Throughout January, Barfoot was endeavouring to persuade his brother Tom to leave London, where the invalid's health perceptibly grew worse. Doctors were urgent to the same end, but ineffectually; for Mrs. Thomas, though she professed to be amazed at her husband's folly in remaining where he could not hope for recovery, herself refused to accompany him any whither. This pair had no children. The lady always spoke of herself as a sad sufferer from mysterious infirmities, and had, in fact, a tendency to hysteria, which confused itself inextricably with the results of evil nurture and the impulses of a disposition originally base; nevertheless she made a figure in a certain sphere of vulgar wealth, and even gave opportunity to scandalous tongues. Her husband, whatever his secret thought, would hear nothing against her; his temper, like Everard's, was marked with stubbornness, and after a good deal of wrangling he forbade his brother to address him again on the subject of their disagreement.
'Tom is dying,' wrote Everard, early in February, to his cousin in Queen's Road. 'Dr. Swain assures me that unless he be removed he cannot last more than a month or two. This morning I saw the woman' -- it was thus he always referred to his sister-in-law -- 'and talked to her in what was probably the plainest language she ever had the privilege of hearing. It was a tremendous scene, brought to a close only by her flinging herself on the sofa with shrieks which terrified the whole household. My idea is that we must carry the poor fellow away by force. His infatuation makes me rage and curse, but I am bent on trying to save his life. Will you come and give your help?'
A week later they succeeded in carrying the invalid back to Torquay. Mrs. Barfoot had abandoned him to his doctors, nurses, and angry relatives; she declared herself driven out of the house, and went to live at a fashionable hotel. Everard remained in Devon for more than a month, devoting himself with affection, which the trial of his temper seemed only to increase, to his brother's welfare. Thomas improved a little; once more there was hope. Then on a sudden frantic impulse, after writing fifty letters which elicited no reply, he travelled in pursuit of his wife; and three days after his arrival in London he was dead.
By a will, executed at Torquay, he bequeathed to Everard about a quarter of his wealth. All the rest went to Mrs. Barfoot, who had declared herself too ill to attend the funeral, but in a fortnight was sufficiently recovered to visit one of her friends in the country.
Everard could now count upon an income of not much less than fifteen hundred a year. That his brother's death would enrich him he had always foreseen, but no man could have exerted himself with more ardent energy to postpone that advantage. The widow charged him, wherever she happened to be, with deliberate fratricide; she vilified his reputation, by word of mouth or by letter, to all who knew him, and protested that his furious wrath at not having profited more largely by the will put her in fear of her life. This last remarkable statement was made in a long and violent epistle to Miss Barfoot, which the recipient showed to her cousin on the first opportunity. Everard had called one Sunday morning -- it was the end of March -- to say good-bye on his departure for a few weeks' travel. Having read the letter, he laughed with a peculiar fierceness.
'This kind of thing,' said Miss Barfoot, 'may necessitate your prosecuting her. There is a limit, you know, even to a woman's licence.'
'I am far more likely,' he replied, 'to purchase a very nice little cane, and give her an exemplary thrashing.'
'Upon my word, I see no reason against it! That's how I should deal with a man who talked about me in this way, and none the less if he were a puny creature quite unable to protect himself. In that furious scene before we got Tom away I felt most terribly tempted to beat her. There's a great deal to be said for woman-beating. I am quite sure that many a labouring man who pommels his wife is doing exactly the right thing; no other measure would have the least result. You see what comes of impunity. If this woman saw the possibility that I should give her a public caning she would be far more careful how she behaved herself. Let us ask Miss Nunn's opinion.'
Rhoda had that moment entered the room. She offered her hand frankly, and asked what the subject was.
'Glance over this letter,' said Barfoot. 'Oh, you have seen it. I propose to get a light, supple, dandyish cane, and to give Mrs. Thomas Barfoot half a dozen smart cuts across the back in her own drawing-room, some afternoon when people were present. What have you to say to it?'
He spoke with such show of angry seriousness that Rhoda paused before replying.
'I sympathized with you,' she said at length, 'but I don't think I would go to that extremity.'
Everard repeated the argument he had used to his cousin.
'You are quite right,' Rhoda assented. 'I think many women deserve to be beaten, and ought to be beaten. But public Opinion would be so much against you.'
'What do I care? So is public opinion against you.'
'Very well. Do as you like. Miss Barfoot and I will come to the police court and give strong evidence in your favour.'
'Now there's a woman!' exclaimed Everard, not all in jest, for Rhoda's appearance had made his nerves thrill and his pulse beat. 'Look at her, Mary. Do you wonder that I would walk the diameter of the globe to win her love?'
Rhoda flushed scarlet, and Miss Barfoot was much embarrassed. Neither could have anticipated such an utterance as this. 'That's the simple truth,' went on Everard recklessly, 'and she knows it, and yet won't listen to me. Well, good-bye to you both! Now that I have so grossly misbehaved myself, she has a good excuse for refusing even to enter the room when I am here. But do speak a word for me whilst I am away, Mary.'
He shook hands with them, scarcely looking at their faces, and abruptly departed.
The women stood for a moments at a distance from each other. Then Miss Barfoot glanced at her friend and laughed.
'Really my poor cousin is not very discreet.'
'Anything but,' Rhoda answered, resting on the back of a chair, her eyes cast down. 'Do you think he will really cane his sister-in-law?'
'How can you ask such a question?'
'It would be amusing. I should think better of him for it.'
'Well, make it a condition. We know the story of the lady and her glove. I can see you sympathize with her.'
Rhoda laughed and went away, leaving Miss Barfoot with the impression that she had revealed a genuine impulse. It seemed not impossible that Rhoda might wish to say to her lover: 'Face this monstrous scandal and I am yours.
A week passed and there arrived a letter, with a foreign stamp, addressed to Miss Nunn. Happening to receive it before Miss Barfoot had come down to breakfast, she put in away in a drawer till evening leisure, and made no mention of its arrival. Exhilaration appeared in her behaviour through the day. After dinner she disappeared, shutting herself up to read the letter.
'DEAR MISS NUNN, -- I am sitting at a little marble table outside a café on the Cannibière. Does that name convey anything to you? The Cannibière is the principal street of Marseilles, street of gorgeous café's and restaurants, just now blazing with electric light. You, no doubt, are shivering by the fireside; here it is like an evening of summer. I have dined luxuriously, and I am taking my coffee whilst I write. At a table near to me sit two girls, engaged in the liveliest possible conversation, of which I catch a few words now and then, pretty French phrases that caress the ear. One of them is so strikingly beautiful that I cannot take my eyes from her when they have been tempted to that quarter. She speaks with indescribable grace and animation, has the sweetest eyes and lips ----
'And all the time I am thinking of some one else. Ah, if you were here! How we would enjoy ourselves among these southern scenes! Alone, it is delightful; but with you for a companion, with you to talk about everything in your splendidly frank way! This French girl's talk is of course only silly chatter; it makes me long to hear a few words from your lips -- strong, brave, intelligent.
'I dream of the ideal possibility. Suppose I were to look up and see you standing just in front of me, there on the pavement. You have come in a few hours straight from London. Your eyes glow with delight. To-morrow we shall travel on to Genoa, you and I, more than friends, and infinitely more than the common husband and wife! We have bidden the world go round for our amusement; henceforth it is our occupation to observe and discuss and make merry.
'Is it all in vain? Rhoda, if you never love me, my life will be poor to what it might have been; and you, you also, will lose something. In imagination I kiss your hands and your lips.
There was an address at the head of this letter, but certainly Barfoot expected no reply, and Rhoda had no thought of sending one. Every night, however, she unfolded the sheet of thin foreign paper, and read, more than once, what was written upon it. Read it with external calm, with a brow of meditation, and afterwards sat for some time in absent mood.
Would he write again? Her daily question was answered in rather more than a fortnight. This time the letter came from Italy; it was lying on the hall table when Rhoda returned from Great Portland Street, and Miss Barfoot was the first to read the address. They exchanged no remark. On breaking the envelope -- she did so at once -- Rhoda found a little bunch of violets crushed but fragrant.
'These in return for your Cheddar pinks,' began the informal note accompanying the flowers. 'I had them an hour ago from a pretty girl in the streets of Parma. I didn't care to buy, and walked on, but the pretty girl ran by me, and with gentle force fixed the flowers in my button-hole, so that I had no choice but to stroke her velvety cheek and give her a lira. How hungry I am for the sight of your face! Think of me sometimes, dear friend.'
She laughed, and laid the letter and its violets away with the other.
'I must depend on you, it seems, for news of Everard,' said Miss Barfoot after dinner.
'I can only tell you,' Rhoda answered lightly, 'that he has travelled from the south of France to the north of Italy, with much observation of female countenances.'
'He informs you of that?'
'Very naturally. It is his chief interest. One likes people to tell the truth.'
Barfoot was away until the end of April, but after that note from Parma he did not write. One bright afternoon in May, a Saturday, he presented himself at his cousin's house, and found two or three callers in the drawing-room, ladies as usual; one of them was Miss Winifred Haven, another was Mrs. Widdowson. Mary received him without effusiveness, and after a few minutes' talk with her he took a place by Mrs. Widdowson, who, it struck him, looked by no means in such good spirits as during the early days of her marriage. As soon as she began to converse, his impression of a change in her was confirmed; the girlishness so pleasantly noticeable when first he knew her had disappeared, and the gravity substituted for it was suggestive of disillusion, of trouble.
She asked him if he knew some people named Bevis, who occupied a flat just above his own.
'Bevis? I have seen the name on the index at the foot of the stairs; but I don't know them personally.'
'That was how I came to know that you live there,' said Monica. 'My husband took me to call upon the Bevises, and there we saw your name. At least, we supposed it was you, and Miss Barfoot tells me we were right.'
'Oh yes; I live there all alone, a gloomy bachelor. How delightful if you knocked at my door some day, when you and Mr. Widdowson are again calling on your friends.'
Monica smiled, and her eyes wandered restlessly.
'You have been away -- out of England?' she next said.
'Yes; in Italy.'
'I envy you.'
'You have never been there?'
'No -- not yet.'
He talked a little of the agreeables and disagreeables of life in that country. But Mrs. Widdowson had become irresponsive; he doubted at length whether she was listening to him, so, as Miss Haven stepped this way, he took an opportunity of a word aside with his cousin.
'Miss Nunn not at home?'
'No. Won't be till dinner-time.'
'Never was better. Would you care to come back and dine with us at half-past seven?'
'Of course I should.'
With this pleasant prospect he took his leave. The afternoon being sunny, instead of walking straight to the station, to return home, he went out on to the Embankment, and sauntered round by Chelsea Bridge Road. As he entered Sloane Square he saw Mrs. Widdowson, who was coming towards the railway; she walked rather wearily, with her eyes on the ground, and did not become aware of him until he addressed her.
'Are we travelling the same way?' he asked. 'Westward?'
'Yes. I am going all the way round to Portland Road.'
They entered the station, Barfoot chatting humorously. And, so intent was he on the expression of his companion's downcast face, that he allowed an acquaintance to pass close by him unobserved. It was Rhoda Nunn, returning sooner than Miss Barfoot had expected. She saw the pair, regarded them with a moment's keen attentiveness, and went on, out into the street.
In the first-class carriage which they entered there was no other passenger as far as Barfoot's station. He could not resist the temptation to use rather an intimate tone, though one that was quite conventional, in the hope that he might discover something of Mrs. Widdowson's mind. He began by asking whether she thought it a good Academy this year. She had not yet visited it, but hoped to do so on Monday. Did she herself do any kind of artistic work? Oh, nothing whatever; she was a very useless and idle person. He believed she had been a pupil of Miss Barfoot's at one time? Yes, for a very short time indeed, just before her marriage. Was she not an intimate friend of Miss Nunn? Hardly intimate. They knew each other a few years ago, but Miss Nunn did not care much about her now.
'Probably because I married,' she added with a smile.
'Is Miss Nunn really such a determined enemy of marriage?'
'She thinks it pardonable in very weak people. In my case she was indulgent enough to come to the wedding.'
This piece of news surprised Barfoot.
'She came to your wedding? And wore a wedding garment?'
'Oh yes. And looked very nice.'
'Do describe it to me. Can you remember?'
Seeing that no woman ever forgot the details of another's dress, on however trivial an occasion, and at whatever distance of time, Monica was of course able to satisfy the inquirer. Her curiosity excited, she ventured in turn upon one or two insidious questions.
'You couldn't imagine Miss Nunn in such a costume?'
'I should very much like to have seen her.'
'She has a very striking face -- don't you think so?'
'Indeed I do. A wonderful face.'
Their eyes met. Barfoot bent forward from his place opposite Monica.
'To me the most interesting of all faces,' he said softly.
His companion blushed with surprise and pleasure.
'Does it seem strange to you, Mrs. Widdowson?'
'Oh -- why? Not at all.'
All at once she had brightened astonishingly. This subject was not pursued, but for the rest of the time they talked with a new appearance of mutual confidence and interest, Monica retaining her pretty, half-bashful smile. And when Barfoot alighted at Bayswater they shook hands with an especial friendliness, both seeming to suggest a wish that they might soon meet again.
They did so not later than the following Monday. Remembering what Mrs. Widdowson had said of her intention to visit Burlington House, Barfoot went there in the afternoon. If he chanced to encounter the pretty little woman it would not be disagreeable. Perhaps her husband might be with her, and in that case he could judge of the terms on which they stood. A surly fellow, Widdowson; very likely to play the tyrant, he thought. If he were not mistaken, she had wearied of him and regretted her bondage -- the old story. Thinking thus, and strolling through the rooms with casual glances at a picture, he discovered his acquaintance, catalogue in hand, alone for the present. Her pensive face again answered to his smile. They drew back from the pictures and sat down.
'I dined with our friends at Chelsea on Saturday evening,' said Barfoot.
'On Saturday? You didn't tell me you were going back again.'
'I wasn't thinking of it just at the time.'
Monica hinted an amused surprise.
'You see,' he went on, 'I expected nothing, and happy for me that it was so. Miss Nunn was in her severest mood; I think she didn't smile once through the evening. I will confess to you I wrote her a letter whilst I was abroad, and it offended her, I suppose.'
'I don't think you can always judge of her thoughts by her face.'
'Perhaps not. But I have studied her face so often and so closely. For all that, she is more a mystery to me than any woman I have ever known. That, of course, is partly the reason of her power over me. I feel that if ever -- if ever she should disclose herself to me, it would be the strangest revelation. Every woman wears a mask, except to one man; but Rhoda's -- Miss Nunn's -- is, I fancy, a far completer disguise than I ever tried to pierce.'
Monica had a sense of something perilous in this conversation. It arose from a secret trouble in her own heart, which she might, involuntarily, be led to betray. She had never talked thus confidentially with any man; not, in truth, with her husband. There was no fear whatever of her conceiving an undue interest in Barfoot; certain reasons assured her of that; but talk that was at all sentimental gravely threatened her peace -- what little remained to her. It would have been better to discourage this man's confidences; yet they flattered her so pleasantly, and afforded such a fruitful subject for speculation, that she could not obey the prompting of prudence.
'Do you mean,' she said, 'that Miss Nunn seems to disguise her feelings?'
'It is supposed to be wrong -- isn't it? -- for a man to ask one woman her opinion of another.'
'I can't be treacherous if I wished,' Monica replied. 'I don't feel that I understand her.'
