The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 17

The Triumph

Nor till mid-winter did Barfoot again see his friends the Micklethwaites. By invitation he went to South Tottenham on New Year’s Eve, and dined with them at seven o’clock. He was the first guest that had entered the house since their marriage.

From the very doorstep Everard became conscious of a domestic atmosphere that told soothingly upon his nerves. The little servant who opened to him exhibited a gentle, noiseless demeanour which was no doubt the result of careful discipline. Micklethwaite himself, who at once came out into the passage, gave proof of a like influence; his hearty greeting was spoken in soft tones; a placid happiness beamed from his face. In the sitting-room (Micklethwaite’s study, used for reception because the other had to serve as dining-room) tempered lamplight and the glow of a hospitable fire showed the hostess and her blind sister standing in expectation; to Everard’s eyes both of them looked far better in health than a few months ago. Mrs. Micklethwaite was no longer so distressingly old; an expression that resembled girlish pleasure lit up her countenance as she stepped forward; nay, if he mistook not, there came a gentle warmth to her cheek, and the momentary downward glance was as graceful and modest as in a youthful bride. Never had Barfoot approached a woman with more finished courtesy, the sincere expression of his feeling. The blind sister he regarded in like spirit; his voice touched its softest note as he held her hand for a moment and replied to her pleasant words.

No undue indication of poverty disturbed him. He saw that the house had been improved in many ways since Mrs. Micklethwaite had taken possession of it; pictures, ornaments, pieces of furniture were added, all in simple taste, but serving to heighten the effect of refined comfort. Where the average woman would have displayed pretentious emptiness, Mrs. Micklethwaite had made a home which in its way was beautiful. The dinner, which she herself had cooked, and which she assisted in serving, aimed at being no more than a simple; decorous meal, but the guest unfeignedly enjoyed it; even the vegetables and the bread seemed to him to have a daintier flavour than at many a rich table. He could not help noticing and admiring the skill with which Miss Wheatley ate without seeing what was before her; had he not known her misfortune, he would hardly have become aware of it by any peculiarity as she sat opposite to him.

The mathematician had learnt to sit upon a chair like ordinary mortals. For the first week or two it must have cost him severe restraint; now he betrayed no temptation to roll and jerk and twist himself. When the ladies retired, he reached from the sideboard a box which Barfoot viewed with uneasiness.

‘Do you smoke here — in this room?’

‘Oh, why not?’

Everard glanced at the pretty curtains before the windows.

‘No, my boy, you do not smoke here. And, in fact, I like your claret; I won’t spoil the flavour of it.’

‘As you please; but I think Fanny will be distressed.’

‘You shall say that I have abandoned the weed.’

Emotions were at conflict in Micklethwaite’s mind, but finally he beamed with gratitude.

‘Barfoot’— he bent forward and touched his friend’s arm —‘there are angels walking the earth in this our day. Science hasn’t abolished them, my dear fellow, and I don’t think it ever will.’

‘It falls to the lot of but few men to encounter them, and of fewer still to entertain them permanently in a cottage at South Tottenham.’

‘You are right.’ Micklethwaite laughed in a new way, with scarcely any sound; a change Everard had already noticed. ‘These two sisters — but I had better not speak about them. In my old age I have become a worshipper, a mystic, a man of dream and vision.’

‘How about worship in a parochial sense?’ inquired Barfoot, smiling. ‘Any difficulty of that point?’

‘I conform, in moderation. Nothing would be asked of me. There is no fanaticism, no intolerance. It would be brutal if I declined to go to church on a Sunday morning. You see, my strictly scientific attitude helps in avoiding offence. Fanny can’t understand it, but my lack of dogmatism vastly relieves her. I have been trying to explain to her that the scientific mind can have nothing to do with materialism. The new order of ideas is of course very difficult for her to grasp; but in time, in time.’

‘For heaven’s sake, don’t attempt conversion!’

