A week's notice to her employers would release Monica from the engagement in Walworth Road. Such notice must be given on Monday, so that, if she could at once make up her mind to accept Miss Barfoot's offer, the coming week would be her last of slavery behind the counter. On the way home from Queen's Road, Alice and Virginia pressed for immediate decision; they were unable to comprehend how Monica could hesitate for another moment. The question of her place of abode had already been discussed. One of Miss Barfoot's young women, who lived at a convenient distance from Great Portland Street, would gladly accept a partner in her lodging -- an arrangement to be recommended for its economy. Yet Monica shrank from speaking the final word.
'I don't know whether it's worth while,' she said, after a long silence, as they drew near to York Road Station, whence they were to take train for Clapham Junction.
'Not worth while?' exclaimed Virginia. 'You don't think it would be an improvement?'
'Yes, I suppose it would. I shall see how I feel about it tomorrow morning.'
She spent the evening at Lavender Hill, but without change in the mood thus indicated. A strange inquietude appeared in her behaviour. It was as though she were being urged to undertake something hard and repugnant.
On her return to Walworth Road, just as she came within sight of the shop, she observed a man's figure some twenty yards distant, which instantly held her attention. The dim gaslight occasioned some uncertainty, but she believed the figure was that of Widdowson. He was walking on the other side of the street, and away from her. When the man was exactly opposite Scotcher's establishment he gazed in that direction, but without stopping. Monica hastened, fearing to be seen and approached. Already she had reached the door, when Widdowson -- yes, he it was -- turned abruptly to walk back again. His eye was at once upon her; but whether he recognized her or not Monica could not know. At that moment she opened the door and passed in.
A fit of trembling seized her, as if she had barely escaped some peril. In the passage she stood motionless, listening with the intensity of dread. She could hear footsteps on the pavement; she expected a ring at the door-bell. If he were so thoughtless as to come to the door, she would on no account see him.
But there was no ring, and after a few minutes' waiting she recovered her self-command. She had not made a mistake; even his features had been discernible as he turned towards her. Was this the first time that he had come to look at the place where she lived -- possibly to spy upon her? She resented this behaviour, yet the feeling was confused with a certain satisfaction.
From one of the dormitories there was a view of Walworth Road. She ran upstairs, softly opened the door of that room, and peeped in. The low burning gas showed her that only one bed had an occupant, who appeared to be asleep. Softly she went to the window, drew the blind aside, and looked down into the street. But Widdowson had disappeared. He might of course be on this side of the way.
'Who's that?' suddenly asked a voice from the occupied bed.
The speaker was Miss Eade. Monica looked at her, and nodded.
'You? What are you doing here?'
'I wanted to see if some one was standing outside.'
'You mean him?'
The other nodded.
'I've got a beastly headache. I couldn't hold myself up, and I had to come home at eight o'clock. There's such pains all down my back too. I shan't stay at this beastly place much longer. I don't want to get ill, like Miss Radford. Somebody went to see her at the hospital this afternoon, and she's awfully bad. Well, have you seen him?'
'He's gone. Good-night.'
And Monica left the room.
Next day she notified her intention of leaving her employment. No questions were asked; she was of no particular importance; fifty, or, for the matter of that, five score, young women equally capable could be found to fill her place.
On Tuesday morning there came a letter from Virginia -- a few lines requesting her to meet her sisters, as soon as possible after closing time that evening, in front of the shop. 'We have something very delightful to tell you. We do hope you gave notice to-day, as things are getting so bright in every direction.'
At a quarter to ten she was able to run out, and close at hand were the two eagerly awaiting her.
'Mrs. Darby has found a place for Alice,' began Virginia. 'We heard by the afternoon post yesterday. A lady at Yatton wants a governess for two young children. Isn't it fortunate?'
'So delightfully convenient for what we were thinking of,' put in the eldest, with her croaking voice. 'Nothing could have been better.'
'You mean about the school?' said Monica dreamily.
'Yes, the school,' Virginia replied, with trembling earnestness. 'Yatton is convenient both for Clevedon and Weston. Alice will be able to run over to both places and make enquiries, and ascertain where the best opening would be.'
Miss Nunn's suggestion, hitherto but timidly discussed, had taken hold upon their minds as soon as Alice received the practical call to her native region. Both were enthusiastic for the undertaking. It afforded them a novel subject of conversation, and inspirited them by seeming to restore their self-respect. After all, they might have a mission, a task in the world. They pictured themselves the heads of a respectable and thriving establishment, with subordinate teachers, with pleasant social relations; they felt young again, and capable of indefinite activity. Why had they not thought of this long ago? and thereupon they reverted to antistrophic laudation of Rhoda Nunn.
'Is it a good place?' their younger sister inquired.
'Oh, pretty good. Only twelve pounds a year, but nice people, Mrs. Darby says. They want me at once, and it is very likely that in a few weeks I shall go with them to the seaside.'
'What could have been better?' cried Virginia. 'Her health will be established, and in half a year, or less, we shall be able to come to a decision about the great step. Oh, and have you given notice, darling?'
'Yes, I have.'
Both clapped their hands like children. It was an odd little scene on the London pavement at ten o'clock at night; so intimately domestic amid surroundings the very antithesis of domesticity. Only a few yards away, a girl, to whom the pavement was a place of commerce, stood laughing with two men. The sound of her voice hinted to Monica the advisability of walking as they conversed, and they moved towards Walworth Road Station.
'We thought at first,' said Virginia, 'that when Alice had gone you might like to share my room; but then the distance from Great Portland Street would be a decided objection. I might move, but we doubt whether that would be worth while. It is so comfortable with Mrs. Conisbee, and for the short remaining time -- Christmas, I should think, would be a very good time for opening. If it were possible to decide upon dear old Clevedon, of course we should prefer it; but perhaps Weston will offer more scope. Alice will weigh all the arguments on the spot. Don't you envy her, Monica? Think of being there in this summer weather!'
'Why don't you go as well?' Monica asked.
'I? And take lodgings, you mean? We never thought of that. But we still have to consider expenditure very seriously, you know. If possible, I must find employment for the rest of the year. Remember how very likely it is that Miss Nunn will have something to suggest for me. And when I think it will be of so much practical use for me to see her frequently for a few weeks. Already I have learnt so much from her and from Miss Barfoot. Their conversation is so encouraging. I feel that it is a training of the mind to be in contact with them.'
'Yes, I quite share that view,' said Alice, with tremulous earnestness. 'Virginia can reap much profit from intercourse with them. They have the new ideas in education, and it would be so good if our school began with the advantage of quite a modern system.'
Monica became silent. When her sisters had talked in the same strain for a quarter of an hour, she said absently, --
'I wrote to Miss Barfoot last night, so I suppose I shall be able to move to those lodgings next Sunday.'
It was eleven o'clock before they parted. Having taken leave of her sisters near the station, Monica turned to walk quickly home. She had gone about half the way, when her name was spoken just behind her, in Widdowson's voice. She stopped, and there stood the man, offering his hand.
'Why are you here at this time?' she asked in an unsteady voice.
'Not by chance. I had a hope that I might see you.'
He was gloomy, and looked at her searchingly.
'I mustn't wait to talk now, Mr. Widdowson. It's very late.'
'Very late indeed. It surprised me to see you.'
'Surprised you? Why should it?'
'I mean that it seemed so very unlikely -- at this hour.'
'Then how could you have hoped to see me?'
Monica walked on, with an air of displeasure, and Widdowson kept beside her, incessantly eyeing her countenance.
'No, I didn't really think of seeing you, Miss Madden. I wished to be near the place where you were, that was all.'
'You saw me come out I dare say.'
'If you had done, you would have known that I came to meet two ladies, my sisters. I walked with them to the station, and now I am going home. You seem td think an explanation necessary ----'
'Do forgive me! What right have I to ask anything of the kind? But I have been very restless since Sunday. I wished so to meet you, if only for a few minutes. Only an hour or two ago I posted a letter to you.'
Monica said nothing.
'It was to ask you to meet me next Sunday, as we arranged. Shall you be able to do so?'
'I'm afraid I can't. At the end of this week I leave my place here, and on Sunday I shall be moving to another part of London.'
'You are leaving? You have decided to make the change you spoke of?'
'And will you tell me where you are going to live?'
'In lodgings near Great Portland Street. I must say good-night, Mr. Widdowson. I must, indeed.'
'Please -- do give me one moment!'
'I can't stay -- I can't -- good-night!'
It was impossible for him to detain her. Ungracefully he caught at his hat, made the salute, and moved away with rapid, uneven strides. In less than half an hour he was back again at this spot. He walked past the shop many times without pausing; his eyes devoured the front of the building, and noted those windows in which there was a glimmer of light. He saw girls enter by the private door, but Monica did not again show herself. Some time after midnight, when the house had long been dark and perfectly quiet, the uneasy man took a last look, and then sought a cab to convey him home.
The letter of which he had spoken reached Monica's hands next morning. It was a very respectful invitation to accompany the writer on a drive in Surrey. Widdowson proposed to meet her at Herne Hill railway station, where his vehicle would be waiting. 'In passing, I shall be able to point out to you the house which has been my home for about a year.'
As circumstances were, it would be hardly possible to accept this invitation without exciting curiosity in her sisters. The Sunday morning would be occupied, probably, in going to the new lodgings and making the acquaintance of her future companion there; in the afternoon, her sisters were to pay here a visit, as Alice had decided to start for Somerset on the Monday. She must write a refusal, but it was by no means her wish to discourage Widdowson altogether. The note which at length satisfied her ran thus:
'DEAR MR. WIDDOWSON -- I am very sorry that it will be impossible for me to see you next Sunday. All day I shall be occupied. My eldest sister is leaving London, and Sunday will be my last day with her, perhaps for a long time. Please do not think that I make light of your kindness. When I am settled in my new life, I hope to be able to let you know how it suits me. -- Sincerely yours,
In a postscript she mentioned her new address. It was written in very small characters -- perhaps an unpurposed indication of the misgiving with which she allowed herself to pen the words.
Two days went by, and again a letter from Widdowson was delivered,
'DEAR MISS MADDEN -- My chief purpose in writing again so soon is to apologize sincerely for my behaviour on Tuesday evening. It was quite unjustifiable. The best way of confessing my fault is to own that I had a foolish dislike of your walking in the streets unaccompanied at so late an hour. I believe that any man who had newly made your acquaintance, and had thought as much about you as I have, would have experienced the same feeling. The life which made it impossible for you to see friends at any other time of the day was so evidently unsuited to one of your refinement that I was made angry by the thought of it. Happily it is coming to an end, and I shall be greatly relieved when I know that you have left the house of business.
'You remember that we are to be friends. I should be much less than your friend if I did not desire for you a position very different from that which necessity forced upon you. Thank you very much for the promise to tell me how you like the new employment and your new friends. Shall you not henceforth be at leisure on other days besides Sunday? As you will now be near Regent's Park, perhaps I may hope to meet you there some evening before long. I would go any distance to see you and speak with you for only a few minutes.
'Do forgive my impertinence, and believe me, dear Miss Madden. -- Ever yours,
As Miss Barfoot's eye fell on the letters brought to her at breakfast-time, she uttered an exclamation, doubtful in its significance. Rhoda Nunn, who rarely had a letter from any one, looked up inquiringly.
'I am greatly mistaken if that isn't my cousin Everard's writing. I thought so. He is in London.'
Rhoda made no remark.
'Pray read it,' said the other, handing her friend the epistle after she had gone through it.
The handwriting was remarkably bold, but careful. Punctuation was strictly attended to, and in places a word had been obliterated with a circular scrawl which left it still legible.
'DEAR COUSIN MARY, -- I hear that you are still active in an original way, and that civilization is more and more indebted to you. Since my arrival in London a few weeks ago, I have several times been on the point of calling at your house, but scruples withheld me. Our last interview was not quite friendly on your side, you will remember, and perhaps your failure to write to me means continued displeasure; in that case I might be rejected at your door, which I shouldn't like, for I am troubled with a foolish sense of personal dignity. I have taken a flat, and mean to stay in London for at least half a year. Please let me know whether I may see you. Indeed I should like to. Nature meant us for good friends, but prejudice came between us. Just a line, either of welcome or "get thee behind me!" In spite of your censures, I always was, and still am, affectionately yours,
Rhoda perused the sheet very attentively.
'An impudent letter,' said Miss Barfoot. 'Just like him.'
'Where does he appear from?'
'Japan, I suppose. "But prejudice came between us." I like that! Moral conviction is always prejudice in the eyes of these advanced young men. Of course he must come. I am anxious to see what time has made of him.'
'Was it really moral censure that kept you from writing to him?' inquired Rhoda, with a smile.
'Decidedly. I didn't approve of him at all, as I have frequently told you.'
'But I gather that he hasn't changed much.'
'Not in theories,' replied Miss Barfoot. 'That isn't to be expected. He is far too stubborn. But in mode of life he may possibly be more tolerable.'
'After two or three years in Japan,' rejoined Rhoda, with a slight raising of the eyebrows.
'He is about three-and-thirty, and before he left England I think he showed possibilities of future wisdom. Of course I disapprove of him, arid, if necessary, shall let him understand that quite as plainly as before. But there's no harm in seeing if he has learnt to behave himself.'
