The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 21

Towards the Decisive

Mary Barfoot had never suffered from lack of interest in life. Many a vivid moment dwelt in her memory; joys and sorrows, personal or of larger scope, affected her the more deeply because of that ruling intelligence which enabled her to transmute them into principles. No longer anticipating or desiring any great change in her own environment, in the modes and motives of her activity, she found it a sufficient happiness to watch, and when possible to direct, the tendency of younger lives. So kindly had nature tempered her disposition, that already she had been able to outlive those fervours of instinct which often make the middle life of an unwedded woman one long repining; but her womanly sympathies remained. And at present there was going forward under her own roof, within her daily observation, a comedy, a drama, which had power to excite all her disinterested emotions. It had been in progress for twelve months, and now, unless she was strangely mistaken, the denouement drew very near.

For all her self-study, her unflinching recognition of physical and psychical facts which the average woman blinks over, Mary deceived herself as to the date of that final triumph which permitted her to observe Rhoda Nunn with perfect equanimity. Her outbreak of angry feeling on the occasion of Bella Royston’s death meant something more than she would acknowledge before the inquisition of her own mind. It was just then that she had become aware of Rhoda’s changing attitude towards Everard Barfoot; trifles such as only a woman would detect had convinced her that Everard’s interest in Rhoda was awakening a serious response; and this discovery, though it could not surprise her, caused an obscure pang which she attributed to impersonal regret, to mere natural misgiving. For some days she thought of Rhoda in an ironic, half-mocking spirit. Then came Bella’s suicide, and the conversation in which Rhoda exhibited a seeming heartlessness, the result, undoubtedly, of grave emotional disturbance. To her own astonishment, Mary was overcome with an impulse of wrathful hostility, and spoke words which she regretted as soon as they had passed her lips.

Poor Bella had very little to do with this moment of discord between two women who sincerely liked and admired each other. She only offered the occasion for an outburst of secret feeling which probably could not have been avoided. Mary Barfoot had loved her cousin Everard; it began when he was one-and-twenty; she, so much older, had never allowed Everard or any one else to suspect her passion, which made her for two or three years more unhappy than she had ever been, or was ever to be when once her strong reason had prevailed. The scandal of Amy Drake, happening long after, revived her misery, which now took the form of truly feminine intolerance; she tried to believe that Everard was henceforth of less than no account to her, that she detested him for his vices. Amy Drake, however, she detested much more.

When her friendship with Rhoda Nunn had progressed to intimacy, she could not refrain from speaking of her cousin Everard, absent at the ends of the earth, and perchance lost to her sight for ever. Her mention of him was severe, yet of a severity so obviously blended with other feeling, that Rhoda could not but surmise the truth. Sentimental confession never entered Miss Barfoot’s mind; she had conquered her desires, and was by no means inclined to make herself ridiculous; Rhoda Nunn, of all women, seemed the least likely to make remarks, or put questions, such as would endanger a betrayal of the buried past. Yet, at a later time, when pressing the inquiry whether Rhoda had ever been in love, Mary did not scruple to suggest that her own knowledge in that direction was complete. She did it in lightness of heart, secure under the protection of her forty years. Rhoda, of course, understood her as referring to Everard.

So the quarrel was one of jealousy. But no sooner had it taken place when Mary Barfoot experienced a shame, a distress, which in truth signified the completion of self-conquest. She thought herself ashamed of being angry where anger was uncalled for; in reality, she chastised herself for the last revival of a conflict practically over and done with so many years ago. And on this very account, precisely because she was deceiving herself as to her state of mind, she prolonged the painful situation. She said to herself that Rhoda had behaved so wrongly that displeasure was justified, that to make up the quarrel at once would be unwise, for Miss Nunn needed a little discipline. This insistence upon the side issue helped her to disregard the main one, and when at length she offered Rhoda the kiss of reconcilement, that also signified something other than was professed. It meant a hope that Rhoda might know the happiness which to her friend had been denied.

Everard’s announcement of his passion for Miss Nunn seemed to Mary a well-calculated piece of boldness. If he seriously sought Rhoda for his wife, this frank avowal of the desire before a third person might remove some of the peculiar difficulties of the case. Whether willing or not to be wooed, Rhoda, in mere consistency with her pronounced opinions, must needs maintain a scornful silence on the subject of Everard’s love-making; by assailing this proud reserve, this dignity which perchance had begun to burden its supporter, Everard made possible, if not inevitable, a discussion of his suit between the two women. She who talks of her lover will be led to think of him.

