The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 24

Tracked

When Widdowson went up to the bedroom that night, Monica was already asleep. He discovered this on turning up the gas. The light fell upon her face, and he was drawn to the bedside to look at her. The features signified nothing but repose; her lips were just apart, her eyelids lay softly with their black fringe of exquisite pencilling, and her hair was arranged as she always prepared it for the pillow. He watched her for full five minutes, and detected not the slightest movement, so profound was her sleep. Then he turned away, muttering savagely under his breath, ‘Hypocrite! Liar!’

But for a purpose in his thoughts he would not have lain down beside her. On getting into bed he kept as far away as possible, and all through the wakeful night his limbs shrank from the touch of hers.

He rose an hour earlier than usual. Monica had long been awake, but she moved so seldom that he could not be sure of this; her face was turned from him. When he came back to the room after his bath. Monica propped herself on her elbow and asked why he was moving so early.

‘I want to be in the City at nine,’ he replied, with a show of cheerfulness. ‘There’s a money affair I must see after.’

‘Something that’s going wrong?’

‘I’m afraid so. I must lose no time in looking to it. What plans have you for today?’

‘None whatever.’

‘It’s Saturday, you know. I promised to see Newdick this afternoon. Perhaps I may bring him to dinner.’

About twelve o’clock he returned from his business. At two he went away again, saying that he should not be back before seven, it might be a little later. In Monica these movements excited no special remark; they were merely a continuance of his restlessness. But no sooner had he departed, after luncheon, than she went to her dressing-room, and began to make slow, uncertain preparations for leaving home herself.

This morning she had tried to write a letter for Bevis, but vainly. She knew not what to say to him, uncertain of her own desires and of what lay before her. Yet, if she were to communicate with him henceforth at all, it was necessary, this very afternoon, to find an address where letters could be received for her, and to let him know of it. To-morrow, Sunday, was useless for the purpose, and on Monday it might be impossible for her to go out alone. Besides that, she could not be sure of the safety of a letter delivered at the flat on Monday night or Tuesday morning.

She dressed at length and went out. Her wisest course, probably, was to seek for some obliging shopkeeper near Lavender Hill. Then she could call on Virginia, transact the business she had pretended to discharge yesterday, and there pen a note to Bevis.

Her moods alternated with distracting rapidity. A hundred times she had resolved that Bevis could be nothing more to her, and again had thought of him with impulses of yearning, trying to persuade herself that he had acted well and wisely. A hundred times she determined to carry out her idea of yesterday — to quit her husband and resist all his efforts to recall her — and again had all but resigned herself to live with him, accepting degradation as so many wives perforce did. Her mind was in confusion, and physically she felt far from well. A heaviness weighed upon her limbs, making it hardship to walk however short a distance.

Arrived at Clapham Junction, she began to search wearily, indifferently, for the kind of shop that might answer her purpose. The receiving of letters which, for one reason or another, must be dispatched to a secret address, is a very ordinary complaisance on the part of small London stationers; hundreds of such letters are sent and called for every week within the metropolitan postal area. It did not take Monica long to find an obliging shopkeeper; the first to whom she applied — a decent woman behind a counter which displayed newspapers, tobacco, and fancy articles — willingly accepted the commission.

She came out of the shop with flushed cheeks. Another step in shameful descent — yet it had the result of strengthening once more her emotions favourable to Bevis. On his account she had braved this ignominy, and it drew her towards him, instead of producing the effect which would have seemed more natural. Perhaps the reason was that she felt herself more hopelessly an outcast from the world of honourable women, and therefore longed in her desolation for the support of a man’s love. Did he not love her? It was her fault if she expected him to act with a boldness that did not lie in his nature. Perhaps his discretion, which she had so bitterly condemned as weakness, meant a wise regard for her interests as well as his own. The public scandal of divorce was a hideous thing. If it damaged his prospects and sundered him from his relatives, how could she hope that his love of her, the cause of it all, would long endure?

The need of love overcame her. She would submit to any conditions rather than lose this lover whose kisses were upon her lips, and whose arms had held her so passionately. She was too young to accept a life of resignation, too ardent. Why had she left him in despondency, in doubt whether he would ever again see her?


She turned back on her way to Virginia’s lodgings, reentered the station, and journeyed townwards. It was an odd incident, by Monica unperceived, that when she was taking her ticket there stood close by her a man, seemingly a mechanic, who had also stood within hearing when she booked at Herne Hill. This same man, though he had not travelled in the compartment with her, followed her when she alighted at Bayswater. She did not once observe him.

Instead of writing, she had resolved to see Bevis again — if it were possible. Perhaps he would not be at the flat; yet his wish might suggest the bare hope of her coming today. The risk of meeting Barfoot probably need not be considered, for he had told her that he was travelling today into Cumberland, and for so long a journey he would be sure to set forth in the morning. At worst she would suffer a disappointment. Indulgence of her fervid feelings had made her as eager to see Bevis as she was yesterday. Words of tenderness rushed to her lips for utterance. When she reached the building all but delirium possessed her.

