The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 15

The Joys of Home

Monica and her husband, on leaving the house in Queen’s Road, walked slowly in the eastward direction. Though night had fallen, the air was not unpleasant; they had no object before them, and for five minutes they occupied themselves with their thoughts. Then Widdowson stopped.

‘Shall we go home again?’ he asked, just glancing at Monica, then letting his eyes stray vaguely in the gloom.

‘I should like to see Milly, but I’m afraid I can hardly take you there to call with me.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s a very poor little sitting-room, you know, and she might have some friend. Isn’t there anywhere you could go, and meet me afterwards?’

Frowning, Widdowson looked at his watch.

‘Nearly six o’clock. There isn’t much time.’

‘Edmund, suppose you go home, and let me come back by myself? You wouldn’t mind, for once? I should like so much to have a talk with Milly. If I got back about nine or half-past, I could have a little supper, and that’s all I should want.’

He answered abruptly  —

‘Oh, but I can’t have you going about alone at night.’

‘Why not?’ answered Monica, with a just perceptible note of irritation. ‘Are you afraid I shall be robbed or murdered?’

‘Nonsense. But you mustn’t be alone.’

‘Didn’t I always use to be alone?’

He made an angry gesture.

‘I have begged you not to speak of that. Why do you say what you know is disagreeable to me? You used to do all sorts of things that you never ought to have been obliged to do, and it’s very painful to remember it.’

Monica, seeing that people were approaching, walked on, and neither spoke until they had nearly reached the end of the road.

‘I think we had better go home,’ Widdowson at length remarked.

‘If you wish it; but I really don’t see why I shouldn’t call on Milly, now that we are here.’

‘Why didn’t you speak of it before we left home? You ought to be more methodical, Monica. Each morning I always plan how my day is to be spent, and it would be much better if you would do the same. Then you wouldn’t be so restless and uncertain.’

‘If I go to Rutland Street,’ said Monica, without heeding this admonition, ‘couldn’t you leave me there for an hour?’

‘What in the world am I to do?’

‘I should have thought you might walk about. It’s a pity you don’t know more people, Edmund. It would make things so much pleasanter for you.’

In the end he consented to see her safely as far as Rutland Street, occupy himself for an hour, and come back for her. They went by cab, which was dismissed in Hampstead Road. Widdowson did not turn away until he had ocular proof of his wife’s admittance to the house where Miss Vesper lived, and even then he walked no farther than the neighbouring streets, returning about every ten minutes to watch the house from a short distance, as though he feared Monica might have some project of escape. His look was very bilious; trudging mechanically hither and thither where fewest people were to be met, he kept his eyes on the ground, and clumped to a dismal rhythm with the end of his walking-stick. In the three or four months since his marriage, he seemed to have grown older; he no longer held himself so upright.

At the very moment agreed upon he was waiting close by the house. Five minutes passed; twice he had looked at his watch, and he grew excessively impatient, stamping as if it were necessary to keep himself warm. Another five minutes, and he uttered a nervous ejaculation. He had all but made up his mind to go and knock at the door when Monica came forth.

‘You haven’t been waiting here long, I hope?’ she said cheerfully.

‘Ten minutes. But it doesn’t matter.’

‘I’m very sorry. We were talking on —’

‘Yes, but one must always be punctual. I wish I could impress that upon you. Life without punctuality is quite impossible.’

‘I’m very sorry, Edmund. I will be more careful. Please don’t lecture me, dear. How shall we go home?’

‘We had better take a cab to Victoria. No knowing how long we may have to wait for a train when we get there.’

‘Now don’t be so grumpy. Where have you been all the time?’

‘Oh, walking about. What else was I to do?’

On the drive they held no conversation. At Victoria they were delayed about half an hour before a train started for Herne Hill; Monica sat in a waiting-room, and her husband trudged about the platform, still clumping rhythmically with his stick.

Their Sunday custom was to dine at one o’clock, and at six to have tea. Widdowson hated the slightest interference with domestic routine, and he had reluctantly indulged Monica’s desire to go to Chelsea this afternoon. Hunger was now added to his causes of discontent.