‘On no account whatever. But I should like her to see what is meant by perception and conception, by the relativity of time and space — and a few simple things of that kind!’

Barfoot laughed heartily.

‘By-the-bye,’ he said, shifting to safer ground, ‘my brother Tom is in London, and in wretched health. His angel is from the wrong quarter, from the nethermost pit. I seriously believe that she has a plan for killing her husband. You remember my mentioning in a letter his horse-accident? He has never recovered from that, and as likely as not never will. His wife brought him away from Madeira just when he ought to have stopped there to get well. He settled himself at Torquay, whilst that woman ran about to pay visits. It was understood that she should go back to him at Torquay, but this she at length refused to do. The place was too dull; it didn’t suit her extremely delicate health; she must live in London, her pure native air. If Tom had taken any advice, he would have let her live just where she pleased, thanking Heaven that she was at a distance from him. But the poor fellow can’t be away from her. He has come up, and here I feel convinced he will die. It’s a very monstrous thing, but uncommonly like women in general who have got a man into their power.’

Micklethwaite shook his head.

‘You are too hard upon them. You have been unlucky. You know my view of your duty.’

‘I begin to think that marriage isn’t impossible for me,’ said Barfoot, with a grave smile.

‘Ha! Capital!’

‘But as likely as not it will be marriage without forms — imply a free union.’

The mathematician was downcast.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. It won’t do. We must conform. Besides, in that case the person decidedly isn’t suitable to you. You of all men must marry a lady.’

‘I should never think of any one that wasn’t a lady.’

‘Is emancipation getting as far as that? Do ladies enter into that kind of union?’

‘I don’t know of any example. That’s just why the idea tempts me.’ Barfoot would go no further in explanation.

‘How about your new algebra?’

‘Alas! My dear boy, the temptation is so frightful — when I get back home. Remember that I have never known what it was to sit and talk through the evening with ordinary friends, let alone — It’s too much for me just yet. And, you know, I don’t venture to work on Sundays. That will come; all in good time. I must grant myself half a year of luxury after such a life as mine has been.’

‘Of course you must. Let algebra wait.’

‘I think it over, of course, at odd moments. Church on Sunday morning is a good opportunity.’

Barfoot could not stay to see the old year out, but good wishes were none the less heartily exchanged before he went. Micklethwaite walked with him to the railway station; at a few paces’ distance from his house he stood and pointed back to it.

‘That little place, Barfoot, is one of the sacred spots of the earth. Strange to think that the house has been waiting for me there through all the years of my hopelessness. I feel that a mysterious light ought to shine about it. It oughtn’t to look just like common houses.’

On his way home Everard thought over what he had seen and heard, smiling good-naturedly. Well, that was one ideal of marriage. Not his ideal; but very beautiful amid the vulgarities and vileness of ordinary experience. It was the old fashion in its purest presentment; the consecrated form of domestic happiness, removed beyond reach of satire, only to be touched, if touched at all, with the very gentlest irony.

A life by no means for him. If he tried it, even with a woman so perfect, he would perish of ennui. For him marriage must not mean repose, inevitably tending to drowsiness, but the mutual incitement of vigorous minds. Passion — yes, there must be passion, at all events to begin with; passion not impossible of revival in days subsequent to its first indulgence. Beauty in the academic sense he no longer demanded; enough that the face spoke eloquently, that the limbs were vigorous. Let beauty perish if it cannot ally itself with mind; be a woman what else she may, let her have brains and the power of using them! In that demand the maturity of his manhood expressed itself. For casual amour the odalisque could still prevail with him; but for the life of wedlock, the durable companionship of man and woman, intellect was his first requirement.

A woman with man’s capability of understanding and reasoning; free from superstition, religious or social; far above the ignoble weaknesses which men have been base enough to idealize in her sex. A woman who would scorn the vulgarism of jealousy, and yet know what it is to love. This was asking much of nature and civilization; did he grossly deceive himself in thinking he had found the paragon?