Everard Barfoot received an invitation to dine. It was promptly accepted, and on the evening of the appointment he arrived at half-past seven. His cousin sat alone in the drawing-room. At his entrance she regarded him with keen but friendly scrutiny.
He had a tall, muscular frame, and a head of striking outline, with large nose, full lips, deep-set eyes, and prominent eyebrows. His hair was the richest tone of chestnut; his moustache and beard -- the latter peaking slightly forward -- inclined to redness. Excellent health manifested itself in the warm purity of his skin, in his cheerful aspect, and the lightness of his bearing. The lower half of his forehead was wrinkled, and when he did not fix his look on anything in particular, his eyelids drooped, giving him for the moment an air of languor. On sitting down, he at once abandoned himself to a posture of the completest ease, which his admirable proportions made graceful. From his appearance one would have expected him to speak in rather loud and decided tones; but he had a soft voice, and used it with all the discretion of good-breeding, so that at times it seemed to caress the ear. To this mode of utterance corresponded his smile, which was frequent, but restrained to the expression of a delicate, good-natured irony.
'No one had told me of your return,' were Miss Barfoot's first words as she shook hands with him.
'I fancy because no one knew. You were the first of my kinsfolk to whom I wrote.'
'Much honour, Everard. You look very well.'
'I am glad to be able to say the same of you. And yet I hear that you work harder than ever.'
'Who is the source of your information about me?'
'I had an account of you from Tom, in a letter that caught me at Constantinople.'
'Tom? I thought he had forgotten my existence. Who told him about me I can't imagine. So you didn't come straight home from Japan?'
Barfoot was nursing his knee, his head thrown back.
'No; I loitered a little in Egypt and Turkey. Are you living quite alone?'
He drawled slightly on the last word, its second vowel making quite a musical note, of wonderful expressiveness. The clear decision of his cousin's reply was a sharp contrast.
'A lady lives with me -- Miss Nunn. She will join us in a moment.'
'Miss Nunn?' He smiled. 'A partner in your activity?'
'She gives me valuable help.'
'I must hear all about it -- if you will kindly tell me some day. It will interest me greatly. You always were the most interesting of our family. Brother Tom promised to be a genius, but marriage has blighted the hope, I fear.'
'The marriage was a very absurd one.'
'Was it? I feared so; but Tom seems satisfied. I suppose they will stay at Madeira.'
'Until his wife is tired of her imaginary phthisis, and amuses herself with imagining some other ailment that requires them to go to Siberia.'
'Ah, that kind of person, is she?' He smiled indulgently, and played for a moment with the lobe of his right ear. His ears were small, and of the ideal contour; the hand, too, thus displayed, was a fine example of blended strength and elegance.
Rhoda came in, so quietly that she was able to observe the guest before he had detected her presence. The movement of Miss Barfoot's eyes first informed him that another person was in the room. In the quietest possible way the introduction was performed, and all seated themselves.
Dressed, like the hostess, in black, and without ornaments of any kind save a silver buckle at her waist, Rhoda seemed to have endeavoured to liken herself to the suggestion of her name by the excessive plainness with which she had arranged her hair; its tight smoothness was nothing like so becoming as the mode she usually adopted, and it made her look older. Whether by accident or design, she took an upright chair, and sat upon it in a stiff attitude. Finding it difficult to suspect Rhoda of shyness, Miss Barfoot once or twice glanced at her with curiosity. For settled conversation there was no time; a servant announced dinner almost immediately.
'There shall be no forms, cousin Everard,' said the hostess. 'Please to follow us.'
Doing so, Everard examined Miss Nunn's figure, which in its way was strong and shapely as his own. A motion of his lips indicated amused approval, but at once he commanded himself, and entered the dining-room with exemplary gravity. Naturally, he sat opposite Rhoda, and his eyes often skimmed her face; when she spoke, which was very seldom, he gazed at her with close attention.
During the first part of the meal, Miss Barfoot questioned her relative concerning his Oriental experiences. Everard spoke of them in a light, agreeable way, avoiding the tone of instruction, and, in short, giving evidence of good taste. Rhoda listened with a look of civil interest, but asked no question, and smiled only when it was unavoidable. Presently the talk turned to things of home.
'Have you heard of your friend Mr. Poppleton?' the hostess asked.
'Poppleton? Nothing whatever. I should like to see him.'
'I'm sorry to tell you he is in a lunatic asylum.'
As Barfoot kept the silence of astonishment, his cousin went on to tell him that the unhappy man seemed to have lost his wits among business troubles.
'Yet I should have suggested another explanation,' remarked the young man, in his most discreet tone, 'You never met Mrs. Poppleton?'
Seeing that Miss Nunn had looked up with interest, he addressed himself to her.
'My friend Poppleton was one of the most delightful men -- perhaps the best and kindest I ever knew, and so overflowing with natural wit and humour that there was no resisting his cheerful influence. To the amazement of every one who knew him, he married perhaps the dullest woman he could have found. Mrs. Poppleton not only never made a joke, but couldn't understand what joking meant. Only the flattest literalism was intelligible to her; she could follow nothing but the very macadam of conversation -- had no palate for anything but the suet-pudding of talk.'
Rhoda's eyes twinkled, and Miss Barfoot laughed. Everard was allowing himself a freedom in expression which hitherto he had sedulously avoided.
'Yes,' he continued, 'she was by birth a lady -- which made the infliction harder to bear. Poor old Poppleton! Again and again I have heard him -- what do you think? -- laboriously explaining jests to her. That was a trial, as you may imagine. There we sat, we three, in the unbeautiful little parlour -- for they were anything but rich. Poppleton would say something that convulsed me with laughter -- in spite of my efforts, for I always dreaded the result so much that I strove my hardest to do no more than smile appreciation. My laugh compelled Mrs. Poppleton to stare at me -- oh, her eyes I Thereupon, her husband began his dread performance. The patience, the heroic patience, of that dear, good fellow! I have known him explain, and re-explain, for a quarter of an hour, and invariably without success. It might be a mere pun; Mrs. Poppleton no more understood the nature of a pun than of the binomial theorem. But worse was when the jest involved some allusion. When I heard Poppleton begin to elucidate, to expound, the perspiration already on his forehead, I looked at him with imploring anguish. Why would he attempt the impossible? But the kind fellow couldn't disregard his wife's request. Shall I ever forget her. "Oh -- yes -- I see"? -- when obviously she saw nothing but the wall at which she sat staring.'
'I have known her like,' said Miss Barfoot merrily.
'I am convinced his madness didn't come from business anxiety. It was the necessity, ever recurring, ever before him, of expounding jokes to his wife. Believe me, it was nothing but that.'
'It seems very probable,' asserted Rhoda dryly.
'Then there's another friend of yours whose marriage has been unfortunate,' said the hostess. 'They tell me that Mr. Orchard has forsaken his wife, and without intelligible reason.'
'There, too, I can offer an explanation,' replied Barfoot quietly, 'though you may doubt whether it justifies him. I met Orchard a few months ago in Alexandria, met him by chance in the street, and didn't recognize him until he spoke to me. He was worn to skin and bone. I found that he had abandoned all his possessions to Mrs. Orchard, and just kept himself alive on casual work for the magazines, wandering about the shores of the Mediterranean like an uneasy spirit. He showed me the thing he had last written, and I see it is published in this month's Macmillan. Do read it. An exquisite description of a night in Alexandria. One of these days he will starve to death. A pity; he might have done fine work.'
'But we await your explanation. What business has he to desert his wife and children?'
'Let me give an account of a day I spent with him at Tintern, not long before I left England. He and his wife were having a holiday there, and I called on them. We went to walk about the Abbey. Now, for some two hours -- I will be strictly truthful -- whilst we were in the midst of that lovely scenery, Mrs. Orchard discoursed unceasingly of one subject -- the difficulty she had with her domestic servants. Ten or twelve of these handmaidens were marshalled before our imagination; their names, their ages, their antecedents, the wages they received, were carefully specified. We listened to a catalogue raisonné of the plates, cups, and other utensils that they had broken. We heard of the enormities which in each case led to their dismissal. Orchard tried repeatedly to change the subject, but only with the effect of irritating his wife. What could he or I do but patiently give ear? Our walk was ruined, but there was no help for it. Now, be good enough to extend this kind of thing over a number of years. Picture Orchard sitting down in his home to literary work, and liable at any moment to an invasion from Mrs. Orchard, who comes to tell him, at great length, that the butcher has charged for a joint they have not consumed -- or something of that kind. He assured me that his choice lay between flight and suicide, and I firmly believed him.'
As he concluded, his eyes met those of Miss Nunn, and the latter suddenly spoke.
'Why will men marry fools?'
Barfoot was startled. He looked down into his plate, smiling.
'A most sensible question,' said the hostess, with a laugh. 'Why, indeed?'
'But a difficult one to answer,' remarked Everard, with his most restrained smile. 'Possibly, Miss Nunn, narrow social opportunity has something to do with it. They must marry some one, and in the case of most men choice is seriously restricted.'
'I should have thought,' replied Rhoda, elevating her eyebrows, 'that to live alone was the less of two evils.'
'Undoubtedly. But men like these two we have been speaking of haven't a very logical mind.'
Miss Barfoot changed the topic.
When, not long after, the ladies left him to meditate over his glass of wine, Everard curiously surveyed the room. Then his eyelids drooped, he smiled absently, and a calm sigh seemed to relieve his chest. The claret had no particular quality to recommend it, and in any case he would have drunk very little, for as regards the bottle his nature was abstemious.
'It is as I expected,' Miss Barfoot was saying to her friend in the drawing-room. 'He has changed very noticeably.'
'Mr. Barfoot isn't quite the man your remarks had suggested to me,' Rhoda replied.
'I fancy he is no longer the man I knew. His manners are wonderfully improved. He used to assert himself in rather alarming ways. His letter, to be sure, had the old tone, or something of it.'
'I will go to the library for an hour,' said Rhoda, who had not seated herself. 'Mr. Barfoot won't leave before ten, I suppose?'
'I don't think there will be any private talk.'
'Still, if you will let me ----'
So, when Everard appeared, he found his cousin alone.
'What are you going to do?' she asked of him good-naturedly.
'To do? You mean, how do I propose to employ myself? I have nothing whatever in view, beyond enjoying life.'
'At your age?'
'So young? Or so old? Which?'
'So young, of course. You deliberately intend to waste your life?'
'To enjoy it, I said. I am not prompted to any business or profession; that's all over for me; I have learnt all I care to of the active world.'
'But what do you understand by enjoyment?' asked Miss Barfoot, with knitted brows.
'Isn't the spectacle of existence quite enough to occupy one through a lifetime? If a man merely travelled, could he possibly exhaust all the beauties and magnificences that are offered to him in every country? For ten years and more I worked as hard as any man; I shall never regret it, for it has given me a feeling of liberty and opportunity such as I should not have known if I had always lived at my ease. It taught me a great deal, too; supplemented my so-called education as nothing else could have done. But to work for ever is to lose half of life. I can't understand those people who reconcile themselves to quitting the world without having seen a millionth part of it.'
'I am quite reconciled to that. An infinite picture gallery isn't my idea of enjoyment.'
'Nor mine. But an infinite series of modes of living. A ceaseless exercise of all one's faculties of pleasure. That sounds shameless to you? I can't understand why it should. Why is the man who toils more meritorious than he who enjoys? What is the sanction for this judgment?'
'Social usefulness, Everard.'
'I admit the demand for social usefulness, up to a certain point. But, really, I have done my share. The mass of men don't toil with any such ideal, but merely to keep themselves alive, or to get wealth. I think there is a vast amount of unnecessary labour.'
'There is an old proverb about Satan and idle hands. Pardon me; you alluded to that personage in your letter.'
'The proverb is a very true one, but, like other proverbs, it applies to the multitude. If I get into mischief, it will not be because I don't perspire for so many hours every day, but simply because it is human to err. I have no intention whatever of getting into mischief.'
The speaker stroked his beard, and smiled with a distant look.
'Your purpose is intensely selfish, and all indulged selfishness reacts on the character,' replied Miss Barfoot, still in a tone of the friendliest criticism.
'My dear cousin, for anything to be selfish, it must be a deliberate refusal of what one believes to be duty. I don't admit that I am neglecting any duty to others, and the duty to myself seems very clear indeed.'
'Of that I have no doubt,' exclaimed the other, laughing. 'I see that you have refined your arguments.'
'Not my arguments only, I hope,' said Everard modestly. 'My time has been very ill spent if I haven't in some degree, refined my nature.'
'That sounds very well, Everard. But when it comes to degrees of self-indulgence ----'
She paused and made a gesture of dissatisfaction.
'It comes to that, surely, with every man. But we certainly shall not agree on this subject. You stand at the social point of view; I am an individualist. You have the advantage of a tolerably consistent theory; whilst I have no theory at all, and am full of contradictions. The only thing clear to me is that I have a right to make the most of my life.'
'No matter at whose expense?'
'You are quite mistaken. My conscience is a tender one. I dread to do any one an injury. That has always been true of me, in spite of your sceptical look; and the tendency increases as I grow older. Let us have done with so unimportant a matter. Isn't Miss Nunn able to rejoin us?'
'She will come presently, I think.'
'How did you make this lady's acquaintance?'
Miss Barfoot explained the circumstances.