‘Let us have something to eat at once,’ he said on entering the house. ‘This disorder really won’t do: we must manage better somehow.’

Without replying, Monica rang the dining-room bell, and gave orders.

Little change had been made in the interior of the house since its master’s marriage. The dressing-room adjoining the principal bed-chamber was adapted to Monica’s use, and a few ornaments were added to the drawing-room. Unlike his deceased brother, Widdowson had the elements of artistic taste; in furnishing his abode he took counsel with approved decorators, and at moderate cost had made himself a home which presented no original features, but gave no offence to a cultivated eye. The first sight of the rooms pleased Monica greatly. She declared that all was perfect, nothing need be altered. In those days, if she had bidden him spend a hundred pounds on reconstruction, the lover would have obeyed, delighted to hear her express a wish.

Though competence had come to him only after a lifetime of narrow means, Widdowson felt no temptation to parsimony. Secure in his all-sufficing income, he grudged no expenditure that could bring himself or his wife satisfaction. On the wedding-tour in Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset — it lasted about seven weeks — Monica learnt, among other things less agreeable, that her husband was generous with money.

He was anxious she should dress well, though only, as Monica soon discovered, for his own gratification. Soon after they had settled down at home she equipped herself for the cold season, and Widdowson cared little about the price so long as the effect of her new costumes was pleasing to him.

‘You are making a butterfly of me,’ said Monica merrily, when he expressed strong approval of a bright morning dress that had just come home.

‘A beautiful woman,’ he replied, with the nervous gravity which still possessed him when complimenting her, or saying tender things, ‘a beautiful woman ought to be beautifully clad.’

At the same time he endeavoured to impress her with the gravest sense of a married woman’s obligations. His raptures, genuine enough, were sometimes interrupted in the oddest way if Monica chanced to utter a careless remark of which he could not strictly approve, and such interruptions frequently became the opportunity for a long and solemn review of the wifely status. Without much trouble he had brought her into a daily routine which satisfied him. During the whole of the morning she was to be absorbed in household cares. In the afternoon he would take her to walk or drive, and the evening he wished her to spend either in drawing-room or library, occupied with a book. Monica soon found that his idea of wedded happiness was that they should always be together. Most reluctantly he consented to her going any distance alone, for whatever purpose. Public entertainments he regarded with no great favour, but when he saw how Monica enjoyed herself at concert or theatre, he made no objection to indulging her at intervals of a fortnight or so; his own fondness for music made this compliance easier. He was jealous of her forming new acquaintances; indifferent to society himself, he thought his wife should be satisfied with her present friends, and could not understand why she wished to see them so often.

The girl was docile, and for a time he imagined that there would never be conflict between his will and hers. Whilst enjoying their holiday they naturally went everywhere together, and were scarce an hour out of each other’s presence, day or night. In quiet spots by the seashore, when they sat in solitude, Widdowson’s tongue was loosened, and he poured forth his philosophy of life with the happy assurance that Monica would listen passively. His devotion to her proved itself in a thousand ways; week after week he grew, if anything, more kind, more tender; yet in his view of their relations he was unconsciously the most complete despot, a monument of male autocracy. Never had it occurred to Widdowson that a wife remains an individual, with rights and obligations independent of her wifely condition. Everything he said presupposed his own supremacy; he took for granted that it was his to direct, hers to be guided. A display of energy, purpose, ambition, on Monica’s part, which had no reference to domestic pursuits, would have gravely troubled him; at once he would have set himself to subdue, with all gentleness, impulses so inimical to his idea of the married state. It rejoiced him that she spoke with so little sympathy of the principles supported by Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn; these persons seemed to him well-meaning, but grievously mistaken. Miss Nunn he judged ‘unwomanly,’ and hoped in secret that Monica would not long remain on terms of friendship with her. Of course his wife’s former pursuits were an abomination to him; he could not bear to hear them referred to.

‘Woman’s sphere is the home, Monica. Unfortunately girls are often obliged to go out and earn their living, but this is unnatural, a necessity which advanced civilization will altogether abolish. You shall read John Ruskin; every word he says about women is good and precious. If a woman can neither have a home of her own, nor find occupation in any one else’s she is deeply to be pitied; her life is bound to be unhappy. I sincerely believe that an educated woman had better become a domestic servant than try to imitate the life of a man.’

