The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 16

Health from the Sea

From Herne Hill to St. Peter Port was a change which made of Monica a new creature. The weather could not have been more propitious; day after day of still air and magnificent sky, with temperature which made a brisk walk at any hour thoroughly enjoyable, yet allowed one to sit at ease in the midday sunshine. Their lodgings were in the best part of the town, high up, looking forth over blue sea to the cliffs of Sark. Widdowson congratulated himself on having taken this step; it was like a revival of his honeymoon; never since their settling down at home had Monica been so grateful, so affectionate. Why, his wife was what he had thought her from the first, perfect in every wifely attribute. How lovely she looked as she sat down to the breakfast-table, after breathing sea air at the open windows, in her charming dress, her black hair arranged in some new fashion just to please him! Or when she walked with him about the quays, obviously admired by men who passed them. Or when she seated herself in the open carriage for a drive which would warm her cheeks and make her lips redder and sweeter.

‘Edmund,’ she said to him one evening, as they talked by the fireside, ‘don’t you think you take life rather too gravely?’

He laughed.

‘Gravely? Don’t I seem to enjoy myself?’

‘Oh yes; just now. But — still in a rather serious way. One would think you always had cares on your mind, and were struggling to get rid of them.’

‘I haven’t a care in the world. I am the most blessed of mortals.’

‘So you ought to think yourself. But when we get back again, how will it be? You won’t be angry with me? I really don’t think I can live again as we were doing.’

‘Not live as —’

His brow darkened; he looked at her in astonishment.

‘We ought to have more enjoyment,’ she pursued courageously. ‘Think of the numbers of people who live a dull, monotonous life just because they can’t help it. How they would envy us, with so much money to spend, free to do just what we like! Doesn’t it seem a pity to sit there day after day alone —’

‘Don’t, my darling!’ he implored. ‘Don’t! That makes me think you don’t really love me.

‘Nonsense! I want you to see what I mean. I am not one of the silly people who care for nothing but amusement, but I do think we might enjoy our lives more when we are in London. We shan’t live for ever, you know. Is it right to spend day after day sitting there in the house —’

‘But come, come; we have our occupations. Surely it ought to be a pleasure to you to see that the house is kept in order. There are duties —’

‘Yes, I know. But these duties I could perform in an hour or two.’

‘Not thoroughly.’

‘Quite thoroughly enough.’

‘In my Opinion, Monica, a woman ought never to be so happy as when she is looking after her home.’

It was the old pedantic tone. His figure, in sympathy with it, abandoned an easy attitude and became awkward. But Monica would not allow herself to be alarmed. During the past week she had conducted herself so as to smooth the way for this very discussion. Unsuspecting husband!

‘I wish to do my duty,’ she said in a firm tone, ‘but I don’t think it’s right to make dull work for oneself, when one might be living. I don’t think it is living to go on week after week like that. If we were poor, and I had a lot of children to look after as well as all the housework to do, I believe I shouldn’t grumble — at least, I hope I shouldn’t. I should know that I ought to do what there was no one else to do, and make the best of it. But ——’

‘Make the best of it!’ he interrupted indignantly. ‘What an expression to use! It would not only be your duty, dear, but your privilege!’

‘Wait a moment, Edmund. If you were a shopman earning fifteen shillings a week, and working from early morning to late at night, should you think it not Only your duty but your privilege?’

He made a wrathful gesture.

‘What comparison is there? I should be earning a hard livelihood by slaving for other people. But a married woman who works in her own home, for her husband’s children —’

‘Work is work, and when a woman is overburdened with it she must find it difficult not to weary of home and husband and children all together. But of course I don’t mean to say that my work is too hard. All I mean is, that I don’t see why any one should make work, and why life shouldn’t be as full of enjoyment as possible.’

‘Monica, you have got these ideas from those people at Chelsea. That is exactly why I don’t care for you to see much of them. I utterly disapprove of —’

‘But you are mistaken. Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn are all for work. They take life as seriously as you do.’

‘Work? What kind of work? They want to make women unwomanly, to make them unfit for the only duties women ought to perform. You know very well my opinions about that kind of thing.’