Miss Barfoot knew not whether to hope for the marriage of this strange pair. She was distrustful of her cousin, found it hard to imagine him a loyal husband, and could not be sure whether Rhoda’s qualities were such as would ultimately retain or repel him. She inclined to think this wooing a mere caprice. But Rhoda gave ear to him, of that there could be little doubt; and since his inheritance of ample means the affair began to have a new aspect. That Everard persevered, though the world of women was now open to him — for, on a moderate computation, any man with Barfoot’s personal advantages, and armed with fifteen hundred a year, may choose among fifty possible maidens — seemed to argue that he was really in love. But what it would cost Rhoda to appear before her friends in the character of a bride! What a humbling of her glory!

Was she capable of the love which defies all humiliation? Or, loving ardently, would she renounce a desired happiness from dread of female smiles and whispers? Or would it be her sufficient satisfaction to reject a wealthy suitor, and thus pose more grandly than ever before the circle who saw in her an example of woman’s independence? Powerful was the incitement to curiosity in a situation which, however it ended, would afford such matter for emotional hypothesis.

They did not talk of Everard. Whether Rhoda replied to his letters from abroad Miss Barfoot had no means of ascertaining. But after his return he had a very cold reception — due, perhaps, to some audacity he had allowed himself in his correspondence. Rhoda again avoided meeting with him, and, as Miss Barfoot noticed, threw herself with increased energy into all her old pursuits.

‘What about your holiday this year?’ Mary asked one evening in June. ‘Shall you go first, or shall I?’

‘Please make whatever arrangements you like.’

Miss Barfoot had a reason for wishing to postpone her holiday until late in August. She said so, and proposed that Rhoda should take any three weeks she liked prior to that.

‘Miss Vesper,’ she added, ‘can manage your room very well. We shall be much more at ease in that respect than last year.’

‘Yes. Miss Vesper is getting to be very useful and trustworthy.’

Rhoda mused when she had made this remark.

‘Do you know,’ she asked presently, ‘whether she sees much of Mrs. Widdowson?’

‘I have no idea.’

They decided that Rhoda should go away at the close of July. Where was her holiday to be spent? Miss Barfoot suggested the lake country.

‘I was thinking of it myself,’ said Rhoda. ‘I should like to have some sea-bathing, though. A week by the shore, and then the rest of the time spent in vagabondage among the mountains, would suit me very well. Mrs. Cosgrove is at home in Cumberland; I must ask her advice.’

This was done, and there resulted a scheme which seemed to excite Rhoda with joyous anticipation. On the coast of Cumberland, a few miles south of St. Bees, is a little place called Seascale, unknown to the ordinary tourist, but with a good hotel and a few scattered houses where lodgings can be obtained. Not far away rise the mountain barriers of lake-land, Wastdale clearly discernible. At Seascale, then, Rhoda would spend her first week, the quiet shore with its fine stretch of sand affording her just the retreat that she desired.

‘There are one or two bathing-machines, Mrs. Cosgrove says, but I hope to avoid such abominations. How delicious it was in one’s childhood, when one ran into the sea naked! I will enjoy that sensation once more, if I have to get up at three in the morning.’

About this time Barfoot made one of his evening calls. He had no hope of seeing Rhoda, and was agreeably surprised by her presence in the drawing-room. Just as happened a year ago, the subject of Miss Barfoot making a direct inquiry. With lively interest, Mary waited for the reply, and was careful not to smile when Rhoda made known her intentions.

‘Have you planned a route after your stay at Seascale?’ Barfoot asked.

‘No. I shall do that when I am there.’

Whether or not he intended a contrast to these homely projects, Barfoot presently began to talk of travel on a grander scale. When he next left England, he should go by the Orient Express right away to Constantinople. His cousin asked questions about the Orient Express, and he supplied her with details very exciting to the imagination of any one who longs to see the kingdoms of the earth — as undoubtedly Rhoda did. The very name, Orient Express, has a certain sublimity, such as attaches, more or less, to all the familiar nomenclature of world-transits. He talked himself into fervour, and kept a watch on Rhoda’s countenance. As also did Miss Barfoot. Rhoda tried to appear unaffected, but her coldness betrayed its insincerity.

