The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 19

The Clank of the Chains

Since Saturday evening Monica and her husband had not been on speaking terms. A visit she paid to Mildred Vesper, after her call at Miss Barfoot’s, prolonged itself so that she did not reach home until the dinner-hour was long past. On arriving, she was met with an outburst of tremendous wrath, to which she opposed a resolute and haughty silence; and since then the two had kept as much apart as possible.

Widdowson knew that Monica was going to the Academy. He allowed her to set forth alone, and even tried to persuade himself that he was indifferent as to the hour of her return; but she had not long been gone before he followed. Insufferable misery possessed him. His married life threatened to terminate in utter wreck, and he had the anguish of recognizing that to a great extent this catastrophe would be his own fault. Resolve as he might, he found it impossible to repress the impulses of jealousy which, as soon as peace had been declared between them, brought about a new misunderstanding. Terrible thoughts smouldered in his mind; he felt himself to be one of those men who are driven by passion into crime. Deliberately he had brooded over a tragic close to the wretchedness of his existence; he would kill himself, and Monica should perish with him. But an hour of contentment sufficed to banish such visions as sheer frenzy. He saw once more how harmless, how natural, were Monica’s demands, and how peacefully he might live with her but for the curse of suspicion from which he could not free himself. Any other man would deem her a model wifely virtue. Her care of the house was all that reason could desire. In her behaviour he had never detected the slightest impropriety. He believed her chaste as any woman living She asked only to be trusted, and that, in spite of all, was beyond his power.

In no woman on earth could he have put perfect confidence. He regarded them as born to perpetual pupilage. Not that their inclinations were necessarily wanton; they were simply incapable of attaining maturity, remained throughout their life imperfect beings, at the mercy of craft, ever liable to be misled by childish misconceptions. Of course he was right; he himself represented the guardian male, the wife-proprietor, who from the dawn of civilization has taken abundant care that woman shall not outgrow her nonage. The bitterness of his situation lay in the fact that he had wedded a woman who irresistibly proved to him her claims as a human being. Reason and tradition contended in him, to his ceaseless torment.

And again, he feared that Monica did not love him. Had she ever loved him? There was too much ground for suspecting that she had only yielded to the persistence of his entreaties, with just liking enough to permit a semblance of tenderness, and glad to exchange her prospect of distasteful work for a comfortable married life. Her liking he might have fostered; during those first happy weeks, assuredly he had done so, for no woman could be insensible to the passionate worship manifest in his every look, his every word. Later, he took the wrong path, seeking to oppose her instincts, to reform her mind, eventually to become her lord and master. Could he not even now retrace his steps? Supposing her incapable of bowing before him, of kissing his feet, could he not be content to make of her a loyal friend, a delightful companion?

In that mood he hastened towards Burlington House. Seeking Monica through the galleries, he saw her at length — sitting side by side with that man Barfoot. They were in closest colloquy. Barfoot bent towards her as if speaking in an undertone, a smile on his face. Monica looked at once pleased and troubled.

The blood boiled in his veins. His first impulse was to walk straight up to Monica and bid her follow him. But the ecstasy of jealous suffering kept him an observer. He watched the pair until he was descried.

There was no help for it. Though his brain whirled, and his flesh was stabbed, he had no choice but to take the hand Barfoot offered him. Smile he could not, nor speak a word.

‘So you have come after all?’ Monica was saying to him.

He nodded. On her countenance there was obvious embarrassment, but this needed no explanation save the history of the last day or two. Looking into her eyes, he knew not whether consciousness of wrong might be read there. How to get at the secrets of this woman’s heart?

Barfoot was talking, pointing at this picture and that, doing his best to smooth what he saw was an awkward situation. The gloomy husband, more like a tyrant than ever, muttered incoherent phrases. In a minute or two Everard freed himself and moved out of sight.

Monica turned from her husband and affected interest in the pictures. They reached the end of the room before Widdowson spoke.

‘How long do you want to stay here?’

‘I will go whenever you like,’ she answered, without looking at him.

‘I have no wish to spoil your pleasure.’

‘Really, I have very little pleasure in anything. Did you come to keep me in sight?’

‘I think we will go home now, and you can come another day.’

Monica assented by closing her catalogue and walking on.

Without a word, they made the journey back to Herne Hill. Widdowson shut himself in the library, and did not appear till dinner-time. The meal was a pretence for both of them, and as soon as they could rise from the table they again parted.

About ten o’clock Monica was joined by her husband in the drawing-room.

‘I have almost made up my mind,’ he said, standing near her, ‘to take a serious step. As you have always spoken with pleasure of your old home, Clevedon, suppose we give up this house and go and live there?’

‘It is for you to decide.’

‘I want to know whether you would have any objection.’

‘I shall do as you wish.’

