The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 13

Discord of Leaders

A disappointment awaited him. Miss Barfoot was not well enough to see any one. Had she been suffering long? he inquired. No; it was only this evening; she had not dined, and was gone to her room. Miss Nunn could not receive him.

He went home, and wrote to his cousin.

The next morning he came upon a passage in the newspaper which seemed to suggest a cause for Miss Barfoot’s indisposition. It was the report of an inquest. A girl named Bella Royston had poisoned herself. She was living alone, without occupation, and received visits only from one lady. This lady, her name Miss Barfoot, had been supplying her with money, and had just found her a situation in a house of business; but the girl appeared to have gone through troubles which had so disturbed her mind that she could not make the effort required of her. She left a few lines addressed to her benefactress, just saying that she chose death rather than the struggle to recover her position.

It was Saturday. He decided to call in the afternoon and see whether Mary had recovered.

Again a disappointment. Miss Barfoot was better, and had been away since breakfast; Miss Nunn was also absent.

Everard sauntered about the neighbourhood, and presently found himself in the gardens of Chelsea Hospital. It was a warm afternoon, and so still that he heard the fall of yellow leaves as he walked hither and thither along the alleys. His failure to obtain an interview with Miss Nunn annoyed him; but for her presence in the house he would not have got into this habit of going there. As far as ever from harbouring any serious thoughts concerning Rhoda, he felt himself impelled along the way which he had jokingly indicated in talk with Micklethwaite; he was tempted to make love to her as an interesting pastime, to observe how so strong-minded a woman would conduct herself under such circumstances. Had she or not a vein of sentiment in her character? Was it impossible to move her as other women are moved? Meditating thus, he looked up and saw the subject of his thoughts. She was seated a few yards away, and seemingly had not yet become aware of him, her eyes were on the ground, and troubled reverie appeared in her countenance.

‘I have just called at the house, Miss Nunn. How is my cousin today?’

She had looked up only a moment before he spoke, and seemed vexed at being thus discovered.

‘I believe Miss Barfoot is quite well,’ she answered coldly, as they shook hands.

‘But yesterday she was not so.’

‘A headache, or something of the kind.’

He was astonished. Rhoda spoke with a cold indifference. She has risen, and showed her wish to move from the spot.

‘She had to attend an inquest yesterday. Perhaps it rather upset her?’

‘Yes, I think it did.’

Unable to adapt himself at once to this singular mood of Rhoda’s, but resolved not to let her go before he had tried to learn the cause of it, he walked along by her side. In this part of the gardens there were only a few nursemaids and children; it would have been a capital place and time for improving his intimacy with the remarkable woman. But possibly she was determined to be rid of him. A contest between his will and hers would be an amusement decidedly to his taste.

‘You also have been disturbed by it, Miss Nunn.’

‘By the inquest?’ she returned, with barely veiled scorn. ‘Indeed I have not.’

‘Did you know that poor girl?’

‘Some time ago.’

‘Then it is only natural that her miserable fate should sadden you.’

He spoke as if with respectful sympathy, ignoring what she had said.

‘It has no effect whatever upon me,’ Rhoda answered, glancing at him with surprise and displeasure.

‘Forgive me if I say that I find it difficult to believe that. Perhaps you —’

She interrupted him.

‘I don’t easily forgive anyone who charges me with falsehood, Mr. Barfoot.’

‘Oh, you take it too seriously. I beg your pardon a thousand times. I was going to say that perhaps you won’t allow yourself to acknowledge any feeling of compassion in such a case.’

‘I don’t acknowledge what I don’t feel. I will bid you good-afternoon.’

He smiled at her with all the softness and persuasiveness of which he was capable. She had offered her hand with cold dignity, and instead of taking it merely for good-bye he retained it.

‘You must, you shall forgive me! I shall be too miserable if you dismiss me in this way. I see that I was altogether wrong. You know all the particulars of the case, and I have only read a brief newspaper account. I am sure the girl didn’t deserve your pity.’

She was trying to draw her hand away. Everard felt the strength of her muscles, and the sensation was somehow so pleasant that he could not at once release her.

‘You do pardon me, Miss Nunn?’

‘Please don’t be foolish. I will thank you to let my hand go.’

Was it possible? Her cheek had coloured, ever so slightly. But with indignation, no doubt, for her eyes flashed sternly at him. Very unwillingly, Everard had no choice but to obey the command.

‘Will you have the kindness to tell me,’ he said more gravely, ‘whether my cousin was suffering only from that cause?’

‘I can’t say,’ she added after a pause. ‘I haven’t spoken with Miss Barfoot for two or three days.’

He looked at her with genuine astonishment.