The next day, when work at Great Portland Street was just finished, she fell into conversation with Mildred Vesper. Miss Barfoot had an engagement to dine out that evening, and Rhoda ended by inviting Milly to come home with her to Chelsea. To Milly this was a great honour; she hesitated because of her very plain dress, but easily allowed herself to be persuaded when she saw that Miss Nunn really desired her company.

Before dinner they had a walk in Battersea Park. Rhoda had never been so frank and friendly; she induced the quiet, unpretending girl to talk of her early days, her schools, her family. Remarkable was Milly’s quiet contentedness; not long ago she had received an increase of payment from Miss Barfoot, and one would have judged that scarcely a wish now troubled her, unless it were that she might see her scattered brothers and sisters, all of whom, happily, were doing pretty well in the struggle for existence.

‘You must feel rather lonely in your lodgings sometimes?’ said Rhoda.

‘Very rarely. In future I shall have music in the evening. Our best room has been let to a young man who has a violin, and he plays “The Blue Bells of Scotland”— not badly.’

Rhoda did not miss the humorous intention, veiled, as usual, under a manner of extreme sedateness.

‘Does Mrs. Widdowson come to see you?’

‘Not often. She came a few days ago.’

‘You go to her house sometimes?’

‘I haven’t been there for several months. At first I used to go rather frequently, but — it’s a long way.’

To this subject Rhoda returned after dinner, when they were cosily settled in the drawing-room.

‘Mrs. Widdowson comes here now and then, and we are always very glad to see her. But I can’t help thinking she looks rather unhappy.’

‘I’m afraid she does,’ assented the other gravely.

‘You and I were both at her wedding. It wasn’t very cheerful, was it? I had a disagreeable sense of bad omens all the time. Do you think she is sorry?’

‘I’m really afraid she is.’

Rhoda observed the look that accompanied this admission.

‘Foolish girl! Why couldn’t she stay with us, and keep her liberty? She doesn’t seem to have made any new friends. Has she spoken to you of any?’

‘Only of people she has met here.’

Rhoda yielded — or seemed to yield — to an impulse of frankness. Bending slightly forward, with an anxious expression, she said in confidential tones  —

‘Can you help to put my mind at rest about Monica? You saw her a week ago. Did she say anything, or give any sign, that might make one really uneasy on her account?’

There was a struggle in Milly before she answered. Rhoda added  —

‘Perhaps you had rather not —’

‘Yes, I had rather tell you. She said a good many strange things, and I have been uneasy about her. I wished I could speak to some one —’

‘How strange that I should feel urged to ask you about this,’ said Rhoda, her eyes, peculiarly bright and keen, fixed on the girl’s face. ‘The poor thing is very miserable, I am sure. Her husband seems to leave her entirely to herself.’

Milly looked surprised.

‘Monica made quite the opposite complaint to me. She said that was a prisoner.’

‘That’s very odd. She certainly goes about a good deal and alone.’

‘I didn’t know that,’ said Milly. ‘She has very often talked to me about a woman’s right to the same freedom as a man, and I always understood that Mr. Widdowson objected to her going anywhere without him, except just to call here, or at my lodgings.’

‘Do you think she has any acquaintance that he dislikes?’

The direct answer was delayed, but it came at length.

‘There is some one. She hasn’t told me who it is.’

‘In plain words, Mr. Widdowson thinks he has cause for jealousy?’

‘Yes, I understand Monica to mean that.’

Rhoda’s face had grown very dark. She moved her hands nervously.

‘But — you don’t think she could deceive him?’

‘Oh, I can’t think that!’ replied Miss Vesper, with much earnestness. ‘But what I couldn’t help fearing, after I saw her last, was that she might almost be tempted to leave her husband. She spoke so much of freedom — and of a woman’s right to release herself if she found her marriage was a mistake.’

‘I am so grateful to you for telling me all this. We must try to help her. Of course I will make no mention of you, Miss Vesper. Then you are really under the impression that there’s some one she — prefers to her husband?’

‘I can’t help thinking there is,’ admitted the other very solemnly. ‘I was so sorry for her, and felt so powerless. She cried a little. All I could do was to entreat her not to behave rashly. I thought her sister ought to know —’

‘Oh, Miss Madden is useless. Monica cannot look to her for advice or support.’

After this conversation Rhoda passed a very unquiet night, and gloom appeared in her countenance for the next few days.

