once came out into the passage, gave proof of a like influence; his hearty greeting was spoken in soft tones; a placid happiness beamed from his face. In the sitting-room (Micklethwaite's study, used for reception because the other had to serve as dining-room) tempered lamplight and the glow of a hospitable fire showed the hostess and her blind sister standing in expectation; to Everard's eyes both of them looked far better in health than a few months ago. Mrs. Micklethwaite was no longer so distressingly old; an expression that resembled girlish pleasure lit up her countenance as she stepped forward; nay, if he mistook not, there came a gentle warmth to her cheek, and the momentary downward glance was as graceful and modest as in a youthful bride. Never had Barfoot approached a woman with more finished courtesy, the sincere expression of his feeling. The blind sister he regarded in like spirit; his voice touched its softest note as he held her hand for a moment and replied to her pleasant words.
No undue indication of poverty disturbed him. He saw that the house had been improved in many ways since Mrs. Micklethwaite had taken possession of it; pictures, ornaments, pieces of furniture were added, all in simple taste, but serving to heighten the effect of refined comfort. Where the average woman would have displayed pretentious emptiness, Mrs. Micklethwaite had made a home which in its way was beautiful. The dinner, which she herself had cooked, and which she assisted in serving, aimed at being no more than a simple; decorous meal, but the guest unfeignedly enjoyed it; even the vegetables and the bread seemed to him to have a daintier flavour than at many a rich table. He could not help noticing and admiring the skill with which Miss Wheatley ate without seeing what was before her; had he not known her misfortune, he would hardly have become aware of it by any peculiarity as she sat opposite to him.
The mathematician had learnt to sit upon a chair like ordinary mortals. For the first week or two it must have cost him severe restraint; now he betrayed no temptation to roll and jerk and twist himself. When the ladies retired, he reached from the sideboard a box which Barfoot viewed with uneasiness.
'Do you smoke here -- in this room?'
'Oh, why not?'
Everard glanced at the pretty curtains before the windows.
'No, my boy, you do not smoke here. And, in fact, I like your claret; I won't spoil the flavour of it.'
'As you please; but I think Fanny will be distressed.'
'You shall say that I have abandoned the weed.'
Emotions were at conflict in Micklethwaite's mind, but finally he beamed with gratitude.
'Barfoot' -- he bent forward and touched his friend's arm'there are angels walking the earth in this our day. Science hasn't abolished them, my dear fellow, and I don't think it ever will.'
'It falls to the lot of but few men to encounter them, and of fewer still to entertain them permanently in a cottage at South Tottenham.'
'You are right.' Micklethwaite laughed in a new way, with scarcely any sound; a change Everard had already noticed. 'These two sisters -- but I had better not speak about them. In my old age I have become a worshipper, a mystic, a man of dream and vision.'
'How about worship in a parochial sense?' inquired Barfoot, smiling. 'Any difficulty of that point?'
'I conform, in moderation. Nothing would be asked of me. There is no fanaticism, no intolerance. It would be brutal if I declined to go to church on a Sunday morning. You see, my strictly scientific attitude helps in avoiding offence. Fanny can't understand it, but my lack of dogmatism vastly relieves her. I have been trying to explain to her that the scientific mind can have nothing to do with materialism. The new order of ideas is of course very difficult for her to grasp; but in time, in time.'
'For heaven's sake, don't attempt conversion!'
'On no account whatever. But I should like her to see what is meant by perception and conception, by the relativity of time and space -- and a few simple things of that kind!'
Barfoot laughed heartily.
'By-the-bye,' he said, shifting to safer ground, 'my brother Tom is in London, and in wretched health. His angel is from the wrong quarter, from the nethermost pit. I seriously believe that she has a plan for killing her husband. You remember my mentioning in a letter his horse-accident? He has never recovered from that, and as likely as not never will. His wife brought him away from Madeira just when he ought to have stopped there to get well. He settled himself at Torquay, whilst that woman ran about to pay visits. It was understood that she should go back to him at Torquay, but this she at length refused to do. The place was too dull; it didn't suit her extremely delicate health; she must live in London, her pure native air. If Tom had taken any advice, he would have let her live just where she pleased, thanking Heaven that she was at a distance from him. But the poor fellow can't be away from her. He has come up, and here I feel convinced he will die. It's a very monstrous thing, but uncommonly like women in general who have got a man into their power.'