Monica seemed to listen attentively, but before long she accustomed herself to wear this look whilst in truth she was thinking her own thoughts. And as often as not they were of a nature little suspected by her prosing companion.

He believed himself the happiest of men. He had taken a daring step, but fortune smiled upon him, Monica was all he had imagined in his love-fever; knowledge of her had as yet brought to light no single untruth, not trait of character that he could condemn. That she returned his love he would not and could not doubt. And something she said to him one day, early in their honeymoon, filled up the measure of his bliss.

‘What a change you have made in my life, Edmund! How much I have to thank you for!’

That was what he had hoped to hear. He had thought it himself; had wondered whether Monica saw her position in this light. And when the words actually fell from her lips he glowed with joy. This, to his mind, was the perfect relation of wife to husband. She must look up to him as her benefactor, her providence. It would have pleased him still better if she had not possessed a penny of her own, but happily Monica seemed never to give a thought to the sum at her disposal.

Surely he was the easiest of men to live with. When he first became aware that Monica suffered an occasional discontent, it caused him troublous surprise. As soon as he understood that she desired more freedom of movement, he became anxious, suspicious irritable. Nothing like a quarrel had yet taken place between them, but Widdowson began to perceive that he must exert authority in a way he had imagined would never be necessary. All his fears, after all, were not groundless. Monica’s undomestic life, and perhaps the association with those Chelsea people, had left results upon her mind. By way of mild discipline, he first of all suggested a closer attention to the affairs of the house. Would it not be well if she spent an hour a day in sewing or fancy work? Monica so far obeyed as to provide herself with some plain needlework, but Widdowson, watching with keen eye, soon remarked that her use of the needle was only a feint. He lay awake o’ nights, pondering darkly.

On the present evening he was more decidedly out of temper than ever hitherto. He satisfied his hunger hurriedly and in silence. Then, observing that Monica ate only a few morsels, he took offence at this.

‘I’m afraid you are not well, dear. You have had no appetite for several days.’

‘As much as usual, I think,’ she replied absently.

They went into the library, commonly their resort of an evening. Widdowson possessed several hundred volumes of English literature, most of them the works which are supposed to be indispensible to a well-informed man, though very few men even make a pretence of reading them. Self-educated, Widdowson deemed it his duty to make acquaintance with the great, the solid authors. Nor was his study of them affectation. For the poets he had little taste; the novelists he considered only profitable in intervals of graver reading; but history, political economy, even metaphysics, genuinely appealed to him. He had always two or three solid books on hand, each with its marker; he studied them at stated hours, and always sitting at a table, a notebook open beside him. A little work once well-known, Todd’s ‘Student’s Manual,’ had formed his method and inspired him with zeal.

To-night, it being Sunday, he took down a volume of Barrow’s Sermons. Though not strictly orthodox in religious faith, he conformed to the practices of the Church of England, and since his marriage had been more scrupulous on this point than before. He abhorred unorthodoxy in a woman, and would not on any account have suffered Monica to surmise that he had his doubts concerning any article of the Christian faith. Like most men of his kind, he viewed religion as a precious and powerful instrument for directing the female conscience. Frequently he read aloud to his wife, but this evening he showed no intention of doing so. Monica, however, sat unoccupied. After glancing at her once or twice, he said reprovingly  —

‘Have you finished your Sunday book?’

‘Not quite. But I don’t care to read just now.’

The silence that followed was broken by Monica herself.

‘Have you accepted Mrs. Luke’s invitation to dinner?’ she asked.

‘I have declined it,’ was the reply, carelessly given.

Monica bit her lip.

‘But why?’

‘Surely we needn’t discuss that over again, Monica.’

His eyes were still on the book, and he stirred impatiently.

‘But,’ urged his wife, ‘do you mean to break with her altogether? If so, I think it’s very unwise, Edmund. What an opinion you must have of me, if you think I can’t see people’s faults! I know it’s very true, all you say about her. But she wishes to be kind to us, I’m sure — and I like to see something of a life so different from our own.’