Barfoot wondered how much intelligence he might attribute to Mrs. Widdowson. Obviously her level was much below that of Rhoda. Yet she seemed to possess delicate sensibilities, and a refinement of thought not often met with in women of her position. Seriously desiring her aid, he looked at her with a grave smile, and asked, --
'Do you believe her capable of falling in love?'
Monica showed a painful confusion. She overcame it, however, and soon answered.
'She would perhaps try not -- not to acknowledge it to herself.'
'When, in fact, it had happened?'
'She thinks it so much nobler to disregard such feelings.'
'I know. She is to be an inspiring example to the women who cannot hope to marry.' He laughed silently. 'And I suppose it is quite possible that mere shame would withhold her from taking the opposite course.'
'I think she is very strong. But ----'
He looked eagerly into her face.
'I can't tell. I don't really know her. A woman may be as much a mystery to another woman as she is to a man.'
'On the whole, I am glad to hear you say that. I believe it. It is only the vulgar that hold a different opinion.'
'Shall we look at the pictures, Mr. Barfoot?'
'Oh, I am so sorry. I have been wasting your time ----'
Nervously disclaiming any such thought, Monica, rose and drew near to the canvases. They walked on together for some ten minutes, until Barfoot, who had turned to look at a passing figure, said in his ordinary voice --
'I think that is Mr. Widdowson on the other side of the room.'
Monica looked quickly round, and saw her husband, as if occupied with the pictures, glancing in her direction.
Since Saturday evening Monica and her husband had not been on speaking terms. A visit she paid to Mildred Vesper, after her call at Miss Barfoot's, prolonged itself so that she did not reach home until the dinner-hour was long past. On arriving, she was met with an outburst of tremendous wrath, to which she opposed a resolute and haughty silence; and since then the two had kept as much apart as possible.
Widdowson knew that Monica was going to the Academy. He allowed her to set forth alone, and even tried to persuade himself that he was indifferent as to the hour of her return; but she had not long been gone before he followed. Insufferable misery possessed him. His married life threatened to terminate in utter wreck, and he had the anguish of recognizing that to a great extent this catastrophe would be his own fault. Resolve as he might, he found it impossible to repress the impulses of jealousy which, as soon as peace had been declared between them, brought about a new misunderstanding. Terrible thoughts smouldered in his mind; he felt himself to be one of those men who are driven by passion into crime. Deliberately he had brooded over a tragic close to the wretchedness of his existence; he would kill himself, and Monica should perish with him. But an hour of contentment sufficed to banish such visions as sheer frenzy. He saw once more how harmless, how natural, were Monica's demands, and how peacefully he might live with her but for the curse of suspicion from which he could not free himself. Any other man would deem her a model wifely virtue. Her care of the house was all that reason could desire. In her behaviour he had never detected the slightest impropriety. He believed her chaste as any woman living She asked only to be trusted, and that, in spite of all, was beyond his power.
In no woman on earth could he have put perfect confidence. He regarded them as born to perpetual pupilage. Not that their inclinations were necessarily wanton; they were simply incapable of attaining maturity, remained throughout their life imperfect beings, at the mercy of craft, ever liable to be misled by childish misconceptions. Of course he was right; he himself represented the guardian male, the wife-proprietor, who from the dawn of civilization has taken abundant care that woman shall not outgrow her nonage. The bitterness of his situation lay in the fact that he had wedded a woman who irresistibly proved to him her claims as a human being. Reason and tradition contended in him, to his ceaseless torment.
And again, he feared that Monica did not love him. Had she ever loved him? There was too much ground for suspecting that she had only yielded to the persistence of his entreaties, with just liking enough to permit a semblance of tenderness, and glad to exchange her prospect of distasteful work for a comfortable married life. Her liking he might have fostered; during those first happy weeks, assuredly he had done so, for no woman could be insensible to the passionate worship manifest in his every look, his every word. Later, he took the wrong path, seeking to oppose her instincts, to reform her mind, eventually to become her lord and master. Could he not even now retrace his steps? Supposing her incapable of bowing before him, of kissing his feet, could he not be content to make of her a loyal friend, a delightful companion?
In that mood he hastened towards Burlington House. Seeking Monica through the galleries, he saw her at length -- sitting side by side with that man Barfoot. They were in closest colloquy. Barfoot bent towards her as if speaking in an undertone, a smile on his face. Monica looked at once pleased and troubled.
The blood boiled in his veins. His first impulse was to walk straight up to Monica and bid her follow him. But the ecstasy of jealous suffering kept him an observer. He watched the pair until he was descried.
There was no help for it. Though his brain whirled, and his flesh was stabbed, he had no choice but to take the hand Barfoot offered him. Smile he could not, nor speak a word.
'So you have come after all?' Monica was saying to him.
He nodded. On her countenance there was obvious embarrassment, but this needed no explanation save the history of the last day or two. Looking into her eyes, he knew not whether consciousness of wrong might be read there. How to get at the secrets of this woman's heart?
Barfoot was talking, pointing at this picture and that, doing his best to smooth what he saw was an awkward situation. The gloomy husband, more like a tyrant than ever, muttered incoherent phrases. In a minute or two Everard freed himself and moved out of sight.
Monica turned from her husband and affected interest in the pictures. They reached the end of the room before Widdowson spoke.
'How long do you want to stay here?'
'I will go whenever you like,' she answered, without looking at him.
'I have no wish to spoil your pleasure.'
'Really, I have very little pleasure in anything. Did you come to keep me in sight?'
'I think we will go home now, and you can come another day.'
Monica assented by closing her catalogue and walking on.
Without a word, they made the journey back to Herne Hill. Widdowson shut himself in the library, and did not appear till dinner-time. The meal was a pretence for both of them, and as soon as they could rise from the table they again parted.
About ten o'clock Monica was joined by her husband in the drawing-room.
'I have almost made up my mind,' he said, standing near her, 'to take a serious step. As you have always spoken with pleasure of your old home, Clevedon, suppose we give up this house and go and live there?'
'It is for you to decide.'
'I want to know whether you would have any objection.'
'I shall do as you wish.'
'No, that isn't enough. The plan I have in mind is this. I should take a good large house -- no doubt rents are low in the neighbourhood -- and ask your sisters to come and live with us. I think it would be a good thing both for them and for you.'
'You can't be sure that they would agree to it. You see that Virginia prefers her lodgings to living here.'
Oddly enough, this was the case. On their return from Guernsey they had invited Virginia to make a permanent home with them, and she refused. Her reasons Monica could not understand; those which she alleged -- vague arguments as to its being better for a wife's relatives not to burden the husband -- hardly seemed genuine. It was possible that Virginia had a distaste for Widdowson's society.
'I think they both would be glad to live at Clevedon,' he urged, 'judging from your sisters' talk. It's plain that they have quite given up the idea of the school, and Alice, you tell me, is getting dissatisfied with her work at Yatton. But I must know whether you will enter seriously into this scheme.'
Monica kept silence.
'Please answer me.'
'Why have you thought of it?'
'I don't think I need explain. We have had too many unpleasant conversations, and I wish to act for the best without saying things you would misunderstand.'
'There is no fear of my misunderstanding. You have no confidence in me, and you want to get me away into a quiet country place where I shall be under your eyes every moment. It's much better to say that plainly.'
'That means you would consider it going to prison.'
'How could I help? What other motive have you?'
He was prompted to make brutal declaration of authority, and so cut the knot. Monica's unanswerable argument merely angered him. But he made an effort over himself.
'Don't you think it best that we should take some step before our happiness is irretrievably ruined?'
'I see no need for its ruin. As I have told you before, in talking like that you degrade yourself and insult me.'
'I have my faults; I know them only too well. One of them is that I cannot bear you to make friends with people who are not of my kind. I shall never be able to endure that.'
'Of course you are speaking of Mr. Barfoot.'
'Yes,' he avowed sullenly. 'It was a very unfortunate thing that I happened to come up just as he was in your company.'
'You are so very unreasonable,' exclaimed Monica tartly. 'What possible. harm is there in Mr. Barfoot, when he meets me by chance in a public place, having a conversation with me? I wish I knew twenty such men. Such conversation gives me a new interest in life. I have every reason to think well of Mr. Barfoot.'
Widdowson was in anguish.
'And I,' he replied, in a voice shaken with angry feeling, 'feel that I have every reason to dislike and suspect him. He is not an honest man; his face tells me that. I know his life wouldn't bear inspection. You can't possibly be as good a judge as I am in such a case. Contrast him with Bevis. No, Bevis is a man one can trust; one talk with him produces a lasting favourable impression.'
Monica, silent for a brief space, looked fixedly before her, her features all but expressionless.
'Yet even with Mr. Bevis,' she said at length, 'you don't make friends. That is the fault in you which causes all this trouble. You haven't a sociable spirit. Your dislike of Mr. Barfoot only means that you don't know him, and don't wish to. And you are completely wrong in your judgment of him. I have every reason for being sure that you are wrong.'
'Of course you think so. In your ignorance of the world ----'
'Which you think very proper in a woman,' she interposed caustically.
'Yes, I do! That kind of knowledge is harmful to a woman.'
'Then, please, how is she to judge her acquaintances?'
'A married woman must accept her husband's opinion, at all events about men.' He plunged on into the ancient quagmire. 'A man may know with impunity what is injurious if it enters a woman's mind.'
'I don't believe that. I can't and won't believe it.'
He made a gesture of despair.
'We differ hopelessly. It was all very well to discuss these things when you could do so in a friendly spirit. Now you say whatever you know will irritate me, and you say it on purpose to irritate me.'
'No; indeed I do not. But you are quite right that I find it hard to be friendly with you. Most earnestly I wish to be your friend -- your true and faithful friend. But you won't let me.'
'Friend!' he cried scornfully. 'The woman who has become my wife ought to be something more than a friend, I should think. You have lost all love for me -- there's the misery.'
Monica could not reply. That word 'love' had grown a weariness to her upon his lips. She did not love him; could not pretend to love him. Every day the distance between them widened, and when he took her in his arms she had to struggle with a sense of shrinking, of disgust. The union was unnatural; she felt herself constrained by a hateful force when he called upon her for the show of wifely tenderness. Yet how was she to utter this? The moment such a truth had passed her lips she must leave him. To declare that no trace of love remained in her heart, and still to live with him -- that was impossible! The dark foresight of a necessity of parting from him corresponded in her to those lurid visions which at times shook Widdowson with a horrible temptation.
'You don't love me,' he continued in harsh, choking tones. 'You wish to be my friend. That's how you try to compensate me for the loss of your love.'
He laughed with bitterness.
'When you say that,' Monica answered, 'do you ever ask yourself whether you try to make me love you? Scenes like this are ruining my health. I have come to dread your talk. I have almost forgotten the sound of your voice when it isn't either angry or complaining.'
Widdowson walked about the room, and a deep moan escaped him.
'That is why I have asked you to go away from here, Monica. We must have a new home if our life is to begin anew.'
'I have no faith in mere change of place. You would be the same man. If you cannot command your senseless jealousy here, you never would anywhere else.'
He made an effort to say something; seemed to abandon it; again tried, and spoke in a thick, unnatural voice.
'Can you honestly repeat to me what Barfoot was saying to-day, when you were on the seat together?'
Monica's eyes flashed.
'I could; every word. But I shall not try to do so.'
'Not if I beseech you to, Monica? To put my mind at rest ----'
'No. When I tell you that you might have heard every syllable, I have said all that I shall.'
It mortified him profoundly that he should have been driven to make so humiliating a request. He threw himself into a chair and hid his face, sitting thus for a long time in the hope that Monica would be moved to compassion. But when she rose it was only to retire for the night. And with wretchedness in her heart, because she must needs go to the same chamber in which her husband would sleep. She wished so to be alone. The poorest bed in a servant's garret would have been thrice welcome to her; liberty to lie awake, to think without a disturbing presence, to shed tears of need be -- that seemed to her a precious boon. She thought with envy of the shop-girls in Walworth Road; wished herself back there. What unspeakable folly she had committed! And how true was everything she had heard from Rhoda Nunn on the subject of marriage! The next day Widdowson resorted to an expedient which he had once before tried in like circumstances. He wrote his wife a long letter, eight close pages, reviewing the cause of their troubles, confessing his own errors, insisting gently on those chargeable to her, and finally imploring her to cooperate with him in a sincere endeavour to restore their happiness. This he laid on the table after lunch, and then left Monica alone that she might read it. Knowing beforehand all that the letter contained, Monica glanced over it carelessly. An answer was expected, and she wrote one as briefly as possible.
'Your behaviour seems to me very weak, very unmanly. You make us both miserable, and quite without cause. I can only say as I have said before, that things will never be better until you come to think of me as your free companion, not as your bond-woman. If you can't do this, you will make me wish that I had never met you, and in the end I am sure it won't be possible for us to go on living together.'
She left this note, in a blank envelope, on the hall table, and went out to walk for an hour.
It was the end of one more acute stage in their progressive discord. By keeping at home for a fortnight. Monica soothed her husband and obtained some repose for her own nerves. But she could no longer affect a cordial reconciliation; caresses left her cold, and Widdowson saw that his company was never so agreeable to her as solitude. When they sat together, both were reading. Monica found more attraction in books as her life grew more unhappy. Though with reluctance Widdowson had consented to a subscription at Mudie's, and from the new catalogues she either chose for herself, necessarily at random, or by the advice of better-read people, such as she met at Mrs. Cosgrove's. What modern teaching was to be got from these volumes her mind readily absorbed. She sought for opinions and arguments which were congenial to her mood of discontent, all but of revolt.
Sometimes the perusal of a love-story embittered her lot to the last point of endurance. Before marriage, her love-ideal had been very vague, elusive; it found scarcely more than negative expression, as a shrinking from the vulgar or gross desires of her companions in the shop. Now that she had a clearer understanding of her own nature, the type of man correspondent to her natural sympathies also became clear. In every particular he was unlike her husband. She found a suggestion of him in books; and in actual life, already, perhaps something more than a suggestion. Widdowson's jealousy, in so far as it directed itself against her longing for freedom, was fully justified; this consciousness often made her sullen when she desired to express a nobler indignation; but his special prejudice led him altogether astray, and in free resistance on this point she found the relief which enabled her to bear a secret self-reproach. Her refusal to repeat the substance of Barfoot's conversation was, in some degree, prompted by a wish for the continuance of his groundless fears. By persevering in suspicion of Barfoot, he afforded her a firm foothold in their ever-renewed quarrels.
A husband's misdirected jealousy excites in the wife derision and a sense of superiority; more often than not, it fosters an unsuspected attachment, prompts to a perverse pleasure in misleading. Monica became aware of this; in her hours of misery she now and then gave a harsh laugh, the result of thoughts not seriously entertained, but tempting the fancy to recklessness. What, she asked herself again, would be the end of it all? Ten years hence, would she have subdued her soul to a life of weary insignificance, if not of dishonour? For it was dishonour to live with a man she could not love, whether her heart cherished another image or was merely vacant. A dishonour to which innumerable women submitted, a dishonour glorified by social precept, enforced under dread penalties.
But she was so young, and life abounds in unexpected changes.
Mrs. Cosgrove was a childless widow, with sufficient means and a very mixed multitude of acquaintances. In the general belief her marriage had been a happy one; when she spoke of her deceased husband it was with respect, and not seldom with affection. Yet her views on the matrimonial relation were known to be of singular audacity. She revealed them only to a small circle of intimates; most of the people who frequented her house had no startling theories to maintain, and regarded their hostess as a good-natured, rather eccentric woman, who loved society and understood how to amuse her guests.