Micklethwaite shook his head.
'You are too hard upon them. You have been unlucky. You know my view of your duty.'
'I begin to think that marriage isn't impossible for me,' said Barfoot, with a grave smile.
'But as likely as not it will be marriage without forms -- imply a free union.'
The mathematician was downcast.
'I'm sorry to hear that. It won't do. We must conform. Besides, in that case the person decidedly isn't suitable to you. You of all men must marry a lady.'
'I should never think of any one that wasn't a lady.'
'Is emancipation getting as far as that? Do ladies enter into that kind of union?'
'I don't know of any example. That's just why the idea tempts me.' Barfoot would go no further in explanation.
'How about your new algebra?'
'Alas! My dear boy, the temptation is so frightful -- when I get back home. Remember that I have never known what it was to sit and talk through the evening with ordinary friends, let alone ---- It's too much for me just yet. And, you know, I don't venture to work on Sundays. That will come; all in good time. I must grant myself half a year of luxury after such a life as mine has been.'
'Of course you must. Let algebra wait.'
'I think it over, of course, at odd moments. Church on Sunday morning is a good opportunity.'
Barfoot could not stay to see the old year out, but good wishes were none the less heartily exchanged before he went. Micklethwaite walked with him to the railway station; at a few paces' distance from his house he stood and pointed back to it.
'That little place, Barfoot, is one of the sacred spots of the earth. Strange to think that the house has been waiting for me there through all the years of my hopelessness. I feel that a mysterious light ought to shine about it. It oughtn't to look just like common houses.'
On his way home Everard thought over what he had seen and heard, smiling good-naturedly. Well, that was one ideal of marriage. Not his ideal; but very beautiful amid the vulgarities and vileness of ordinary experience. It was the old fashion in its purest presentment; the consecrated form of domestic happiness, removed beyond reach of satire, only to be touched, if touched at all, with the very gentlest irony.
A life by no means for him. If he tried it, even with a woman so perfect, he would perish of ennui. For him marriage must not mean repose, inevitably tending to drowsiness, but the mutual incitement of vigorous minds. Passion -- yes, there must be passion, at all events to begin with; passion not impossible of revival in days subsequent to its first indulgence. Beauty in the academic sense he no longer demanded; enough that the face spoke eloquently, that the limbs were vigorous. Let beauty perish if it cannot ally itself with mind; be a woman what else she may, let her have brains and the power of using them! In that demand the maturity of his manhood expressed itself. For casual amour the odalisque could still prevail with him; but for the life of wedlock, the durable companionship of man and woman, intellect was his first requirement.
A woman with man's capability of understanding and reasoning; free from superstition, religious or social; far above the ignoble weaknesses which men have been base enough to idealize in her sex. A woman who would scorn the vulgarism of jealousy, and yet know what it is to love. This was asking much of nature and civilization; did he grossly deceive himself in thinking he had found the paragon?
For thus far had he advanced in his thoughts of Rhoda Nunn. If the phrase had any meaning, he was in love with her; yet, strange complex of emotions, he was still only half serious in his desire to take her for a wife, wishing rather to amuse and flatter himself by merely inspiring her with passion. Therefore he refused to entertain a thought of formal marriage. To obtain her consent to marriage would mean nothing at all; it would afford him no satisfaction. But so to play upon her emotions that the proud, intellectual, earnest woman was willing to defy society for his sake -- ah! that would be an end worth achieving.
Ever since the dialogue in which he frankly explained his position, and all but declared love, he had not once seen Rhoda in private. She shunned him purposely beyond a doubt, and did not that denote a fear of him justified by her inclination? The postponement of what must necessarily come to pass between them began to try his patience, as assuredly it inflamed his ardour. If no other resource offered, he would be obliged to make his cousin an accomplice by requesting her beforehand to leave him alone with Rhoda some evening when he had called upon them.
But it was time that chance favoured him, and his interview with Miss Nunn came about in a way he could not have foreseen.