Widdowson drummed on the floor with his foot. In a few moments, ignoring Monica’s remarks, he stroked his beard, and asked, with a show of casual interest  —

‘How was it you knew that Mr. Barfoot?’

‘I had met him before — when I went there on the Saturday.’

Widdowson’s eyes fell; his brow was wrinkled.

‘He’s often there, then?’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps he is. He’s Miss Barfoot’s cousin, you know.’

‘You haven’t seen him more than once before?’

‘No. Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, it was only that he seemed to speak as if you were old acquaintances.’

‘That’s his way, I suppose.’

Monica had already learnt that the jealousy which Widdowson so often betrayed before their manage still lurked in his mind. Perceiving why he put these questions, she could not look entirely unconcerned, and the sense of his eye being upon her caused her some annoyance.

‘You talked to him, didn’t you?’ she said, changing her position in the deep chair.

‘Oh, the kind of talk that is possible with a perfect stranger. I suppose he is in some profession?’

‘I really don’t know. Why, Edmund? Does he interest you?’

‘Only that one likes to know something about the people that are introduced to one’s wife,’ Widdowson answered rather acridly.

Their bedtime was half-past ten. Precisely at that moment Widdowson closed his book — glad to be relieved from the pretence of reading — and walked over the lower part of the house to see that all was right. He had a passion for routine. Every night, before going upstairs, he did a number of little things in unvarying sequence — changed the calendar for next day, made perfect order on his writing-table, wound lip his watch, and so on. That Monica could not direct her habits with like exactitude was frequently a distress to him; if she chanced to forget any most trivial detail of daily custom he looked very solemn, and begged her to be more vigilant.

Next morning after breakfast, as Monica stood by the dining-room window and looked rather cheerlessly at a leaden sky, her husband came towards her as if he had something to say. She turned, and saw that his face no longer wore the austere expression which had made her miserable last night, and even during the meal this morning.

‘Are we friends?’ he said, with the attempt at playfulness which always made him look particularly awkward.

‘Of course we are,’ Monica answered, smiling, but not regarding him.

‘Didn’t he behave gruffly last night to his little girl?’

‘Just a little.’

‘And what can the old bear do to show that he’s sorry?’

‘Never be gruff again.’

‘The old bear is sometimes an old goose as well, and torments himself in the silliest way. Tell him so, if ever he begins to behave badly. Isn’t it account-book morning?’

‘Yes. I’ll come to you at eleven.’

‘And if we have a nice, quiet, comfortable week, I’ll take you to the Crystal Palace concert next Saturday.’

Monica nodded cheerfully, and went off to look after her housekeeping.

The week was in all respects what Widdowson desired. Not a soul came to the house; Monica went to see no one. Save on two days, it rained, sleeted, drizzled, fogged; on those two afternoons they had an hour’s walk. Saturday brought no improvement of the atmosphere, but Widdowson was in his happiest mood; he cheerfully kept his promise about the concert. As they sat together at night, his contentment overflowed in tenderness like that of the first days of marriage.

‘Now, why can’t we always live like this? What have we to do with other people? Let us be everything to each other, and forget that any one else exists.’

‘I can’t help thinking that’s a mistake,’ Monica ventured to reply. ‘For one thing, if we saw more people, we should have so much more to talk about when we are alone.’

‘It’s better to talk about ourselves. I shouldn’t care if I never again saw any living creature but you. You see, the old bear loves his little girl better than she loves him.’

Monica was silent.

‘Isn’t it true? You don’t feel that my company would be enough for you?’

‘Would it be right if I ceased to care for every one else? There are my sisters. I ought to have asked Virginia to come tomorrow; I’m sure she thinks I neglect her, and it must be dreadful living all alone like she does.’

‘Haven’t they made up their mind yet about the school? I’m sure it’s the right thing for them to do. If the venture were to fail, and they lost money, we would see that they never came to want.’

‘They’re so timid about it. And it wouldn’t be nice, you know, to feel they were going to be dependent upon us for the rest of their lives. I had better go and see Virgie tomorrow morning, and bring her back for dinner.

‘If you like,’ Widdowson assented slowly. ‘But why not send a message, and ask her to come here?’

‘I had rather go. It makes a change for me.’