'She makes an impression,' resumed Everard. 'A strong character, of course. More decidedly one of the new women than you yourself -- isn't she?'
'Oh, I am a very old-fashioned woman. Women have thought as I do at any time in history. Miss Nunn has much more zeal for womanhood militant.'
'I should delight to talk with her. Really, you know, I am very strongly on your side.'
Miss Barfoot laughed.
'Oh, sophist! You despise women.'
'Why, yes, the great majority of women -- the typical woman. All the more reason for my admiring the exceptions, and wishing to see them become more common. You, undoubtedly, despise the average woman.'
'I despise no human being, Everard.'
'Oh, in a sense! But Miss Nunn, I feel sure, would agree with me.'
'I am very sure Miss Nunn wouldn't. She doesn't admire the feebler female, but that is very far from being at one with your point of view, my cousin.'
Everard mused with a smile.
'I must get to understand her line of thought. You permit me to call upon you now and then?'
'Oh, whenever you like, in the evening. Except,' Miss Barfoot added, 'Wednesday evening. Then we are always engaged.'
'Summer holidays are unknown to you, I suppose?'
'Not altogether. I had mine a few weeks ago. Miss Nunn will be going away in a fortnight, I think.'
Just before ten o'clock, when Barfoot was talking of some acquaintances he had left in Japan, Rhoda entered the room. She seemed little disposed for conversation, and Everard did not care to assail her taciturnity this evening. He talked on a little longer, observing her as she listened, and presently took an opportunity to rise for departure.
'Wednesday is the forbidden evening, is it not?' he said to his cousin.
'Yes, that is devoted to business.'
As soon as he had gone, the friends exchanged a look. Each understood the other as referring to this point of Wednesday evening, but neither made a remark. They were silent for some time. When Rhoda at length spoke it was in a tone of half-indifferent curiosity.
'You are sure you haven't exaggerated Mr. Barfoot's failings?'
The reply was delayed for a moment.
'I was a little indiscreet to speak of him at all. But no, I didn't exaggerate.'
'Curious,' mused the other dispassionately, as she stood with one foot on the fender. 'He hardly strikes one as that kind of man.
'Oh, he has certainly changed a great deal.'
Miss Barfoot went on to speak of her cousin's resolve to pursue no calling.
'His means are very modest. I feel rather guilty before him; his father bequeathed to me much of the money that would in the natural course have been Everard's. But he is quite superior to any feeling of grudge on that score.'
'Practically, his father disinherited him?'
'It amounted to that. From quite a child, Everard was at odds with his father. A strange thing, for in so many respects they resembled each other very closely. Physically, Everard is his father walking the earth again. In character, too, I think they must be very much alike. They couldn't talk about the simplest thing without disagreeing. My uncle had risen from the ranks but he disliked to be reminded of it. He disliked the commerce by which he made his fortune. His desire was to win social position; if baronetcies could be purchased in our time, he would have given a huge sum to acquire one. But he never distinguished himself, and one of the reasons was, no doubt, that he married too soon. I have heard him speak bitterly, and very indiscreetly, of early marriages; his wife was dead then, but every one knew what he meant. Rhoda, when one thinks how often a woman is a clog upon a man's ambition, no wonder they regard us as they do.'
'Of course, women are always retarding one thing or another. But men are intensely stupid not to have remedied that long ago.'
'He determined that his boys should be gentlemen. Tom, the elder, followed his wishes exactly; he was remarkably clever, but idleness spoilt him, and now he has made that ridiculous marriage -- the end of poor Tom. Everard went to Eton, and the school had a remarkable effect upon him; it made him a furious Radical. Instead of imitating the young aristocrats he hated and scorned them. There must have been great force of originality in the boy. Of course I don't know whether any Etonians of his time preached Radicalism, but it seems unlikely. I think it was sheer vigour of character, and the strange desire to oppose his father in everything. From Eton he was of course to pass to Oxford, but at that stage came practical rebellion. No, said the boy; he wouldn't go to a university, to fill his head with useless learning; he had made up his mind to be an engineer. This was an astonishment to every one; engineering didn't seem at all the thing for him; he had very little ability in mathematics, and his bent had always been to liberal studies. But nothing could shake his idea. He had got it into his head that only some such work as engineering -- something of a practical kind, that called for strength and craftsmanship -- was worthy of a man with his opinions. He would rank with the classes that keep the world going with their sturdy toil: that was how he spoke. And, after a great fight, he had his way. He left Eton to study civil engineering.'
Rhoda was listening with an amused smile.
'Then,' pursued her friend, 'came another display of firmness or obstinacy, whichever you like to call it. He soon found out that he had made a complete mistake. The studies didn't suit him at all, as others had foreseen. But he would have worked himself to death rather than confess his error; none of us knew how he was feeling till long after. Engineering he had chosen, and an engineer he would be, cost him what effort it might. His father shouldn't triumph over him. And from the age of eighteen till nearly thirty he stuck to a profession which I am sure he loathed. By force of resolve he even got on to it, and reached a good position with the firm he worked for. Of course his father wouldn't assist him with money after he came of age; he had to make his way just like any young man who has no influence.'
'All this puts him in quite another light,' remarked Rhoda.
'Yes, it would be all very well, if there were no vices to add to the picture. I never experienced such a revulsion of feeling as the day when I learnt shameful things about Everard. You know, I always regarded him as a boy, and very much as if he had been my younger brother; then came the shock -- a shock that had a great part in shaping my life thenceforward. Since, I have thought of him as I have spoken of him to you -- as an illustration of evils we have to combat. A man of the world would tell you that I grossly magnified trifles; it is very likely that Everard was on a higher moral level than most men. But I shall never forgive him for destroying my faith in his honour and nobility of feeling.'
Rhoda had a puzzled look.
'Perhaps even now you are unintentionally misleading me,' she said. 'I have supposed him an outrageous profligate.'
'He was vicious and cowardly -- I can't say any more.'
'And that was the immediate cause of his father's leaving him poorly provided for?'
'It had much to do with it, I have no doubt.'
'I see. I imagined that he was cast out of all decent society.'
'If society were really decent, he would have been. It's strange how completely his Radicalism has disappeared. I believe he never had a genuine sympathy with the labouring classes. And what's more, I fancy he had a great deal of his father's desire for command and social distinction. If he had seen his way to become a great engineer, a director of vast enterprises, he wouldn't have abandoned his work. An incredible stubbornness has possibly spoilt his whole life. In a congenial pursuit he might by this time have attained to something noteworthy. It's too late now, I fear.'
'Does he aim at nothing whatever?'
'He won't admit any ambition. He has no society. His friends are nearly all obscure people, like those you heard him speak of this evening.'
'After all, what ambition should he have?' said Rhoda, with a laugh. 'There's one advantage in being a woman. A woman with brains and will may hope to distinguish herself in the greatest movement of our time -- that of emancipating her sex. But what can a man do, unless he has genius?'
'There's the emancipation of the working classes. That is the great sphere for men; and Everard cares no more for the working classes than I do.'
'Isn't it enough to be free oneself?'
'You mean that he has task enough in striving to be an honourable man?'
'Perhaps. I hardly know what I meant.'
Miss Barfoot mused, and her face lighted up with a glad thought.
'You are right. It's better to be a woman, in our day. With us is all the joy of advance, the glory of conquering. Men have only material progress to think about. But we -- we are winning souls, propagating a new religion, purifying the earth!'
Rhoda nodded thrice.
'My cousin is a fine specimen of a man, after all, in body and mind. But what a poor, ineffectual creature compared with you, Rhoda! I don't flatter you, dear. I tell you bluntly of your faults and extravagances. But I am proud of your magnificent independence, proud of your pride, dear, and of your stainless heart. Thank Heaven we are women!'
It was rare indeed for Miss Barfoot to be moved to rhapsody. Again Rhoda nodded, and then they laughed together, with joyous confidence in themselves and in their cause.
Seated in the reading-room of a club to which he had newly procured admission, Everard Barfoot was glancing over the advertisement columns of a literary paper. His eye fell on an announcement that had a personal interest to him, and at once he went to the writing-table to pen a letter.
'DEAR MICKLETHWAITE, -- I am back in England, and ought before this to have written to you. I see you have just published a book with an alarming title, "A Treatise on Trilinear Co-ordinates." My hearty congratulations on the completion of such a labour; were you not the most disinterested of mortals, I would add a hope that it may somehow benefit you financially. I presume there are people who purchase such works. But of course the main point with you is to have delivered your soul on Trilinear Co-ordinates. Shall I run down to Sheffield to see you, or is there any chance of the holidays bringing you this way? I have found a cheap flat, poorly furnished, in Bayswater; the man who let it to me happens to be an engineer, and is absent on Italian railway work for a year or so. My stay in London won't, I think, be for longer than six months, but we must see each other and talk over old times,' etc.
This he addressed to a school at Sheffield. The answer, directed to the club, reached him in three days.
'My DEAR BARFOOT, -- I also am in London; your letter has been forwarded from the school, which I quitted last Easter. Disinterested or not, I am happy to tell you that I have got a vastly better appointment. Let me know when and where to meet you; or if you like, come to these lodgings of mine. I don't enter upon duties till end of October, and am at present revelling in mathematical freedom. There's a great deal to tell. -- Sincerely yours,
Having no occupation for his morning, Barfoot went at once to the obscure little street by Primrose Hill where his friend was lodging. He reached the house about noon, and, as he had anticipated, found the mathematician deep in study. Micklethwaite was a man of forty, bent in the shoulders, sallow, but not otherwise of unhealthy appearance; he had a merry countenance, a great deal of lank, disorderly hair, and a beard that reached to the middle of his waistcoat. Everard's acquaintance with him dated from ten years ago, when Micklethwaite had acted as his private tutor in mathematics.
The room was a musty little back-parlour on the ground floor.
'Quiet, perfectly quiet,' declared its occupant, 'and that's all I care for. Two other lodgers in the house; but they go to business every morning at half-past eight, and are in bed by ten at night. Besides, it's only temporary. I have great things in view -- portentous changes! I'll tell you all about it presently.'
He insisted, first of all, on hearing a full account of Barfoot's history since they both met. They had corresponded about twice a year, but Everard was not fond of letter-writing, and on each occasion gave only the briefest account of himself. In listening, Micklethwaite assumed extraordinary positions, the result, presumably, of a need of physical exercise after hours spent over his work. Now he stretched himself at full length on the edge of his chair, his arms extended above him; now he drew up his legs, fixed his feet on the chair, and locked his hands round his knees; thus perched, he swayed his body backwards and forwards, till it seemed likely that he would pitch head foremost on to the floor. Barfoot knew these eccentricities of old, and paid no attention to them.
'And what is the appointment you have got?' he asked at length, dismissing his own affairs with impatience.
It was that of mathematical lecturer at a London college.
'I shall have a hundred and fifty a year, and be able to take private pupils. On two hundred, at least, I can count, and there are possibilities I won't venture to speak of, because it doesn't do to be too hopeful. Two hundred a year is a great advance for me.'
'Quite enough, I suppose,' said Everard kindly.
'Not -- not enough. I must make a little more somehow.'
'Hollo! Why this spirit of avarice all at once?'
The mathematician gave a shrill, cackling laugh, and rolled upon his chair.
'I must have more than two hundred. I should be satisfied with three hundred, but I'll take as much more as I can get.'
'My revered tutor, this is shameless. I came to pay my respects to a philosopher, and I find a sordid worldling. Look at me! I am a man of the largest needs, spiritual and physical, yet I make my pittance of four hundred and fifty suffice, and never grumble. Perhaps you aim at an income equal to my own?'
'I do! What's four hundred and fifty? If you were a man of enterprise you would double or treble it. I put a high value on money. I wish to be rich!'
'You are either mad or are going to get married.'
Micklethwaite cackled louder than ever.
'I am planning a new algebra for school use. If I'm not much mistaken, I can turn out something that will supplant all the present books. Think! If Micklethwaite's Algebra got accepted in all the schools, what would that mean to Mick? Hundreds a year, my boy -- hundreds.'
'I never knew you so indecent.'
'I am renewing my youth. Nay, for the first time I am youthful. I never had time for it before. At the age of sixteen I began to teach in a school, and ever since I have pegged away at it, school and private. Now luck has come to me, and I feel five-and-twenty. When I was really five-and-twenty, I felt forty.'
'Well, what has that to do with money-making?'
'After Mick's Algebra would follow naturally Mick's Arithmetic, Mick's Euclid, Mick's Trigonometry. Twenty years hence I should have an income of thousands -- thousands! I would then cease to teach (resign my professorship -- that is to say, for of course I should be professor), and devote myself to a great work on Probability. Many a man has begun the best of his life at sixty -- the most enjoyable part of it, I mean.'
Barfoot was perplexed. He knew his friend's turn for humorous exaggeration, but had never once heard him scheme for material advancement, and evidently this present talk meant something more than a jest.
'Am I right or not? You are going to get married?'
Micklethwaite glanced at the door, then said in a tone of caution, --
'I don't care to talk about it here. Let us go somewhere and eat together. I invite you to have dinner with me -- or lunch, as I suppose you would call it, in your aristocratic language.'
'No, you had better have lunch with me. Come to my club.'
'Confound your impudence! Am I not your father in mathematics?'