For thus far had he advanced in his thoughts of Rhoda Nunn. If the phrase had any meaning, he was in love with her; yet, strange complex of emotions, he was still only half serious in his desire to take her for a wife, wishing rather to amuse and flatter himself by merely inspiring her with passion. Therefore he refused to entertain a thought of formal marriage. To obtain her consent to marriage would mean nothing at all; it would afford him no satisfaction. But so to play upon her emotions that the proud, intellectual, earnest woman was willing to defy society for his sake — ah! that would be an end worth achieving.

Ever since the dialogue in which he frankly explained his position, and all but declared love, he had not once seen Rhoda in private. She shunned him purposely beyond a doubt, and did not that denote a fear of him justified by her inclination? The postponement of what must necessarily come to pass between them began to try his patience, as assuredly it inflamed his ardour. If no other resource offered, he would be obliged to make his cousin an accomplice by requesting her beforehand to leave him alone with Rhoda some evening when he had called upon them.

But it was time that chance favoured him, and his interview with Miss Nunn came about in a way he could not have foreseen.

At the end of the first week of January he was invited to dine at Miss Barfoot’s. The afternoon had been foggy, and when he set forth there seemed to be some likelihood of a plague of choking darkness such as would obstruct traffic. As usual, he went by train to Sloane Square, purposing (for it was dry under foot, and he could not disregard small economies) to walk the short distance from there to Queen’s Road. On coming out from the station he found the fog so dense that it was doubtful whether he could reach his journey’s end. Cabs were not to be had; he must either explore the gloom, with risk of getting nowhere at all, or give it up and take a train back. But he longed too ardently for the sight of Rhoda to abandon his evening without an effort. Having with difficulty made his way into King’s Road, he found progress easier on account of the shop illuminations; the fog, however, was growing every moment more fearsome, and when he had to turn out of the highway his case appeared desperate. Literally he groped along, feeling the fronts of the houses. As under ordinary circumstances he would have had only just time enough to reach his cousin’s punctually, he must be very late: perhaps they would conclude that he had not ventured out on such a night, and were already dining without him. No matter; as well go one way as another now. After abandoning hope several times, and all but asphyxiated, he found by inquiry of a man with whom he collided that he was actually within a few doors of his destination. Another effort and he rang a joyous peal at the bell.

A mistake. It was the wrong house, and he had to go two doors farther on.

This time he procured admittance to the familiar little hall. The servant smiled at him, but said nothing. He was led to the drawing-room, and there found Rhoda Nunn alone. This fact did not so much surprise him as Rhoda’s appearance. For the first time since he had known her, her dress was not uniform black; she wore a red silk blouse with a black skirt, and so admirable was the effect of this costume that he scarcely refrained from a delighted exclamation.

Some concern was visible in her face.

‘I am sorry to say,’ were her first words, ‘that Miss Barfoot will not be here in time for dinner. She went to Faversham this morning, and ought to have been back about half-past seven. But a telegram came some time ago. A thick fog caused her to miss the train, and the next doesn’t reach Victoria till ten minutes past ten.’

It was now half-past eight; dinner had been appointed for the hour. Barfoot explained his lateness in arriving.

‘Is it so bad as that? I didn’t know.’

The situation embarrassed both of them. Barfoot suspected a hope on Miss Nunn’s part that he would relieve her of his company, but, even had there been no external hindrance, he could not have relinquished the happy occasion. To use frankness was best.

‘Out of the question for me to leave the house,’ he said, meeting her eyes and smiling. ‘You won’t be hard upon a starving man?’

At once Rhoda made a pretence of having felt no hesitation.

‘Oh, of course we will dine immediately.’ She rang the bell. ‘Miss Barfoot took it for granted that I would represent her. Look, the fog is penetrating even to our fireside.’

‘Cheerful, very. What is Mary doing at Faversham?’