This was a word Widdowson detested. Change, on Monica’s lips, always seemed to mean a release from his society. But he swallowed his dissatisfaction, and finally consented to the arrangement.

Virginia came to dinner, and stayed until nightfall. Thanks to her sister’s kindness, she was better clad than in former days, but her face signified no improvement of health. The enthusiasm with which Rhoda Nunn had inspired her appeared only in fitful affectations of interest when Monica pressed her concerning the projected undertaking down in Somerset. In general she had a dreamy, reticent look, and became uncomfortable when any one gazed at her inquiringly. Her talk was of the most insignificant things; this afternoon she spent nearly half an hour in describing a kitten which Mrs. Conisbee had given her; care of the little animal appeared to have absorbed her whole attention for many days past.

Another visitor today was Mr. Newdick, the City clerk who had been present at Monica’s wedding. He and Mrs. Luke Widdowson were the sole friends of her husband that Monica had seen. Mr. Newdick enjoyed coming to Herne Hill. Always lugubrious to begin with, he gradually cheered up, and by the time for departure was loquacious. But he had the oddest ideas of talk suitable to a drawing-room. Had he been permitted, he would have held forth to Monica by the hour on the history of the business firm which he had served for a quarter of a century. This subject alone could animate him. His anecdotes were as often as not quite unintelligible, save to people of City experience. For all that Monica did not dislike the man; he was a good, simple, unselfish fellow, and to her he behaved with exaggeration of respect.

A few days later Monica had a sudden fit of illness. Her marriage, and the long open-air holiday, had given her a much healthier appearance than when she was at the shop; but this present disorder resembled the attack she had suffered in Rutland Street. Widdowson hoped that it signified a condition for which he was anxiously waiting. That, however, did not seem to be the case. The medical man who was called in asked questions about the patient’s mode of life. Did she take enough exercise? Had she wholesome variety of occupation? At these inquiries Widdowson inwardly raged. He was tormented with a suspicion that they resulted from something Monica had said to the doctor.

She kept her bed for three or four days, and on rising could only sit by the fireside, silent, melancholy. Widdowson indulged his hope, though Monica herself laughed it aside, and even showed annoyance if he return to the subject. Her temper was strangely uncertain; some chance word in a conversation would irritate her beyond endurance, and after an outburst of petulant displeasure she became obstinately mute. At other times she behaved with such exquisite docility and sweetness that Widdowson was beside himself with rapture.

After a week of convalescence, she said one morning  —

‘Couldn’t we go away somewhere? I don’t think I shall ever be quite well staying here.’

‘It’s wretched weather,’ replied her husband.

‘Oh, but there are places where it wouldn’t be like this. You don’t mind the expense, do you, Edmund?’

‘Expense? Not I, indeed! But — were you thinking of abroad?’

She looked at him with eyes that had suddenly brightened.

‘Oh! would it be possible? People do go out of England in the winter.’

Widdowson plucked at his grizzled beard and fingered his watch-chain. It was a temptation. Why not take her away to some place where only foreigners and strangers would be about them? Yet the enterprise alarmed him.

‘I have never been out of England,’ he said, with misgiving.

‘All the more reason why we should go. I think Miss Barfoot could advise us about it. She has been abroad, I know, and she has so many friends.’

‘I don’t see any need to consult Miss Barfoot,’ he replied stiffly. ‘I am not such a helpless man, Monica.’

Yet a feeling of inability to grapple with such an undertaking as this grew on him the more he thought of it. Naturally, his mind busied itself with such vague knowledge as he had gathered of those places in the South of France, where rich English people go to escape their own climate: Nice, Cannes. He could not imagine himself setting forth to these regions. Doubtless it was possible to travel thither, and live there when one arrived, without a knowledge of French; but he pictured all sorts of humiliating situations resulting from his ignorance. Above everything he dreaded humiliation in Monica’s sight; it would be intolerable to have her comparing him with men who spoke foreign languages, and were at home on the Continent.

Nevertheless, he wrote to his friend Newdick, and invited him to dine, solely for the purpose of talking over this question with him in private. After dinner he broached the subject. To his surprise, Newdick had ideas concerning Nice and Cannes and such places. He had heard about them from the junior partner of his firm, a young gentleman who talked largely of his experiences abroad.