‘You haven’t seen each other?’

‘Miss Barfoot is angry with me. I think we shall be obliged to part.’

‘To part? What can possibly have happened? Miss Barfoot angry with you?’

‘If I must satisfy your curiosity, Mr. Barfoot, I had better tell you at once that the subject of our difference is the girl you mentioned. Not very long ago she tried to persuade your cousin to receive her again — to give her lessons at the place in Great Portland Street, as before she disgraced herself. Miss Barfoot, with too ready good-nature, was willing to do this, but I resisted. It seemed to me that it would be a very weak and wrong thing to do. At the time she ended by agreeing with me. Now that the girl has killed herself, she throws the blame upon my interference. We had a painful conversation, and I don’t think we can continue to live together.’

Barfoot listened with gratification. It was much to have compelled Rhoda to explain herself, and on such a subject.

‘Nor even to work together?’ he asked.

‘It is doubtful.’

Rhoda still moved forward, but very slowly, and without impatience.

‘You will somehow get over this difficulty, I am sure. Such friends as you and Mary don’t quarrel like ordinary unreasonable women. Won’t you let me be of use?’

‘How?’ asked Rhoda with surprise.

‘I shall make my cousin see that she is wrong.’

‘How do you know that she is wrong?’

‘Because I am convinced that you must be right. I respect Mary’s judgment, but I respect yours still more.’

Rhoda raised her head and smiled.

‘That compliment,’ she said, ‘pleases me less than the one you have uttered without intending it.’

‘You must explain.’

‘You said that by making Miss Barfoot see she was wrong you could alter her mind towards me. The world’s opinion would hardly support you in that, even in the case of men.’

Everard laughed.

‘Now this is better. Now we are talking in the old way. Surely you know that the world’s opinion has no validity for me.’

She kept silence.

‘But, after all, is Mary wrong? I’m not afraid to ask the question now that your face has cleared a little. How angry you were with me! But surely I didn’t deserve it. You would have been much more forbearing if you had known what delight I felt when I saw you sitting over there. It is nearly a month since we met, and I couldn’t keep away any longer.’

Rhoda swept the distance with indifferent eyes.

‘Mary was fond of this girl?’ he inquired, watching her.

‘Yes, she was.’

‘Then her distress, and even anger, are natural enough. We won’t discuss the girl’s history; probably I know all that I need to. But whatever her misdoing, you certainly didn’t wish to drive her to suicide.’

Rhoda deigned no reply.

‘All the same,’ he continued in his gentlest tone, ‘it turns out that you have practically done so. If Mary had taken the girl back that despair would most likely never have come upon her. Isn’t it natural that Mary should repent of having been guided by you, and perhaps say rather severe things?’

‘Natural, no doubt. But it is just as natural for me to resent blame where I have done nothing blameworthy.’

‘You are absolutely sure that this is the case?’

‘I thought you expressed a conviction that I was in the right?’

There was no smile, but Everard believed that he detected its possibility on the closed lips.

‘I have got into the way of always thinking so — in questions of this kind. But perhaps you tend to err on the side of severity. Perhaps you make too little allowance for human weakness.’

‘Human weakness is a plea that has been much abused, and generally in an interested spirit.’

This was something like a personal rebuke. Whether she so meant it, Barfoot could not determine. He hoped she did, for the more personal their talk became the better he would be pleased.

‘I, for one,’ he said, ‘very seldom urge that plea, whether in my own defence or another’s. But it answers to a spirit we can’t altogether dispense with. Don’t you feel ever so little regret that your severe logic prevailed?’

‘Not the slightest regret.’

Everard thought this answer magnificent. He had anticipated some evasion. However inappropriately, he was constrained to smile.

‘How I admire your consistency! We others are poor halting creatures in comparison.’

‘Mr. Barfoot,’ said Rhoda suddenly, ‘I have had enough of this. If your approval is sincere, I don’t ask for it. If you are practising your powers of irony, I had rather you chose some other person. I will go my way, if you please.’

She just bent her head, and left him.

Enough for the present. Having raised his hat and turned on his heels, Barfoot strolled away in a mood of peculiar satisfaction. He laughed to himself. She was certainly a fine creature — yes, physically as well. Her out-of-door appearance on the whole pleased him; she could dress very plainly without disguising the advantages of figure she possessed. He pictured her rambling about the hills, and longed to be her companion on such an expedition; there would be no consulting with feebleness, as when one sets forth to walk with the everyday woman. What daring topics might come up in the course of a twenty-mile stretch across country! No Grundyism in Rhoda Nunn; no simpering, no mincing of phrases. Why, a man might do worse than secure her for his comrade through the whole journey of life.