‘No, that isn’t enough. The plan I have in mind is this. I should take a good large house — no doubt rents are low in the neighbourhood — and ask your sisters to come and live with us. I think it would be a good thing both for them and for you.’

‘You can’t be sure that they would agree to it. You see that Virginia prefers her lodgings to living here.’

Oddly enough, this was the case. On their return from Guernsey they had invited Virginia to make a permanent home with them, and she refused. Her reasons Monica could not understand; those which she alleged — vague arguments as to its being better for a wife’s relatives not to burden the husband — hardly seemed genuine. It was possible that Virginia had a distaste for Widdowson’s society.

‘I think they both would be glad to live at Clevedon,’ he urged, ‘judging from your sisters’ talk. It’s plain that they have quite given up the idea of the school, and Alice, you tell me, is getting dissatisfied with her work at Yatton. But I must know whether you will enter seriously into this scheme.’

Monica kept silence.

‘Please answer me.’

‘Why have you thought of it?’

‘I don’t think I need explain. We have had too many unpleasant conversations, and I wish to act for the best without saying things you would misunderstand.’

‘There is no fear of my misunderstanding. You have no confidence in me, and you want to get me away into a quiet country place where I shall be under your eyes every moment. It’s much better to say that plainly.’

‘That means you would consider it going to prison.’

‘How could I help? What other motive have you?’

He was prompted to make brutal declaration of authority, and so cut the knot. Monica’s unanswerable argument merely angered him. But he made an effort over himself.

‘Don’t you think it best that we should take some step before our happiness is irretrievably ruined?’

‘I see no need for its ruin. As I have told you before, in talking like that you degrade yourself and insult me.’

‘I have my faults; I know them only too well. One of them is that I cannot bear you to make friends with people who are not of my kind. I shall never be able to endure that.’

‘Of course you are speaking of Mr. Barfoot.’

‘Yes,’ he avowed sullenly. ‘It was a very unfortunate thing that I happened to come up just as he was in your company.’

‘You are so very unreasonable,’ exclaimed Monica tartly. ‘What possible harm is there in Mr. Barfoot, when he meets me by chance in a public place, having a conversation with me? I wish I knew twenty such men. Such conversation gives me a new interest in life. I have every reason to think well of Mr. Barfoot.’

Widdowson was in anguish.

‘And I,’ he replied, in a voice shaken with angry feeling, ‘feel that I have every reason to dislike and suspect him. He is not an honest man; his face tells me that. I know his life wouldn’t bear inspection. You can’t possibly be as good a judge as I am in such a case. Contrast him with Bevis. No, Bevis is a man one can trust; one talk with him produces a lasting favourable impression.’

Monica, silent for a brief space, looked fixedly before her, her features all but expressionless.

‘Yet even with Mr. Bevis,’ she said at length, ‘you don’t make friends. That is the fault in you which causes all this trouble. You haven’t a sociable spirit. Your dislike of Mr. Barfoot only means that you don’t know him, and don’t wish to. And you are completely wrong in your judgment of him. I have every reason for being sure that you are wrong.’

‘Of course you think so. In your ignorance of the world —’

‘Which you think very proper in a woman,’ she interposed caustically.

‘Yes, I do! That kind of knowledge is harmful to a woman.’

‘Then, please, how is she to judge her acquaintances?’

‘A married woman must accept her husband’s opinion, at all events about men.’ He plunged on into the ancient quagmire. ‘A man may know with impunity what is injurious if it enters a woman’s mind.’

‘I don’t believe that. I can’t and won’t believe it.’

He made a gesture of despair.

‘We differ hopelessly. It was all very well to discuss these things when you could do so in a friendly spirit. Now you say whatever you know will irritate me, and you say it on purpose to irritate me.’

‘No; indeed I do not. But you are quite right that I find it hard to be friendly with you. Most earnestly I wish to be your friend — your true and faithful friend. But you won’t let me.’

‘Friend!’ he cried scornfully. ‘The woman who has become my wife ought to be something more than a friend, I should think. You have lost all love for me — there’s the misery.’

Monica could not reply. That word ‘love’ had grown a weariness to her upon his lips. She did not love him; could not pretend to love him. Every day the distance between them widened, and when he took her in his arms she had to struggle with a sense of shrinking, of disgust. The union was unnatural; she felt herself constrained by a hateful force when he called upon her for the show of wifely tenderness. Yet how was she to utter this? The moment such a truth had passed her lips she must leave him. To declare that no trace of love remained in her heart, and still to live with him — that was impossible! The dark foresight of a necessity of parting from him corresponded in her to those lurid visions which at times shook Widdowson with a horrible temptation.

‘You don’t love me,’ he continued in harsh, choking tones. ‘You wish to be my friend. That’s how you try to compensate me for the loss of your love.’