‘Some one she has been corresponding with for some time begged her to go down and give an address to a number of ladies on — a certain subject.’

‘Ah! Mary is on the way to become a celebrity.’

‘Quite against her will, as you know.’

They went to dinner, and Barfoot, thoroughly enjoying the abnormal state of things, continued to talk of his cousin.

‘It seems to me that she can’t logically refuse to put herself forward. Work of her kind can’t be done in a corner. It isn’t a case of “Oh teach the orphan girl to sew.”’

‘I have used the same argument to her,’ said Rhoda.

Her place at the head of the table had its full effect upon Everard’s imagination. Why should he hold by a resolve of which he did not absolutely approve the motive? Why not ask her simply to be his wife, and so remove one element of difficulty from his pursuit? True, he was wretchedly poor. Marrying on such an income, he would at once find his freedom restricted in every direction. But then, more likely than not, Rhoda had determined against marriage, and of him, especially, never thought for a moment as a possible husband. Well, that was what he wanted to ascertain.

They conversed naturally enough till the meal was over. Then their embarrassment revived, but this time it was Rhoda who took the initiative.

‘Shall I leave you to your meditations?’ she asked, moving a few inches from the table.

‘I should much prefer your society, if you will grant it me for a little longer.’

Without speaking, she rose and led the way to the drawingroom. There, sitting at a formal distance from each other, they talked — of the fog. Would Miss Barfoot be able to get back at all?

A propos,’ said Everard, ‘did you ever read “The City of Dreadful Night”?’

‘Yes, I have read it.’

‘Without sympathy, of course?’

‘Why “of course”? Do I seem to you a shallow optimist?’

‘No. A vigorous and rational optimist — such as I myself aim at being.’

‘Do you? But optimism of that kind must be proved by some effort on behalf of society.’

‘Precisely the effort I am making. If a man works at developing and fortifying the best things in his own character, he is surely doing society a service.’

She smiled sceptically.

‘Yes, no doubt. But how do you develop and fortify yourself?’

She was meeting him half-way, thought Everard. Foreseeing the inevitable, she wished to have it over and done with. Or else  —

‘I live very quietly,’ was his reply, ‘thinking of grave problems most of my time. You know I am a great deal alone.’

‘Naturally.’

‘No; anything but naturally.’

Rhoda said nothing. He waited a moment, then moved to a seat much nearer hers. Her face hardened, and he saw her fingers lock together.

‘Where a man is in love, solitude seems to him the most unnatural of conditions.’

‘Please don’t make me your confidante, Mr. Barfoot,’ Rhoda with well-assumed pleasantry. ‘I have no taste for that kind of thing.’

‘But I can’t help doing so. It is you that I am in love with.’

‘I am very sorry to hear it. Happily, the sentiment will not long trouble you.’

He read in her eyes and on her lips a profound agitation. She glanced about the room, and, before he could again speak, had risen to ring the bell.

‘You always take coffee, I think?’

Without troubling to give any assent, he moved apart and turned over some books on the table. For full five minutes there was silence. The coffee was brought; he tasted it and put his cup down. Seeing that Rhoda had, as it were, entrenched herself behind the beverage, and would continue to sip at is as long as might be necessary, he went and stood in front of her.

‘Miss Nunn, I am more serious than you will give me credit for being. The sentiment, as you call it, has troubled me for some time, and will last.’

Her refuge failed her. The cup she was holding began to shake a little.

‘Please let me put it aside for you.’

Rhoda allowed him to do so, and then locked her fingers.