Suppose he pushed his joke to the very point of asking her to marry him? Undoubtedly she would refuse; but how enjoyable to watch the proud vigour of her freedom asserting itself! Yet would not an offer of marriage be too commonplace? Rather propose to her to share his life in a free union, without sanction of forms which neither for her nor him were sanction at all. Was it too bold a thought?

Not if he really meant it. Uttered insincerely, such words would be insult; she would see through his pretence of earnestness, and then farewell to her for ever. But if his intellectual sympathy became tinged with passion — and did he discern no possibility of that? An odd thing were he to fall in love with Rhoda Nunn. Hitherto his ideal had been a widely different type of woman; he had demanded rare beauty of face, and the charm of a refined voluptuousness. To be sure, it was but an ideal; no woman that approached it had ever come within his sphere. The dream exercised less power over him than a few years ago; perhaps because his youth was behind him. Rhoda might well represent the desire of a mature man, strengthened by modern culture and with his senses fairly subordinate to reason. Heaven forbid that he should ever tie himself to the tame domestic female; and just as little could he seek for a mate among the women of society, the creatures all surface, with empty pates and vitiated blood. No marriage for him, in the common understanding of the word. He wanted neither offspring nor a ‘home’. Rhoda Nunn, if she thought of such things at all, probably desired a union which would permit her to remain an intellectual being; the kitchen, the cradle, and the work-basket had no power over her imagination. As likely as not, however, she was perfectly content with single life — even regarded it as essential to her purposes. In her face he read chastity; her eye avoided no scrutiny; her palm was cold.

One does not break the heart of such a woman. Heartbreak is a very old-fashioned disorder, associated with poverty of brain. If Rhoda were what he thought her, she enjoyed this opportunity of studying a modern male, and cared not how far he proceeded in his own investigations, sure that at any moment she could bid him fall back. The amusement was only just beginning. And if for him it became earnest, why what did he seek but strong experiences?

Rhoda, in the meantime, had gone home. She shut herself in her bedroom, and remained there until the bell rang for dinner.

Miss Barfoot entered the dining-room just before her; they sat down in silence, and through the meal exchanged but a few sentences, relative to a topic of the hour which interested neither of them.

The elder woman had a very unhappy countenance; she looked worn out; her eyes never lifted themselves from the table.

Dinner over, Miss Barfoot went to the drawing-room alone. She had sat there about half an hour, brooding, unoccupied, when Rhoda came in and stood before her.

‘I have been thinking it over. It isn’t right for me to remain here. Such an arrangement was only possible whilst we were on terms of perfect understanding.’

‘You must do what you think best, Rhoda,’ the other replied gravely, but with no accent of displeasure.

‘Yes, I had better take a lodging somewhere. What I wish to know is, whether you can still employ me with any satisfaction?’

‘I don’t employ you. That is not the word to describe your relations with me. If we must use business language, you are simply my partner.’

‘Only your kindness put me into that position. When you no longer regard me as a friend, I am only in your employment.’

‘I haven’t ceased to regard you as a friend. The estrangement between us is entirely of your making.’

Seeing that Rhoda would not sit down, Miss Barfoot rose and stood by the fireplace.

‘I can’t bear reproaches,’ said the former; ‘least of all when they are irrational and undeserved.’

‘If I reproached you, it was in a tone which should never have given you offence. One would think that I had rated you like a disobedient servant.’

‘If that had been possible,’ answered Rhoda, with a faint smile, ‘I should never have been here. You said that you bitterly repented having given way to me on a certain occasion. That was unreasonable; in giving way, you declared yourself convinced. And the reproach I certainly didn’t deserve, for I had behaved conscientiously.’

‘Isn’t it allowed me to disapprove of what your conscience dictates?’

‘Not when you have taken the same view, and acted upon it. I don’t lay claim to many virtues, and I haven’t that of meekness. I could never endure anger; my nature resents it.’

‘I did wrong to speak angrily, but indeed I hardly knew what I was saying. I had suffered a terrible shock. I loved that poor girl; I loved her all the more for what I had seen of her since she came to implore my help. Your utter coldness — it seemed to me inhuman — I shrank from you. If your face had shown ever so little compassion —’

‘I felt no compassion.’

‘No. You have hardened your heart with theory. Guard yourself, Rhoda! To work for women one must keep one’s womanhood. You are becoming — you are wandering as far from the true way — oh, much further than Bella did!’

‘I can’t answer you. When we argued about our differences in a friendly spirit, all was permissible; now if I spoke my thought it would be mere harshness and cause of embitterment. I fear all is at an end between us. I should perpetually remind you of this sorrow.’