Wealth and position were rarely represented in her drawing-room; nor, on the other hand, was Bohemianism. Mrs. Cosgrove belonged by birth and marriage to the staid middle class, and it seemed as if she made it her object to provide with social entertainment the kind of persons who, in an ordinary way, would enjoy very little of it. Lonely and impecunious girls or women were frequently about her; she tried to keep them in good spirits, tried to marry them if marriage seemed possible, and, it was whispered, used a good deal of her income for the practical benefit of those who needed assistance. A sprinkling of maidens who were neither lonely nor impecunious served to attract young men, generally strugglers in some profession or other, on the lookout for a wife. Intercourse went on with a minimum of formalities. Chaperonage -- save for that represented by the hostess herself -- was as often as not dispensed with.
'We want to get rid of a lot of sham propriety' -- so she urged to her closer friends. 'Girls must learn to trust themselves, and look out for dangers. If a girl can only be kept straight by incessant watchfulness, why, let her go where she will, and learn by experience. In fact, I want to see experience substituted for precept.'
Between this lady and Miss Barfoot there were considerable divergences of opinion, yet they agreed on a sufficient number of points to like each other very well. Occasionally one of Mrs. Cosgrove's protégées passed into Miss Barfoot's hands, abandoning the thought of matrimony for study in Great Portland Street. Rhoda Nunn, also, had a liking for Mrs. Cosgrove, though she made no secret of her opinion that Mrs. Cosgrove's influence was on the whole decidedly harmful.
'That house,' she once said to Miss Barfoot, 'is nothing more than a matrimonial agency.'
'But so is every house where many people are entertained.'
'Not in the same way. Mrs. Cosgrove was speaking to me of some girl who has just accepted an offer of marriage. "I don't think they'll suit each other," she said, "but there's no harm in trying."'
Miss Barfoot could not restrain a laugh.
'Who knows? Perhaps she is right in that view of things. After all, you know, it's only putting into plain words what everybody thinks on all but every such occasion.'
'The first part of her remark -- yes,' said Rhoda caustically. 'But as for the "no harm in trying," well, let us ask the wife's opinion in a year's time.'
Midway in the London season on Sunday afternoon, about a score of visitors were assembled in Mrs. Cosgrove's drawing-rooms -- there were two of them, with a landing between. As usual, some one sat at the piano, but a hum of talk went on as undercurrent to the music. Downstairs, in the library, half a dozen people found the quietness they preferred, and among these was Mrs. Widdowson. She had an album of portraits on her lap; whilst turning them over, she listened to a chat going on between the sprightly Mr. Bevis and a young married woman who laughed ceaselessly at his jokes. It was only a few minutes since she had come down from the drawing-room. Presently her eyes encountered a glance from Bevis, and at once he stepped over to a seat beside her.
'Your sisters are not here to-day?' she said.
'No. They have guests of their own. And when are you coming to see them again?'
'Before long, I hope.'
Bevis looked away and seemed to reflect.
'Do come next Saturday -- could you?'
'I had better not promise.'
'Do try, and' -- he lowered his voice -- 'come alone. Forgive me for saying that. The girls are rather afraid of Mr. Widdowson, that's the truth. They would so like a free gossip with you. Let me tell them to expect you about half-past three or four. They will rise up and call me blessed.'
Laughing, Monica at length agreed to come if circumstances were favourable. Her talk with Bevis continued for a long time, until people had begun to leave. Some other acquaintance then claimed her, but she was now dull and monosyllabic, as if conversation had exhausted her energies. At six o'clock she stole away unobserved, and went home.
Widdowson had resigned himself, in appearance at all events, to these absences. It was several weeks since he had accompanied his wife to call upon any one; a sluggishness was creeping over him, strengthening his disinclination for society. The futile endeavour to act with decision, to carry Monica away into Somerset, resulted, as futile efforts of that kind are wont to do, in increased feebleness of the will; he was less capable than ever of exerting the authority which he still believed himself to keep for the last resort. Occasionally some days went by without his leaving the house. Instead of the one daily newspaper he had been used to take he now received three; after breakfast he sometimes spent a couple of hours over the Times, and the evening papers often occupied him from dinner to bedtime. Monica noticed, with a painful conflict of emotions, that his hair had begun to lose its uniform colour, and to show streaks that matched with his grizzled beard. Was she responsible for this?
On the Saturday when she was to visit the Bevises she feared lest he should propose to go with her. She wished even to avoid the necessity of telling him where she was going. As she rose from luncheon Widdowson glanced at her.
'I've ordered the trap, Monica. Will you come for a drive?'
'I have promised to go into the town. I'm very sorry.'
'It doesn't matter.'
This was his latest mode of appealing to her -- with an air of pained resignation.
'For a day or two I haven't felt at all well,' he continued gloomily. 'I thought a drive might do me good.'
'Certainly. I hope it will. When would you like to have dinner?'
'I never care to alter the hours. Of course I shall be back at the usual time. Shall you be?'
'Oh yes -- long before dinner.'
So she got away without any explanation. At a quarter to four she reached the block of flats in which the Bevises (and Everard Barfoot) resided. With a fluttering of the heart, she went very quietly upstairs, as if anxious that her footsteps should not be heard; her knock at the door was timid.
Bevis in person opened to her.
'Delighted! I thought it might be ----'
She entered, and walked into the first room, where she had been once before. But to her surprise it was vacant. She looked round and saw Bevis's countenance gleaming with satisfaction.
'My sisters will be here in a few minutes,' he said. 'A few minutes at most. Will you take this chair, Mrs. Widdowson? How delighted I am that you were able to come!'
So perfectly natural was his manner, that Monica, after the first moment of consternation, tried to forget that there was anything irregular in her presence here under these circumstances. As regards social propriety, a flat differs in many respects from a house. In an ordinary drawing-room, it could scarcely have mattered if Bevis entertained her for a short space until his sisters' arrival; but in this little set of rooms it was doubtfully permissible for her to sit tête-à-têête with a young man, under any excuse. And the fact of his opening the front door himself seemed to suggest that not even a servant was in the flat. A tremor grew upon her as she talked, due in part to the consciousness that she was glad to be thus alone with Bevis.
'A place like this must seem to you to be very unhomelike,' he was saying, as he lounged on a low chair not very far from her. 'The girls didn't like it at all at first. I suppose it's a retrograde step in civilization. Servants are decidedly of that opinion; we have a great difficulty in getting them to stay here. The reason seems to me that they miss the congenial gossip of the area door. At this moment we are without a domestic. I found she compensated herself for disadvantages by stealing my tobacco and cigars. She went to work with such a lack of discretion -- abstracting half a pound of honeydew at a time -- that I couldn't find any sympathy for her. Moreover, when charged with the delinquency, she became abusive, so very abusive that we were obliged to insist upon her immediate departure.'
'Do you think she smoked?' asked Monica laughingly.
'We have debated that point with much interest. She was a person of advanced ideas, as you see; practically a communist. But I doubt whether honeydew had any charms for her personally. It seems more probable that some milkman, or baker's assistant, or even metropolitan policeman, benefited by her communism.'
Indifferent to the progress of time, Bevis talked on with his usual jocoseness, now and then shaking his tawny hair in a fit of laughter the most contagious.
'But I have something to tell you,' he said at length more seriously. 'I am going to leave England. They want me to live at Bordeaux for a tune, two or three years perhaps. It's a great bore, but I shall have to go. I am not my own master.'
'Then your sisters will go to Guernsey?'
'Yes. I dare say I shall leave about the end of July.'
He became silent, looking at Monica with humorous sadness.
'Do you think your sisters will soon be here, Mr. Bevis?' Monica asked, with a glance round the room.
'I think so. Do you know, I did a very silly thing. I wanted your visit (if you came) to be a surprise for them, and so -- in fact, I said nothing about it. When I got here from business, a little before three, they were just going out. I asked them if they were sure they would be back in less than an hour. Oh, they were quite sure -- not a doubt about it. I do hope they haven't altered their mind, and gone to call somewhere. But, Mrs. Widdowson, I am going to make you a cup of tea -- with my own fair hands, as the novelist say.'
Monica begged that he would not trouble. Under the circumstances she had better not stay. She would come again very soon.
'No, I can't, I can't let you go!' Bevis exclaimed, softening his gay tone as he stood before her. 'How shall I entreat you? If you knew what an unforgettable delight it will be to me to make you a cup of tea! I shall think of it at Bordeaux every Saturday.'
She had risen, but exhibited no immutable resolve.
'I really must go, Mr. Bevis ----!'
'Don't drive me to despair. I am capable of turning my poor sisters out of house and home -- flat and home, I mean -- in anger at their delay. On their account, in pity for their youth, do stay, Mrs. Widdowson! Besides, I have a new song that I want you to bear -- words and music my own. One little quarter of an hour! And I know the girls will be here directly.'
His will, and her inclination, prevailed. Monica sat down again, and Bevis disappeared to make the tea. Water must have been already boiling, for in less than five minutes the young man returned with a tray, on which all the necessaries were neatly arranged. With merry homage he waited upon his guest. Monica's cheeks were warm. After the vain attempt to release herself from what was now distinctly a compromising situation, she sat down in an easier attitude than before, as though resolved to enjoy her liberty whilst she might. There was a suspicion in her mind that Bevis had arranged this interview; she doubted the truth of his explanation. And indeed she hoped that his sisters would not return until after her departure; it would be very embarrassing to meet them.
Whilst talking and listening, she silently defended herself against the charge of impropriety. What wrong was she committing? What matter that they were alone? Their talk was precisely what it might have been in other people's presence. And Bevis, such a frank, good-hearted fellow, could not by any possibility fail in respect to her. The objections were all cant, and cant of the worst kind. She would not be a slave of such ignoble prejudices.
'You haven't made Mr. Barfoot's acquaintance yet?' she asked.
'No, I haven't. There seems to have been no opportunity. Did you seriously wish me to know him?'
'Oh, I had no wish in the matter at all.'
'You like Mr. Barfoot?'
'I think him very pleasant.'
'How delightful to be praised by you, Mrs. Widdowson! Now if any one speaks to you about me, when I have left England, will you find some nice word? Don't think me foolish. I do so desire the good opinion of my friends. To know that you spoke of me as you did for Mr. Barfoot would give me a whole day of happiness.'
'How enviable! To be so easily made happy.'
'Now let me sing you this song of mine. It isn't very good; I haven't composed for years. But ----'
He sat down and rattled over the keys. Monica was expecting a lively air and spirited words, as in the songs she had heard at Guernsey; but this composition told of sadness and longing and the burden of a lonely heart. She thought it very beautiful, very touching. Bevis looked round to see the effect it produced upon her, and she could not meet his eyes.
'Quite a new sort of thing for me, Mrs. Widdowson. Does it strike you as so very bad?'
'No -- not at all.'
'But you can't honestly praise it?' He sighed, in dejection. 'I meant to give you a copy. I made this one specially for you, and -- if you will forgive me -- I have taken the liberty of dedicating it to you. Songwriters do that, you know. Of course it is altogether unworthy of your acceptance ----'
'No -- no -- indeed I am very grateful to you, Mr. Bevis. Do give it to me -- as you meant to.'
'You will have it?' he cried delightedly. 'Now for a triumphal march!'
Whilst he played, with look corresponding to the exultant strain, Monica rose from her chair. She stood with eyes downcast and lips pressed together. When the last chord had sounded, --
'Now I must say good-bye, Mr. Bevis. I am so sorry your sisters haven't come.'
'So am I -- and yet I am not. I have enjoyed the happiest half-hour of my life.'
'Will you give me the piece of music?'
'Let me roll it up. There; it won't be very awkward to carry. But of course I shall see you again before the end of July? You will come some other afternoon?'
'If Miss Bevis will let me know when she is quite sure ----'
'Yes, she shall. Do you know, I don't think I shall say a word about what has happened this afternoon. Will you allow me to keep silence about your call, Mrs. Widdowson? They would be so annoyed -- and really it was a silly thing not to tell them ----'
Monica gave no verbal reply. She looked towards the door. Bevis stepped forward, and held it open.
'Good-bye, then. You know what I told you about my tendency to low spirits. I'm going to have a terrible turn -- down, down, down!'
She laughed, and offered her hand. He held it very lightly, looking at her with his blue eyes, which indeed expressed a profound melancholy.
'Thank you,' he murmured. 'Thank you for your great kindness.'
And thereupon he opened the front door for her. Without another look Monica went quickly down the stairs; she appreciated his motive for not accompanying her to the exit.
Before entering the house she had managed to conceal the sheet of music which she was carrying. But, happily, Widdowson was still absent. Half an hour passed -- half an hour of brooding and reverie -- before she heard his footstep ascending the stairs. On the landing she met him with a pleasant smile.
'Have you enjoyed your drive?'
'And do you feel better?'
'Not much, dear. But it isn't worth talking about.'
Later, he inquired where she had been.
'I had an appointment with Milly Vesper.'
The first falsehood she had ever told him, and yet uttered with such perfect assumption of sincerity as would have deceived the acutest observer. He nodded, discontented as usual, but entertaining no doubt.
And from that moment she hated him. If he had plied her with interrogations, if he had seemed to suspect anything, the burden of untruth would have been more endurable. His simple acceptance of her word was the sternest rebuke she could have received. She despised herself, and hated him for the degradation which resulted from his lordship over her.
Mary Barfoot had never suffered from lack of interest in life. Many a vivid moment dwelt in her memory; joys and sorrows, personal or of larger scope, affected her the more deeply because of that ruling intelligence which enabled her to transmute them into principles. No longer anticipating or desiring any great change in her own environment, in the modes and motives of her activity, she found it a sufficient happiness to watch, and when possible to direct, the tendency of younger lives. So kindly had nature tempered her disposition, that already she had been able to outlive those fervours of instinct which often make the middle life of an unwedded woman one long repining; but her womanly sympathies remained. And at present there was going forward under her own roof, within her daily observation, a comedy, a drama, which had power to excite all her disinterested emotions. It had been in progress for twelve months, and now, unless she was strangely mistaken, the dénouement drew very near.
For all her self-study, her unflinching recognition of physical and psychical facts which the average woman blinks over, Mary deceived herself as to the date of that final triumph which permitted her to observe Rhoda Nunn with perfect equanimity. Her outbreak of angry feeling on the occasion of Bella Royston's death meant something more than she would acknowledge before the inquisition of her own mind. It was just then that she had become aware of Rhoda's changing attitude towards Everard Barfoot; trifles such as only a woman would detect had convinced her that Everard's interest in Rhoda was awakening a serious response; and this discovery, though it could not surprise her, caused an obscure pang which she attributed to impersonal regret, to mere natural misgiving. For some days she thought of Rhoda in an ironic, half-mocking spirit. Then came Bella's suicide, and the conversation in which Rhoda exhibited a seeming heartlessness, the result, undoubtedly, of grave emotional disturbance. To her own astonishment, Mary was overcome with an impulse of wrathful hostility, and spoke words which she regretted as soon as they had passed her lips.
Poor Bella had very little to do with this moment of discord between two women who sincerely liked and admired each other. She only offered the occasion for an outburst of secret feeling which probably could not have been avoided. Mary Barfoot had loved her cousin Everard; it began when he was one-and-twenty; she, so much older, had never allowed Everard or any one else to suspect her passion, which made her for two or three years more unhappy than she had ever been, or was ever to be when once her strong reason had prevailed. The scandal of Amy Drake, happening long after, revived her misery, which now took the form of truly feminine intolerance; she tried to believe that Everard was henceforth of less than no account to her, that she detested him for his vices. Amy Drake, however, she detested much more.