'Be so good as to put on a decent pair of trousers, and brush your hair. Ah, here is your Trilinear production. I'll look over it whilst you make yourself presentable.'
'There's a bad misprint in the Preface. Let me show you ----'
'It's all the same to me, my dear fellow.'
But Micklethwaite was not content until he had indicated the error, and had talked for five minutes about the absurdities that it involved.
'How do you suppose I got the thing published?' he then asked. 'Old Bennet, the Sheffield headmaster, is security for loss if the book doesn't pay for itself in two years' time. Kind of him, wasn't it? He pressed the offer upon me, and I think he's prouder of the book than I am myself. But it's quite remarkable how kind people are when one is fortunate. I fancy a great deal of nonsense is talked about the world's enviousness. Now as soon as it got known that I was coming to this post in London, people behaved to me with surprising good nature all round. Old Bennet talked in quite an affectionate strain. "Of course," he said, "I have long known that you ought to be in a better place than this; your payment is altogether inadequate; if it had depended upon me, I should long ago have increased it. I truly rejoice that you have found a more fitting sphere for your remarkable abilities." No; I maintain that the world is always ready to congratulate you with sincerity, if you will only give it a chance.'
'Very gracious of you to give it the chance. But, by-the-bye, how did it come about?'
'Yes, I ought to tell you that. Why, about a year ago, I wrote an answer to a communication signed by a Big Gun in one of the scientific papers. It was a question in Probability -- you wouldn't understand it. My answer was printed, and the Big Gun wrote privately to me -- a very flattering letter. That correspondence led to my appointment; the Big Gun exerted himself on my behalf. The fact is, the world is bursting with good nature.'
'Obviously. And how long did it take you to write this little book?'
'Oh, only about seven years -- the actual composition. I never had much time to myself, you must remember.'
'You're a good soul, Thomas. Go and equip yourself for civilized society.'
To the club they repaired on foot. Micklethwaite would talk of anything but that which his companion most desired to hear.
'There are solemnities in life,' he answered to an impatient question, 'things that can't be spoken of in the highway. When we have eaten, let us go to your flat, and there I will tell you everything.'
They lunched joyously. The mathematician drank a bottle of excellent hock, and did corresponding justice to the dishes. His eyes gleamed with happiness; again he enlarged upon the benevolence of mankind, and the admirable ordering of the world. From the club they drove to Bayswater, and made themselves comfortable in Barfoot's flat, which was very plainly, but sufficiently, furnished. Micklethwaite, cigar in mouth, threw his legs over the side of the easy-chair in which he was sitting.
'Now,' he began gravely, 'I don't mind telling you that your conjecture was right. I am going to be married.'
'Well,' said the other, 'you have reached the age of discretion. I must suppose that you know what you are about.'
'Yes, I think I do. The story is unexciting. I am not a romantic person, nor is my future wife. Now, you must know that when I was about twenty-three years old I fell in love. You never suspected me of that, I dare say?'
'Well, I did fall in love. The lady was a clergyman's daughter at Hereford, where I had a place in a school; she taught the infants in an elementary school connected with ours; her age was exactly the same as my own. Now, the remarkable thing was that she took a liking for me, and when I was scoundrel enough to tell her of my feeling, she didn't reject me.'
'Scoundrel enough? Why scoundrel?'
'Why? But I hadn't a penny in the world. I lived at the school, and received a salary of thirty pounds, half of which had to go towards the support of my mother. What could possibly have been more villainous? What earthly prospect was there of my being able to marry?'
'Well, grant the monstrosity of it.'
'This lady -- a very little lower than the angels -- declared that she was content to wait an indefinite time. She believed in me, and hoped for my future. Her father -- the mother was dead -- sanctioned our engagement. She had three sisters, one of them a governess, another keeping house, and the third a blind girl. Excellent people, all of them. I was at their house as often as possible, and they made much of me. It was a pity, you know, for in those few leisure hours I ought to have been working like a nigger.'
'Plainly you ought.'
'Fortunately, I left Hereford, and went to a school at Gloucester, where I had thirty-five pounds. How we gloried over that extra five pounds! But it's no use going on with the story in this way; it would take me till to-morrow morning. Seven years went by; we were thirty years old, and no prospect whatever of our engagement coming to anything. I had worked pretty hard; I had taken my London degree; but not a penny had I saved, and all I could spare was still needful to my mother. It struck me all at once that I had no right to continue the engagement. On my thirtieth birthday I wrote a letter to Fanny -- that is her name -- and begged her to be free. Now, would you have done the same, or not?'
'Really, I am not imaginative enough to put myself in such a position. It would need a stupendous effort, at all events.'
'But was there anything gross in the proceeding?'
'The lady took it ill?'
'Not in the sense of being offended. But she said it had caused her much suffering. She begged me to consider myself free. She would remain Faithful, and if, in time to come, I cared to write to her again ---- After all these years, I can't speak of it without huskiness. It seemed to me that I had behaved more like a scoundrel than ever. I thought I had better kill myself, and even planned ways of doing it -- I did indeed. But after all we decided that our engagement should continue.'
'You think it natural? Well, the engagement has continued till this day. A month ago I was forty, so that we have waited for seventeen years.'
Micklethwaite paused on a note of awe.
'Two of Fanny's sisters are dead; they never married. The blind one Fanny has long supported, and she will come to live with us. Long, long ago we had both of us given up thought of marriage. I have never spoken to any one of the engagement; it was something too absurd, and also too sacred.'
The smile died from Everard's face, and he sat in thought.
'Now, when are you going to marry?' cried Micklethwaite, with a revival of his cheerfulness.
'Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.'
'I should like my cousin Mary and her female friends to hear you talk in that way. They would overwhelm you with scorn.'
'Not sincere scorn, is my belief. Of course I have heard of that kind of woman. Tell me something about them.'
Barfoot was led on to a broad expression of his views.
'I admire your old-fashioned sentiment, Micklethwaite. It sits well on you, and you're a fine fellow. But I have much more sympathy with the new idea that women should think O( marriage only as men do -- I mean, not to grow up in the thought that they must marry or be blighted creatures. My own views are rather extreme, perhaps; strictly, I don't believe in marriage at all. And I haven't anything like the respect for women, as women, that you have. You belong to the Ruskin school; and I -- well, perhaps my experience has been unusual, though I don't think so. You know, by-the-bye, that my relatives consider me a blackguard?'
'That affair you told me about some years ago?'
'Chiefly that. I have a good mind to tell you the true story; I didn't care to at the time. I accepted the charge of black-guardism; it didn't matter much. My cousin will never forgive me, though she has an air of friendliness once more. And I suspect she had told her friend Miss Nunn all about me. Perhaps to put Miss Nunn on her guard -- Heaven knows!'
He laughed merrily.
'Miss Nunn, I dare say, needs no protection against you.'
'I had an odd thought whilst I was there.' Everard leaned his head back, and half closed his eyes. 'Miss Nunn, I warrant, considers herself proof against any kind of wooing. She is one of the grandly severe women; a terror, I imagine, to any young girl at their place who betrays weak thoughts of matrimony. Now, it's rather a temptation to a man of my kind. There would be something piquant in making vigorous love to Miss Nunn, just to prove her sincerity.'
Micklethwaite shook his head.
'Unworthy of you, Barfoot. Of course you couldn't really do such a thing.'
'But such women really challenge one. If she were rich, I think I could do it without scruple.'
'You seem to be taking it for granted,' said the mathematician, smiling, 'that this lady would -- would respond to your lovemaking.'
'I confess to you that women have spoilt me. And I am rather resentful when any one cries out against me for lack of respect to womanhood. I have been the victim of this groundless veneration for females. Now you shall hear the story; and bear in mind that you are the only person to whom I have ever told it. I never tried to defend myself when I was vilified on all hands. Probably the attempt would have been useless; and then it would certainly have increased the odium in which I stood. I think I'll tell cousin Mary the truth some day; it would be good for her.'
The listener looked uneasy, but curious.
'Well now, I was staying in the summer with some friends of ours at a little place called Upchurch, on a branch line from Oxford. The people were well-to-do -- Goodall their name -- and went in for philanthropy. Mrs. Goodall always had a lot of Upchurch girls about her, educated and not; her idea was to civilize one class by means of the other, and to give a new spirit to both. My cousin Mary was staying at the house whilst I was there. She had more reasonable views than Mrs. Goodall, but took a great interest in what was going on.
'Now one of the girls in process of spiritualization was called Amy Drake. In the ordinary course of things I shouldn't have met her, but she served in a shop where I went two or three times to get a newspaper; we talked a little -- with absolute propriety on my part, I assure you -- and she knew that I was a friend of the Goodalls. The girl had no parents, and she was on the point of going to London to live with a married sister.
'It happened that by the very train which took me back to London, when my visit was over, this girl also travelled, and alone. I saw her at Upchurch Station, but we didn't speak, and I got into a smoking carriage. We had to change at Oxford, and there, as I walked about the platform, Amy put herself in my way, so that I was obliged to begin talking with her. This behaviour rather surprised me. I wondered what Mrs. Goodall would think of it. But perhaps it was a sign of innocent freedom in the intercourse of men and women. At all events, Amy managed to get me into the same carriage with herself, and on the way to London we were alone. You foresee the end of it. At Paddington Station the girl and I went off together, and she didn't get to her sister's till the evening.
'Of course I take it for granted that you believe my account of the matter. Miss Drake was by no means the spiritual young person that Mrs. Goodall thought her, or hoped to make her; plainly, she was a reprobate of experience. This, you will say, doesn't alter the fact that I also behaved like a reprobate. No; from the moralist's point of view I was to blame. But I had no moral pretentions, and it was too much to expect that I should rebuke the young woman and preach her a sermon. You admit that, I dare say?'
The mathematician, frowning uncomfortably, gave a nod of assent.
'Amy was not only a reprobate, but a rascal. She betrayed me to the people at Upchurch, and, I am quite sure, meant from the first to do so. Imagine the outcry. I had committed a monstrous crime -- had led astray an innocent maiden, had outraged hospitality -- and so on. In Amy's case there were awkward results. Of course I must marry the girl forthwith. But of course I was determined to do no such thing. For the reasons I have explained, I let the storm break upon me. I had been a fool, to be sure, and couldn't help myself. No one would have believed my plea -- no one would have allowed that the truth was an excuse. I was abused on all hands. And when, shortly after, my father made his will and died, doubtless he cut me off with my small annuity on this very account. My cousin Mary got a good deal of the money that would otherwise have been mine. The old man had been on rather better terms with me just before that; in a will that he destroyed I believe he had treated me handsomely.'
'Well, well,' said Micklethwaite, 'every one knows there are detestable women to be found. But you oughtn't to let this affect your view of women in general. What became of the girl?'
'I made her a small allowance for a year and a half. Then her child died, and the allowance ceased. I know nothing more of her. Probably she has inveigled some one into marriage.'
'Well, Barfoot,' said the other, rolling about in his chair, 'my Opinion remains the same. You are in debt to some worthy woman to the extent of half your income. Be quick and find her. It will be better for you.'
'And do you suppose,' asked Everard, with a smile of indulgence, 'that I could marry on four hundred and fifty a year.
'Heavens! Why not?'
'Quite impossible. A wife might be acceptable to me; but marriage with poverty ---- I know myself and the world too well for that.'
'Poverty! ' screamed the mathematician. 'Four hundred and fifty pounds!'
'Grinding poverty -- for married people.'
Micklethwaite burst into indignant eloquence, and Everard sat listening with the restrained smile on his lips.
Having allowed exactly a week to go by, Everard Barfoot made use of his cousin's permission, and called upon her at nine in the evening. Miss Barfoot's dinner-hour was seven o'clock; she and Rhoda, when alone, rarely sat for more than half an hour at table, and in this summer season they often went out together at sunset to enjoy a walk along the river. This evening they had returned only a few minutes before Everard's ring sounded at the door. Miss Barfoot (they were just entering the library) looked at her friend and smiled.
'I shouldn't wonder if that is the young man. Very flattering if he has come again so soon.'
The visitor was in mirthful humour, and met with a reception of corresponding tone. He remarked at once that Miss Nunn had a much pleasanter aspect than a week ago; her smile was ready and agreeable; she sat in a sociable attitude and answered a jesting triviality with indulgence.
'One of my reasons for coming to-day,' said Everard, 'was to tell you a remarkable story. It connects' -- he addressed his cousin -- 'with our talk about the matrimonial disasters of those two friends of mine. Do you remember the name of Micklethwaite -- a man who used to cram me with mathematics? I thought you would. He is on the point of marrying, and his engagement has lasted just seventeen years.'
'The wisest of your friends, I should say.'
'An excellent fellow. He is forty, and the lady the same. An astonishing case of constancy.'
'And how is it likely to turn out?'
'I can't predict, as the lady is unknown to me. But,' he added with facetious gravity, 'I think it likely that they are tolerably well acquainted with each other. Nothing but sheer poverty has kept them apart. Pathetic, don't you think? I have a theory that when an engagement has lasted ten years, with constancy on both sides, and poverty still prevents marriage, the State ought to make provision for a man in some way, according to his social standing. When one thinks of it, a whole socialistic system lies in that suggestion.'
'If,' remarked Rhoda, 'it were first provided that no marriage should take place until after a ten years' engagement.'