He was trembling with the endeavour to control himself, to speak indulgently.

‘I don’t think, Edmund, there’s much real difference between men and women. That is, there wouldn’t be, if women had fair treatment.’

‘Not much difference? Oh, come; you are talking nonsense. There’s as much difference between their minds as between their bodies. They are made for entirely different duties.’

Monica sighed.

‘Oh, that word Duty!’

Pained unutterably, Widdowson bent forward and took her hand. He spoke in a tone of the gravest but softest rebuke. She was giving entertainment to thoughts that would lead her who knew whither, that would undermine her happiness, would end by making both of them miserable. He besought her to put all such monstrous speculations out of her mind.

‘Dear, good little wife! Do be guided by your husband. He is older than you, darling, and has seen so much more of the world.’

‘I haven’t said anything dreadful, dear. My thoughts don’t come from other people; they rise naturally in my own head.’

‘Now, what do you really want? You say you can’t live as we were doing. What change would you make?’

‘I should like to make more friends, and to see them often. I want to hear people talk, and know what is going on round about me. And to read a different kind of books; books that would really amuse me, and give me something I could think about with pleasure. Life will be a burden to me before long if I don’t have more freedom.’

‘Freedom?’

‘Yes, I don’t think there’s any harm in saying that.’

‘Freedom?’ He glared at her. ‘I shall begin to think that you wish you had never married me.’

‘I should only wish that if I were made to feel that you shut me up in a house and couldn’t trust me to go where I chose. Suppose the thought took you that you would go and walk about the City some afternoon, and you wished to go alone, just to be more at ease, should I have a right to forbid you, or grumble at you? And yet you are very dissatisfied if I wish to go anywhere alone.’

‘But here’s the old confusion. I am a man; you are a woman.’

‘I can’t see that that makes any difference. A woman ought to go about just as freely as a man. I don’t think it’s just. When I have done my work at home I think I ought to be every bit as free as you are — every bit as free. And I’m sure, Edmund, that love needs freedom if it is to remain love in truth.’

He looked at her keenly.

‘That’s a dreadful thing for you to say. So, if I disapprove of your becoming the kind of woman that acknowledges no law, you will cease to love me?’

‘What law do you mean?’

‘Why, the natural law that points out a woman’s place, and’— he added, with shaken voice —‘commands her to follow her husband’s guidance.’

‘Now you are angry. We mustn’t talk about it any more just now.’

She rose and poured out a glass of water. Her hand trembled as she drank. Widdowson fell into gloomy abstraction. Later, as they lay side by side, he wished to renew the theme, but Monica would not talk; she declared herself too sleepy, turned her back to him, and soon slept indeed.

That night the weather became stormy; a roaring wind swept the Channel, and when day broke nothing could be seen but cloud and rain. Widdowson, who had rested little, was in a heavy, taciturn mood; Monica, on the other hand, talked gaily, seeming not to observe her companion’s irresponsiveness. She was glad of the wild sky; now they would see another aspect of island life — the fierce and perilous surges beating about these granite shores.

They had brought with them a few books, and Widdowson, after breakfast, sat down by the fire to read. Monica first of all wrote a letter to her sister; then, as it was still impossible to go out, she took up one of the volumes that lay on a side-table in their sitting-room, novels left by former lodgers. Her choice was something or other with yellow back. Widdowson, watching all her movements furtively, became aware of the pictured cover.

‘I don’t think you’ll get much good out of that,’ he remarked, after one or two efforts to speak.

‘No harm, at all events,’ she replied good-humouredly.

‘I’m not so sure. Why should you waste your time? Take “Guy Mannering,” if you want a novel.’

‘I’ll see how I like this first.’

He felt himself powerless, and suffered acutely from the thought that Monica was in rebellion against him. He could not understand what had brought about this sudden change. Fear of losing his wife’s love restrained him from practical despotism, yet he was very near to uttering a definite command.

In the afternoon it no longer rained, and the wind had less violence. They went out to look at the sea. Many people were gathered about the harbour, whence was a fine view of the great waves that broke into leaping foam and spray against the crags of Sark. As they stood thus Occupied, Monica heard her name spoken in a friendly voice — that of Mrs. Cosgrove.