When her friendship with Rhoda Nunn had progressed to intimacy, she could not refrain from speaking of her cousin Everard, absent at the ends of the earth, and perchance lost to her sight for ever. Her mention of him was severe, yet of a severity so obviously blended with other feeling, that Rhoda could not but surmise the truth. Sentimental confession never entered Miss Barfoot's mind; she had conquered her desires, and was by no means inclined to make herself ridiculous; Rhoda Nunn, of all women, seemed the least likely to make remarks, or put questions, such as would endanger a betrayal of the buried past. Yet, at a later time, when pressing the inquiry whether Rhoda had ever been in love, Mary did not scruple to suggest that her own knowledge in that direction was complete. She did it in lightness of heart, secure under the protection of her forty years. Rhoda, of course, understood her as referring to Everard.
So the quarrel was one of jealousy. But no sooner had it taken place when Mary Barfoot experienced a shame, a distress, which in truth signified the completion of self-conquest. She thought herself ashamed of being angry where anger was uncalled for; in reality, she chastised herself for the last revival of a conflict practically over and done with so many years ago. And on this very account, precisely because she was deceiving herself as to her state of mind, she prolonged the painful situation. She said to herself that Rhoda had behaved so wrongly that displeasure was justified, that to make up the quarrel at once would be unwise, for Miss Nunn needed a little discipline. This insistence upon the side issue helped her to disregard the main one, and when at length she offered Rhoda the kiss of reconcilement, that also signified something other than was professed. It meant a hope that Rhoda might know the happiness which to her friend had been denied.
Everard's announcement of his passion for Miss Nunn seemed to Mary a well-calculated piece of boldness. If he seriously sought Rhoda for his wife, this frank avowal of the desire before a third person might remove some of the peculiar difficulties of the case. Whether willing or not to be wooed, Rhoda, in mere consistency with her pronounced opinions, must needs maintain a scornful silence on the subject of Everard's love-making; by assailing this proud reserve, this dignity which perchance had begun to burden its supporter, Everard made possible, if not inevitable, a discussion of his suit between the two women. She who talks of her lover will be led to think of him.
Miss Barfoot knew not whether to hope for the marriage of this strange pair. She was distrustful of her cousin, found it hard to imagine him a loyal husband, and could not be sure whether Rhoda's qualities were such as would ultimately retain or repel him. She inclined to think this wooing a mere caprice. But Rhoda gave ear to him, of that there could be little doubt; and since his inheritance of ample means the affair began to have a new aspect. That Everard persevered, though the world of women was now open to him -- for, on a moderate computation, any man with Barfoot's personal advantages, and armed with fifteen hundred a year, may choose among fifty possible maidens -- seemed to argue that he was really in love. But what it would cost Rhoda to appear before her friends in the character of a bride! What a humbling of her glory!
Was she capable of the love which defies all humiliation? Or, loving ardently, would she renounce a desired happiness from dread of female smiles and whispers? Or would it be her sufficient satisfaction to reject a wealthy suitor, and thus pose more grandly than ever before the circle who saw in her an example of woman's independence? Powerful was the incitement to curiosity in a situation which, however it ended, would afford such matter for emotional hypothesis.
They did not talk of Everard. Whether Rhoda replied to his letters from abroad Miss Barfoot had no means of ascertaining. But after his return he had a very cold reception -- due, perhaps, to some audacity he had allowed himself in his correspondence. Rhoda again avoided meeting with him, and, as Miss Barfoot noticed, threw herself with increased energy into all her old pursuits.
'What about your holiday this year?' Mary asked one evening in June. 'Shall you go first, or shall I?'
'Please make whatever arrangements you like.'
Miss Barfoot had a reason for wishing to postpone her holiday until late in August. She said so, and proposed that Rhoda should take any three weeks she liked prior to that.
'Miss Vesper,' she added, 'can manage your room very well. We shall be much more at ease in that respect than last year.'
'Yes. Miss Vesper is getting to be very useful and trustworthy.'
Rhoda mused when she had made this remark.
'Do you know,' she asked presently, 'whether she sees much of Mrs. Widdowson?'
'I have no idea.'
They decided that Rhoda should go away at the close of July. Where was her holiday to be spent? Miss Barfoot suggested the lake country.
'I was thinking of it myself,' said Rhoda. 'I should like to have some sea-bathing, though. A week by the shore, and then the rest of the time spent in vagabondage among the mountains, would suit me very well. Mrs. Cosgrove is at home in Cumberland; I must ask her advice.'
This was done, and there resulted a scheme which seemed to excite Rhoda with joyous anticipation. On the coast of Cumberland, a few miles south of St. Bees, is a little place called Seascale, unknown to the ordinary tourist, but with a good hotel and a few scattered houses where lodgings can be obtained. Not far away rise the mountain barriers of lake-land, Wastdale clearly discernible. At Seascale, then, Rhoda would spend her first week, the quiet shore with its fine stretch of sand affording her just the retreat that she desired.
'There are one or two bathing-machines, Mrs. Cosgrove says, but I hope to avoid such abominations. How delicious it was in one's childhood, when one ran into the sea naked! I will enjoy that sensation once more, if I have to get up at three in the morning.'
About this time Barfoot made one of his evening calls. He had no hope of seeing Rhoda, and was agreeably surprised by her presence in the drawing-room. Just as happened a year ago, the subject of Miss Barfoot making a direct inquiry. With lively interest, Mary waited for the reply, and was careful not to smile when Rhoda made known her intentions.
'Have you planned a route after your stay at Seascale?' Barfoot asked.
'No. I shall do that when I am there.'
Whether or not he intended a contrast to these homely projects, Barfoot presently began to talk of travel on a grander scale. When he next left England, he should go by the Orient Express right away to Constantinople. His cousin asked questions about the Orient Express, and he supplied her with details very exciting to the imagination of any one who longs to see the kingdoms of the earth -- as undoubtedly Rhoda did. The very name, Orient Express, has a certain sublimity, such as attaches, more or less, to all the familiar nomenclature of world-transits. He talked himself into fervour, and kept a watch on Rhoda's countenance. As also did Miss Barfoot. Rhoda tried to appear unaffected, but her coldness betrayed its insincerity.
The next day, when work at Great Portland Street was just finished, she fell into conversation with Mildred Vesper. Miss Barfoot had an engagement to dine out that evening, and Rhoda ended by inviting Milly to come home with her to Chelsea. To Milly this was a great honour; she hesitated because of her very plain dress, but easily allowed herself to be persuaded when she saw that Miss Nunn really desired her company.
Before dinner they had a walk in Battersea Park. Rhoda had never been so frank and friendly; she induced the quiet, unpretending girl to talk of her early days, her schools, her family. Remarkable was Milly's quiet contentedness; not long ago she had received an increase of payment from Miss Barfoot, and one would have judged that scarcely a wish now troubled her, unless it were that she might see her scattered brothers and sisters, all of whom, happily, were doing pretty well in the struggle for existence.
'You must feel rather lonely in your lodgings sometimes?' said Rhoda.
'Very rarely. In future I shall have music in the evening. Our best room has been let to a young man who has a violin, and he plays "The Blue Bells of Scotland" -- not badly.'
Rhoda did not miss the humorous intention, veiled, as usual, under a manner of extreme sedateness.
'Does Mrs. Widdowson come to see you?'
'Not often. She came a few days ago.'
'You go to her house sometimes?'
'I haven't been there for several months. At first I used to go rather frequently, but -- it's a long way.'
To this subject Rhoda returned after dinner, when they were cosily settled in the drawing-room.
'Mrs. Widdowson comes here now and then, and we are always very glad to see her. But I can't help thinking she looks rather unhappy.'
'I'm afraid she does,' assented the other gravely.
'You and I were both at her wedding. It wasn't very cheerful, was it? I had a disagreeable sense of bad omens all the time. Do you think she is sorry?'
'I'm really afraid she is.'
Rhoda observed the look that accompanied this admission.
'Foolish girl! Why couldn't she stay with us, and keep her liberty? She doesn't seem to have made any new friends. Has she spoken to you of any?'
'Only of people she has met here.'
Rhoda yielded -- or seemed to yield -- to an impulse of frankness. Bending slightly forward, with an anxious expression, she said in confidential tones --
'Can you help to put my mind at rest about Monica? You saw her a week ago. Did she say anything, or give any sign, that might make one really uneasy on her account?'
There was a struggle in Milly before she answered. Rhoda added --
'Perhaps you had rather not ----'
'Yes, I had rather tell you. She said a good many strange things, and I have been uneasy about her. I wished I could speak to some one ----'
'How strange that I should feel urged to ask you about this,' said Rhoda, her eyes, peculiarly bright and keen, fixed on the girl's face. 'The poor thing is very miserable, I am sure. Her husband seems to leave her entirely to herself.'
Milly looked surprised.
'Monica made quite the opposite complaint to me. She said that was a prisoner.'
'That's very odd. She certainly goes about a good deal and alone.'
'I didn't know that,' said Milly. 'She has very often talked to me about a woman's right to the same freedom as a man, and I always understood that Mr. Widdowson objected to her going anywhere without him, except just to call here, or at my lodgings.'
'Do you think she has any acquaintance that he dislikes?'
The direct answer was delayed, but it came at length.
'There is some one. She hasn't told me who it is.'
'In plain words, Mr. Widdowson thinks he has cause for jealousy?'
'Yes, I understand Monica to mean that.'
Rhoda's face had grown very dark. She moved her hands nervously.
'But -- you don't think she could deceive him?'
'Oh, I can't think that!' replied Miss Vesper, with much earnestness. 'But what I couldn't help fearing, after I saw her last, was that she might almost be tempted to leave her husband. She spoke so much of freedom -- and of a woman's right to release herself if she found her marriage was a mistake.'
'I am so grateful to you for telling me all this. We must try to help her. Of course I will make no mention of you, Miss Vesper. Then you are really under the impression that there's some one she -- prefers to her husband?'
'I can't help thinking there is,' admitted the other very solemnly. 'I was so sorry for her, and felt so powerless. She cried a little. All I could do was to entreat her not to behave rashly. I thought her sister ought to know ----'
'Oh, Miss Madden is useless. Monica cannot look to her for advice or support.'
After this conversation Rhoda passed a very unquiet night, and gloom appeared in her countenance for the next few days.
She wished to have a private interview with Monica, but doubted whether it would in any degree serve her purpose -- that of discovering whether certain suspicions she entertained had actual ground. Confidence between her and Mrs. Widdowson had never existed, and in the present state of things she could not hope to probe Monica's secret feelings. Whilst she still brooded over the difficulty there came a letter for her from Everard Barfoot. He wrote formally; it had occurred to him that he might be of some slight service, in view of her approaching holiday, if he looked through the guide-books, and jotted down the outline of such a walking-tour as she had in mind. This he had done, and the results were written out on an enclosed sheet of paper. Rhoda allowed a day to intervene, then sent a reply. She thanked Mr. Barfoot sincerely for the trouble he had so kindly taken. 'I see you limit me to ten miles a day. In such scenery of course one doesn't hurry on, but I can't help informing you that twenty miles wouldn't alarm me. I think it very likely that I shall follow your itinerary, after my week of bathing and idling. I leave on Monday week.'
Barfoot did not call again. Every evening she sat in expectation of his coming. Twice Miss Barfoot was away until a late hour, and on those occasions, after dinner, Rhoda sat in complete idleness, her face declaring the troubled nature of 'her thoughts. On the Sunday before her departure she took a sudden resolve and went to call upon Monica at Herne Hill.
Mrs. Widdowson, she learnt from the servant, had left home about an hour since.
'Is Mr. Widdowson at home?'
Yes, he was. And Rhoda waited for some time in the drawing-room until he made his appearance. Of late Widdowson had grown so careless in the matter of toilet, that an unexpected visit obliged him to hurry through a change of apparel before he could present himself. Looking upon him for the first time for several months, Rhoda saw the misery was undermining the man's health. Words could not have declared his trouble more plainly than the haggard features and stiff, depressed, self-conscious manner. He fixed his sunken eyes upon the visitor, and smiled, as was plain, only for civility's sake. Rhoda did her best to seem at ease; she explained (standing, for he forgot to ask her to be seated) that she was going away on the morrow, and had hoped to see Mrs. Widdowson, who, she was told, had not been very well of late.
'No, she is not in very good health,' said Widdowson vaguely. 'She has gone this afternoon to Mrs. Cosgrove's -- I think you know her.'
Less encouragement to remain could not have been offered, but Rhoda conceived a hope of hearing something significant if she persevered in conversation. The awkwardness of doing so was indifferent to her.
'Shall you be leaving town shortly, Mr. Widdowson?'
'We are not quite sure ---- But pray sit down, Miss Nunn. You haven't seen my wife lately?'
He took a chair, and rested his hands upon his knees, gazing at the visitor's skirt.
'Mrs. Widdowson hasn't been to see us for more than a month -- if I remember rightly.'
His look expressed both surprise and doubt.
'A month? But I thought -- I had an idea -- that she went only a few days ago.'
'In the day time?'
'To Great Portland Street, I mean -- to hear a lecture, or something of that kind, by Miss Barfoot.'
Rhoda kept silence for a moment. Then she replied hastily --
'Oh yes -- very likely -- I wasn't there that afternoon.'
'I see. That would explain ----'
He seemed relieved, but only for the instant; then his eyes glanced hither and thither, with painful restlessness. Rhoda observed him closely. After fidgeting with his feet, he suddenly took a stiff position, and said in a louder voice --
'We are going to leave London altogether. I have decided to take a house at my wife's native place, Clevedon. Her sisters will come and live with us.'
'That is a recent decision, Mr. Widdowson?'
'I have thought about it for some time. London doesn't suit Monica's health; I'm sure it doesn't. She will be much better in the country.'
'Yes, I think that very likely.'
'As you say that you have noticed her changed looks, I shall lose no time in getting away.' He made a great show of determined energy. 'A few weeks ----. We will go down to Clevedon at once and find a house. Yes, we will go to-morrow, or the day after. Miss Madden, also, is very far from well. I wish I hadn't delayed so long.'
'You are doing very wisely, I think. I had meant to suggest something of this kind to Mrs. Widdowson. Perhaps, if I went at once to Mrs. Cosgrove's, I might be fortunate enough to find her still there?'
'You might. Did I understand you to say that you go away tomorrow? For three weeks. Ah, then we may be getting ready to remove when you come back.'
The change that had come over him was remarkable. He could not keep his seat, and began to pace the end of the room. Seeing no possibility of prolonging the talk for her own purposes, Rhoda accepted this dismissal, and with the briefest leave-taking went her way to Mrs. Cosgrove's.
She was deeply agitated. Monica had not attended that lecture of Miss Barfoot's, and so, it was evident, had purposely deceived her husband. To what end? Where were those hours spent? Mildred Vesper's report supplied grounds for sombre conjecture, and the incident at Sloane Square Station, the recollection of Monica and Barfoot absorbed in talk, seemed to have a possible significance which fired Rhoda with resentment.
Her arrival at Mrs. Cosgrove's was too late. Monica had been there said the hostess, but had left nearly half an hour ago.