‘An immoral lot there,’ he said, smiling and shaking his head. ‘Queer goings on.’

‘Oh, but that’s among the foreigners, isn’t it?’

Thereupon Mr. Newdick revealed his acquaintance with English literature.

‘Did you ever read any of Ouida’s novels?’

‘No, I never did.’

‘I advise you to before you think of taking your wife over there. She writes a great deal about those parts. People get mixed up so, it seems. You couldn’t live by yourself. You have to eat at public tables, and you’d have all sorts of people trying to make acquaintance with Mrs. Widdowson. They’re a queer lot, I believe.’

He abandoned the thought, at once and utterly. When Monica learnt this — he gave only vague and unsatisfactory reasons — she fell back into her despondent mood. For a whole day she scarcely uttered a word.

On the next day, in the dreary afternoon, they were surprised by a call from Mrs. Luke. The widow — less than ever a widow in externals — came in with a burst of exuberant spirits, and began to scold the moping couple like an affectionate parent.

‘When are you silly young people coming to an end of your honeymoon? Do you sit here day after day and call each other pretty names? Really it’s very charming in its way. I never knew such an obstinate case. — Monica, my black-eyed beauty, change your frock, and come with me to look up the Hodgson Bulls. They’re quite too awful; I can’t face them alone; but I’m bound to keep in with them. Be off, and let me pitch into your young man for daring to refuse my dinner. Don’t you know, sir, that my invitations are like those of Royalty — polite commands?’

Widdowson kept silence, waiting to see what his wife would do. He could not with decency object to her accompanying Mrs. Luke, yet hated the thought of such a step. A grim smile on his face, he sat stiffly, staring at the wall. To his inexpressible delight, Monica, after a short hesitation, excused herself; she was not well; she did not feel able  —

‘Oh!’ laughed the visitor. ‘I see, I see! Do just as you like, of course. But if Edmund has any nous’— this phrase she had learnt from a young gentleman, late of Oxford, now of Tattersall’s and elsewhere —‘he won’t let you sit here in the dumps. You are in the dumps, I can see.’

The vivacious lady did not stay long. When she had rustled forth again to her carriage, Widdowson broke into a paean of amorous gratitude. What could he do to show how he appreciated Monica’s self-denial on his behalf? For a day or two he was absent rather mysteriously, and in the meantime made up his mind, after consultation with Newdick, to take his wife for a holiday in Guernsey.

Monica, when she heard of this project, was at first moderately grateful, but in a day or two showed by reviving strength and spirits that she looked forward eagerly to the departure. Her husband advertised for lodgings in St. Peter Port; he would not face the disagreeable chances of a hotel. In a fortnight’s time all their preparations were made. During their absence, which might extend over a month, Virginia was to live at Herne Hill, in supervision of the two servants.

On the last Sunday Monica went to see her friends in Queen’s Road. Widdowson was ashamed to offer an objection; he much disliked her going there alone, but disliked equally the thought of accompanying her, for at Miss Barfoot’s he could not pretend to sit, stand, or converse with ease.

It happened that Mrs. Cosgrove was again calling. On the first occasion of meeting with Monica this lady paid her no particular attention; today she addressed her in a friendly manner, and their conversation led to the discovery that both of them were about to spend the ensuing month in the same place. Mrs. Cosgrove hoped they might occasionally see each other.

Of this coincidence Monica thought better to say nothing on her return home. She could not be sure that her husband might not, at the last moment, decide to stay at Herne Hill rather than incur the risk of her meeting an acquaintance in Guernsey. On this point he could not be trusted to exercise common sense. For the first time Monica had a secret she desired to keep from him, and the necessity was one which could not but have an unfavourable effect on her manner of regarding Widdowson. They were to start on Monday evening. Through the day her mind was divided between joy in the thought of seeing a new part of the world and a sense of weary dislike for her home. She had not understood until now how terrible would be the prospect of living here for a long time with no companionship but her husband’s. On the return that prospect would lie before her. But no; their way of life must somehow be modified; on that she was resolved.

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