At the end of the first week of January he was invited to dine at Miss Barfoot's. The afternoon had been foggy, and when he set forth there seemed to be some likelihood of a plague of choking darkness such as would obstruct traffic. As usual, he went by train to Sloane Square, purposing (for it was dry under foot, and he could not disregard small economies) to walk the short distance from there to Queen's Road. On coming out from the station he found the fog so dense that it was doubtful whether he could reach his journey's end. Cabs were not to be had; he must either explore the gloom, with risk of getting nowhere at all, or give it up and take a train back. But he longed too ardently for the sight of Rhoda to abandon his evening without an effort. Having with difficulty made his way into King's Road, he found progress easier on account of the shop illuminations; the fog, however, was growing every moment more fearsome, and when he had to turn out of the highway his case appeared desperate. Literally he groped along, feeling the fronts of the houses. As under ordinary circumstances he would have had only just time enough to reach his cousin's punctually, he must be very late: perhaps they would conclude that he had not ventured out on such a night, and were already dining without him. No matter; as well go one way as another now. After abandoning hope several times, and all but asphyxiated, he found by inquiry of a man with whom he collided that he was actually within a few doors of his destination. Another effort and he rang a joyous peal at the bell.
A mistake. It was the wrong house, and he had to go two doors farther on.
This time he procured admittance to the familiar little hall. The servant smiled at him, but said nothing. He was led to the drawing-room, and there found Rhoda Nunn alone. This fact did not so much surprise him as Rhoda's appearance. For the first time since he had known her, her dress was not uniform black; she wore a red silk blouse with a black skirt, and so admirable was the effect of this costume that he scarcely refrained from a delighted exclamation.
Some concern was visible in her face.
'I am sorry to say,' were her first words, 'that Miss Barfoot will not be here in time for dinner. She went to Faversham this morning, and ought to have been back about half-past seven. But a telegram came some time ago. A thick fog caused her to miss the train, and the next doesn't reach Victoria till ten minutes past ten.'
Jt was now half-past eight; dinner had been appointed for the hour. Barfoot explained his lateness in arriving.
'Is it so bad as that? I didn't know.'
The situation embarrassed both of them. Barfoot suspected a hope on Miss Nunn's part that he would relieve her of his company, but, even had there been no external hindrance, he could not have relinquished the happy occasion. To use frankness was best.
'Out of the question for me to leave the house,' he said, meeting her eyes and smiling. 'You won't be hard upon a starving man?'
At once Rhoda made a pretence of having felt no hesitation.
'Oh, of course we will dine immediately.' She rang the bell. 'Miss Barfoot took it for granted that I would represent her. Look, the fog is penetrating even to our fireside.'
'Cheerful, very. What is Mary doing at Faversham?'
'Some one she has been corresponding with for some time begged her to go down and give an address to a number of ladies on -- a certain subject.'
'Ah! Mary is on the way to become a celebrity.'
'Quite against her will, as you know.'
They went to dinner, and Barfoot, thoroughly enjoying the abnormal state of things, continued to talk of his cousin.
'It seems to me that she can't logically refuse to put herself forward. Work of her kind can't be done in a corner. It isn't a case of "Oh teach the orphan girl to sew."'
'I have used the same argument to her,' said Rhoda.
Her place at the head of the table had its full effect upon Everard's imagination. Why should he hold by a resolve of which he did not absolutely approve the motive? Why not ask her simply to be his wife, and so remove one element of difficulty from his pursuit? True, he was wretchedly poor. Marrying on such an income, he would at once find his freedom restricted in every direction. But then, more likeLy than not, Rhoda had determined against marriage, and of him, especially, never thought for a moment as a possible husband. Well, that was what he wanted to ascertain.
They conversed naturally enough till the meal was over. Then their embarrassment revived, but this tiine it was Rhoda who took the initiative.
'Shall I leave you to your meditations?' she asked, moving a few inches from the table.
'I should much prefer your society, if you will grant it me for a little longer.'
Without speaking, she rose and led the way to the drawingroom. There, sitting at a formal distance from each other, they talked -- of the fog. Would Miss Barfoot be able to get back at all?
'A propos,' said Everard, 'did you ever read "The City of Dreadful Night"?'
'Yes, I have read it.'
'Without sympathy, of course?'
'Why "of course"? Do I seem to you a shallow optimist?'
'No. A vigorous and rational optimist -- such as I myself aim at being.'
'Do you? But optimism of that kind must be proved by some effort on behalf of society.'
'Precisely the effort I am making. If a man works at developing and fortifying the best things in his own character, he is surely doing society a service.'
She smiled sceptically.
'Yes, no doubt. But how do you develop and fortify yourself?'