‘I have been expecting to see you,’ said the lady. ‘We arrived three days ago.’

Widdowson, starting with surprise, turned to examine the speaker. He saw a woman of something less than middle age, unfashionably attired, good-looking, with an air of high spirits; only when she offered her hand to him did he remember having met her at Miss Barfoot’s. To be graceful in a high wind is difficult for any man; the ungainliness with which he returned Mrs. Cosgrove’s greeting could not have been surpassed, and probably would have been much the same even had he not, of necessity, stood clutching at his felt hat.

The three talked for a few minutes. With Mrs. Cosgrove were two persons, a younger woman and a man of about thirty — the latter a comely and vivacious fellow, with rather long hair of the orange-tawny hue. These looked at Monica, but Mrs. Cosgrove made no introduction.

‘Come and see me, will you?’ she said, mentioning her address. ‘One can’t get much in the evenings; I shall be nearly always at home after dinner, and we have music — of a kind.’

Monica boldly accepted the invitation, said she would be glad to come. Then Mrs. Cosgrove took leave of them, and walked landwards with her companions.

Widdowson stood gazing at the sea. There was no misreading his countenance. When Monica had remarked it, she pressed her lips together, and waited for what he would say or do. He said nothing, but presently turned his back upon the waves and began to walk on. Neither spoke until they were in the shelter of the streets; then Widdowson asked suddenly  —

‘Who is that person?’

‘I only know her name, and that she goes to Miss Barfoot’s.’

‘It’s a most extraordinary thing,’ he exclaimed in high irritation. ‘There’s no getting out of the way of those people.’

Monica also was angry; her cheeks, reddened by the wind, grew hotter.

‘It’s still more extraordinary that you should object so to them.’

‘Whether or no — I do object, and I had rather you didn’t go to see that woman.’

‘You are unreasonable,’ Monica answered sharply. ‘Certainly I shall go and see her.’

‘I forbid you to do so! If you go, it will be in defiance of my wish.’

‘Then I am obliged to defy your wish. I shall certainly go.’

His face was frightfully distorted. Had they been in a lonely spot, Monica would have felt afraid of him. She moved hurriedly away in the direction of their lodgings, and for a few paces he followed; then he checked himself, turned round about, took an opposite way.

With strides of rage he went along by the quay, past the hotels and the smaller houses that follow, on to St. Sampson. The wind, again preparing for a tempestuous night, beat and shook and at moments all but stopped him; he set his teeth like a madman, and raged on. Past the granite quarries at Bordeaux Harbour, then towards the wild north extremity of the island, the sandy waste of L’Ancresse. When darkness began to fall, no human being was in his range of sight. He stood on one spot for nearly a quarter of an hour, watching, or appearing to watch, the black, low-flying scud.

Their time for dining was seven. Shortly before this Widdowson entered the house and went to the sitting-room; Monica was not there. He found her in the bed-chamber, before the looking-glass. At the sight of his reflected face she turned instantly.

‘Monica!’ He put his hands on her shoulders, whispering hoarsely, ‘Monica! don’t you love me?’

She looked away, not replying.

‘Monica!’

And of a sudden he fell on his knees before her, clasped her about the waist, burst into choking sobs.

‘Have you no love for me? My darling! My dear, beautiful wife! Have you begun to hate me?’

Tears came to her eyes. She implored him to rise and command himself.

‘I was so violent, so brutal with you. I spoke without thinking —’

‘But why should you speak like that? Why are you so unreasonable? If you forbid me to do simple things, with not the least harm in them, you can’t expect me to take it like a child. I shall resist; I can’t help it.’

He had risen and was crushing her in his arms, his hot breath on her neck, when he began to whisper  —

‘I want to keep you all to myself. I don’t like these people — they think so differently — they put such hateful ideas into your mind — they are not the right kind of friends for you —’

‘You misunderstand them, and you don’t in the least understand me. Oh, you hurt me, Edmund!’

He released her body, and took her head between his hands.