She wished to have a private interview with Monica, but doubted whether it would in any degree serve her purpose — that of discovering whether certain suspicions she entertained had actual ground. Confidence between her and Mrs. Widdowson had never existed, and in the present state of things she could not hope to probe Monica’s secret feelings. Whilst she still brooded over the difficulty there came a letter for her from Everard Barfoot. He wrote formally; it had occurred to him that he might be of some slight service, in view of her approaching holiday, if he looked through the guide-books, and jotted down the outline of such a walking-tour as she had in mind. This he had done, and the results were written out on an enclosed sheet of paper. Rhoda allowed a day to intervene, then sent a reply. She thanked Mr. Barfoot sincerely for the trouble he had so kindly taken. ‘I see you limit me to ten miles a day. In such scenery of course one doesn’t hurry on, but I can’t help informing you that twenty miles wouldn’t alarm me. I think it very likely that I shall follow your itinerary, after my week of bathing and idling. I leave on Monday week.’

Barfoot did not call again. Every evening she sat in expectation of his coming. Twice Miss Barfoot was away until a late hour, and on those occasions, after dinner, Rhoda sat in complete idleness, her face declaring the troubled nature of ‘her thoughts. On the Sunday before her departure she took a sudden resolve and went to call upon Monica at Herne Hill.

Mrs. Widdowson, she learnt from the servant, had left home about an hour since.

‘Is Mr. Widdowson at home?’

Yes, he was. And Rhoda waited for some time in the drawing-room until he made his appearance. Of late Widdowson had grown so careless in the matter of toilet, that an unexpected visit obliged him to hurry through a change of apparel before he could present himself. Looking upon him for the first time for several months, Rhoda saw that misery was undermining the man’s health. Words could not have declared his trouble more plainly than the haggard features and stiff, depressed, self-conscious manner. He fixed his sunken eyes upon the visitor, and smiled, as was plain, only for civility’s sake. Rhoda did her best to seem at ease; she explained (standing, for he forgot to ask her to be seated) that she was going away on the morrow, and had hoped to see Mrs. Widdowson, who, she was told, had not been very well of late.

‘No, she is not in very good health,’ said Widdowson vaguely. ‘She has gone this afternoon to Mrs. Cosgrove’s — I think you know her.’

Less encouragement to remain could not have been offered, but Rhoda conceived a hope of hearing something significant if she persevered in conversation. The awkwardness of doing so was indifferent to her.

‘Shall you be leaving town shortly, Mr. Widdowson?’

‘We are not quite sure — But pray sit down, Miss Nunn. You haven’t seen my wife lately?’

He took a chair, and rested his hands upon his knees, gazing at the visitor’s skirt.

‘Mrs. Widdowson hasn’t been to see us for more than a month — if I remember rightly.’

His look expressed both surprise and doubt.

‘A month? But I thought — I had an idea — that she went only a few days ago.’

‘In the day time?’

‘To Great Portland Street, I mean — to hear a lecture, or something of that kind, by Miss Barfoot.’

Rhoda kept silence for a moment. Then she replied hastily  —

‘Oh yes — very likely — I wasn’t there that afternoon.’

‘I see. That would explain —’

He seemed relieved, but only for the instant; then his eyes glanced hither and thither, with painful restlessness. Rhoda observed him closely. After fidgeting with his feet, he suddenly took a stiff position, and said in a louder voice  —

‘We are going to leave London altogether. I have decided to take a house at my wife’s native place, Clevedon. Her sisters will come and live with us.’

‘That is a recent decision, Mr. Widdowson?’

‘I have thought about it for some time. London doesn’t suit Monica’s health; I’m sure it doesn’t. She will be much better in the country.’

‘Yes, I think that very likely.’

‘As you say that you have noticed her changed looks, I shall lose no time in getting away.’ He made a great show of determined energy. ‘A few weeks —. We will go down to Clevedon at once and find a house. Yes, we will go tomorrow, or the day after. Miss Madden, also, is very far from well. I wish I hadn’t delayed so long.’

‘You are doing very wisely, I think. I had meant to suggest something of this kind to Mrs. Widdowson. Perhaps, if I went at once to Mrs. Cosgrove’s, I might be fortunate enough to find her still there?’

‘You might. Did I understand you to say that you go away tomorrow? For three weeks. Ah, then we may be getting ready to remove when you come back.’

The change that had come over him was remarkable. He could not keep his seat, and began to pace the end of the room. Seeing no possibility of prolonging the talk for her own purposes, Rhoda accepted this dismissal, and with the briefest leave-taking went her way to Mrs. Cosgrove’s.