She was meeting him half-way, thought Everard. Foreseeing the inevitable, she wished to have it over and done with. Or else ----
'I live very quietly,' was his reply, 'thinking of grave problems most of my time. You know I am a great deal alone.'
'No; anything but naturally.'
Rhoda said nothing. He waited a moment, then moved to a seat much nearer hers. Her face hardened, and he saw her fingers lock together.
'Where a man is in love, solitude seems to him the most unnatural of conditions.'
'Please don't make me your confidante, Mr. Barfoot,' Rhoda with well-assumed pleasantry. 'I have no taste for that kind of thing.'
'But I can't help doing so. It is you that I am in love with.'
'I am very sorry to hear it. Happily, the sentiment will not long trouble you.'
He read in her eyes and on her lips a profound agitation. She glanced about the room, and, before he could again speak, had risen to ring the bell.
'You always take coffee, I think?'
Without troubling to give any assent, he moved apart and turned over some books on the table. For full five minutes there was silence. The coffee was brought; he tasted it and put his cup down. Seeing that Rhoda had, as it were, entrenched herself behind the beverage, and would continue to sip at is as long as might be necessary, he went and stood in front of her.
'Miss Nunn, I am more serious than you will give me credit for being. The sentiment, as you call it, has troubled me for some time, and will last.'
Her refuge failed her. The cup she was holding began to shake a little.
'Please let me put it aside for you.'
Rhoda allowed him to do so, and then locked her fingers.
'I am so much in love with you that I can't keep away from this house more than a few days at a time. Of course you have known it; I haven't tried to disguise why I came here so often. It's so seldom that I see you alone; and now that fortune is kind to me I must speak as best I can. I won't make myself ridiculous in your eyes -- if I can help it. You despise the love-making of ballrooms and garden parties; so do I, most heartily. Let me speak like a man who has few illusions to overcome. I want you for the companion of my life; I don't see very well how I am to do without you. You know, I think, that I have only a moderate competence; it's enough to live upon without miseries, that's all one can say. Probably I shall never be richer, for I can't promise to exert myself to earn money; I wish to live for other things. You can picture the kind of life I want you to share. You know me well enough to understand that my wife -- if we use the old word -- would be as free to live in her own way as I to live in mine. All the same, it is love that I am asking for. Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.'
He could not see her eyes, but she was smiling in a forced way, with her lips close set.
'As you insisted on speaking,' she said at length, 'I had no choice but to listen. It is usual, I think -- if one may trust the novels -- for a woman to return thanks when an offer of this kind has been made to her. So -- thank you very much, Mr. Barfoot.'
Everard seized a little chair that was close by, planted it beside Rhoda's, there seated himself and took possession of one of her hands. It was done so rapidly and vehemently that Rhoda started back, her expression changing from sportive mockery to all but alarm.
'I will have no such thanks,' he uttered in a low voice, much moved, a smile making him look strangely stern. 'You shall understand what it means when a man says that he loves you. I have come to think your face so beautiful that I am in torment with the desire to press my lips upon yours. Don't be afraid that I shall be brutal enough to do it without your consent; my respect for you is stronger even than my passion. When I first saw you, I thought you interesting because of your evident intelligence -- nothing more; indeed you were not a woman to me. Now you are the one woman in the world; no other can draw my eyes from you. Touch me with your fingers and I shall tremble -- that is what my love means.'
She was colourless; her lips, just parted, quivered as the breath panted between them. She did not try to withdraw her hand.
'Can you love me in return?' Everard went on, his face still nearer. 'Am I anything like this to you? Have the courage you boast of. Speak to me as one human being to another, plain, honest words.'
'I don't love you in the least. And if I did I would never share your life.'
The voice was very unlike her familiar tones. It seemed to hurt her to speak.
'The reason. -- Because you have no faith in me?'
'I can't say whether I have or not. I know absolutely nothing of your life. But I have my work, and no one shall ever persuade me to abandon it.'
'Your work? How do you understand it? What is its importance to you?'
'Oh, and you pretend to know me so well that you wish me to be your companion at every moment!'
She laughed mockingly, and tried to draw away her hand, for it was burnt by the heat of his. Barfoot held her firmly.
'What is your work? Copying with a type-machine, and teaching others to do the same -- isn't that it?'
'The work by which I earn money, yes. But if it were no more than that ----'
Passion was overmastering him as he watched the fine scorn in her eyes. He raised her hand to his lips.