Rhoda's instant desire was to go on to Bayswater, and somehow keep watch near the flats where Barfoot lived. Monica might he there. Her coming forth from the building might be detected.
But the difficulty of the understanding, and, still more, a dread of being seen hovering about that quarter, checked her purpose as soon as it was formed. She returned home, and for an hour or two kept in solitude.
'What has happened?' asked Miss Barfoot, when they at length met.
'Happened? Nothing that I know of.'
'You look very strange.'
'Your imagination. I have been packing; perhaps it's from stooping over the trunk.'
This by no means satisfied Mary, who felt that things mysterious were going on about her. But she could only wait, repeating to herself that the grand dénouement decidedly was not far off.
At nine o'clock sounded the visitor's bell. If, as she thought likely, the caller was Everard, Miss Barfoot decided that she would disregard everything but the dramatic pressure of the moment, and leave those two alone together for half an hour. Everard it was; he entered the drawing-room with an unusual air of gaiety.
'I have been in the country all day,' were his first words; and he went on to talk of trivial things -- the doings of a Cockney excursion party that had come under his notice.
In a few minutes Mary made an excuse for absenting herself. When she was gone, Rhoda looked steadily at Barfoot, and asked --
'Have you really been out of town?'
'Why should you doubt it?'
'As I told you.
She averted her look. After examining her curiously, Everard came and stood before her.
'I want to ask your leave to meet you somewhere during these next three weeks. At any point on your route. We could have a day's ramble together, and then -- say good-bye.'
'The lake country is free to you, Mr. Barfoot.'
'But I mustn't miss you. You will leave Seascale to-morrow week?'
'At present I think so. But I can't restrict myself by any agreement. Holiday must be a time of liberty.'
They looked at each other -- she with a carelessness which was all but defiance, he with a significant smile.
'To-morrow week, then, perhaps we may meet again.'
Rhoda made no reply, beyond a movement of her eyebrows, as if to express indifference.
'I won't stay longer this evening. A pleasant journey to you!'
He shook hands, and left the room. In the hall Miss Barfoot came to meet him; they exchanged a few words, unimportant and without reference to what had passed between him and Rhoda. Nor did Rhoda speak of the matter when joined by her friend. She retired early, having settled all the arrangements for her departure by the ten o'clock express from Euston next morning.
Her luggage was to consist of one trunk and a wallet with a strap, which would serve the purposes of a man's knapsack. Save the indispensable umbrella, she carried no impeding trifles. A new costume, suitable for shore and mountain, was packed away in the trunk; Miss Barfoot had judged of its effect, and was of opinion that it became the wearer admirably.
But Rhoda, having adjusted everything that she was going to take with her, still had an occupation which kept her up for several hours. From a locked drawer she brought forth packets of letters, the storage of many years, and out of these selected carefully perhaps a tithe, which she bound together and deposited in a box; the remainder she burnt in the empty fireplace. Moreover, she collected from about the room a number of little objects, ornaments and things of use, which also found a place in the same big box. All her personal property which had any value for her, except books, was finally under lock and key, and in portable repositories. But still she kept moving, as if in search of trifles that might have escaped her notice; silently, in her soft slippers, she strayed hither and thither, till the short summer night had all but given place to dawn; and when at length weariness compelled her to go to bed, she was not able to sleep.
Nor did Mary Barfoot enjoy much sleep that night. She lay thinking, and forecasting strange possibilities.
On Monday evening, returned from Great Portland Street, the first thing she did was to visit Rhoda's chamber. The ashes of burnt paper had been cleared away, but a glance informed her of the needless and unprecedented care with which Miss Nunn had collected and packed most of the things that belonged to her. Again Mary had a troubled night.
At Mrs. Cosgrove's, this Sunday afternoon, Monica had eyes and thoughts for one person only. Her coming at all was practically an appointment to meet Bevis, whom she had seen twice since her visit to the flat. A day or two after that occasion, she received a call from the Bevis girls, who told her of their brother's approaching departure for Bordeaux, and thereupon she invited the trio to dine with her. A fortnight subsequently to the dinner she had a chance encounter with Bevis in Oxford Street; constraint of business did not allow him to walk beside her for more than a minute or two, but they spoke of Mrs. Cosgrove's on the following Sunday, and there, accordingly, found each other.
Tremor of self-consciousness kept Monica in dread of being watched and suspected. Few people were present to-day, and after exchanging formal words with Bevis, she moved away to talk with the hostess. Not till half an hour had passed did she venture to obey the glances which her all but avowed lover cast towards her in conversation. He was so much at ease, so like what she had always known him, that Monica asked herself whether she had not mistaken the meaning of his homage. One moment she hoped it might be so; the next, she longed for some sign of passionate devotion, and thought with anguish of the day, now so near, when he would be gone for ever. This, she ardently believed, was the man who should have been her husband. Him she could love with heart and soul, could make his will her absolute law, could live on his smiles, could devote herself to his interests. The independence she had been struggling to assert ever since her marriage meant only freedom to love. If she had understood herself as she now did, her life would never have been thus cast into bondage.
'The girls,' Bevis was saying, 'leave on Thursday. The rest of the week I shall be alone. On Monday the furniture will be stowed away at the Pantechnicon, and on Tuesday -- off I go.'
A casual listener could have supposed that the prospect pleased him. Monica, with a fixed smile, looked at the other groups conversing in the room; no one was paying any attention to her. In the same moment she heard a murmur from her companion's lips; he was speaking still, but in a voice only just audible.
'Come on Friday afternoon about four o'clock.'
Her heart began to throb painfully, and she knew that a treacherous colour had risen to her checks.
'Do come -- once more -- for the last time. It shall be just as before -- just as before. An hour's talk, and we will say good-bye to each other.'
She was powerless to breathe a word. Bevis, noticing that Mrs. Cosgrove had thrown a look in their direction, suddenly laughed as if at some jest between them, and resumed his lively strain of talk. Monica also laughed. An interval of make-believe, and again the soft murmur fell upon her ear.
'I shall expect you. I know you won't refuse me this one last kindness. Some day,' his voice was all but extinguished, 'some day -- who knows?'
Dreadful hope struck through her. A stranger's eyes turned their way, and again she laughed.
'On Friday, at four. I shall expect you.'
She rose, looked for an instant about the room, then offered him her hand, uttering some commonplace word of leave-taking. Their eyes did not meet. She went up to Mrs. Cosgrove, and as soon as possible left the house.
Widdowson met her as she crossed the threshold of home. His face told her that something extraordinary had happened, and she trembled before him.
'Back already?' he exclaimed, with a grim smile. 'Be quick, and take your things off, and come to the library.'
If he had discovered anything (the lie, for instance, that she told him a month ago, or that more recent falsehood when she pretended, without serious reason, to have been at Miss Barfoot's lecture), he would not look and speak thus. Hurrying, panting, she made a change of dress, and obeyed his summons.
'Miss Nunn has been here,' were his first words.
She turned pale as death. Of course he observed it; she was now preparing for anything.
'She wanted to see you because she is going away on Monday. What's the matter?'
'Nothing. You spoke so strangely ----'
'Did I? And you look very strangely. I don't understand you. Miss Nunn says that everybody has noticed how ill you seem. It's time we did something. To-morrow morning we are going down into Somerset, to Clevedon, to find a house.'
'I thought you had given up that idea.'
'Whether I had or not doesn't matter.'
In the determination to appear, and be, energetic, he spoke with a rough obstinacy, a doggedness that now and then became violence. 'I am decided on it now. There's a train to Bristol at ten-twenty. You will pack just a few things; we shan't be away for more than a day or two.'
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday ---- By Friday they might be back. Till now, in an anguish of uncertainty, Monica had made up her mind. She would keep the appointment on Friday, come of it what might. If she could not be back in time, she would write a letter.
'Why are you talking in this tone?' she said coldly.
'What tone? I am telling you what I have decided to do, that's all. I shall easily find a house down there, no doubt. Knowing the place, you will be able to suggest the likely localities.'
She sat down, for strength was failing her.
'It's quite true,' Widdowson went on, staring at her with inflamed eyes. 'You are beginning to look like a ghost. Oh, we'll have an end of this!' He cackled in angry laughter. 'Not a day's unnecessary delay! Write to both your sisters this evening and tell them. I wish them both to come and live with us.'
'Now, won't you be glad? Won't it be better in every way?'
He came so near that she felt his feverish breath.
'I told you before,' she answered, 'to do just as you liked.'
'And you won't talk about being kept a prisoner?'
'Oh no, I won't say anything at all.'
She scarcely knew what words fell from her lips. Let him propose, let him do what he liked; to her it was indifferent. She saw something before her -- something she durst not, even an hour ago, have steadily contemplated; it drew her with the force of fate.
'You know we couldn't go on living like this -- don't you, Monica?'
'No, we couldn't.'
'You see!' He almost shouted in triumph, misled by the smile on her face. 'All that was needed was resolution on my part. 1 have been absurdly weak, and weakness in the husband means unhappiness in the wife. From today you look to me for guidance. I am no tyrant, but I shall rule you for your own good.'
Still she smiled.
'So there's an end of our misery -- isn't it, darling? What misery! Good God, how I have suffered! Haven't you known it?'
'I have known it too well.'
'And now you will make up to me for it, Monica?'
Again prompted by the irresistible force, she answered mechanically, --
'I will do the best for both.'
He threw himself on the ground beside her and clasped her in his arms.
'No, that is my own dear wife once more! Your face has altogether changed. See how right it is that a husband should take the law into his own hands! Our second year of marriage shall be very different from the first. And yet we were happy, weren't we, my beautiful? It's only this cursed London that has come between us. At Clevedon we shall begin our life over again -- like we did at Guernsey. All our trouble, I am convinced, has come of your ill-health. This air has never suited you; you have felt miserable, and couldn't be at peace in your home. Poor little girl! My poor darling!'
Through the evening he was in a state of transport, due partly to the belief that Monica really welcomed his decision, partly to the sense of having behaved at length like a resolute man. His eyes were severely bloodshot, and before bedtime headache racked him intolerably.
Everything was carried out as he had planned it. They journeyed down into Somerset, put up at a Clevedon hotel, and began house-hunting. On Wednesday the suitable abode was discovered -- a house of modest pretensions, but roomy and well situated. It could be made ready for occupation in a fortnight. Bent on continuing his exhibition of vigorous promptitude, Widdowson signed a lease that same evening.
'To-morrow we will go straight home and make our preparations for removal. When all is ready, you shall come down here and live at the hotel until the house is furnished. Go to your sister Virginia and simply bid her do as you wish. Imitate me!' He laughed fatuously. 'Don't listen to any objection. When you have once got her away she will thank you.'
By Thursday afternoon they were back at Herne Hill. Widdowson still kept up the show of extravagant spirits, but he was worn out. He spoke so hoarsely that one would have thought he had contracted a severe sore throat; it resulted merely from nervous strain. After a pretence of dinner, he seated himself as if to read; glancing at him a few minutes later, Monica found that he was fast asleep.
She could not bear to gaze at him, yet her eyes turned thither again and again. His face was repulsive to her; the deep furrows, the red eyelids, the mottled skin moved her to loathing. And yet she pitied him. His frantic exultation was the cruelest irony. What would he do? What would become of him? She turned away, and presently left the room, for the sound of his uneasy breathing made her suffer too much.
When he woke up, he came in search of her, and laughed over his involuntary nap.
'Well, now, you will go and see your sister to-morrow morning.'
'In the afternoon, I think.'
'Why? Don't let us have any procrastination. The morning, the morning!'
'Please do let me have my way in such a trifle as that,' Monica exclaimed nervously. 'I have all sorts of things to see to here before I can go out.'
He caressed her.
'You shan't say that I am unreasonable. In the afternoon, then. And don't listen to any objections.'
It was Friday. All the morning Widdowson had business with house agents and furniture removers, for he would not let a day go by without some practical step towards release from the life he detested. Monica seemed to be equally active in her own department; she was turning out drawers and wardrobes, and making selection of things -- on some principle understood by herself. A flush remained upon her cheeks, in marked contrast to the pallor which for a long time had given her an appearance of wasting away. That and her singularly bright eyes endowed her with beauty suggestive of what she might have gained in happy marriage.
The had luncheon at one 0 clock, and at a quarter to two Monica started by train for Clapham Junction. It was her purpose to have a short conversation with Virginia, who knew of the trip to Clevedon, and to speak as though she were quite reconciled to the thought of removal; after that, she would pursue her journey so as to reach Bayswater by four o'clock. But Virginia was not at home. Mrs. Conisbee said she had gone out at eleven in the morning, and with the intention of returning by teatime. After a brief hesitation Monica requested the landlady to deliver a message.
'Please ask her not to come to Herne Hill until she hears from me, as I am not likely to be at home for a day or two.'
This left more time at her disposal than she knew how to employ. She returned to the railway station, and travelled on to Victoria; there, in the corner of a waiting-room, she sat, feverishly impatient, until her watch told her that she might take the next train westward.
A possible danger was before her -- though perhaps she need not trouble herself with the thought of such dangers. What if Mr. Barfoot happened to encounter her as she ascended the stairs? But most likely he had no idea that her female friends, who dwelt on the floor above him, were gone away. Did it matter what he might think? In a day or two ----
She came to the street, approached the block of flats, involuntarily casting anxious glances about her. And when she was within twenty yards of the door, it opened, and forth came Barfoot. Her first sensation was unreasoning terror; her next, thankfulness that she had not been a few minutes sooner, when the very meeting she had feared, within the building itself, would have come to pass. He walked this way; he saw her; and the pleasantest smile of recognition lit up his face.
'Mrs. Widdowson! Not a minute ago you were in my thoughts. I wished I could see you.'
'I am going -- to make a call in this neighbourhood ----'
She could not command herself. The shock had left her trembling, and the necessity of feigning calmness was a new trial of her nerves. Barfoot, she felt certain, was reading her face like a printed page; he saw guilt there; his quickly-averted eyes, his peculiar smile, seemed to express the facile tolerance of a man of the world.
'Allow me to accompany you to the end of the street.'
His words buzzed in her ears. She walked on without conscious effort, like an automaton obedient to a touch.
'You know that Miss Nunn has gone down into Cumberland?' Barfoot was saying, his look bent upon her.
'Yes. I know.'
She tried to glance at him with a smile.
'To-morrow,' he pursued, 'I am going there myself.'
'I shall see her, I hope. Perhaps she will only be angry with me.'
'Perhaps. But perhaps not.'
Her confusion would not be overcome. She felt a burning in her ears, on her neck. It was an agony of shame. The words she spoke sounded imbecile mutterings, which must confirm Barfoot in his worst opinion of her.
'If it is all in vain,' he continued, 'then I shall say good-bye, and there's an end.'
'I hope not -- I should think ----'
Useless. She set her lips and became mute. If only he would leave her! And almost immediately he did so, with a few words of kind tone. She felt the pressure of his hand, and saw him walk rapidly away; doubtless he knew this was what she desired.
Until he had passed out of sight, Monica kept the same direction. Then she turned round and hurried back, fearful lest the detention might make her late, and Bevis might lose hope of her coming. There could be no one in the building now whom she need fear to meet. She opened the big entrance door and went up.
Bevis must have been waiting for the sound of her light footstep; his door flew open before she could knock. Without speaking, a silent laugh of joy upon his lips, he drew back to make room for her entrance, and then pressed both her hands.
In the sitting-room were beginnings of disorder. Pictures had been taken down from the walls and light ornaments removed.