'Yes,' Barfoot assented, in his smoothest and most graceful tone. 'That completes the system. Unless you like to add that no engagement is permitted except between people who have passed a certain examination; equivalent, let us say, to that which confers a university degree.'
'Admirable. And no marriage, except where both, for the whole decennium, have earned their living by work that the State recognizes.'
'How would that effect Mr. Micklethwaite's betrothed?' asked Miss Barfoot.
'I believe she has supported herself all along by teaching.'
'Of course!' exclaimed the other impatiently. 'And more likely than not, with loathing of her occupation. The usual kind of drudgery, was it?'
'After all, there must be some one to teach children to read and write.'
'Yes; but people who are thoroughly well trained for the task, and who take a pleasure in it. This lady may be an exception; but I picture her as having spent a lifetime of uncongenial toil, longing miserably for the day when poor Mr. Micklethwaite was able to offer her a home. That's the ordinary teacher-woman, and we must abolish her altogether.'
'How are you to do that?' inquired Everard suavely. 'The average man labours that he may be able to marry, and the average woman certainly has the same end in view. Are female teachers to be vowed to celibacy?'
'Nothing of the kind. But girls are to be brought up to a calling in life, just as men are. It's because they have no calling that, when need comes, they all offer themselves as teachers. They undertake one of the most difficult and arduous pursuits as if it were as simple as washing up dishes. We can't earn money in any other way, but we can teach children! A man only becomes a schoolmaster or tutor when he has gone through laborious preparation -- anything but wise or adequate, of course, but still conscious preparation; and only a very few men, comparatively, choose that line of work. Women must have just as wide a choice.'
'That's plausible, cousin Mary. But remember that when a man chooses his calling he chooses it for life. A girl cannot but remember that if she marries her calling at once changes. The old business is thrown aside -- henceforth profitless.'
'No. Not henceforth profitless! There's the very point I insist upon. So far is it from profitless, that it has made her a wholly different woman from what she would otherwise have been. Instead of a moping, mawkish creature, with -- in most instances -- a very unhealthy mind, she is a complete human being. She stands on an equality with the man. He can't despise her as he now does.'
'Very good,' assented Everard, observing Miss Nunn's satisfied smile. 'I like that view very much. But what about the great number of girls who are claimed by domestic duties? Do you abandon them, with a helpless sigh, to be moping and mawkish and unhealthy?'
'In the first place, there needn't be a great number of unmarried women claimed by such duties. Most of those you are thinking of are not fulfilling a duty at all; they are only pottering about the house, because they have nothing better to do. And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers. I would have no girl, however wealthy her parent, grow up without a profession. There should be no such thing as a class of females vulgarized by the necessity of finding daily amusement.'
'Nor of males either, of course,' put in Everard, stroking his beard.
'Nor of males either, cousin Everard.'
'You thoroughly approve all this, Miss Nunn?'
'Oh yes. But I go further. I would have girls taught that marriage is a thing to be avoided rather than hoped for. I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.'
'Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?'
'Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.'
Everard's eyelids drooped, and he did not speak for a moment.
'And you seriously think, Miss Nunn, that by persuading as many woman as possible to abstain from marriage you will improve the character of men?'
'I have no hope of sudden results, Mr. Barfoot. I should like to save as many as possible of the women now living from a life of dishonour; but the spirit of our work looks to the future. When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.'
Again Everard was silent, and seemingly impressed.
'We'll go on with this discussion another time,' said Miss Barfoot, with cheerful interruption. 'Everard, do you know Somerset at all?'
'Never was in that part of England.'
'Miss Nunn is going to take her holiday at Cheddar and we have been looking over some photographs of that district taken by her brother.'
From the table she reached a scrapbook, and Everard turned it over with interest. The views were evidently made by an amateur, but in general had no serious faults. Cheddar cliffs were represented in several aspects.
'I had no idea the scenery was so fine. Cheddar cheese has quite overshadowed the hills in my imagination. This might be a bit of Cumberland, or of the Highlands.'
'It was my playground when I was a child,' said Rhoda.
'You were born at Cheddar?'
'No; at Axbridge, a little place not far off. But I had an uncle at Cheddar, a farmer, and very often stayed with him. My brother is farming there now.'
'Axbridge? Here is a view of the market-place. What a delightful old town!'
'One of the sleepiest spots in England, I should say. The railway goes through it now, but hasn't made the slightest difference. Nobody pulls down or builds; nobody opens a new shop; nobody thinks of extending his trade. A delicious place!'
'But surely you find no pleasure in that kind of thing, Miss Nunn?'
'Oh yes -- at holiday time. I shall doze there for a fortnight, and forget all about the "so-called nineteenth century."'
'I can hardly believe it. There will be a disgraceful marriage at this beautiful old church, and the sight of it will exasperate you.'
Rhoda laughed gaily.
'Oh, it will be a marriage of the golden age! Perhaps I shall remember the bride when she was a little girl; and I shall give her a kiss, and pat her on the rosy cheek, and wish her joy. And the bridegroom will be such a good-hearted simpleton, unable to pronounce f and s. I don't mind that sort of marriage a bit!'
The listeners were both regarding her -- Miss Barfoot with an affectionate smile, Everard with a puzzled, searching look, ending in amusement.
'I must run down into that country some day,' said the latter.
He did not stay much longer, but left only because he feared to burden the ladies with too much of his company.
Again a week passed, and the same evening found Barfoot approaching the house in Queen's Road. To his great annoyance he learnt that Miss Barfoot was not at home; she had dined, but afterwards had gone out. He did not venture to ask for Miss Nunn, and was moving disappointedly away, when Rhoda herself, returning from a walk, came up to the door. She offered her hand gravely, but with friendliness.
'Miss Barfoot, I am sorry to say, has gone to visit one of our girls who is ill. But I think she will very soon be back. Will you come in?'
'Gladly. I had so counted on an hour's talk.'
Rhoda led him to the drawing-room, excused herself for a few moments, and came back in her ordinary evening dress. Barfoot noticed that her hair was much more becomingly arranged than when he first saw her; so it had been on the last occasion, but for some reason its appearance attracted his eyes this evening. He scrutinized her, at discreet intervals, from head to foot. To Everard, nothing female was alien; woman, merely as woman, interested him profoundly. And this example of her sex had excited his curiosity in no common degree. His concern with her was purely intellectual; she had no sensual attraction for him, but he longed to see further into her mind, to probe the sincerity of the motives she professed, to understand her mechanism, her process of growth. Hitherto he had enjoyed no opportunity of studying this type. For his cousin was a very different person; by habit he regarded her as old, whereas Miss Nunn, in spite of her thirty years, could not possibly be considered past youth.
He enjoyed her air of equality; she sat down with him as a male acquaintance might have done, and he felt sure that her behaviour would be the same under any circumstances. He delighted in the frankness of her speech; it was doubtful whether she regarded any subject as improper for discussion between mature and serious people. Part cause of this, perhaps, was her calm consciousness that she had not a beautiful face. No, it was not beautiful; yet even at the first meeting it did not repel him. Studying her features, he saw how fine was their expression. The prominent forehead, with its little unevenness that meant brains; the straight eyebrows, strongly marked, with deep vertical furrows generally drawn between them; the chestnut-brown eyes, with long lashes; the high-bridged nose, thin and delicate; the intellectual lips, a protrusion of the lower one, though very slight, marking itself when he caught her profile; the big, strong chin; the shapely neck -- why, after all, it was a kind of beauty. The head might have been sculptured with fine effect. And she had a well-built frame. He observed her strong wrists, with exquisite vein-tracings on the pure white. Probably her constitution was very sound; she had good teeth, and a healthy brownish complexion.
With reference to the sick girl whom Miss Barfoot was visiting, Everard began what was practically a resumption of their last talk.
'Have you a formal society, with rules and so on?'
'Oh no; nothing of the kind.'
'But you of course select the girls whom you instruct or employ?'
'How I should like to see them all! -- I mean,' he added, with a laugh, 'it would he so very interesting. The truth is, my sympathies are strongly with you in much of what you said the other day about women and marriage. We regard the matter from different points of view, but our ends are the same.'
Rhoda moved her eyebrows, and asked calmly, --
'Are you serious?'
'Perfectly. You are absorbed in your present work, that of strengthening women's minds and character; for the final issue of this you can't care much. But to me that is the practical interest. In my mind, you are working for the happiness of men.'
'Indeed?' escaped Rhoda's lips, which had curled in irony.
'Don't misunderstand me. I am not speaking cynically or trivially. The gain of women is also the gain of men. You are bitter against the average man for his low morality; but that fault, on the whole, is directly traceable to the ignobleness of women. Think, and you will grant me this.'
'I see what you mean. Men have themselves to thank for it.'
'Assuredly they have. I say that I am on your side. Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals. But, you see, I am one of the men, and an impatient one too. The mass of women I see about me are so contemptible that, in my haste, I use unjust language. Put yourself in the man's place. Say that there are a million or so of us very intelligent and highly educated. Well, the women of corresponding mind number perhaps a few thousands. The vast majority of men must make a marriage that is doomed to be a dismal failure. We fall in love it is true; but do we really deceive ourselves about the future? A very young man may; why, we know of very young men who are so frantic as to marry girls of the working class -- mere lumps of human flesh. But most of us know that our marriage is a pis aller. At first we are sad about it; then we grow cynical, and snap our fingers at moral obligation.'
'Making a bad case very much worse, instead of bravely bettering it.'
'Yes, but human nature is human nature. I am only urging to you the case of average intelligent men. As likely as not -- so preposterous are our conventions -- you have never heard it put honestly. I tell you the simple truth when I say that more than half these men regard their wives with active disgust. They will do anything to be relieved of the sight of them for as many hours as possible at a time. If circumstances allowed, wives would be abandoned very often indeed.'
'You regret that it isn't done?'
'I prefer to say that I approve it when it is done without disregard of common humanity. There's my friend Orchard. With him it was suicide or freedom from his hateful wife. Most happily, he was able to make provision for her and the children, and had strength to break his bonds. If he had left them to starve, I should have understood it, but couldn't have approved it. There are men who might follow his example, but prefer to put up with a life of torture. Well, they do prefer it, you see. I may think that they are foolishly weak, but I can only recognize that they make a choice between two forms of suffering. They have tender consciences; the thought of desertion is too painful to them. And in a great number of cases, mere considerations of money and the like keep a man bound. But conscience and habit -- detestable habit -- and fear of public opinion generally hold him.'
'All this is very interesting,' said Rhoda, with grave irony. 'By-the-bye, under the head of detestable habit you would put love of children?'
'That's a motive I oughtn't to have left out. Yet I believe, for most men, it is represented by conscience. The love of children would not generally, in itself, be strong enough to outweigh matrimonial wretchedness. Many an intelligent and kind-hearted man has been driven from his wife notwithstanding thought for his children. He provides for them as well as he can -- but, and even for their sakes, he must save himself.'
The expression of Rhoda's countenance suddenly changed. An extreme mobility of facial muscles was one of the things in her that held Everard's attention.
'There's something in your way of putting it that I don't like,' she said, with much frankness; 'but of course I agree with you in the facts. I am convinced that most marriages are hateful, from every point of view. But there will be no improvement until women have revolted against marriage, from a reasonable conviction of its hatefulness.'
'I wish you all success -- most sincerely I do.'
He paused, looked about the room, and stroked his ear. Then, in a grave tone, --
'My own ideal of marriage involves perfect freedom on both sides. Of course it could only be realized where conditions are favourable; poverty and other wretched things force us so often to sin against our best beliefs. But there are plenty of people who might marry on these ideal terms. Perfect freedom, sanctioned by the sense of intelligent society, would abolish most of the evils we have in mind. But women must first be civilized; you are quite right in that.'
The door opened, and Miss Barfoot came in. She glanced from one to the other, and without speaking gave her hand to Everard.
'How is your patient?' he asked.
'A little better, I think. It is nothing dangerous. Here's a letter from your brother Tom. Perhaps I had better read it at once; there may be news you would like to hear.'
She sat down and broke the envelope. Whilst she was reading the letter to herself, Rhoda quietly left the room.
'Yes, there is news,' said Miss Barfoot presently, 'and of a disagreeable kind. A few weeks ago -- before writing, that is -- he was thrown off a horse and had a rib fractured.'
'Oh? How is he going on?'
'Getting right again, he says. And they are coming back to England; his wife's consumptive symptoms have disappeared, of course, and she is very impatient to leave Madeira. It is to be hoped she will allow poor Tom time to get his rib set. Probably that consideration doesn't weigh much with her. He says that he is writing to you by the same mail.'
'Poor old fellow!' said Everard, with feeling. 'Does he complain about his wife?'
'He never has done till now, but there's a sentence here that reads doubtfully. "Muriel," he says, "has been terribly upset about my accident. I can't persuade her that I didn't get thrown on purpose; yet I assure you I didn't."'
'If old Tom becomes ironical, he must be hard driven. I have no great longing to meet Mrs. Thomas.'
'She's a silly and a vulgar woman. But I told him that in plain terms before he married. It says much for his good nature that he remains so friendly with me. Read the letter, Everard.'
He did so.