There was a silence of some length. Rhoda turned away, and stood in reflection.

‘Let us do nothing hastily,’ said Miss Barfoot. ‘We have more to think of than our own feelings.’

‘I have said that I am quite willing to go on with my work, but it must be on a different footing. The relation between us can no longer be that of equals. I am content to follow your directions. But your dislike of me will make this impossible.’

‘Dislike? You misunderstand me wretchedly. I think rather it is you who dislike me, as a weak woman with no command of her emotions.’

Again they ceased from speech. Presently Miss Barfoot stepped forward.

‘Rhoda, I shall be away all tomorrow; I may not return to London until Monday morning. Will you think quietly over it all? Believe me, I am not angry with you, and as for disliking you — what nonsense are we talking! But I can’t regret that I let you see how painfully your behaviour impressed me. That hardness is not natural to you. You have encouraged yourself in it, and you are warping a very noble character.’

‘I wish only to be honest. Where you felt compassion I felt indignation.’

‘Yes; we have gone through all that. The indignation was a forced, exaggerated sentiment. You can’t see it in that light perhaps. But try to imagine for a moment that Bella had been your sister —’

‘That is confusing the point at issue,’ Rhoda exclaimed irritably. ‘Have I ever denied the force of such feelings? My grief would have blinded me to all larger considerations, of course. But she was happily not my sister, and I remained free to speak the simple truth about her case. It isn’t personal feeling that directs a great movement in civilization. If you were right, I also was right. You should have recognized the inevitable discord of our Opinions at that moment.’

‘It didn’t seem to me inevitable.’

‘I should have despised myself if I could have affected sympathy.’

‘Affected — yes.’

‘Or have really felt it. That would have meant that I did not know myself. I should never again have dared to speak on any grave subject.’

Miss Barfoot smiled sadly.

‘How young you are! Oh, there is far more than ten years between our ages, Rhoda! In spirit you are a young girl, and I an old woman. No, no; we will not quarrel. Your companionship is far too precious to me, and I dare to think that mine is not without value for you. Wait till my grief has had its course; then I shall be more reasonable and do you more justice.’

Rhoda turned towards the door, lingered, but without looking back, and so left the room.

Miss Barfoot was absent as she had announced, returning only in time for her duties in Great Portland Street on Monday morning. She and Rhoda then shook hands, but without a word of personal reference. They went through the day’s work as usual.

This was the day of the month on which Miss Barfoot would deliver her four o’clock address. The subject had been announced a week ago: ‘Woman as an Invader.’ An hour earlier than usual work was put aside, and seats were rapidly arranged for the small audience; it numbered only thirteen — the girls already on the premises and a few who came specially. All were aware of the tragedy in which Miss Barfoot had recently been concerned; her air of sadness, so great a contrast to that with which she was wont to address them, they naturally attributed to this cause.

As always, she began in the simplest conversational tone. Not long since she had received an anonymous letter, written by some clerk out of employment, abusing her roundly for her encouragement of female competition in the clerkly world. The taste of this epistle was as bad as its grammar, but they should hear it; she read it all through. Now, whoever the writer might be, it seemed pretty clear that he was not the kind of person with whom one could profitably argue; no use in replying to him, even had he given the opportunity. For all that, his uncivil attack had a meaning, and there were plenty of people ready to urge his argument in more respectable terms. ‘They will tell you that, in entering the commercial world, you not only unsex yourselves, but do a grievous wrong to the numberless men struggling hard for bare sustenance. You reduce salaries, you press into an already overcrowded field, you injure even your own sex by making it impossible for men to marry, who, if they earned enough, would be supporting a wife.’ To-day, continued Miss Barfoot, it was not her purpose to debate the economic aspects of the question. She would consider it from another point of view, repeating, perhaps, much that she had already said to them on other occasions, but doing so because these thoughts had just now very strong possession of her mind.

This abusive correspondent, who declared that he was supplanted by a young woman who did his work for smaller payment, doubtless had a grievance. But, in the miserable disorder of our social state, one grievance had to be weighed against another, and Miss Barfoot held that there was much more to be urged on behalf of women who invaded what had been exclusively the men’s sphere, than on behalf of the men who began to complain of this invasion.

‘They point to half a dozen occupations which are deemed strictly suitable for women. Why don’t we confine ourselves to this ground? Why don’t I encourage girls to become governesses, hospital nurses, and so on? You think I ought to reply that already there are too many applicants for such places. It would be true, but I don’t care to make use of the argument, which at once involves us in a debate with the out-crowded clerk. No; to put the truth in a few words, I am not chiefly anxious that you should earn money, but that women in general shall become rational and responsible human beings.