'I shan't sleep here after to-night,' Bevis began, his agitation scarcely less obvious than Monica's. 'To-morrow I shall be packing what is to go with me. How I hate it all!'
Monica dropped into a chair near the door.
'Oh, not there!' he exclaimed. 'Here, where you sat before. We are going to have tea together again.'
His utterances were forced, and the laugh that came between them betrayed the quivering of his nerves.
'Tell me what you have been doing. I have thought of you day and night.'
He brought a chair close to her, and when he had seated himself he took one of her hands. Monica, scarcely repressing a sob, the result of reaction from her fears and miseries, drew the hand away. But again he took it.
'There's the glove on it,' he said in a shaking voice. 'What harm in my holding your glove? Don't think of it, and talk to me. I love music, but no music is like your voice.'
'You go on Monday?'
It was her lips spoke the sentence, not she.
'No, on Tuesday -- I think.'
'My -- Mr. Widdowson is going to take me away from London.'
She told him the circumstances. Bevis kept his eyes upon her face, with a look of rapt adoration which turned at length to pain and woeful perplexity.
'You have been married a year,' he murmured. 'Oh, if I had met you before that! What a cruel fate that we should know each other only when there was no hope!'
The man revealed himself in this dolorous sentimentality. His wonted blitheness and facetiousness, his healthy features, his supple, well-built frame, suggested that when love awoke within him he would express it with virile force. But he trembled and blushed like a young girl, and his accents fell at last into a melodious whining.
He raised the gloved fingers to his lips. Monica bent her face away, deadly pale, with closed eyes.
'Are we to part to-day, and never again see each other?' he went on. 'Say that you love me! Only say that you love me!'
'You despise me for coming to you like this.'
In a sudden rapture he folded his arms about her.
'Say that you love me!'
He kissed away the last syllable of her whispered reply.
'Monica! -- what is there before us? How can I leave you?'
Yielding herself for the moment in a faintness that threatened to subdue her, she was yet able, when his caresses grew wild with passion, to put back his arms and move suddenly away. He sprang up, and they stood speechless. Again he drew near.
'Take me away with you!' Monica then cried, clasping her hands together. 'I can't live with him. Let me go with you to France.'
Bevis's blue eyes widened with consternation.
'Dare you -- dare you do that?' he stammered.
'Dare I? What courage is needed? How dare I remain with a man I hate?'
'You must leave him. Of course you must leave him.'
'Oh, before another day has passed!' sobbed Monica. 'It is wrong even to go back to-day. I love you, and in that there is nothing to be ashamed of; but what bitter shame to be living with him, practising hypocrisy. He makes me hate myself as much as I hate him.'
'Has he behaved brutally to you, dearest?'
'I have nothing to accuse him of, except that he persuaded me to marry him -- made me think that I could love him when I didn't know what love meant. And now he wishes to get me away from all the people I know because he is jealous of every one. And how can I blame him? Hasn't he cause for jealousy? I am deceiving him -- I have deceived him for a long time, pretending to be a faithful wife when I have often wished that he might die and release me. It is I who am to blame. I ought to have left him. Every woman who thinks of her husband as I do ought to go away from him. It is base and wicked to stay there -- pretending -- deceiving ----'
Bevis came towards her and took her in his arms.
'You love me?' she panted under his hot kisses. 'You will take me away with you?'
'Yes, you shall come. We mustn't travel together, but you shall come -- when I am settled there ----'
'Why can't I go with you?'
'My own darling, think what it would mean if our secret were discovered ----'
'Discovered? But how can we think of that? How can I go back there, with your kisses on my lips? Oh, I must live somewhere in secret until you go, and then -- I have put aside the few things that I want to take. I could never have continued to live with him even if you hadn't said you love me. I was obliged to pretend that I agreed to everything, but I will beg and starve rather than bear that misery any longer. Don't you love me enough to face whatever may happen?'
'I love you with all my soul, Monica! Sit down again, dearest; let us talk about it, and see what we can do.'
He half led, half carried, her to a couch, and there, holding her embraced, gave way to such amorous frenzy that again Monica broke from him.
'If you love me,' she said in tones of bitter distress, 'you will respect me as much as before I came to you. Help me -- I am suffering so dreadfully. Say at once that I shall go away with you, even if we travel as strangers. If you are afraid of it becoming known I will do everything to prevent it. I will go back and live there until Tuesday, and come away only at the last hour, so that no one will ever suspect where ---- I don't care how humbly I live when we are abroad. I can have lodgings somewhere in the same town, or near, and you will come ----'
His hair disordered, his eyes wild, quivering throughout with excitement, he stood as if pondering possibilities.
'Shall I be a burden to you?' she asked in a faint voice. 'Is the expense more than you ----'
'No, no, no! How can you think of such a thing? But it would be so much better if you could wait here until I ---- Oh, what a wretched thing to have to seem so cowardly to you! But the difficulties are so great, darling. I shall be a perfect stranger in Bordeaux. I don't even speak the language at all well. When I reach there I shall be met at the station by one of our people, and -- just think, how could we manage? You know, if it were discovered that I had run away with you, it would damage my position terribly. I can't say what might happen. My darling, we shall have to be very careful. In a few weeks it might all be managed very easily. I would write to you to some address, and as soon as ever I had made arrangements ----'
Monica broke down. The unmanliness of his tone was so dreadful a disillusion. She had expected something so entirely different -- swift, virile passion, eagerness even to anticipate her desire of flight, a strength, a courage to which she could abandon herself, body and soul. She broke down utterly, and wept with her hands upon her face.
Bevis, in sympathetic distraction, threw himself on his knees before, clutching at her waist.
'Don't, don't!' he wailed. 'I can't bear that! I will do as you wish, Monica. Tell me some place where I can write to you. Don't cry, darling -- don't ----'
She went to the couch again, and rested her face against the back, sobbing. For a time they exchanged mere incoherences. Then passion seized upon both, and they clung together, mute, motionless.
'To-morrow I shall leave him,' whispered Monica, when at length their eyes met. 'He will be away in the morning, and I can take what I need. Tell me where I shall go to, dear -- to wait until you are ready. No one will ever suspect that we have gone together. He knows I am miserable with him; he will believe that I have found some way of supporting myself in London. Where shall I live till Tuesday?'
Bevis scarcely listened to her words. The temptation of the natural man, basely selfish, was strengthening its hold upon him.
'Do you love me? Do you really love me?' he replied to her, with thick, agitated utterance.
'Why should you ask that? How can you doubt it?'
'If you really love me -----'
His face and tones frightened her.
'Don't make me doubt your love! If I have not perfect trust in you what will become of me?'
Yet once more she drew resolutely away from him. He pursued, and held her arms with violence.
'Oh, I am mistaken in you!' Monica cried in fear and bitterness. 'You don't know what love means, as I feel it. You won't speak, you won't think, of our future life together ----'
'I have promised ----'
'Leave loose of me! It's because I have come here. You think me a worthless woman, without sense of honour, with no self-respect ----'
He protested vehemently. The anguished look in her eyes had its effect upon his senses; by degrees it subjugated him, and made him ashamed of his ignoble impulse.
'Shall I find a lodging for you till Tuesday?' he asked, after moving away arid returning.
'You are sure you can leave home to-morrow -- without being suspected?'
'Yes, I am sure I can. He is going to the City in the morning. Appoint some place where I can meet you. I will come in a cab, and then you can take me on to the ----'
'But you are forgetting the risks. If you take a cab from Herne Hill, with your luggage, he will be able to find out the driver afterwards, and learn where you went.'
'Then I will drive only as far as the station, and come to Victoria, and you shall meet me there.'
The necessity of these paltry arrangements filled her soul with shame. On the details of her escape she had hardly reflected. All such considerations were, she deemed, naturally the care of her lover, who would act with promptitude, and so as to spare her a moment's perplexity. She had imagined everything in readiness within a few hours; on her no responsibility save that of breaking the hated bond. Inevitably she turned to the wretched thought that Bevis regarded her as a burden. Yes, he had already his mother and his sisters to support; she ought to have remembered that.
'What time would it be?' he was asking.
Unable to reply, she pursued her reflections. She had money, but how to obtain possession of it? Afterwards, when her flight was accomplished, secrecy, it appeared, would be no less needful than now. That necessity had never occurred to her; declaration of the love that had freed her seemed inevitable -- nay, desirable. Her self-respect demanded it; only thus could she justify herself before his sisters and other people who knew her. They, perhaps, would not see it in the light of justification, but that mattered little; her own conscience would approve what she had done. But to steal away, and live henceforth in hiding, like a woman dishonoured even in her own eyes -- from that she shrank with repugnance. Rather than that, would it not be preferable to break with her husband, and openly live apart from him, alone?
'Be honest with me,' she suddenly exclaimed. 'Had you rather I didn't come?'
'No, no! I can't live without you ----'
'But, if that is true, why haven't you the courage to let every one know it? In your heart you must think that we are acting wrongly.'
'I don't! I believe, as you do, that love is the only true marriage. Very well!' He made a desperate gesture. 'Let us defy all consequences. For your sake ----'
His exaggerated vehemence could not deceive Monica.
'What is it,' she asked, 'that you most fear?'
He began to babble protestations, but she would not listen to them.
'Tell me -- I have every right to ask -- what you most fear?'
'I fear nothing if you are with me. Let my relatives say and think what they like. I have made great sacrifices for them; to give up you would be too much.'
Yet his distress was evident. It strained the corners of his mouth, wrinkled his forehead.
'The disgrace would be more than you could bear. You would never see your mother and your sisters again.'
'If they are so prejudiced, so unreasonable, I can't help it. They must ----'
He was interrupted by a loud rat-tat at the outer door. Blanched herself, Monica saw that her lover's face turned to ghastly pallor.
'Who can that be?' he whispered hoarsely. 'I expect no one.'
'Need you answer?'
'Can it be ----? Have you been followed? Does any one suspect ----?'
They stared at each other, still half-paralysed, and stood waiting thus until the knock was repeated impatiently.
'I daren't open,' Bevis whispered, coming close to her, as if on the impulse of seeking protection -- for to offer it was assuredly not in his mind. 'It might be ----'
'No! That's impossible.'
'I daren't go to the door. The risk is too frightful. He will go away, whoever it is, if no one answers.'
Both were shaking in the second stage of terror. Bevis put his arm about Monica, and felt her heart give great throbs against his own. Their passion for the moment was effectually quenched.
'Listen! That's the clink of the letter-box. A card or something has been put in. Then it's all right. I'll wait a moment.'
He stepped to the door of the room, opened it without sound, and at once heard footsteps descending the stairs. In the look which he cast back at her, a grin rather than a smile, Monica saw something that gave her a pang of shame on his behalf. On going to the letter-box he found a card, with a few words scribbled upon it.
'Only one of our partners!' he exclaimed gleefully. 'Wants to see me to-night. Of course he took it for granted I was out.'
Monica was looking at her watch. Past five o'clock.
'I think I must go,' she said timidly.
'But what are our arrangements? Do you still intend ----'
'Intend? Isn't it for you to decide?'
There was a coldness in the words of both, partly the result of the great shock they had undergone, in part due to their impatience with each other.
'Darling -- do what I proposed at first. Stay for a few days, until I am settled at Bordeaux.'
'Stay with my -- my husband?'
She used the word purposely, significantly, to see how it would affect him. The bitterness of her growing disillusion allowed her to think and speak as if no ardent feeling were concerned.
'For both our sakes, dearest, dearest love! A few days longer, until I have written to you, and told you exactly what to do. The journey won't be very difficult for you; and think how much better, dear Monica, if we can escape discovery, and live for each other without any shame or fear to disturb us. You will be my own dear true wife. I will love and guard you as long as I live.'
He embraced her with placid tenderness, laying his cheek against hers, kissing her hands.
'We must see each other again,' he continued. 'Come on Sunday, will you? And in the meantime find out some place where I could address letters to you. You can always find a stationer's shop where they will receive letters. Be guided by me, dear little girl. Only a week or two -- to save the happiness of our whole lives.'
Monica listened, but with half-attention, her look fixed on the floor. Encouraged by her silence, the lover went on in a strain of heightening enthusiasm, depicting the raptures of their retirement from the world in some suburb of Bordeaux. How this retreat was to escape the notice of his business companions, through whom the scandal might get wind, he did not suggest. The truth was, Bevis found himself in an extremely awkward position, with issues he had not contemplated, and all he cared for was to avert the immediate peril of public discovery. The easy-going, kindly fellow had never considered all the responsibility involved in making mild love -- timorously selfish from the first -- to a married woman who took his advances with desperate seriousness. He had not in him the stuff of vigorous rascality, still less the only other quality which can support a man in such a situation as this -- heroism of moral revolt. So he cut a very poor figure, and was dolefully aware of it. He talked, talked; trying to disguise his feebleness in tinsel phrases; and Monica still kept her eyes cast down.
When another half-hour had passed, she sighed deeply and rose from her seat. She would write to him, she said, and let him know where a reply would reach her. No, she must not come here again; all he had to tell her would be communicated by letter. The subdued tone, the simple sadness of her words, distressed Bevis, and yet he secretly congratulated himself. He had done nothing for which this woman could justly reproach him; marvellous -- so he considered -- had been his self-restraint; absolutely, he had behaved 'like a gentleman.' To be sure, he was miserably in love, and, if circumstances by any means allowed of it, would send for Monica to join him in France. Should the thing prove impossible, he had nothing whatever on his conscience.
He held out his arms to her. Monica shook her head and looked away.
'Say once more that you love me, darling,' he pleaded. 'I shall not rest for an hour until I am able to write and say, "Come to me."'
She permitted him to hold her once more in his soft embrace.
'Kiss me, Monica!'
She put her lips to his cheek, and withdrew them, still shunning his look.
'Oh, not that kind of kiss. Like you kissed me before.'
'I can't,' she replied, with choking voice, the tears again starting forth.
'But what have I done that you should love me less, dearest?'
He kissed the falling drops, murmuring assurances, encouragements.
'You shan't leave me until I have heard you say that your love is unchanged. Whisper it to me, sweetest!'
'When we meet again -- not now.'
'You frighten me. Monica, we are not saying good-bye for ever?'
'If you send for me I will come.'
'You promise faithfully? You will come?'
'If you send for me I will come.'
That was her last word. He opened the door for her, and listened as she departed.
Hitherto, Widdowson had entertained no grave mistrust of his wife. The principles she had avowed, directly traceable as it seemed to her friendship with the militant women in Chelsea, he disliked and feared; but her conduct he fully believed to be above reproach. His jealously of Barfoot did not glance at Monica's attitude towards the man; merely at the man himself, whom he credited with native scoundreldom. Barfoot represented to his mind a type of licentious bachelor; why, he could not have made perfectly clear to his own understanding. Possibly the ease of Everard's bearing, the something aristocratic in his countenance and his speech, the polish of his manner, especially in formal converse with women, from the first grave offence to Widdowson's essentially middle-class sensibilities. If Monica were in danger at all, it was, he felt convinced, from that quarter. The subject of his wife's intimate dialogue with Barfoot at the Academy still remained a mystery to him. He put faith in her rebellious declaration that every word might have been safely repeated in his hearing, but, be the matter what it might, the manner of Barfoot's talk meant evil. Of that conviction he could not get rid.