‘I had rather you were dead than that you should cease to love me! You shall go to see her; I won’t say a word against it. But, Monica, be faithful, be faithful to me!’

‘Faithful to you?’ she echoed in astonishment. ‘What have I said or done to put you in such a state? Because I wish to make a few friends as all women do —’

‘It’s because I have lived so much alone. I have never had more than one or two friends, and I am absurdly jealous when you want to get away from me and amuse yourself with strangers. I can’t talk to such people. I am not suited for society. If I hadn’t met you in that strange way, by miracle, I should never have been able to marry. If I allow you to have these friends —’

‘I don’t like to hear that word. Why should you say allow? Do you think of me as your servant, Edmund?’

‘You know how I think of you. It is I who am your servant, your slave.’

‘Oh, I can’t believe that!’ She pressed her handkerchief to her cheeks, and laughed unnaturally. ‘Such words don’t mean anything. It is you who forbid and allow and command, and —’

‘I will never again use such words. Only convince me that you love me as much as ever.’

‘It is so miserable to begin quarrelling —’

‘Never again! Say you love me! Put your arms round my neck — press closer to me —’

She kissed his cheek, but did not utter a word.

‘You can’t say that you love me?’

‘I think I am always showing it. Do get ready for dinner now; it’s past seven. Oh, how foolish you have been!’

Of course their talk lasted half through the night. Monica held with remarkable firmness to the position she had taken; a much older woman might have envied her steadfast yet quite rational assertion of the right to live a life of her Own apart from that imposed upon her by the duties of wedlock. A great deal of this spirit and the utterance it found was traceable to her association with the women whom Widdowson so deeply suspected; prior to her sojourn in Rutland Street she could not even have made clear to herself the demands which she now very clearly formulated. Believing that she had learnt nothing from them, and till of late instinctively opposing the doctrines held by Miss Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn, Monica in truth owed the sole bit of real education she had ever received to those few weeks of attendance in Great Portland Street. Circumstances were now proving how apt a pupil she had been, even against her will. Marriage, as is always the case with women capable of development, made for her a new heaven and a new earth; perhaps on no single subject did she now think as on the morning of her wedding-day.

‘You must either trust me completely,’ she said, ‘or not at all. If you can’t and won’t trust me, how can I possibly love you?’

‘Am I never to advise?’ asked her husband, baffled, and even awed, by this extraordinary revelation of a woman he had supposed himself to know thoroughly.

‘Oh, that’s a very different thing from forbidding and commanding!’ she laughed. ‘There was that novel this morning. Of course I know as well as you do that “Guy Mannering” is better; but that doesn’t say I am not to form my opinion of other books. You mustn’t be afraid to leave me the same freedom you have yourself.’

The result of it all was that Widdowson felt his passionate love glow with new fire. For a moment he thought himself capable of accepting this change in their relations. The marvellous thought of equality between man and wife, that gospel which in far-off days will refashion the world, for an instant smote his imagination and exalted him above his native level.

Monica paid for the energy she had put forth by a day of suffering. Her head ached intolerably; she had feverish symptoms, and could hardly raise herself from the bed. It passed, and she was once more eager to go forth under the blue sky that followed the tempest.

‘Will you go with me to Mrs. Cosgrove’s this evening?’ she asked of her husband.

He consented, and after dinner they sought the hotel where their acquaintance was staying. Widdowson was in extreme discomfort, partly due to the fact that he had no dress clothes to put on; for far from anticipating or desiring any such intercourse in Guernsey, he had never thought of packing an evening suit. Had he known Mrs. Cosgrave this uneasiness would have been spared him. That lady was in revolt against far graver institutions than the swallow-tail; she cared not a button in what garb her visitors came to her. On their arrival, they found, to Widdowson’s horror, a room full of women. With the hostess was that younger lady they had seen on the quay, Mrs. Cosgrove’s unmarried sister; Miss Knott’s health had demanded this retreat from the London winter. The guests were four — a Mrs. Bevis and her three daughters — all invalidish persons, the mother somewhat lackadaisical, the girls with a look of unwilling spinsterhood.