‘I am so much in love with you that I can’t keep away from this house more than a few days at a time. Of course you have known it; I haven’t tried to disguise why I came here so often. It’s so seldom that I see you alone; and now that fortune is kind to me I must speak as best I can. I won’t make myself ridiculous in your eyes — if I can help it. You despise the love-making of ballrooms and garden parties; so do I, most heartily. Let me speak like a man who has few illusions to overcome. I want you for the companion of my life; I don’t see very well how I am to do without you. You know, I think, that I have only a moderate competence; it’s enough to live upon without miseries, that’s all one can say. Probably I shall never be richer, for I can’t promise to exert myself to earn money; I wish to live for other things. You can picture the kind of life I want you to share. You know me well enough to understand that my wife — if we use the old word — would be as free to live in her own way as I to live in mine. All the same, it is love that I am asking for. Think how you may about man and woman, you know that there is such a thing as love between them, and that the love of a man and a woman who can think intelligently may be the best thing life has to offer them.’

He could not see her eyes, but she was smiling in a forced way, with her lips close set.

‘As you insisted on speaking,’ she said at length, ‘I had no choice but to listen. It is usual, I think — if one may trust the novels — for a woman to return thanks when an offer of this kind has been made to her. So — thank you very much, Mr. Barfoot.’

Everard seized a little chair that was close by, planted it beside Rhoda’s, there seated himself and took possession of one of her hands. It was done so rapidly and vehemently that Rhoda started back, her expression changing from sportive mockery to all but alarm.

‘I will have no such thanks,’ he uttered in a low voice, much moved, a smile making him look strangely stern. ‘You shall understand what it means when a man says that he loves you. I have come to think your face so beautiful that I am in torment with the desire to press my lips upon yours. Don’t be afraid that I shall be brutal enough to do it without your consent; my respect for you is stronger even than my passion. When I first saw you, I thought you interesting because of your evident intelligence — nothing more; indeed you were not a woman to me. Now you are the one woman in the world; no other can draw my eyes from you. Touch me with your fingers and I shall tremble — that is what my love means.’

She was colourless; her lips, just parted, quivered as the breath panted between them. She did not try to withdraw her hand.

‘Can you love me in return?’ Everard went on, his face still nearer. ‘Am I anything like this to you? Have the courage you boast of. Speak to me as one human being to another, plain, honest words.’

‘I don’t love you in the least. And if I did I would never share your life.’

The voice was very unlike her familiar tones. It seemed to hurt her to speak.

‘The reason. — Because you have no faith in me?’

‘I can’t say whether I have or not. I know absolutely nothing of your life. But I have my work, and no one shall ever persuade me to abandon it.’

‘Your work? How do you understand it? What is its importance to you?’

‘Oh, and you pretend to know me so well that you wish me to be your companion at every moment!’

She laughed mockingly, and tried to draw away her hand, for it was burnt by the heat of his. Barfoot held her firmly.

‘What is your work? Copying with a type-machine, and teaching others to do the same — isn’t that it?’

‘The work by which I earn money, yes. But if it were no more than that —’

‘Explain, then.’

Passion was overmastering him as he watched the fine scorn in her eyes. He raised her hand to his lips.

‘No!’ Rhoda exclaimed with sudden wrath. ‘Your respect — oh, I appreciate your respect!’

She wrenched herself from his grasp, and went apart. Barfoot rose, gazing at her with admiration.

‘It is better I should be at a distance from you,’ he said. ‘I want to know your mind, and not to be made insensate.’

‘Wouldn’t it be better still if you left me?’ Rhoda suggested, mistress of herself again.

‘If you really wish it.’ He remembered the circumstances and spoke submissively. ‘Yet the fog gives me such a good excuse for begging your indulgence. The chances are I should only lose myself in an inferno.’

‘Doesn’t it strike you that you take an advantage of me, as you did once before? I make no pretence of equalling you in muscular strength, yet you try to hold me by force.’

He divined in her pleasure akin to his own, the delight of conflict. Otherwise, she would never have spoken thus.