He laughed with bitterness.

‘When you say that,’ Monica answered, ‘do you ever ask yourself whether you try to make me love you? Scenes like this are ruining my health. I have come to dread your talk. I have almost forgotten the sound of your voice when it isn’t either angry or complaining.’

Widdowson walked about the room, and a deep moan escaped him.

‘That is why I have asked you to go away from here, Monica. We must have a new home if our life is to begin anew.’

‘I have no faith in mere change of place. You would be the same man. If you cannot command your senseless jealousy here, you never would anywhere else.’

He made an effort to say something; seemed to abandon it; again tried, and spoke in a thick, unnatural voice.

‘Can you honestly repeat to me what Barfoot was saying today, when you were on the seat together?’

Monica’s eyes flashed.

‘I could; every word. But I shall not try to do so.’

‘Not if I beseech you to, Monica? To put my mind at rest —’

‘No. When I tell you that you might have heard every syllable, I have said all that I shall.’

It mortified him profoundly that he should have been driven to make so humiliating a request. He threw himself into a chair and hid his face, sitting thus for a long time in the hope that Monica would be moved to compassion. But when she rose it was only to retire for the night. And with wretchedness in her heart, because she must needs go to the same chamber in which her husband would sleep. She wished so to be alone. The poorest bed in a servant’s garret would have been thrice welcome to her; liberty to lie awake, to think without a disturbing presence, to shed tears of need be-that seemed to her a precious boon. She thought with envy of the shop-girls in Walworth Road; wished herself back there. What unspeakable folly she had committed! And how true was everything she had heard from Rhoda Nunn on the subject of marriage! The next day Widdowson resorted to an expedient which he had once before tried in like circumstances. He wrote his wife a long letter, eight close pages, reviewing the cause of their troubles, confessing his own errors, insisting gently on those chargeable to her, and finally imploring her to cooperate with him in a sincere endeavour to restore their happiness. This he laid on the table after lunch, and then left Monica alone that she might read it. Knowing beforehand all that the letter contained, Monica glanced over it carelessly. An answer was expected, and she wrote one as briefly as possible.

‘Your behaviour seems to me very weak, very unmanly. You make us both miserable, and quite without cause. I can only say as I have said before, that things will never be better until you come to think of me as your free companion, not as your bond-woman. If you can’t do this, you will make me wish that I had never met you, and in the end I am sure it won’t be possible for us to go on living together.’

She left this note, in a blank envelope, on the hall table, and went out to walk for an hour.

It was the end of one more acute stage in their progressive discord. By keeping at home for a fortnight. Monica soothed her husband and obtained some repose for her own nerves. But she could no longer affect a cordial reconciliation; caresses left her cold, and Widdowson saw that his company was never so agreeable to her as solitude. When they sat together, both were reading. Monica found more attraction in books as her life grew more unhappy. Though with reluctance Widdowson had consented to a subscription at Mudie’s, and from the new catalogues she either chose for herself, necessarily at random, or by the advice of better-read people, such as she met at Mrs. Cosgrove’s. What modern teaching was to be got from these volumes her mind readily absorbed. She sought for opinions and arguments which were congenial to her mood of discontent, all but of revolt.

Sometimes the perusal of a love-story embittered her lot to the last point of endurance. Before marriage, her love-ideal had been very vague, elusive; it found scarcely more than negative expression, as a shrinking from the vulgar or gross desires of her companions in the shop. Now that she had a clearer understanding of her own nature, the type of man correspondent to her natural sympathies also became clear. In every particular he was unlike her husband. She found a suggestion of him in books; and in actual life, already, perhaps something more than a suggestion. Widdowson’s jealousy, in so far as it directed itself against her longing for freedom, was fully justified; this consciousness often made her sullen when she desired to express a nobler indignation; but his special prejudice led him altogether astray, and in free resistance on this point she found the relief which enabled her to bear a secret self-reproach. Her refusal to repeat the substance of Barfoot’s conversation was, in some degree, prompted by a wish for the continuance of his groundless fears. By persevering in suspicion of Barfoot, he afforded her a firm foothold in their ever-renewed quarrels.

A husband’s misdirected jealousy excites in the wife derision and a sense of superiority; more often than not, it fosters an unsuspected attachment, prompts to a perverse pleasure in misleading. Monica became aware of this; in her hours of misery she now and then gave a harsh laugh, the result of thoughts not seriously entertained, but tempting the fancy to recklessness. What, she asked herself again, would be the end of it all? Ten years hence, would she have subdued her soul to a life of weary insignificance, if not of dishonour? For it was dishonour to live with a man she could not love, whether her heart cherished another image or was merely vacant. A dishonour to which innumerable women submitted, a dishonour glorified by social precept, enforced under dread penalties.

But she was so young, and life abounds in unexpected changes.

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