'No!' Rhoda exclaimed with sudden wrath. 'Your respect -- oh, I appreciate your respect!'
She wrenched herself from his grasp, and went apart. Barfoot rose, gazing at her with admiration.
'It is better I should be at a distance from you,' he said. 'I want to know your mind, and not to be made insensate.'
'Wouldn't it be better still if you left me?' Rhoda suggested, mistress of herself again.
'If you really wish it.' He remembered the circumstances and spoke submissively. 'Yet the fog gives me such a good excuse for begging your indulgence. The chances are I should only lose myself in an inferno.'
'Doesn't it strike you that you take an advantage of me, as you did once before? I make no pretence of equalling you in muscular strength, yet you try to hold me by force.'
He divined in her pleasure akin to his own, the delight of conflict. Otherwise, she would never have spoken thus.
'Yes, it is true. Love revives the barbarian; it wouldn't mean much if it didn't. In this one respect I suppose no man, however civilized, would wish the woman he loves to be his equal. Marriage by capture can't quite be done away with. You say you have not the least love for me; if you had, should I like you to confess it instantly? A man must plead and woo; but there are different ways. I can't kneel before you and exclaim about my miserable unworthines -- for I am not unworthy of you. I shall never call you queen and goddes -- unless in delirium, and I think I should soon weary of the woman who put her head under my foot. Just because I am stronger than you, and have stronger passions, I take that advantage -- try to overcome, as I may, the womanly resistance which is one of your charms.
'How useless, then, for us to talk. If you are determined to remind me again and again that your strength puts me at your mercy ----'
'Oh, not that! I will come no nearer to you. Sit down, and tell me what I asked.'
Rhoda hesitated, but at length took the chair by which she was standing.
'You are resolved never to marry?'
'I never shall,' Rhoda replied firmly.
'But suppose marriage in no way interfered with your work?'
'It would interfere hopelessly with the best part of my life. I thought you understood this. What would become of the encouragement I am able to offer our girls?'
'Encouragement to refuse marriage?'
'To scorn the old idea that a woman's life is wasted if she does not marry. My work is to help those women who, by sheer necessity, must live alone -- woman whom vulgar opinion ridicules. How can I help them so effectually as by living among them, one of them, and showing that my life is anything but weariness and lamentation? I am fitted for this. It gives me a sense of power and usefulness which I enjoy. Your cousin is doing the same work admirably. If I deserted I should despise myself.'
'Magnificent! If I could bear the thought of living without you, I should bid you persevere and be great.'
'I need no such bidding to persevere.'
'And for that very reason, because you are capable of such things, I love you only the more.'
There was triumph in her look, though she endeavoured to disguise it.
'Then, for your own peace,' she said, 'I must hope that you will avoid me. It is so easily done. We have nothing in common, Mr. Barfoot.'
'I can't agree with that. For one thing, there are perhaps not half a dozen women living with whom I could talk as I have talked with you. It isn't likely that I shall ever meet one. Am I to make my bow, and abandon in resignation the one chance of perfecting my life?'
'You don't know me. We differ profoundly on a thousand essential points.'
'You think so because you have a very wrong idea of me.'
Rhoda glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece.
'Mr. Barfoot,' she said in a changed voice, 'you will forgive me if I remind you that it is past ten o'clock.'
He sighed and rose.
'The fog certainly cannot be so thick now. Shall I ask them to try and get you a cab?'
'I shall walk to the station.'
'Only one more word.' She assumed a quiet dignity which he could not disregard. 'We have spoken in this way for the last time. You will not oblige me to take all sorts of trouble merely to avoid useless and painful conversations?'
'I love you, and I can't abandon hope.'
'Then I must take that trouble.' Her face darkened, and she stood in expectation of his departure.
'I mustn't offer to shake hands,' said Everard, drawing a step nearer.
'I hope you can remember that I had no choice but to be your hostess.'
The face and tone affected him with a brief shame. Bending his head, he approached her, and held her offered hand, without pressure, only for an instant.
Then he left the room.
There was a little improvement in the night; he could make his way along the pavement without actual groping, and no unpleasant adventure checked him before he reached the station. Rhoda's face and figure went before him. He was not downcast; for all that she had said, this woman, soon or late, would yield herself; he had a strange, unreasoning assurance of it. Perhaps the obstinacy of his temper supplied him with that confident expectation. He no longer cared on what terms he obtained her -- legal marriage or free union -- it was indifferent to him. But her life should be linked with his if fierce energy of will meant anything.