Monica, noteworthy among the gathering for her sweet, bright prettiness, and the finish of her dress, soon made herself at home; she chatted gaily with the girls — wondering indeed at her own air of maturity, which came to her for the first time. Mrs. Cosgrove, an easy woman of the world when circumstances required it, did her best to get something out of Widdowson who presently thawed a little.

Then Miss Knott sat down to the piano, and played more than tolerably well; and the youngest Miss Bevis sang a song of Schubert, with passable voice but in very distressing German — the sole person distressed by it being the hostess.

Meanwhile Monica had been captured by Mrs. Bevis, who discoursed to her on a subject painfully familiar to all the old lady’s friends.

‘Do you know my son, Mrs. Widdowson? Oh, I thought you had perhaps met him. You will do so this evening, I hope. He is over here on a fortnight’s holiday.’

‘Do you live in Guernsey?’ Monica inquired.

I practically live here, and one of my daughters is always with me. The other two live with their brother in a flat in Bayswater. Do you care for flats, Mrs. Widdowson?’

Monica could only say that she had no experience of that institution.

‘I do think them such a boon,’ pursued Mrs. Bevis. ‘They are expensive but the advantages and comforts are so many. My son wouldn’t on any consideration give up his flat. As I was saying, he always has two of his sisters to keep house for him. He is quite a young man, not yet thirty, but — would you believe it? — we are all dependent upon him! My son has supported the whole of the family for the last six or seven years, and that by his own work. It sounds incredible, doesn’t it? But for him we should be quite unable to live. The dear girls have very delicate health; simply impossible for them to exert themselves in any way. My son has made extraordinary sacrifices on our account. His desire was to be a professional musician, and every one thinks he would have become eminent; myself, I am convinced of it — perhaps that is only natural. But when our circumstances began to grow very doubtful, and we really didn’t know what was before us, my son consented to follow a business career — that of wine merchant, with which his father was connected. And he exerted himself so nobly, and gave proof of such ability, that very soon all our fears were at an end; and now, before he is thirty, his position is quite assured. We have no longer a care. I live here very economically — really sweet lodgings on the road to St. Martin’s; I do hope you will come and see me. And the girls go backwards and forwards. You see we are all here at present. When my son returns to London he will take the eldest and the youngest with him. The middle girl, dear Grace — she is thought very clever in water-colours, and I am quite sure, if it were necessary, she could pursue the arts in a professional spirit.’

Mr. Bevis entered the room, and Monica recognized the sprightly young man whom she had seen on the quay. The hostess presented him to her new friends, and he got into talk with Widdowson. Requested to make music for the company, he sang a gay little piece, which, to Monica at all events, seemed one of the most delightful things she had ever heard.

‘His own composition,’ whispered Miss Grace Bevis, then sitting by Mrs. Widdowson.

That increased her delight. Foolish as Mrs. Bevis undoubtedly was, she perchance had not praised her son beyond his merits. He looked the best of good fellows; so kind and merry and spirited; such a capable man, too. It struck Monica as a very hard fate that he should have this family on his hands. What they must cost him! Probably he could not think of marrying, just on their account.

Mr. Bevis came and took a place by her side.

‘Thank you so very much,’ she said, ‘for that charming song. Is it published?’

‘Oh dear, no!’ He laughed and shook his thick hair about. ‘It’s one of two or three that I somehow struck out when I was studying in Germany, ages ago. You play, I hope?’

Monica gave a sad negative.

‘Oh, what does it matter? There are hosts of people who will always be overjoyed to play when you ask them. It would be a capital thing if only those children were allowed to learn an instrument who showed genuine talent for music.’

‘In that case,’ said Monica, ‘there certainly wouldn’t be hosts of people ready to play for me.’

‘No.’ His merry laugh was repeated. ‘You mustn’t mind when I contradict myself; it’s one of my habits. Are you here for the whole winter?’

‘Only a few weeks, unfortunately.’

‘And do you dread the voyage back?’

‘To tell the truth, I do. I had a very unpleasant time coming.’