‘Yes, it is true. Love revives the barbarian; it wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t. In this one respect I suppose no man, however civilized, would wish the woman he loves to be his equal. Marriage by capture can’t quite be done away with. You say you have not the least love for me; if you had, should I like you to confess it instantly? A man must plead and woo; but there are different ways. I can’t kneel before you and exclaim about my miserable unworthiness — for I am not unworthy of you. I shall never call you queen and goddess — unless in delirium, and I think I should soon weary of the woman who put her head under my foot. Just because I am stronger than you, and have stronger passions, I take that advantage — try to overcome, as I may, the womanly resistance which is one of your charms.

‘How useless, then, for us to talk. If you are determined to remind me again and again that your strength puts me at your mercy —’

‘Oh, not that! I will come no nearer to you. Sit down, and tell me what I asked.’

Rhoda hesitated, but at length took the chair by which she was standing.

‘You are resolved never to marry?’

‘I never shall,’ Rhoda replied firmly.

‘But suppose marriage in no way interfered with your work?’

‘It would interfere hopelessly with the best part of my life. I thought you understood this. What would become of the encouragement I am able to offer our girls?’

‘Encouragement to refuse marriage?’

‘To scorn the old idea that a woman’s life is wasted if she does not marry. My work is to help those women who, by sheer necessity, must live alone — woman whom vulgar opinion ridicules. How can I help them so effectually as by living among them, one of them, and showing that my life is anything but weariness and lamentation? I am fitted for this. It gives me a sense of power and usefulness which I enjoy. Your cousin is doing the same work admirably. If I deserted I should despise myself.’

‘Magnificent! If I could bear the thought of living without you, I should bid you persevere and be great.’

‘I need no such bidding to persevere.’

‘And for that very reason, because you are capable of such things, I love you only the more.’

There was triumph in her look, though she endeavoured to disguise it.

‘Then, for your own peace,’ she said, ‘I must hope that you will avoid me. It is so easily done. We have nothing in common, Mr. Barfoot.’

‘I can’t agree with that. For one thing, there are perhaps not half a dozen women living with whom I could talk as I have talked with you. It isn’t likely that I shall ever meet one. Am I to make my bow, and abandon in resignation the one chance of perfecting my life?’

‘You don’t know me. We differ profoundly on a thousand essential points.’

‘You think so because you have a very wrong idea of me.’

Rhoda glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece.

‘Mr. Barfoot,’ she said in a changed voice, ‘you will forgive me if I remind you that it is past ten o’clock.’

He sighed and rose.

‘The fog certainly cannot be so thick now. Shall I ask them to try and get you a cab?’

‘I shall walk to the station.’

‘Only one more word.’ She assumed a quiet dignity which he could not disregard. ‘We have spoken in this way for the last time. You will not oblige me to take all sorts of trouble merely to avoid useless and painful conversations?’

‘I love you, and I can’t abandon hope.’

‘Then I must take that trouble.’ Her face darkened, and she stood in expectation of his departure.

‘I mustn’t offer to shake hands,’ said Everard, drawing a step nearer.

‘I hope you can remember that I had no choice but to be your hostess.’

The face and tone affected him with a brief shame. Bending his head, he approached her, and held her offered hand, without pressure, only for an instant.

Then he left the room.

There was a little improvement in the night; he could make his way along the pavement without actual groping, and no unpleasant adventure checked him before he reached the station. Rhoda’s face and figure went before him. He was not downcast; for all that she had said, this woman, soon or late, would yield herself; he had a strange, unreasoning assurance of it. Perhaps the obstinacy of his temper supplied him with that confident expectation. He no longer cared on what terms he obtained her — legal marriage or free union — it was indifferent to him. But her life should be linked with his if fierce energy of will meant anything.

Miss Barfoot arrived at half-past eleven, after many delays on her journey. She was pierced with cold, choked with the poisonous air, and had derived very little satisfaction from her visit to Faversham.

‘What happened?’ was her first question, as Rhoda came out into the hall with sympathy and solicitude. ‘Did the fog keep our guest away?’

‘No; he dined here.’

‘It was just as well. You haven’t been lonely.’