She was deeply agitated. Monica had not attended that lecture of Miss Barfoot’s, and so, it was evident, had purposely deceived her husband. To what end? Where were those hours spent? Mildred Vesper’s report supplied grounds for sombre conjecture, and the incident at Sloane Square Station, the recollection of Monica and Barfoot absorbed in talk, seemed to have a possible significance which fired Rhoda with resentment.

Her arrival at Mrs. Cosgrove’s was too late. Monica had been there said the hostess, but had left nearly half an hour ago.

Rhoda’s instant desire was to go on to Bayswater, and somehow keep watch near the flats where Barfoot lived. Monica might be there. Her coming forth from the building might be detected.

But the difficulty of the understanding, and, still more, a dread of being seen hovering about that quarter, checked her purpose as soon as it was formed. She returned home, and for an hour or two kept in solitude.

‘What has happened?’ asked Miss Barfoot, when they at length met.

‘Happened? Nothing that I know of.’

‘You look very strange.’

‘Your imagination. I have been packing; perhaps it’s from stooping over the trunk.’

This by no means satisfied Mary, who felt that things mysterious were going on about her. But she could only wait, repeating to herself that the grand denouement decidedly was not far off.

At nine o’clock sounded the visitor’s bell. If, as she thought likely, the caller was Everard, Miss Barfoot decided that she would disregard everything but the dramatic pressure of the moment, and leave those two alone together for half an hour. Everard it was; he entered the drawing-room with an unusual air of gaiety.

‘I have been in the country all day,’ were his first words; and he went on to talk of trivial things — the doings of a Cockney excursion party that had come under his notice.

In a few minutes Mary made an excuse for absenting herself. When she was gone, Rhoda looked steadily at Barfoot, and asked  —

‘Have you really been out of town?’

‘Why should you doubt it?’

‘As I told you.

She averted her look. After examining her curiously, Everard came and stood before her.

‘I want to ask your leave to meet you somewhere during these next three weeks. At any point on your route. We could have a day’s ramble together, and then — say good-bye.’

‘The lake country is free to you, Mr. Barfoot.’

‘But I mustn’t miss you. You will leave Seascale tomorrow week?’

‘At present I think so. But I can’t restrict myself by any agreement. Holiday must be a time of liberty.’

They looked at each other — she with a carelessness which was all but defiance, he with a significant smile.

‘To-morrow week, then, perhaps we may meet again.’

Rhoda made no reply, beyond a movement of her eyebrows, as if to express indifference.

‘I won’t stay longer this evening. A pleasant journey to you!’

He shook hands, and left the room. In the hall Miss Barfoot came to meet him; they exchanged a few words, unimportant and without reference to what had passed between him and Rhoda. Nor did Rhoda speak of the matter when joined by her friend. She retired early, having settled all the arrangements for her departure by the ten o’clock express from Euston next morning.

Her luggage was to consist of one trunk and a wallet with a strap, which would serve the purposes of a man’s knapsack. Save the indispensable umbrella, she carried no impeding trifles. A new costume, suitable for shore and mountain, was packed away in the trunk; Miss Barfoot had judged of its effect, and was of opinion that it became the wearer admirably.

But Rhoda, having adjusted everything that she was going to take with her, still had an occupation which kept her up for several hours. From a locked drawer she brought forth packets of letters, the storage of many years, and out of these selected carefully perhaps a tithe, which she bound together and deposited in a box; the remainder she burnt in the empty fireplace. Moreover, she collected from about the room a number of little objects, ornaments and things of use, which also found a place in the same big box. All her personal property which had any value for her, except books, was finally under lock and key, and in portable repositories. But still she kept moving, as if in search of trifles that might have escaped her notice; silently, in her soft slippers, she strayed hither and thither, till the short summer night had all but given place to dawn; and when at length weariness compelled her to go to bed, she was not able to sleep.

Nor did Mary Barfoot enjoy much sleep that night. She lay thinking, and forecasting strange possibilities.

On Monday evening, returned from Great Portland Street, the first thing she did was to visit Rhoda’s chamber. The ashes of burnt paper had been cleared away, but a glance informed her of the needless and unprecedented care with which Miss Nunn had collected and packed most of the things that belonged to her. Again Mary had a troubled night.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gissing/george/odd-women/chapter21.html

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