‘As for myself, how I ever undertake the thing I really don’t know. One of these times I shall die; there’s not a shadow of doubt of that. The girls always have to carry me ashore, one holding me by the hair and one by the boots. Happily, I am so emancipated that my weight doesn’t distress them. I pick up flesh in a day or two, and then my health is stupendous — as at present. You see how marvellously fit I look.’

‘Yes, you look very well,’ replied Monica, glancing at the fair, comely face.

‘It’s deceptive. All our family have wretched constitutions. If I go to work regularly for a couple of months without a holiday, I sink into absolute decrepitude. An office-chair has been specially made for me, to hold me up at the desk. — I beg your pardon for this clowning, Mrs. Widdowson,’ he suddenly added in another voice. ‘The air puts me in such spirits. What air it is! Speaking quite seriously, my mother was saved by coming to live here. We believed her to be dying, and now I have hopes that she will live ever so many years longer.’

He spoke of his mother with evident affection, glancing kindly towards her with his blue eyes.

Only once or twice had Monica ventured to exchange a glance with her husband. It satisfied her that he managed to converse; what his mood really was could not be determined until afterwards. When they were about to leave she saw him, to her surprise, speaking quite pleasantly with Mr. Bevis. A carriage was procured to convey them home, and as soon as they had started, Monica asked her husband, with a merry look, how he had enjoyed himself.

‘There is not much harm in it,’ he replied dryly.

‘Harm? How like you, Edmund, to put it that way! Now confess you will be glad to go again.’

‘I shall go if you wish.’

‘Unsatisfactory man! You can’t bring yourself to admit that it was pleasant to be among new people. I believe, in your heart, you think all enjoyment is wrong. The music was nice, wasn’t it?’

‘I didn’t think much of the girl’s singing, but that fellow Bevis wasn’t bad.’

Monica examined him as he spoke, and seemed to suppress a laugh.

‘No, he wasn’t at all bad. I saw you talking with Mrs. Bevis. Did she tell you anything about her wonderful son?’

‘Nothing particular.’

‘Oh, then I must tell you the whole story.’

And she did so, in a tone half of jest, half of serious approval.

‘I don’t see that he has done anything more than his duty,’ remarked Widdowson at the end. ‘But he isn’t a bad fellow.’

For private reasons, Monica contrasted this attitude towards Bevis with the disfavour her husband had shown to Mr. Barfoot, and was secretly much amused.

Two or three days after they went to spend the morning at Petit Bot Bay, and there encountered with Bevis and his three sisters. The result was an invitation to go back and have lunch at Mrs. Bevis’s lodgings; they accepted it, and remained with their acquaintances till dusk. The young man’s holiday was at an end; next morning he would face the voyage which he had depicted so grotesquely.

‘And alone!’ he lamented to Monica. ‘Only think of it. The girls are all rather below par just now; they had better stay here for the present.’

‘And in London you will be alone too?’

‘Yes. It’s very sad. I must bear up under it. The worst of it is, I am naturally subject to depression. In solitude I sink, sink. But the subject is too painful. Don’t let us darken the last hours with such reflections.’

Widdowson retained his indulgent opinion of the facetious young wine merchant. He even laughed now and then in recalling some phrase or other that Bevis had used to him.

Subsequently, Monica had several long conversations with the old lady. Impelled to gossipy frankness about all her affairs, Mrs. Bevis allowed it to be understood that the chief reason for two of the girls always being with their brother was the possibility thus afforded of their ‘meeting people’— that is to say, of their having a chance of marriage. Mrs. Cosgrove and one or two other ladies did them social service.

‘They never will marry!’ said Monica to her husband, rather thoughtfully than with commiseration.

‘Why not? They are nice enough girls.’

‘Yes, but they have no money; and’— she smiled —‘people see that they want to find husbands.’

‘I don’t see that the first matters; and the second is only natural.’

Monica attempted no rejoinder, but said presently  —

‘Now they are just the kind of women who ought to find something to do.’

‘Something to do? Why, they attend to their mother and their brother. What could be more proper?’

‘Very proper, perhaps. But they are miserable, and always will be.’

‘Then they have no right to be miserable. They are doing their duty, and that ought to keep them cheerful.’

Monica could have said many things, but she overcame the desire, and laughed the subject aside.

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