He had read somewhere that a persistently jealous husband may not improbably end by irritating an innocent wife into affording real ground for jealousy. A man with small knowledge of the world is much impressed by dicta such as there; they get into the crannies of his mind, and thence direct the course of his thinking. Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed. Intimacy with Monica had greatly affected his views, yet chiefly by disturbing them; no firmer ground offered itself to his threading when he perforce admitted that his former standpoint was every day assailed by some incontestable piece of evidence. Woman had individual characters; that discovery, though not a very profound one, impressed him with the force of something arrived at by independent observation. Monica often puzzled him gravely; he could not find the key to her satisfactions and discontents. To regard her simply as a human being was beyond the reach of his intelligence. He cast the blame of his difficulties upon sex, and paid more attention to the hints on such afforded him by his reading. He would endeavour to keep his jealousy out of sight, lest the mysterious tendency of the female nature might prompt Monica to deliberate wrongdoing.
To-day for the first time there flashed across him the thought that already he might have been deceived. It originated in a peculiarity of Monica's behaviour at luncheon. She ate scarcely anything; she seemed hurried, frequently glancing at the clock; and she lost herself in reverie. Discovering that his eye was upon her, she betrayed uneasiness, and began to talk without considering what she meant to say. All this might mean nothing more than her barely-concealed regret at being obliged to leave London; but Widdowson remarked it with a vivacity of feeling perhaps due to the excitement in which he had lived for the past week. Perhaps the activity, the resolution to which he had urged himself, caused a sharpening of his perceptions. And the very thought, never out of his mind, that only a few days had to elapse before he carried off his wife from the scene of peril, tended to make him more vividly conscious of that peril. Certain it was that a moment's clairvoyance assailed his peace, and left behind it all manner of ugly conjectures. Woman -- so said the books -- are adepts at dissimulation. Was it conceivable that Monica had taken advantage of the liberty he had of late allowed her? If a woman could not endure a direct, searching gaze, must it not imply some enormous wickedness? -- seeing that nature has armed them for this very trial.
In her setting forth for the railway station hurry was again evident, and disinclination to exchange parting words. If the eagerness were simple and honest, would she not have accepted his suggestion and have gone in the morning?
For five minutes after her departure he stood in the hall, staring before him. A new jealousy, a horrible constriction of the heart, had begun to torture him. He went and walked about in the library, but could not dispel his suffering. Vain to keep repeating that Monica was incapable of baseness. Of that he was persuaded, but none the less a hideous image returned upon his mental vision -- a horror -- a pollution of thought.
One thing he could do to restore his sanity. He would walk over to Lavender Hill, and accompany his wife on her return home. Indeed, the mere difficulty of getting through the afternoon advised this project. He could not employ himself, and knew that his imagination, once inflamed, would leave him not a moment's rest. Yes, he would walk to Lavender Hill, and ramble about that region until Monica had had reasonable time for talk with her sister.
About three o'clock there fell a heavy shower of rain. Strangely against his habits, Widdowson turned into a quiet public-house, and sat for a quarter of an hour at the bar, drinking a glass of whisky. During the past week he had taken considerably more wine than usual at meals; he seemed to need the support. Whilst sipping at his glass of spirits, he oddly enough fell into talk with the barmaid, a young woman of some charms, and what appeared to be unaffected modesty. Not for twenty years had Widdowson conversed with a member of this sisterhood. Their dialogue was made up of the most trifling of trivialities -- weather, a railway accident, the desirability of holidays at this season. And when at length he rose and put an end to the chat it was with appreciable reluctance.
'A good, nice sort of girl,' he went away saying to himself. 'Pity she should be serving at a bar -- hearing doubtful talk, and seeing very often vile sights. A nice, soft-spoken little girl.'
And he mused upon her remembered face with a complacency which soothed his feelings.
Of a sudden he was checked by the conversion of his sentiment into thought. Would he not have been a much happier man if he had married a girl distinctly his inferior in mind and station? Provided she were sweet, lovable, docile -- such a wife would have spared him all the misery he had known with Monica. From the first he had understood that Monica was no representative shopgirl, and on that very account he had striven so eagerly to win her. But it was a mistake. He had loved her, still loved her, with all the emotion of which he was capable. How many hours' genuine happiness of soul had that love afforded him? The minutest fraction of the twelve months for which she had been his wife. And of suffering, often amounting to frantic misery, he could count many weeks. Could such a marriage as this be judged a marriage at all, in any true sense of the word?
'Let me ask myself a question. If Monica were absolutely free to choose between continuing to live with me and resuming her perfect liberty, can I persuade myself that she would remain my wife? She would not. Not for a day, not for an hour. Of that I am morally convinced. And I acknowledge the grounds of her dissatisfaction. We are unsuited to each other. We do not understand each other. Our marriage is physical and nothing more. My love -- what is my love? I do not love her mind, her intellectual part. If I did, this frightful jealousy from which I suffer would be impossible. My ideal of the wife perfectly suited to me is far liker that girl at the public-house bar than Monica. Monica's independence of thought is a perpetual irritation to me. I don't know what her thoughts really are, what her intellectual life signifies. And yet I hold her to me with the sternest grasp. If she endeavoured to release herself I should feel capable of killing her. Is not this a strange, a brutal thing?'
Widdowson had never before reached this height of speculation. In the moment, by the very fact, of admitting that Monica and he ought not to be living together, he became more worthy of his wife's companionship than ever hitherto.
Well, he would exercise greater forebearance. He would endeavour to win her respect by respecting the freedom she claimed. His recent suspicions of her were monstrous. If she knew them, how her soul would revolt from him! What if she took an interest in other men, perchance more her equals than he? Why, had he not just been thinking of another woman, reflecting that she, or one like her, would have made him a more suitable wife than Monica? Yet this could not reasonably be called unfaithfulness.
They were bound together for life, and their wisdom lay in mutual toleration, the constant endeavour to understand each other aright -- not in fierce restraint of each other's mental liberty. How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage. This was daring speculation; he could not have endured to hear it from Monica's lips. But -- perhaps, some day, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.
What a simple thing marriage had always seemed to him, and how far from simple he had found it! Why, it led him to musings which overset the order of the world, and flung all ideas of religion and morality into wildest confusion. It would not do to think like this. He was a man wedded to a woman very difficult to manage -- there was the practical upshot of the matter. His duty was to manage her. He was responsible for her right conduct. With intentions perfectly harmless, she might run into unknown jeopardy -- above all, just at this time when she was taking reluctant leave of her friends. The danger justified him in exceptional vigilance.
So, from his excursion into the realms of reason did he return to the safe sphere of the commonplace. And now he might venture to press on towards Mrs. Conisbee's house, for it was half-past four, and already Monica must have been talking with her sister for a couple of hours.
His knock at the door was answered by the landlady herself. She told of Mrs. Widdowson's arrival and departure. Ah, then Monica had no doubt gone straight home again. But, as Miss Madden had returned, he would speak with her.
'The poor lady isn't very well, sir,' said Mrs. Conisbee, fingering the hem of her apron.
'Not very well? But couldn't I see her for a moment?'
Virginia answered this question by appearing on the staircase.
'Some one for me, Mrs. Conisbee?' she called from above. 'Oh, is it you, Edmund? So very glad! I'm sure Mrs. Conisbee will have the kindness to let you come into her sitting-room. What a pity I was away when Monica called! I've had -- business to see to in town; and I've walked and walked, until I'm really -- hardly able ----'
She sank upon a chair in the room, and looked fixedly at the visitor with a broad, benevolent smile, her head moving up and down. Widdowson was for a moment in perplexity. If the evidence of his eyes could be trusted, Miss Madden's indisposition pointed to a cause so strange that it seemed incredible. He turned to look for Mrs. Conisbee, but the landlady had hurriedly withdrawn, closing the door behind her.
'It is so foolish of me, Edmund,' Virginia rambled on, addressing him with a familiarity she had never yet used. 'When I am away from home I forget all about my meals -- really forget -- and then all at once I find that I am quite exhausted -- quite exhausted -- as you see. And the worst of it is I have altogether lost my appetite by the time I get back. I couldn't eat a mouthful of food -- not a mouthful -- I assure you I couldn't. And it does so distress good Mrs. Conisbee. She is exceedingly kind to me -- exceedingly careful about my health. Oh, and in Battersea Park Road I saw such a shocking sight; a great cart ran over a poor little dog, and it was killed on the spot. It unnerved me dreadfully. I do think, Edmund, those drivers ought to be more careful. I was saying to Mrs. Conisbee only the other day -- and that reminds me, I do so want to know all about your visit to Clevedon. Dear, dear Clevedon! And have you really taken a house there, Edmund? Oh, if we could all end our days at Clevedon! You know that our dear father and mother are buried in the old churchyard. You remember Tennyson's lines about the old church at Clevedon? Oh, and what did Monica decide about -- about -- really, what was I going to ask? It is so foolish of me to forget that dinner-time has come and gone. I get so exhausted, and even my memory fails me.'
He could doubt no longer. This poor woman had yielded to one of the temptations that beset a life of idleness and solitude. His pity was mingled with disgust.
'I only wished to tell you,' he said gravely, 'that we have taken a house at Clevedon ----'
'You really have!' She clasped her hands together. 'Whereabouts?'
'Near Dial Hill.'
Virginia began a rhapsody which her brother-in-law had no inclination to hear. He rose abruptly.
'Perhaps you had better come and see us to-morrow.'
'But Monica left a message that she wouldn't be at home for the next few days, and that I wasn't to come till I heard from her.'
'Not at home ----? I think there's a mistake.'
'Oh, impossible! We'll ask Mrs. Conisbee.'
She went to the door and called. From the landlady Widdowson learnt exactly what Monica had said. He reflected for a moment.
'She shall write to you then. Don't come just yet. I mustn't stay any longer now.'
And with a mere pretence of shaking hands he abruptly left the house.
Suspicions thickened about him. He would have thought it utterly impossible for Miss Madden to disgrace herself in this vulgar way, and the appalling discovery affected his view of Monica. They were sisters; they had characteristics in common, family traits, weaknesses. If the elder woman could fall into this degradation, might there not be possibilities in Monica's character such as he had refused to contemplate? Was there not terrible reason for mistrusting her? What did she mean by her message to Virginia.
Black and haggard, he went home as fast as a hansom could take him. It was half-past five when he reached the house. His wife was not here, and had not been here.
At this Moment Monica was starting by train from Bayswater, after her parting with Bevis. Arrived at Victoria, she crossed to the main station, and went to the ladies' waiting-room for the purpose of bathing her face. She had red, swollen eyes, and her hair was in slight disorder. This done, she inquired as to the next train for Herne Hill. One had just gone; another would leave in about a quarter of an hour.
A dreadful indecision was harassing her. Ought she, did she dare, to return home at all? Even if her strength sufficed for simulating a natural manner, could she consent to play so base a part?
There was but one possible alternative. She might go to Virginia's lodgings, and there remain, writing to her husband that she had left him. The true cause need not be confessed. She would merely declare that life with him had become intolerable to her, that she demanded a release. Their approaching removal to Clevedon offered the occasion. She would say that her endurance failed before that prospect of solitude, and that, feeling as she did, it was dishonourable to make longer pretence of doing her duty as a wife. Then, if Bevis wrote to her in such a way as to revive her love, if he seriously told her to come to him, all difficulties could be solved by her disappearance.
Was such revival of disheartened love a likely or a possible thing? At this moment she felt that to flee in secret, and live with Bevis as he proposed, would be no less dishonour than abiding with the man who had a legal claim upon her companionship. Her lover, as she had thought of him for the past two or three months, was only a figment of her imagination; Bevis had proved himself a complete stranger to her mind; she must reshape her knowledge of him. His face was all that she could still dwell upon with the old desire; nay, even that had suffered a change.
Insensibly the minutes went by. Whilst she sat in the waiting-room her train started; and when she had become aware of that, her irresolution grew more tormenting.
Suddenly there came upon her a feeling of illness, of nausea. Perspiration broke out on her forehead; her eyes dazzled; she had to let her head fall back. It passed, but in a minute or two the fit again seized her, and with a moan she lost consciousness.
Two or three women who were in the room rendered assistance. The remarks they exchanged, though expressing uncertainty and discreetly ambiguous, would have been significant to Monica. On her recovery, which took place in a few moments, she at once started up, and with hurried thanks to those about her, listening to nothing that was said and answering no inquiry, went out on to the platform. There was just time to catch the train now departing for Herne Hill.
She explained her fainting fit by the hours of agitation through which she had passed. There was no room for surprise. She had suffered indescribably, and still suffered. Her wish was to get back into the quietness of home, to rest and to lose herself in sleep.
On entering, she saw nothing of her husband. His hat hung on the hall-tree, and he was perhaps sitting in the library; the more genial temper would account for his not coming forth at once to meet her, as had been his custom when she returned from an absence alone.
She changed her dress, and disguised as far as was possible the traces of suffering on her features. Weakness and tremor urged her to lie down, but she could not venture to do this until she had spoken to her husband. Supporting herself by the banisters, she slowly descended, and opened the library door. Widdowson was reading a newspaper. He did not look round, but said carelessly, --
'So you are back?'
'Yes. I hope you didn't expect me sooner.'
'Oh, it's all right.' He threw a rapid glance at her over his shoulder. 'Had a long talk with Virginia, I suppose?'
'Yes. I couldn't get away before.'
Widdowson seemed to be much interested in some paragraph. He put his face closer to the paper, and was silent for two or three seconds. Then he again looked round, this time observing his wife steadily, but with a face that gave no intimation of unusual thoughts.
'Does she consent to go?'
Monica replied that it was still uncertain; she thought, however, that Virginia's objections would be overcome.
'You look very tired,' remarked the other.
'I am, very.'
And thereupon she withdrew, unable to command her countenance, scarce able to remain standing for another moment.
When Widdowson went up to the bedroom that night, Monica was already asleep. He discovered this on turning up the gas. The light fell upon her face, and he was drawn to the bedside to look at her. The features signified nothing but repose; her lips were just apart, her eyelids lay softly with their black fringe of exquisite pencilling, and her hair was arranged as she always prepared it for the pillow. He watched her for full five minutes, and detected not the slightest movement, so profound was her sleep. Then he turned away, muttering savagely under his breath, 'Hypocrite! Liar!'
But for a purpose in his thoughts he would not have lain down beside her. On getting into bed he kept as far away as possible, and all through the wakeful night his limbs shrank from the touch of hers.
He rose an hour earlier than usual. Monica had long been awake, but she moved so seldom that he could not be sure of this; her face was turned from him. When he came back to the room after his bath. Monica propped herself on her elbow and asked why he was moving so early.
'I want to be in the City at nine,' he replied, with a show of cheerfulness. 'There's a money affair I must see after.'
'Something that's going wrong?'
'I'm afraid so. I must lose no time in looking to it. What plans have you for to-day?'
'It's Saturday, you know. I promised to see Newdick this afternoon. Perhaps I may bring him to dinner.'
About twelve o'clock he returned from his business. At two he went away again, saying that he should not be back before seven, it might be a little later. In Monica these movements excited no special remark; they were merely a continuance of his restlessness. But no sooner had he departed, after luncheon, than she went to her dressing-room, and began to make slow, uncertain preparations for leaving home herself.
This morning she had tried to write a letter for Bevis, but vainly. She knew not what to say to him, uncertain of her own desires and of what lay before her. Yet, if she were to communicate with him henceforth at all, it was necessary, this very afternoon, to find an address where letters could be received for her, and to let him know of it. To-morrow, Sunday, was useless for the purpose, and on Monday it might be impossible for her to go out alone. Besides that, she could not be sure of the safety of a letter delivered at the flat on Monday night or Tuesday morning.