'H'm -- very kind things about me. Good old Tom! Why don't I marry? Well, now, one would have thought that his own experience ----'
Miss Barfoot began to talk about something else. Before very long Rhoda came back, and in the conversation that followed it was mentioned that she would leave for her holiday in two days.
'I have been reading about Cheddar,' exclaimed Everard, with animation. 'There's a flower grows among the rocks called the Cheddar pink. Do you know it?'
'Oh, very well,' Rhoda answered. 'I'll bring you some specimens.'
'Will you? That's very kind.'
'Bring me a genuine pound or two of the cheese, Rhoda,' requested Miss Barfoot gaily.
'I will. What they sell in the shops there is all sham, Mr. Barfoot -- like so much else in this world.'
'I care nothing about the cheese. That's all very well for a matter-of-fact person like cousin Mary, but I have a strong vein of poetry; you must have noticed it?'
When they shook hands, --
'You will really bring me the flowers?' Everard said in a voice sensibly softened.
'I will make a note of it,' was the reassuring answer.
The sick girl whom Miss Barfoot had been to see was Monica Madden.
With strange suddenness, after several weeks of steady application to her work, in a cheerful spirit which at times rose to gaiety, Monica became dull, remiss, unhappy; then violent headaches attacked her, and one morning she declared herself unable to rise. Mildred Vesper went to Great Portland Street at the usual hour, and informed Miss Barfoot of her companion's illness. A doctor was summoned; to him it seemed probable that the girl was suffering from consequences of overstrain at her old employment; there was nervous collapse, hysteria, general disorder of the system. Had the patient any mental disquietude? Was trouble of any kind (the doctor smiled) weighing upon her? Miss Barfoot, unable to answer these questions, held private colloquy with Mildred; but the latter, though she pondered a good deal with corrugated brows, could furnish no information.
In a day or two Monica was removed to her sister's lodgings at Lavender Hill. Mrs. Conisbee managed to put a room at her disposal, and Virginia tended her. Thither Miss Barfoot went on the evening when Everard found her away; she and Virginia, talking together after being with the invalid for a quarter of an hour, agreed that there was considerable improvement, but felt a like uneasiness regarding Monica's state of mind.
'Do you think,' asked the visitor, 'that she regrets the step I persuaded her to take?'
'Oh, I can't think that She has been so delighted with her progress each time I have seen her. No, I feel sure it's only the results of what she suffered at Walworth Road. In a very short time we shall have her at work again, and brighter than ever.'
Miss Barfoot was not convinced. After Everard's departure that evening she talked of the matter with Rhoda.
'I'm afraid,' said Miss Nunn, 'that Monica is rather a silly girl. She doesn't know her own mind. If this kind of thing is repeated, we had better send her back to the country.'
'To shop work again?'
'It might be better.'
'Oh, I don't like the thought of that.'
Rhoda had one of her fits of wrathful eloquence.
'Now could one have a better instance than this Madden family of the crime that middle-class parents commit when they allow their girls to go without rational training? Of course I know that Monica was only a little child when they were left orphans; but her sisters had already grown up into uselessness, and their example has been harmful to her all along. Her guardians dealt with her absurdly; they made her half a lady and half a shop-girl. I don't think she'll ever be good for much. And the elder ones will go on just keeping themselves alive; you can see that. They'll never start the school that there's so much talk of. That poor, helpless, foolish Virginia, alone there in her miserable lodging! How can we hope that any one will take her as a companion? And yet they are capitalists; eight hundred pounds between them. Think what capable women might do with eight hundred pounds.'
'I am really afraid to urge them to meddle with the investments.'
'Of course; so am I. One is afraid to do or propose anything. Virginia is starving, must be starving. Poor creature! I can never forget how her eyes shone when I put that joint of meat before her.'
'I do, do wish,' sighed Miss Barfoot, with a pained smile, 'that I knew some honest man who would be likely to fall in love with little Monica! In spite of you, my dear, I would devote myself to making the match. But there's no one.'
'Oh, I would help,' laughed Rhoda, not unkindly. 'She's fit for nothing else, I'm afraid. We mustn't look for any kind of heroism in Monica.'
Less than half an hour after Miss Barfoot had left the house at Lavender Hill, Mildred Vesper made a call there. It was about half-past nine; the invalid, after sitting up since midday, had gone to bed, but could not sleep. Summoned to the house-door, Virginia acquainted Miss Vesper with the state of affairs.
'I think you might see her for a few minutes.'
'I should like to, if you please, Miss Madden,' replied Mildred, who had a rather uneasy look.
She went upstairs and entered the bedroom, where a lamp was burning. At the sight of her friend Monica showed much satisfaction; they kissed each other affectionately.
'Good old girl! I had made up my mind to come back tomorrow, or at all events the day after. It's so frightfully dull here. Oh, and I wanted to know if anything -- any letter -- had come for me.'
'That's just why I came to see you to-night.'
Mildred took a letter from her pocket, and half averted her face as she handed it.
'It's nothing particular,' said Monica, putting it away under her pillow. 'Thank you, dear.'
But her cheeks had become hot, and she trembled.
'You wouldn't care to tell me about -- anything? You don't think it would make your mind easier?'
For a minute Monica lay back, gazing at the wall, then she looked round quickly, with a shamefaced laugh.
'It's very silly of me not to have told you long before this. But you're so sensible; I was afraid. I'll tell you everything. Not now, but as soon as I get to Rutland Street. I shall come to-morrow.'
'Do you think you can? You look dreadfully bad still.'
'I shan't get any better here,' replied the invalid in a whisper. 'Poor Virgie does depress me so. She doesn't understand that I can't bear to hear her repeating the kind of things she has heard from Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn. She tries so hard to look forward hopefully -- but I know she is miserable, and it makes me more miserable still. I oughtn't to have left you; I should have been all right in a day or two, with you to help me. You don't make-believe, Milly; it's all real and natural good spirits. It has done me good only to see your dear old face.'
'Oh, you're a flatterer. And do you really feel better?'
'Very much better. I shall go to sleep very soon.'
The visitor took her leave. When, a few minutes after, Monica had bidden good-night to her sister (requesting that the lamp might be left), she read what Mildred had brought.
'MY DEAREST MONICA,' -- the missive began -- 'Why have you not written before this? I have been dreadfully uneasy ever since receiving your last letter. Your headache soon went away, I hope? Why haven't you made another appointment? It is all I can do to keep from breaking my promise and coming to ask about you. Write at once, I implore you, my dearest. It's no use telling me that I must not use these words of affection; they come to my lips and to my pen irresistibly. You know so well that I love you with all my heart and soul; I can't address you like I did when we first corresponded. My darling! My dear, sweet, beautiful little girl ----'
Four close pages of this, with scarce room at the end for 'E.W.' When she had gone through it, Monica turned her face upon the pillow and lay so for a long time. A clock in the house struck eleven; this roused her, and she slipped out of the bed to hide the letter in her dress-pocket. Not long after she was asleep.
The next day, on returning from her work and opening the sitting-room door, Mildred Vesper was greeted with a merry laugh. Monica had been here since three o'clock, and had made tea in readiness for her friend's arrival. She looked very white, but her eyes gleamed with pleasure, and she moved about the room as actively as before.
'Virgie came with me, but she wouldn't stay. She says she has a most important letter to write to Alice -- about the school, of course. Oh, that school! I do wish they could make up their minds. I've told them they may have all my money, if they like.'
'Have you? I should like the sensation of offering hundreds of pounds to some one. It must give a strange feeling of dignity and importance.'
'Oh, only two hundred! A wretched little sum.'
'You are a person of large ideas, as I have often told you. Where did you get them, I wonder?'
'Don't put on that face! It's the one I like least of all your many faces. It's suspicious.'
Mildred went to take off her things, and was quickly at the tea-table. She had a somewhat graver look than usual, and chose rather to listen than talk.
Not long after tea, when there had been a long and unnatural silence, Mildred making pretence of absorption in a 'Treasury' and her companion standing at the window, whence she threw back furtive glances, the thunder of a postman's knock downstairs caused both of them to start, and look at each other in a conscience-stricken way.
'That may be for me,' said Monica, stepping to the door. 'I'll go and look.'
Her conjecture was right. Another letter from Widdowson, still more alarmed and vehement than the last. She read it rapidly on the staircase, and entered the room with sheet and envelope squeezed together in her hand.
'I'm going to tell you all about this, Milly.'
The other nodded and assumed an attitude of sober attention. In relating her story, Monica moved hither and thither; now playing with objects on the mantlepiece, now standing in the middle of the floor, hands locked nervously behind her. Throughout, her manner was that of defence; she seemed doubtful of herself, and anxious to represent the case as favourably as possible; not for a moment had her voice the ring of courageous passion, nor the softness of tender feeling. The narrative hung together but awkwardly, and in truth gave a very indistinct notion of how she had comported herself at the various stages of the irregular courtship. Her behaviour had been marked by far more delicacy and scruple than she succeeded in representing. Painfully conscious of this, she exclaimed at length, --
'I see your opinion of me has suffered. You don't like this story. You wonder how I could do such things.'
'Well, dear, I certainly wonder how you could begin,' Mildred made answer, with her natural directness, but gently. 'Afterwards, of course, it was different. When you had once got to be sure that he was a gentleman ----'
'I was sure of that so soon,' exclaimed Monica, her cheeks still red. 'You will understand it much better when you have seen him.'
'You wish me to?'
'I am going to write now, and say that I will marry him.'
They looked long at each other.
'You are -- really?'
'Yes. I made up my mind last night.'
'But, Monica -- you mustn't mind my speaking plainly -- I don't think you love him.'
'Yes, I love him well enough to feel that I am doing right in marrying him.' She sat down by the table, and propped her head on her hand. 'He loves me; I can't doubt that. If you could read his letters, you would see how strong his feeling is.'
She shook with the cold induced by excitement; her voice was at moments all but choked.
'But, putting love aside,' went on the other, very gravely, 'what do you really know of Mr. Widdowson? Nothing whatever but what he has told you himself. Of course you will let your friends make inquiries for you?'
'Yes. I shall tell my sisters, and no doubt they will go to Miss Nunn at once. I don't want to do anything rash. But it will be all right -- I mean, he has told me the truth about everything. You would be sure of that if you knew him.'
Mildred, with hands before her on the table, made the tips of her fingers meet. Her lips were drawn in; her eyes seemed looking for something minute on the cloth.
'You know,' she said at length, 'I suspected what was going on. I couldn't help.'
'Of course you couldn't.'
'Naturally I thought it was some one whose acquaintance you had made at the shop.'
'How could I think of marrying any one of that kind?'
'I should have been grieved.'
'You may believe me, Milly; Mr. Widdowson is a man you will respect and like as soon as you know him. He couldn't have behaved to me with more delicacy. Not a word from him, spoken or written, has ever pained me -- except that he tells me he suffers so dreadfully, and of course I can't hear that without pain.'
'To respect, and even to like, a man, isn't at all the same as loving him.'
'I said you would respect and like him,' exclaimed Monica, with humorous impatience. 'I don't want you to love him.'
Mildred laughed, with constraint.
'I never loved any one yet, dear, and it's very unlikely I ever shall. But I think I know the signs of the feeling.'
Monica came behind her, and leaned upon her shoulder.
'He loves me so much that he has made me think I must marry him. And I am glad of it. I'm not like you, Milly; I can't be contented with this life. Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn are very sensible and good people, and I admire them very much, but I can't go their way. It seems to me that it would be dreadful, dreadful, to live one's life alone. Don't turn round and snap at me; I want to tell you the truth whilst you can't see me. Whenever I think of Alice and Virginia, I am frightened; I had rather, oh, far rather, kill myself than live such a life at their age. You can't imagine how miserable they are, really. And I have the same nature as theirs, you know. Compared with you and Miss Haven I'm very weak and childish.'
After drumming on the table for a moment, with wrinkled brows, Mildred made grave response.
'You must let me tell the truth as well. I think you're going to marry with altogether wrong ideas. I think you'll do an injustice to Mr. Widdowson. You will marry him for a comfortable home -- that's what it amounts to. And you'll repent it bitterly some day -- you'll repent.'
Monica raised herself and stood apart.
'For one thing,' pursued Mildred, with nervous earnestness, 'he's too old. Your habits and his won't suit.'
'He has assured me that I shall live exactly the kind of life I please. And that will be what he pleases. I feel his kindness to me very much, and I shall do my utmost to repay him.'
'That's a very nice spirit; but I believe married life is no easy thing even when the people are well matched. I have heard the most dreadful stories of quarrelling and all sorts of unhappiness between people I thought safe from any such dangers. You may be fortunate; I only say that the chances are very much against it, marrying from such motives as you confess.'
Monica drew herself up.
'I haven't confessed any motive to be ashamed of, Milly.'
'You say you have decided to marry now because you are afraid of never having another chance'
'No; that's turning it very unkindly. I only said that after I had told you that I did love him. And I do love him. He has made me love him.'
'Then I have no right to say any more. I can only wish you happiness.'
Mildred heaved a sigh, and pretended to give her attention to Maunder.
After waiting irresolutely for some minutes, Monica looked for notepaper, and took it, together with her inkstand, into the bedroom. She was absent half an hour. On her return there was a stamped letter in her hand.
'It is going, Milly.'
'Very well, dear. I have nothing more to say.'
'You give me up for lost. We shall see.'