Miss Barfoot arrived at half-past eleven, after many delays on her journey. She was pierced with cold, choked with the poisonous air, and had derived very little satisfaction from her visit to Faversham.
'What happened?' was her first question, as Rhoda came out into the hall with sympathy and solicitude. 'Did the fog keep our guest away?'
'No; he dined here.'
'It was just as well. You haven't been lonely.'
They spoke no more on the subject until Miss Barfoot recovered from her discomfort, and was enjoying a much needed supper.
'Did he offer to go away?'
'It was really impossible. It took him more than half an hour to get here from Sloane Square.'
'Foolish fellow! Why didn't he take a train back at once?'
There was a peculiar brightness in Rhoda's countenance, and Miss Barfoot had observed it from the first.
'Did you quarrel much?'
'Not more than was to be expected.'
'He didn't think of staying for my return?'
'He left about ten o'clock.'
'Of course. Quite late enough, under the circumstances. It was very unfortunate, but I don't suppose Everard cared much. He would enjoy the opportunity of teasing you.'
A glance told her that Everard was not alone in his enjoyment of the evening. Rhoda led the talk into other channels, but Miss Barfoot continued to reflect on what she had perceived.
A few evenings after, when Miss Barfoot had been sitting alone for an hour or two, Rhoda came to the library and took a place near her. The elder woman glanced up from her book, and saw that her friend had something special to say.
'What is it, dear?'
'I am going to tax your good-nature, to ask you about unpleasant things.'
Miss Barfoot knew immediately what this meant. She professed readiness to answer, but had an uneasy look.
'Will you tell me in plain terms what it was that your cousin did when he disgraced himself?'
'Must you really know?'
'I wish to know.'
There was a pause. Miss Barfoot kept her eyes on the page open before her.
'Then I shall take the liberty of an old friend, Rhoda. Why do you wish to know?'
'Mr. Barfoot,' answered the other dryly, 'has been good enough to say that he is in love with me.'
Their eyes met.
'I suspected it. I felt sure it was coming. He asked you to marry him?'
'No, he didn't,' replied Rhoda in purposely ambiguous phrase.
'You wouldn't allow him to?'
'At all events, it didn't come to that. I should be glad if you would let me know what I asked.'
Miss Barfoot deliberated, but finally told the story of Amy Drake. Her hands supporting one knee, her head bent, Rhoda listened without comment, and, to judge from her features, without any emotion of any kind.
'That,' said her friend at the close, 'is the story as it was understood at the time -- disgraceful to him in every particular. He knew what was said of him, and offered not a word of contradiction. But not very long ago he asked me one evening if you had been informed of this scandal. I told him that you knew he had done something which I thought very base. Everard was hurt, and thereupon he declared that neither I nor any other of his acquaintances knew the truth -- that he had been maligned. He refused to say more, and what am I to believe?'
Rhoda was listening with livelier attention.
'He declared that he wasn't to blame?'
'I suppose he meant that. But it is difficult to see ----'
'Of course the truth can never be known,' said Rhoda, with sudden indifference. 'And it doesn't matter. Thank you for satisfying my curiosity.'
Miss Barfoot waited a moment, then laughed.
'Some day, Rhoda, you shall satisfy mine.'
'Yes -- if we live long enough.'
What degree of blame might have attached to Barfoot, Rhoda did not care to ask herself; she thought no more of the story. Of course there must have been other such incidents in his career; morally he was neither better nor worse than men in general. She viewed with contempt the women who furnished such opportunities; in her judgment of the male offenders she was more lenient, more philosophical, than formerly.
She had gained her wish, had enjoyed her triumph. A raising of the finger and Everard Barfoot would marry her. Assured of that, she felt a new contentment in life; at times when she was occupied with things as far as possible from this experience, a rush of joy would suddenly fill her heart, and make her cheek glow. She moved among people with a conscious dignity quite unlike that which had only satisfied her need of distinction. She spoke more softly, exercised more patience, smiled where she had been wont to scoff. Miss Nunn was altogether a more amiable person.
Yet, she convinced herself, essentially quite unchanged. She pursued the aim of her life with less bitterness, in a larger spirit, that was all. But pursued it, and without fear of being diverted from the generous path.
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