She dressed at length and went out. Her wisest course, probably, was to seek for some obliging shopkeeper near Lavender Hill. Then she could call on Virginia, transact the business she had pretended to discharge yesterday, and there pen a note to Bevis.
Her moods alternated with distracting rapidity. A hundred times she had resolved that Bevis could be nothing more to her, and again had thought of him with impulses of yearning, trying to persuade herself that he had acted well and wisely. A hundred times she determined to carry out her idea of yesterday -- to quit her husband and resist all his efforts to recall her -- and again had all but resigned herself to live with him, accepting degradation as so many wives perforce did. Her mind was in confusion, and physically she felt far from well. A heaviness weighed upon her limbs, making it hardship to walk however short a distance.
Arrived at Clapham Junction, she began to search wearily, indifferently, for the kind of shop that might answer her purpose. The receiving of letters which, for one reason or another, must be dispatched to a secret address, is a very ordinary complaisance on the part of small London stationers; hundreds of such letters are sent and called for every week within the metropolitan postal area. It did not take Monica long to find an obliging shopkeeper; the first to whom she applied -- a decent woman behind a counter which displayed newspapers, tobacco, and fancy articles -- willingly accepted the commission.
She came out of the shop with flushed cheeks. Another step in shameful descent -- yet it had the result of strengthening once more her emotions favourable to Bevis. On his account she had braved this ignominy, and it drew her towards him, instead of producing the effect which would have seemed more natural. Perhaps the reason was that she felt herself more hopelessly an outcast from the world of honourable women, and therefore longed in her desolation for the support of a man's love. Did he not love her? It was her fault if she expected him to act with a boldness that did not lie in his nature. Perhaps his discretion, which she had so bitterly condemned as weakness, meant a wise regard for her interests as well as his own. The public scandal of divorce was a hideous thing. If it damaged his prospects and sundered him from his relatives, how could she hope that his love of her, the cause of it all, would long endure?
The need of love overcame her. She would submit to any conditions rather than lose this lover whose kisses were upon her lips, and whose arms had held her so passionately. She was too young to accept a life of resignation, too ardent. Why had she left him in despondency, in doubt whether he would ever again see her?
She turned back on her way to Virginia's lodgings, re-entered the station, and journeyed townwards. It was an odd incident, by Monica unperceived, that when she was taking her ticket there stood close by her a man, seemingly a mechanic, who had also stood within hearing when she booked at Herne Hill. This same man, though he had not travelled in the compartment with her, followed her when she alighted at Bayswater. She did not once observe him.
Instead of writing, she had resolved to see Bevis again -- if it were possible. Perhaps he would not be at the flat; yet his wish might suggest the bare hope of her coming to-day. The risk of meeting Barfoot probably need not be considered, for he had told her that he was travelling to-day into Cumberland, and for so long a journey he would be sure to set forth in the morning. At worst she would suffer a disappointment. Indulgence of her fervid feelings had made her as eager to see Bevis as she was yesterday. Words of tenderness rushed to her lips for utterance. When she reached the building all but delirium possessed her.
She had hurried up to the first landing, when a footstep behind drew her attention. It was a man in mechanic's dress, coming up with head bent, doubtless for some task or other in one of the flats. Perhaps he was going to Bevis's. She went forward more slowly, and on the next landing allowed the man to pass her. Yes, more likely than not he was engaged in packing her lover's furniture. She stood still. At that moment a door closed above, and another step, lighter and quicker, that of a woman, came downstairs. As far as her ear could judge, this person might have left Bevis's flat. A conflict of emotions excited her to panic. She was afraid either to advance or to retreat, and in equal dread of standing without purpose. She stepped up to the nearest door, and gave a summons with the knocker.
This door was Barfoot's. She knew that; in the first instant of fear occasioned by the workman's approach, she had glanced at the door and reminded herself that here Mr. Barfoot dwelt, immediately beneath Bevis. But for the wild alarm due to her conscience-stricken state she could not have risked the possibility of the tenant being still at home; and yet it seemed to her that she was doing the only thing possible under the circumstances. For this woman whom she heard just above might perchance be one of Bevis's sisters, returned to London for some purpose or other, and in that case she preferred being seen at Barfoot's door to detection as she made for her lover's.
Uncertainty on this point lasted but a few seconds. Dreading to look at the woman, Monica yet did so, just as she passed, and beheld the face of a perfect stranger. A young and good-looking face, however. Her mind, sufficiently tumultuous, received a new impulse of disturbance. Had this woman come forth from Bevis's fiat or from the one opposite? -- for on each floor there were two dwellings.
In the meantime no one answered her knock. Mr. Barfoot had gone; she breathed thankfully. Now she might venture to ascend to the next floor. But then sounded a knock from above. That, she felt convinced, was at Bevis's door, and if so her conjecture about the workman was correct. She stood waiting for certainty, as if still expecting a reply to her own signal at Mr. Barfoot's door. The mechanic looked down at her over the banisters, but of this she was unaware.
The knock above was repeated. Yes, this time there could be no mistake; it was on this side of the landing -- that is to say, at her lover's door. But the door did not open; thus, without going up herself, she received assurance that Bevis was not at home. He might come later. She still had an hour or two to spare. So, as if disappointed in a call at Mr. Barfoot's, she descended the stairs and issued into the street.
Agitation had exhausted her, and a dazzling of her eyes threatened a recurrence of yesterday's faintness. She found a shop where refreshments were sold, and sat for half an hour over a cup of tea, trying to amuse herself with illustrated papers. The mechanic who had knocked at Bevis's door passed once or twice along the pavement, and, as long as she remained here, kept the shop within sight.
At length she asked for writing materials, and penned a few lines. In on her second attempt she failed to see Bevis, she would drop this note into his letter-box. It acquainted him with the address to which he might direct letters, assured him passionately of her love, and implored him to be true to her, to send for her as soon as circumstances made it possible.
Self-torment of every kind was natural to her position. Though the relief of escaping from several distinct dangers had put her mind comparatively at ease for a short time, she had now begun to suffer a fresh uneasiness with reference to the young and handsome woman who came downstairs. The fact that no one answered the workman's knock had seemed to her a sufficient proof that Bevis was not at home, and that the stranger must have come forth from the flat opposite his. But she recollected the incident which had so alarmingly disturbed her and her lover yesterday. Bevis did not then go to the door, and suppose -- oh, it was folly! But suppose that woman had been with him; suppose he did not care to open to a visitor whose signal sounded only a minute or two after that person's departure?
Had she not anguish enough to endure without the addition of frantic jealousy? She would not give another thought to such absurd suggestions. The woman had of course come from the dwelling opposite. Yet why might she not have been in Bevis's flat when he himself was absent? Suppose her an intimate to whom he had entrusted a latch-key. If any such connection existed, might it not help to explain Bevis's half-heartedness?
To think thus was courting madness. Unable to sit still any longer, Monica left the shop, and strayed for some ten minutes about the neighbouring streets, drawing nearer and nearer to her goal. Finally she entered the building and went upstairs. On this occasion no one met her, and no one entered in her rear. She knocked at her lover's door, and stood longing, praying, that it might open. But it did not. Tears started to her eyes; she uttered a moan of bitterest disappointment, and slipped the envelope she was carrying into the letter-box.
The mechanic had seen her go in, and he waited outside, a few yards away. Either she would soon reappear, or her not doing so would show that she had obtained admittance somewhere. In the latter case, this workman of much curiosity and leisure had only to lurk about the staircase until she came forth again. But this trial of patience was spared him. He found that he had simply to follow the lady back to Herne Hill. Acting on very suggestive instructions, it never occurred to the worthy man that the lady's second visit was not to the same flat as in the former instance.
Monica was home again long before dinner-time. When that hour arrived her husband had not yet come; the delay, no doubt, was somehow connected with his visit to Mr. Newdick. But this went on. At nine o'clock Monica still sat alone, hungry, yet scarce conscious of hunger owing to her miseries. Widdowson had never behaved thus. Another quarter of an hour and she heard the front door open.
He came to the drawing-room, where she sat waiting.
'How late you are! Are you alone?'
'You haven't had dinner?'
He seemed to be in rather a gloomy mood, but Monica noticed nothing that alarmed her. He was drawing nearer, his eyes on the ground.
'Have you had bad news -- in the City?'
'Yes, I have.'
Still he came nearer, and at length, when a yard or two away, raised his look to her face.
'Have you been out this afternoon?'
She was prompted to a falsehood, but durst not utter it, so keenly was he regarding her.
'Yes, I went to see Miss Barfoot.'
As the word burst from his lips, he sprang at her, clutched her dress at the throat, and flung her violently upon her knees. A short cry of terror escaped her; then she was stricken dumb, with eyes starting and mouth open. It was well that he held her by the garment and not by the neck, for his hand closed with murderous convulsion, and the desire of crushing out her life was for an instant all his consciousness.
'Liar!' again burst from him. 'Day after day you have lied to me. Liar! Adultress!'
'I am not! I am not that!'
She clung upon his arms and strove to raise herself. The bloodless lips, the choked voice, meant dread of him, but the distortion of her features was hatred and the will to resist.
'Not that? What is your word worth? The prostitute in the street is sooner to be believed. She has the honesty to say what she is, but you ---- Where were you yesterday when you were not at your sister's? Where were you this afternoon?'
She had nearly struggled to her feet; he thrust her down again, crushed her backwards until her head all but touched the floor.
'Where were you? Tell the truth, or you shall never speak again!'
'Oh -- help! help! He will kill me!'
Her cry rang through the room.
'Call them up -- let them come and look at you and hear what you are. Soon enough every one will know. Where were you this afternoon? You were watched every step of the way from here to that place where you have made yourself a base, vile, unclean creature ----.'
'I am not that! Your spies have misled you.'
'Misled? Didn't you go to that man Barfoot's door and knock there? And because you were disappointed, didn't you wait about, and go there a second time?'
'What if I did? It doesn't mean what you think.'
'What? You go time after time to the private chambers of an unmarried man -- a man such as that -- and it means no harm?'
'I have never been there before.'
'You expect me to believe you?' Widdowson cried with savage contumely. He had just loosed his hold of her, and she was upright again before him, her eyes flashing defiance, though every muscle in her frame quivered. 'When did your lies begin? Was it when you told me you had been to hear Miss Barfoot's lecture, and never went there at all?'
He aimed the charge at a venture, and her face told him that his suspicion had been grounded.
'For how many weeks, for how many months, have you been dishonouring me and yourself?'
'I am not guilty of what you believe, but I shan't try to defend myself. Thank Heaven, this is the end of everything between us! Charge me with what you like. I am going away from you, and I hope we may never meet again.'
'Yes, you are going -- no doubt of that. But not before you have answered my questions. Whether with lies or not doesn't matter much. You shall give your own account of what you have been doing.'
Both panting as if after some supreme effort of their physical force, they stood and looked at each other. Each to the other's eyes was incredibly transformed. Monica could not have imagined such brutal ferocity in her husband's face, and she herself had a wild recklessness in her eyes, a scorn and abhorrence in all the lines of her countenance, which made Widdowson feel as if a stranger were before him.
'I shall answer no question whatever,' Monica replied. 'All I want is to leave your house, and never see you again.'
He regretted what he had done. The result of the first day's espionage being a piece of evidence so incomplete, he had hoped to command himself until more solid proof of his wife's guilt were forthcoming. But jealousy was too strong for such prudence, and the sight of Monica as she uttered her falsehood made a mere madman of him. Predisposed to believe a story of this kind, he could not reason as he might have done if fear of Barfoot had never entered his thoughts. The whole course of dishonour seemed so clear; he traced it from Monica's earliest meetings with Barfoot at Chelsea. Wavering between the impulse to cast off his wife with every circumstance of public shame, and the piteous desire to arrest her on her path of destruction, he rushed into a middle course, compatible with neither of these intentions. If at this stage he chose to tell Monica what had come to his knowledge, it should have been done with the sternest calm, with dignity capable of shaming her guilt. As it was, he had spoilt his chances in every direction. Perhaps Monica understood this; he had begun to esteem her a mistress in craft and intrigue.
'You say you were never at that man's rooms before to-day?' he asked in a lower voice.
'What I have said you must take the trouble to recollect. I shall answer no question.'
Again the impulse assailed him to wring confession from her by terror. He took a step forward, the demon in his face. Monica in that moment leapt past him, and reached the door of the room before he could stop her.
'Stay where you are!' she cried, 'If your hands touch me again I shall call for help until someone comes up. I won't endure your touch!'
'Do you pretend you are innocent of any crime against me?'
'I am not what you called me. Explain everything as you like. I will explain nothing. I want only to be free from you.'
She opened the door, rapidly crossed the landing, and went upstairs. Feeling it was useless to follow, Widdowson allowed the door to remain wide, and waited. Five minutes passed and Monica came down again, dressed for leaving the house.
'Where are you going?' he asked, stepping out of the room to intercept her.
'It is nothing to you. I am going away.'
They subdued their voices, which might else have been audible the servants below.
'No, that you shall not!'
He stepped forward to block the head of the stairs, but again Monica was too quick for him. She fled down, and across the hall, and to the house-door. Only there, as she was arrested by the difficulty of drawing back the two latches, did Widdowson overtake her.
'Make what scandal you like, you don't leave this house.'
His tones were violent rather than resolute. What could he do? If Monica persisted, what means had he of confining her to the house -- short of carrying her by main force to an upper room and there locking her in? He knew that his courage would not sustain him through such a task as this.
'For scandal I care nothing,' was her reply. 'One way or another I will leave the house.'
'Where are you going?'
'To my sister's.'
His hand on the door, Widdowson stood as if determined in opposition. But her will was stronger than his. Only by homicide can a man maintain his dignity in a situation of this kind; Widdowson could not kill his wife, and every moment that he stood there made him more ridiculous, more contemptible.
He turned back into the hall and reached his hat. Whilst he was doing so Monica opened the door. Heavy rain was falling, but she paid no heed to it. In a moment Widdowson hastened after her, careless, he too, of the descending floods. Her way was towards the railway station, but the driver of a cab chancing to attract her notice, she accepted the man's offer, and bade him drive to Lavender Hill.
On the first opportunity Widdowson took like refuge from the rain, and was driven in the same direction. He alighted not far from Mrs. Conisbee's house. That Monica had come hither he felt no doubt, but he would presently make sure of it. As it still rained he sought shelter in a public-house, where he quenched a painful thirst, and then satisfied his hunger with such primitive foods as a licensed victualler is disposed to vend. It was nearing eleven o'clock, and he had neither eaten nor drunk since luncheon.
After that he walked to Mrs. Conisbee's, and knocked at the door. The landlady came.
'Will you please to tell me,' he asked 'whether Mrs. Widdowson is here?'
The sly curiosity of the woman's face informed him at once that she saw something unusual in these circumstances.
'Yes, sir. Mrs. Widdowson is with her sister,'
Without another word he departed. But went only a short distance, and until midnight kept Mrs. Conisbee's door in view. The rain fell, the air was raw; shelterless, and often shivering with fever, Widdowson walked the pavement with a constable's regularity. He could not but remember the many nights when he thus kept watch in Walworth Road and in Rutland Street, with jealousy, then too, burning in his heart, but also with amorous ardours, never again to be revived. A little more than twelve months ago! And he had waited, longed for marriage through half a lifetime.
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