It was spoken light-heartedly. Again she left the room, put on her out-of-door things, and went to post the letter. By this time she began to feel the results of exertion and excitement; headache and tremulous failing of her strength obliged her to go to bed almost as soon as she returned. Mildred waited upon her with undiminished kindness.
'It's all right,' Monica murmured, as her head sank on the pillow. 'I feel so relieved and so glad -- so happy -- now I have done it.'
'Good-night, dear,' replied the other, with a kiss, and went back to her semblance of reading.
Two days later Monica called unexpectedly at Mrs. Conisbee's. Being told by that worthy woman that Miss Madden was at home, she ran upstairs and tapped at the door. Virginia's voice inquired hurriedly who was there, and on Monica's announcing herself there followed a startled exclamation.
'Just a minute, my love! Only a minute.'
When the door opened Monica was surprised by a disorder in her sister's appearance. Virginia had flushed cheeks, curiously vague eyes, and hair ruffled as if she had just risen from a nap. She began to talk in a hurried, disconnected way, trying to explain that she had not been quite well, and was not yet properly dressed.
'What a strange smell!' Monica exclaimed, looking about the room. 'It's like brandy.'
'You notice it? I have -- I was obliged to get -- to ask Mrs. Conisbee for ---- I don't want to alarm you, dear, but I felt rather faint. Indeed, I thought I should have a fainting fit. I was obliged to call Mrs. Conisbee ---- But don't think anything about it. It's all over. The weather is very trying ----'
She laughed nervously and began to pat Monica's hand. The girl was not quite satisfied, and pressed many questions, but in the end she accepted Virginia's assurances that nothing serious had happened. Then her own business occupied her; she sat down, and said with a smile, --
'I have brought you astonishing news. If you didn't faint before you'll be very likely to do so now.'
Her sister exhibited fresh agitation, and begged not to be kept in suspense.
'My nerves are in a shocking state to-day. It must be the weather. What can you have to tell me, Monica?'
'I think I shan't need to go on with typewriting.'
'Why? What are you going to do, child?' the other asked sharply.
'Virgie -- I am going to be married.'
The shock was a severe one. Virginia's hands fell, her eyes started, her mouth opened; she became the colour of clay, even her lips losing for the moment all their colour.
'Married?' she at length gasped. 'Who -- who is it?'
'Some one you have never heard of. His name is Mr. Edmund Widdowson. He is very well off, and has a house at Herne Hill.'
'A private gentleman?'
'Yes. He used to be in business, but is retired. Now, I am not going to tell you much more about him until you have made his acquaintance. Don't ask a lot of questions. You are to come with me this afternoon to his house. He lives alone, but a relative of his, his sister-in-law, is going to be with him to meet us.'
'Oh, but it's so sudden! I can't go to pay a call like that at a moment's notice. Impossible, darling! What does it all mean? You are going to be married, Monica? I can't understand it. I can't realize it. Who is this gentleman? How long ----'
'No; you won't get me to tell you more than I have done, till you have seen him.'
'But what have you told me? I couldn't grasp it. I am quite confused. Mr. -- what was the name?'
It took half an hour to familiarize Virginia with the simple fact. When she was convinced of its truth, a paroxysm of delight appeared in her. She laughed, uttered cries of joy, even clapped her hands.
'Monica to be married! A private gentleman -- a large fortune! My darling, how shall I ever believe it? Yet I felt so sure that the day would come. What will Alice say? And Rhoda Nunn? Have you -- have you ventured to tell her?'
'No, that I haven't. I want you to do that You shall go and see them to-morrow, as it's Sunday.'
'Oh, the delight! Alice won't be able to contain herself. We always said the day would come.'
'You won't have any more anxieties, Virgie. You can take the school or not, as you like. Mr. Widdowson ----'
'Oh, my dear,' interposed Virginia, with sudden dignity, 'we shall certainly open the school. We have made up our minds; that is to be our life's work. It is far, far more than a mere means of subsistence. But perhaps we shall not need to hurry. Everything can be matured at our leisure. If you would only just tell me, darling, when you were first introduced?'
Monica laughed gaily, and refused to explain. It was time for Virginia to make herself ready, and here arose a new perturbation; what had she suitable for wear under such circumstances? Monica had decked herself a little, and helped the other to make the best of her narrow resources. At four o'clock they set out.
When they reached the house at Herne Hill the sisters were both in a state of nervous tremor. Monica had only the vaguest idea of the kind of person Mrs. Luke Widdowson would prove to be, and Virginia seemed to herself to be walking in a dream.
'Have you been here often?' whispered the latter, as soon as they came in view of the place. Its aspect delighted her, but the conflict of her emotions was so disturbing that she had to pause and seek the support of her sister's arm.
'I've never been inside,' Monica answered indistinctly. 'Come; we shall be unpunctual.'
'I do wish you would tell me, dear ----'
'I can't talk, Virgie. Try and keep quiet, and behave as if it were all quite natural.'
This was altogether beyond Virginia's power. It happened most luckily, though greatly to Widdowson's annoyance, that the sister-in-law, Mrs. Luke Widdowson, arrived nearly half an hour later than the time she had appointed. Led by the servant into a comfortable drawing-room, the visitors were received by the master of the house alone; with a grim smile, the result of his embarrassment, with profuse apologies and a courtesy altogether excessive, Widdowson did his best to put them at their ease -- of course with small result. The sisters side by side on a settee at one end of the room, and the host seated far away from them, they talked with scarcely any understanding of what was said on either side -- the weather and the vastness of London serving as topics -- until of a sudden the door was thrown open, and there appeared a person of such imposing presence that Virginia gave a start and Monica gazed in painful fascination. Mrs. Luke was a tall and portly woman in the prime of life, with rather a high colour; her features were handsome, but without much refinement, their expression a condescending good-humour. Her mourning garb, if mourning it could be called, represented an extreme of the prevailing fashion; its glint and rustle inspired awe in the female observer. A moment ago the drawing-room had seemed empty; Mrs. Luke, in her sole person, filled and illumined it.
Widdowson addressed this resplendent personage by her Christian name, his familiarity exciting in Monica an irrational surprise. He presented the sisters to her, and Mrs. Luke, bowing grandly at a distance, drew from her bosom a gold-rimmed pince-nez, through which she scrutinized Monica. The smile which followed might have been interpreted in several senses; Widdowson, alone capable of remarking it, answered with a look of severe dignity.
Mrs. Luke had no thought of apologizing for the lateness of her arrival, and it was evident that she did not intend to stay long. Her purpose seemed to be to make the occasion as informal as possible.
'Do you, by chance, know the Hodgson Bulls?' she asked of her relative, interrupting him in the nervous commonplaces with which he was endeavouring to smooth the way to a general conversation. She had the accent of cultivation, but spoke rather imperiously.
'I never heard of them,' was the cold reply.
'No? They live somewhere about here. I have to make a call on them. I suppose my coachman will find the place.'
There was an awkward silence. Widdowson was about to say something to Monica, when Mrs. Luke, who had again closely observed the girl through the glasses, interposed in a gentle tone.
'Do you like this neighbourhood, Miss Madden?'
Monica gave the expected answer, her voice sounding very weak and timid by comparison. And so, for some ten minutes, an appearance of dialogue was sustained. Mrs. Luke, though still condescending, evinced a desire to be agreeable; she smiled and nodded in reply to the girl's remarks, and occasionally addressed Virginia with careful civility, conveying the impression, perhaps involuntarily, that she commiserated the shy and shabbily-dressed person. Tea was brought in, and after pretending to take a cup, she rose for departure.
'Perhaps you will come and see me some day, Miss Madden,' fell from her with unanticipated graciousness, as she stepped forward to the girl and offered her hand. 'Edmund must bring you -- at some quiet time when we can talk. Very glad to have met you -- very glad indeed.'
And the personage was gone; they heard her carriage roll away from beneath the window. All three drew a breath of relief, and Widdowson, suddenly quite another man, took a place near to Virginia, with whom in a few minutes he was conversing in the friendliest way. Virginia, experiencing a like relief, also became herself; she found courage to ask needful questions, which in every case were satisfactorily met. Of Mrs. Luke there was no word, but when they had taken their leave -- the visit lasted altogether some two hours -- Monica and her sister discussed that great lady with the utmost freedom. They agreed that she was personally detestable.
'But very rich, my dear,' said Virginia in a murmuring voice. 'You can see that. I have met such people before; they have a manner -- oh! Of course Mr. Widdowson will take you to call upon her.'
'When nobody else is likely to be there; that's what she meant,' remarked Monica coldly.
'Never mind, my love. You don't wish for grand society. I am very glad to tell you that Edmund impresses me very favourably. He is reserved, but that is no fault. Oh, we must write to Alice at once! Her surprise! Her delight!'
When, on the next day, Monica met her betrothed in Regent's Park -- she still lived with Mildred Vesper, but no longer went to Great Portland Street -- their talk was naturally of Mrs. Luke. Widdowson speedily led to the topic.
'I had told you,' he said, with careful accent, 'that I see very little of her. I can't say that I like her, but she is a very difficult person to understand, and I fancy she often gives offence when she doesn't at all mean it. Still, I hope you were not -- displeased?'
Monica avoided a direct answer.
'Shall you take me to see her?' were her words.
'If you will go, dear. And I have no doubt she will be present at our wedding. Unfortunately, she's my only relative; or the only one I know anything about. After our marriage I don't think we shall see much of her ----'
'No, I dare say not,' was Monica's remark. And thereupon they turned to pleasanter themes.
That morning Widdowson had received from his sister-in-law a scribbled post-card, asking him to call upon Mrs. Luke early the day that followed. Of course this meant that the lady was desirous of further talk concerning Miss Madden. Unwillingly, but as a matter of duty, he kept the appointment. It was at eleven in the morning, and, when admitted to the flat in Victoria Street which was his relative's abode, he had to wait a quarter of an hour for the lady's appearance.
Luxurious fashion, as might have been expected, distinguished Mrs. Luke's drawing-room. Costly and beautiful things superabounded; perfume soothed the air. Only since her bereavement had Mrs. Widdowson been able to indulge this taste for modern exuberance in domestic adornment. The deceased Luke was a plain man of business, who clung to the fashions which had been familiar to him in his youth; his second wife found a suburban house already furnished, and her influence with him could not prevail to banish the horrors amid which he chose to live: chairs in maroon rep, Brussels carpets of red roses on a green ground, horse-hair sofas of the most uncomfortable shape ever designed, antimacassars everywhere, chimney ornaments of cut glass trembling in sympathy with the kindred chandeliers. She belonged to an obscure branch of a house that culminated in an obscure baronetcy; penniless and ambitious, she had to thank her imposing physique for rescue at a perilous age, and though despising Mr. Luke Widdowson for his plebeian tastes, she shrewdly retained the good-will of a husband who seemed no candidate for length of years. The money-maker died much sooner than she could reasonably have hoped, and left her an income of four thousand pounds. Thereupon began for Mrs. Luke a life of feverish aspiration. The baronetcy to which she was akin had inspired her, even from childhood, with an aristocratic ideal; a handsome widow of only eight-and-thirty, she resolved that her wealth should pave the way for her to a titled alliance. Her acquaintance lay among City people, but with the opportunities of freedom it was soon extended to the sphere of what is known as smart society; her flat in Victoria Street attracted a heterogeneous cluster of pleasure-seekers and fortune-hunters, among them one or two vagrant members of the younger aristocracy. She lived at the utmost pace compatible with technical virtue. When, as shortly happened, it became evident that her income was not large enough for her serious purpose, she took counsel with an old friend great in finance, and thenceforth the excitement of the gambler gave a new zest to her turbid existence. Like most of her female associates, she had free recourse to the bottle; but for such stimulus the life of a smart woman would be physically impossible. And Mrs. Luke enjoyed life, enjoyed it vastly. The goal of her ambition, if all went well in the City, was quite within reasonable hope. She foretasted the day when a vulgar prefix would no longer attach to her name, and when the journals of society would reflect her rising effulgence.
Widdowson was growing impatient, when his relative at length appeared. She threw herself into a deep chair, crossed her legs, and gazed at him mockingly.
'Well, it isn't quite so bad as I feared, Edmund.'
'What do you mean?'
'Oh, she's a decent enough little girl, I can see. But you're a silly fellow for all that. You couldn't have deceived me, you know. If there'd been anything -- you understand? -- I should have spotted it at once.'
'I don't relish this kind of talk,' observed Widdowson acidly. 'In plain English, you supposed I was going to marry some one about whom I couldn't confess the truth.'
'Of course I did. Now come; tell me how you got to know her.'
The man moved uneasily, but in the end related the whole story. Mrs. Luke kept nodding, with an amused air.
'Yes, yes; she managed it capitally. Clever little witch. Fetching eyes she has.'
'If you sent for me to make insulting remarks ----'
'Bosh! I'll come to the wedding gaily. But you're a silly fellow. Now, why didn't you come and ask me to find you a wife? Why, I know two or three girls of really good family who would have jumped, simply jumped, at a man with your money. Pretty girls too. But you always were so horribly unpractical. Don't you know, my dear boy, that there are heaps of ladies, real ladies, waiting the first decent man who offers them five or six hundred a year? Why haven't you used the opportunities that you knew I could put in your way?'
Widdowson rose from his seat and stood stiffly.