They spoke no more on the subject until Miss Barfoot recovered from her discomfort, and was enjoying a much needed supper.

‘Did he offer to go away?’

‘It was really impossible. It took him more than half an hour to get here from Sloane Square.’

‘Foolish fellow! Why didn’t he take a train back at once?’

There was a peculiar brightness in Rhoda’s countenance, and Miss Barfoot had observed it from the first.

‘Did you quarrel much?’

‘Not more than was to be expected.’

‘He didn’t think of staying for my return?’

‘He left about ten o’clock.’

‘Of course. Quite late enough, under the circumstances. It was very unfortunate, but I don’t suppose Everard cared much. He would enjoy the opportunity of teasing you.’

A glance told her that Everard was not alone in his enjoyment of the evening. Rhoda led the talk into other channels, but Miss Barfoot continued to reflect on what she had perceived.

A few evenings after, when Miss Barfoot had been sitting alone for an hour or two, Rhoda came to the library and took a place near her. The elder woman glanced up from her book, and saw that her friend had something special to say.

‘What is it, dear?’

‘I am going to tax your good-nature, to ask you about unpleasant things.’

Miss Barfoot knew immediately what this meant. She professed readiness to answer, but had an uneasy look.

‘Will you tell me in plain terms what it was that your cousin did when he disgraced himself?’

‘Must you really know?’

‘I wish to know.’

There was a pause. Miss Barfoot kept her eyes on the page open before her.

‘Then I shall take the liberty of an old friend, Rhoda. Why do you wish to know?’

‘Mr. Barfoot,’ answered the other dryly, ‘has been good enough to say that he is in love with me.’

Their eyes met.

‘I suspected it. I felt sure it was coming. He asked you to marry him?’

‘No, he didn’t,’ replied Rhoda in purposely ambiguous phrase.

‘You wouldn’t allow him to?’

‘At all events, it didn’t come to that. I should be glad if you would let me know what I asked.’

Miss Barfoot deliberated, but finally told the story of Amy Drake. Her hands supporting one knee, her head bent, Rhoda listened without comment, and, to judge from her features, without any emotion of any kind.

‘That,’ said her friend at the close, ‘is the story as it was understood at the time — disgraceful to him in every particular. He knew what was said of him, and offered not a word of contradiction. But not very long ago he asked me one evening if you had been informed of this scandal. I told him that you knew he had done something which I thought very base. Everard was hurt, and thereupon he declared that neither I nor any other of his acquaintances knew the truth — that he had been maligned. He refused to say more, and what am I to believe?’

Rhoda was listening with livelier attention.

‘He declared that he wasn’t to blame?’

‘I suppose he meant that. But it is difficult to see —’

‘Of course the truth can never be known,’ said Rhoda, with sudden indifference. ‘And it doesn’t matter. Thank you for satisfying my curiosity.’

Miss Barfoot waited a moment, then laughed.

‘Some day, Rhoda, you shall satisfy mine.’

‘Yes — if we live long enough.’

What degree of blame might have attached to Barfoot, Rhoda did not care to ask herself; she thought no more of the story. Of course there must have been other such incidents in his career; morally he was neither better nor worse than men in general. She viewed with contempt the women who furnished such opportunities; in her judgment of the male offenders she was more lenient, more philosophical, than formerly.

She had gained her wish, had enjoyed her triumph. A raising of the finger and Everard Barfoot would marry her. Assured of that, she felt a new contentment in life; at times when she was occupied with things as far as possible from this experience, a rush of joy would suddenly fill her heart, and make her cheek glow. She moved among people with a conscious dignity quite unlike that which had only satisfied her need of distinction. She spoke more softly, exercised more patience, smiled where she had been wont to scoff. Miss Nunn was altogether a more amiable person.

Yet, she convinced herself, essentially quite unchanged. She pursued the aim of her life with less bitterness, in a larger spirit, that was all. But pursued it, and without fear of being diverted from the generous path.

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