‘Follow me carefully. A governess, a nurse, may be the most admirable of women. I will dissuade no one from following those careers who is distinctly fitted for them. But these are only a few out of the vast number of girls who must, if they are not to be despicable persons, somehow find serious work. Because I myself have had an education in clerkship, and have most capacity for such employment, I look about for girls of like mind, and do my best to prepare them for work in offices. And (here I must become emphatic once more) I am glad to have entered on this course. I am glad that I can show girls the way to a career which my opponents call unwomanly.

‘Now see why. Womanly and womanish are two very different words; but the latter, as the world uses it, has become practically synonymous with the former. A womanly occupation means, practically, an occupation that a man disdains. And here is the root of the matter. I repeat that I am not first of all anxious to keep you supplied with daily bread. I am a troublesome, aggressive, revolutionary person. I want to do away with that common confusion of the words womanly and womanish, and I see very clearly that this can only be effected by an armed movement, an invasion by women of the spheres which men have always forbidden us to enter. I am strenuously opposed to that view of us set forth in such charming language by Mr. Ruskin — for it tells on the side of those men who think and speak of us in a way the reverse of charming. Were we living in an ideal world, I think women would not go to sit all day in offices. But the fact is that we live in a world as far from ideal as can be conceived. We live in a time of warfare, of revolt. If woman is no longer to be womanish, but a human being of powers and responsibilities, she must become militant, defiant. She must push her claims to the extremity.

‘An excellent governess, a perfect hospital nurse, do work which is invaluable; but for our cause of emancipation they are no good — nay, they are harmful. Men point to them, and say, Imitate these, keep to your proper world. Our proper world is the world of intelligence, of honest effort, of moral strength. The old types of womanly perfection are no longer helpful to us. Like the Church service, which to all but one person in a thousand has become meaningless gabble by dint of repetition, these types have lost their effect. They are no longer educational. We have to ask ourselves, What course of training will wake women up, make them conscious of their souls, startle them into healthy activity?

‘It must be something new, something free from the reproach of womanliness. I don’t care whether we crowd out the men or not. I don’t care what results, if only women are made strong and self-reliant and nobly independent! The world must look to its concerns. Most likely we shall have a revolution in the social order greater than any that yet seems possible. Let it come, and let us help its coming. When I think of the contemptible wretchedness of women enslaved by custom, by their weakness, by their desires, I am ready to cry, Let the world perish in tumult rather than things go on in this way!’

For a moment her voice failed. There were tears in her eyes. The hearers, most of them, understood what made her so passionate; they exchanged grave looks.

‘Our abusive correspondent shall do as best he can. He suffers for the folly of men in all ages. We can’t help it. It is very far from our wish to cause hardship to any one, but we ourselves are escaping from a hardship that has become intolerable. We are educating ourselves. There must be a new type of woman, active in every sphere of life: a new worker out in the world, a new ruler of the home. Of the old ideal virtues we can retain many, but we have to add to them those which have been thought appropriate only in men. Let a woman be gentle, but at the same time let her be strong; let her be pure of heart, but none the less wise and instructed. Because we have to set an example to the sleepy of our sex, we must carry on an active warfare — must be invaders. Whether woman is the equal of man I neither know nor care. We are not his equal in size, in weight, in muscle, and, for all I can say, we may have less power of brain. That has nothing to do with it. Enough for us to know that our natural growth has been stunted. The mass of women have always been paltry creatures, and their paltriness has proved a curse to men. So, if you like to put it in this way, we are working for the advantage of men as well as for our own. Let the responsibility for disorder rest on those who have made us despise our old selves. At any cost — at any cost — we will free ourselves from the heritage of weakness and contempt!’

The assembly was longer than usual in dispersing. When all were gone, Miss Barfoot listened for a footstep in the other room. As she could detect no sound, she went to see if Rhoda was there or not.

Yes; Rhoda was sitting in a thoughtful attitude. She looked up, smiled, and came a few paces forward.

‘It was very good.’

‘I thought it would please you.’

Miss Barfoot drew nearer, and added  —

‘It was addressed to you. It seemed to me that you had forgotten how I really thought about these things.’

‘I have been ill-tempered,’ Rhoda replied. ‘Obstinacy is one of my faults.’

‘It is.’

Their eyes met.

‘I believe,’ continued Rhoda, ‘that I ought to ask your pardon. Right or wrong, I behaved in an unmannerly way.’

‘Yes, I think you did.’

Rhoda smiled, bending her head to the rebuke.

‘And there’s the last of it,’ added Miss Barfoot. ‘Let us kiss and be friends.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/odd-women/chapter13.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:20