'I see you don't understand me in the least. I am going to marry because, for the first time in my life, I have met the woman whom I can respect and love.'
'That's very nice and proper. But why shouldn't you respect and love a girl who belongs to good society?'
'Miss Madden is a lady,' he replied indignantly.
'Oh -- yes -- to be sure,' hummed the other, letting her head roll back. 'Well, bring her here some day when we can lunch quietly together. I see it's no use. You're not a sharp man, Edmund.'
'Do you seriously tell me,' asked Widdowson, with grave curiosity, 'that there are ladies in good society who would have married me just because I have a few hundreds a year?'
'My dear boy, I would get together a round dozen in two or three days. Girls who would make good, faithful wives, in mere gratitude to the man who saved them from -- horrors.'
'Excuse me if I say that I don't believe it.'
Mrs. Luke laughed merrily, and the conversation went on ill this strain for another ten minutes. At the end, Mrs. Luke made herself very agreeable, praised Monica for her sweet face and gentle manners, and so dismissed the solemn man with a renewed promise to countenance the marriage by her gracious presence.
When Rhoda Nunn returned from her holiday it wanted but a week to Monica's wedding, so speedily had everything been determined and arranged. Miss Barfoot, having learnt from Virginia all that was to be known concerning Mr. Widdowson, felt able to hope for the best; a grave husband, of mature years, and with means more than sufficient, seemed, to the eye of experience, no unsuitable match for a girl such as Monica. This view of the situation caused Rhoda to smile with contemptuous tolerance.
'And yet,' she remarked, 'I have heard you speak severely of such marriages.'
'It isn't the ideal wedlock,' replied Miss Barfoot. 'But so much in life is compromise. After all, she may regard him more affectionally than we imagine.'
'No doubt she has weighed advantages. If the prospects you offered her had proved more to her taste she would have dismissed this elderly admirer. His fate has been decided during the last few weeks. It's probable that the invitation to your Wednesday evenings gave her a hope of meeting young men.'
'I see no harm if it did,' said Miss Barfoot, smiling. 'But Miss Vesper would very soon undeceive her on that point.'
'I hardly thought of her as a girl likely to make chance friendships with men in highways and by-ways.'
'No more did I; and that makes all the more content with what has come about. She ran a terrible risk, poor child. You see, Rhoda, nature is too strong for us.'
Rhoda threw her head back.
'And the delight of her sister! It is really pathetic. The mere fact that Monica is to be married blinds the poor woman to every possibility of misfortune.' In the course of the same conversation, Rhoda remarked thoughtfully, --
'It strikes me that Mr. Widdowson must be of a confiding nature. I don't think men in general, at all events those with money, care to propose marriage to girls they encounter by the way.'
'I suppose he saw that the case was exceptional.'
'How was he to see that?'
'You are severe. Her shop training accounts for much. The elder sisters could never have found a husband in this way. The revelation must have shocked them at first.'
Rhoda dismissed the subject lightly, and henceforth showed only the faintest interest in Monica's concerns.
Monica meanwhile rejoiced in her liberation from the work and philosophic seventies of Great Portland Street. She saw Widdowson somewhere or other every day, and heard him discourse on the life that was before them, herself for the most part keeping silence. Together they called upon Mrs. Luke, and had luncheon with her. Monica was not displeased with her reception, and began secretly to hope that more than a glimpse of that gorgeous world might some day be vouchsafed to her.
Apart from her future husband, Monica was in a sportive mood, with occasional fits of exhilaration which seemed rather unnatural. She had declared to Mildred her intention of inviting Miss Nunn to the wedding, and her mind was evidently set on carrying out this joke, as she regarded it. When the desire was intimated by letter, Rhoda replied with a civil refusal: she would be altogether out of place at such a ceremony, but hoped that Monica would accept her heartiest good wishes. Virginia was then dispatched to Queen's Road, and appealed so movingly that the prophetess at length yielded. On hearing this Monica danced with delight, and her companion in Rutland Street could not help sharing her merriment.
The ceremony was performed at a church at Herne Hill. By an odd arrangement -- like everything else in the story of this pair, a result of social and personal embarrassments -- Monica's belongings, including her apparel for the day, were previously dispatched to the bridegroom's house, whither, in company with Virginia, the bride went early in the morning. It was one of the quietest of weddings, but all ordinary formalities were complied with, Widdowson having no independent views on the subject. Present were Virginia (to give away the bride), Miss Vesper (who looked decidedly odd in a pretty dress given her by Monica), Rhoda Nunn (who appeared to advantage in a costume of quite unexpected appropriateness), Mrs. Widdowson (an imposing figure, evidently feeling that she had got into strange society), and, as friend of the bridegroom, one Mr. Newdick, a musty and nervous City clerk. Depression was manifest on every countenance, not excepting Widdowson's; the man had such a stern, gloomy look, and held himself with so much awkwardness, that he might have been imagined to stand here on compulsion. For an hour before going to the church, Monica cried and seemed unutterably doleful; she had not slept for two nights; her face was ghastly. Virginia's gladness gave way just before the company assembled, and she too shed many tears.
There was a breakfast, more dismal fooling than even this species of fooling is wont to be. Mr. Newdick, trembling and bloodless, proposed Monica's health; Widdowson, stern and dark as ever, gloomily responded; and then, that was happily over. By one o'clock the gathering began to disperse. Monica drew Rhoda Nunn aside.
'It was very kind of you to come,' she whispered, with half a sob. 'It all seems very silly, and I'm sure you have wished yourself away a hundred times. I am really, seriously, grateful to you.'
Rhoda put a hand on each side of the girl's face, and kissed her, but without saying a word; and thereupon left the house. Mildred Vesper, after changing her dress in the room used by Monica, as she had done on arriving, went off by train to her duties in Great Portland Street. Virginia alone remained to see the married couple start for their honeymoon. They were going into Cornwall, and on the return journey would manage to see Miss Madden at her Somerset retreat. For the present, Virginia was to live on at Mrs. Conisbee's, but not in the old way; henceforth she would have proper attendance, and modify her vegetarian diet -- at the express bidding of the doctor, as she explained to her landlady.
Though that very evening Everard Barfoot made a call upon his friends in Chelsea, the first since Rhoda's return from Cheddar, he heard nothing of the event that marked the day. But Miss Nunn appeared to him unlike herself; she was absent, had little to say, and looked, what he had never yet known her, oppressed by low spirits. For some reason or other Miss Barfoot left the room.
'You are thinking with regret of your old home,' Everard remarked, taking a seat nearer to Miss Nunn.'
'No. Why should you fancy that?'
'Only because you seem rather sad.'
'One is sometimes.'
'I like to see you with that look. May I remind you that you promised me some flowers from Cheddar?'
'Oh, so I did,' exclaimed the other in a tone of natural recollection. 'I have brought them, scientifically pressed between blotting-paper. I'll fetch them.'
When she returned it was together with Miss Barfoot, and the conversation became livelier.
A day or two after this Everard left town, and was away for three weeks, part of the time in Ireland.
'I left London for a while,' he wrote from Killarney to his cousin, 'partly because I was afraid I had begun to bore you and Miss Nunn. Don't you regret giving me permission to call upon you? The fact is, I can't live without intelligent female society; talking with women, as I talk with you two, is one of my chief enjoyments. I hope you won't get tired of my visits; in fact, they are all but a necessity to me, as I have discovered since coming away. But it was fair that you should have a rest.'
'Don't be afraid,' Miss Barfoot replied to this part of his letter. 'We are not at all weary of your conversation. The truth is, I like it much better than in the old days. You seem to me to have a healthier mind, and I am quite sure that the society of intelligent women (we affect no foolish self-depreciation, Miss Nunn and I) is a good thing for you. Come back to us as soon as you like; I shall welcome you.'
It happened that his return to England was almost simultaneous with the arrival from Madeira of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Barfoot. Everard at once went to see his brother, who for the present was staying at Torquay. Ill-health dictated his choice of residence; Thomas was still suffering from the results of his accident; his wife had left him at a hotel, and was visiting relatives in different parts of England. The brothers exhibited much affectionate feeling after their long separation; they spent a week together, and planned for another meeting when Mrs. Thomas should have returned to her husband.
An engagement called Everard back to town. He was to be present at the wedding of his friend Micklethwaite, now actually on the point of taking place. The mathematician had found a suitable house, very small and of very low rental, out at South Tottenham, and thither was transferred the furniture which had been in his bride's possession since the death of her parents; Micklethwaite bought only a few new things. By discreet inquiry, Barfoot had discovered that 'Fanny,' though musically inclined, would not possess a piano, her old instrument being quite worn out and not worth the cost of conveyance; thus it came to pass that, a day or two before the wedding, Micklethwaite was astonished by the arrival of an instrument of the Cottage species, mysteriously addressed to a person not yet in existence, Mrs. Micklethwaite.
'You scoundrel!' he cried, when, on the next day, Barfoot presented himself at the house. 'This is your doing. What the deuce do you mean? A man who complains of poverty! Well, it's the greatest kindness I ever received, that's all. Fanny will be devoted to you. With music in the house, our blind sister will lead quite a different life. Confound it! I want to begin crying. Why, man, I'm not accustomed to receive presents, even as a proxy; I haven't had one since I was a schoolboy.'
'That's an audacious statement. When you told me that Miss Wheatley never allowed your birthday to pass without sending something.'
'Oh, Fanny! But I have never thought of Fanny as a separate person. Upon my word, now I think of it, I never have. Fanny and I have been one for ages.'
That evening the sisters arrived from their country home. Micklethwaite gave up the house to them, and went to a lodging.
It was with no little curiosity that, on the appointed morning, Barfoot repaired to South Tottenham. He had seen a photograph of Miss Wheatley, but it dated from seventeen years ago. Standing in her presence, he was moved with compassion, and with another feeling more rarely excited in him by a women's face, that of reverential tenderness. Impossible to recognize in this countenance the features known to him from the portrait. At three-and-twenty she had possessed a sweet, simple comeliness on which any man's eye would have rested with pleasure; at forty she was wrinkled, hollow-cheeked, sallow, indelible weariness stamped upon her brow and lips. She looked much older than Mary Barfoot, though they were just of an age. And all this for want of a little money. The life of a pure, gentle, tender-hearted woman worn away in hopeless longing and in hard struggle for daily bread. As she took his hand and thanked him with an exquisite modesty for the present she had received, Everard felt a lump rise in his throat. He was ashamed to notice that the years had dealt so unkindly with her; fixing his look upon her eyes, he gladdened at the gladness which shone in them, at the soft light which they could still shed forth.
Micklethwaite was probably unconscious of the poor woman's faded appearance. He had seen her from time to time, and always with the love which idealizes. In his own pathetic phrase, she was simply a part of himself; he no more thought of criticizing her features than of standing before the glass to mark and comment upon his own. It was enough to glance at him as he took his place beside her, the proudest and happiest of men. A miracle had been wrought for him; kind fate, in giving her to his arms, had blotted out those long years of sorrow, and to-day Fanny was the betrothed of his youth, beautiful in his sight as when first he looked upon her.
Her sister, younger by five years, had more regular lineaments, but she too was worn with suffering, and her sightless eyes made it more distressing to contemplate her. She spoke cheerfully, however, and laughed with joy in Fanny's happiness. Barfoot pressed both her hands with the friendliest warmth.
One vehicle conveyed them all to the church, and in half an hour the lady to whom the piano was addressed had come into being. The simplest of transformations; no bridal gown, no veil, no wreath; only the gold ring for symbol of union. And it might have happened nigh a score of years ago; nigh a score of years lost from the span of human life -- all for want of a little money.
'I will say good-bye to you here,' muttered Everard to his friend at the church door.
The married man gripped him by the arm.
'You will do nothing of the kind. -- Fanny, he wants to be off at once! -- You won't go until you have heard my wife play something on that blessed instrument.'
So all entered a cab again and drove back to the house. A servant who had come with Fanny from the country, a girl of fifteen, opened the door to them, smiling and curtseying. And all sat together in happy talk, the blind woman gayest among them; she wished to have the clergyman described to her, and the appearance of the church. Then Mrs. Micklethwaite placed herself at the piano, and played simple, old-fashioned music, neither well nor badly, but to the infinite delight of two of her hearers.
'Mr. Barfoot,' said the sister at length, 'I have known your name for a long time, but I little thought to meet you on such a day as this, and to owe you such endless thanks. So long as I can have music I forget that I can't see.
'Barfoot is the finest fellow on earth,' exclaimed Micklethwaite. 'At least, he would be if he understood Trilinear Co-ordinates.'
'Are you strong in mathematics, Mrs. Micklethwaite?' asked Everard.
'I? Oh dear, no! I never got much past the Rule of Three. But Tom has forgiven me that long ago.'
'I don't despair of getting you into plane trigonometry, Fanny. We will gossip about sines and co-sines before we die.'
It was said half-seriously, and Everard could not but burst into laughter.
He sat down with them to their plain midday meal, and early in the afternoon took his leave. He had no inclination to go home, if the empty fiat could be dignified with such a name. After reading the papers at his club, he walked aimlessly about the streets until it was time to return to the same place for dinner. Then he sat with a cigar, dreaming, and at half-past eight went to the Royal Oak Station, and journey to Chelsea.
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