She had hurried up to the first landing, when a footstep behind drew her attention. It was a man in mechanic’s dress, coming up with head bent, doubtless for some task or other in one of the flats. Perhaps he was going to Bevis’s. She went forward more slowly, and on the next landing allowed the man to pass her. Yes, more likely than not he was engaged in packing her lover’s furniture. She stood still. At that moment a door closed above, and another step, lighter and quicker, that of a woman, came downstairs. As far as her ear could judge, this person might have left Bevis’s flat. A conflict of emotions excited her to panic. She was afraid either to advance or to retreat, and in equal dread of standing without purpose. She stepped up to the nearest door, and gave a summons with the knocker.

This door was Barfoot’s. She knew that; in the first instant of fear occasioned by the workman’s approach, she had glanced at the door and reminded herself that here Mr. Barfoot dwelt, immediately beneath Bevis. But for the wild alarm due to her conscience-stricken state she could not have risked the possibility of the tenant being still at home; and yet it seemed to her that she was doing the only thing possible under the circumstances. For this woman whom she heard just above might perchance be one of Bevis’s sisters, returned to London for some purpose or other, and in that case she preferred being seen at Barfoot’s door to detection as she made for her lover’s.

Uncertainty on this point lasted but a few seconds. Dreading to look at the woman, Monica yet did so, just as she passed, and beheld the face of a perfect stranger. A young and good-looking face, however. Her mind, sufficiently tumultuous, received a new impulse of disturbance. Had this woman come forth from Bevis’s fiat or from the one opposite? — for on each floor there were two dwellings.

In the meantime no one answered her knock. Mr. Barfoot had gone; she breathed thankfully. Now she might venture to ascend to the next floor. But then sounded a knock from above. That, she felt convinced, was at Bevis’s door, and if so her conjecture about the workman was correct. She stood waiting for certainty, as if still expecting a reply to her own signal at Mr. Barfoot’s door. The mechanic looked down at her over the banisters, but of this she was unaware.

The knock above was repeated. Yes, this time there could be no mistake; it was on this side of the landing — that is to say, at her lover’s door. But the door did not open; thus, without going up herself, she received assurance that Bevis was not at home. He might come later. She still had an hour or two to spare. So, as if disappointed in a call at Mr. Barfoot’s, she descended the stairs and issued into the street.

Agitation had exhausted her, and a dazzling of her eyes threatened a recurrence of yesterday’s faintness. She found a shop where refreshments were sold, and sat for half an hour over a cup of tea, trying to amuse herself with illustrated papers. The mechanic who had knocked at Bevis’s door passed once or twice along the pavement, and, as long as she remained here, kept the shop within sight.

At length she asked for writing materials, and penned a few lines. If on her second attempt she failed to see Bevis, she would drop this note into his letter-box. It acquainted him with the address to which he might direct letters, assured him passionately of her love, and implored him to be true to her, to send for her as soon as circumstances made it possible.

Self-torment of every kind was natural to her position. Though the relief of escaping from several distinct dangers had put her mind comparatively at ease for a short time, she had now begun to suffer a fresh uneasiness with reference to the young and handsome woman who came downstairs. The fact that no one answered the workman’s knock had seemed to her a sufficient proof that Bevis was not at home, and that the stranger must have come forth from the flat opposite his. But she recollected the incident which had so alarmingly disturbed her and her lover yesterday. Bevis did not then go to the door, and suppose — oh, it was folly! But suppose that woman had been with him; suppose he did not care to open to a visitor whose signal sounded only a minute or two after that person’s departure?

Had she not anguish enough to endure without the addition of frantic jealousy? She would not give another thought to such absurd suggestions. The woman had of course come from the dwelling opposite. Yet why might she not have been in Bevis’s flat when he himself was absent? Suppose her an intimate to whom he had entrusted a latch-key. If any such connection existed, might it not help to explain Bevis’s half-heartedness?

To think thus was courting madness. Unable to sit still any longer, Monica left the shop, and strayed for some ten minutes about the neighbouring streets, drawing nearer and nearer to her goal. Finally she entered the building and went upstairs. On this occasion no one met her, and no one entered in her rear. She knocked at her lover’s door, and stood longing, praying, that it might open. But it did not. Tears started to her eyes; she uttered a moan of bitterest disappointment, and slipped the envelope she was carrying into the letter-box.

The mechanic had seen her go in, and he waited outside, a few yards away. Either she would soon reappear, or her not doing so would show that she had obtained admittance somewhere. In the latter case, this workman of much curiosity and leisure had only to lurk about the staircase until she came forth again. But this trial of patience was spared him. He found that he had simply to follow the lady back to Herne Hill. Acting on very suggestive instructions, it never occurred to the worthy man that the lady’s second visit was not to the same flat as in the former instance.

Monica was home again long before dinner-time. When that hour arrived her husband had not yet come; the delay, no doubt, was somehow connected with his visit to Mr. Newdick. But this went on. At nine o’clock Monica still sat alone, hungry, yet scarce conscious of hunger owing to her miseries. Widdowson had never behaved thus. Another quarter of an hour and she heard the front door open.

He came to the drawing-room, where she sat waiting.

‘How late you are! Are you alone?’

‘Yes, alone.’

‘You haven’t had dinner?’

‘No.’

He seemed to be in rather a gloomy mood, but Monica noticed nothing that alarmed her. He was drawing nearer, his eyes on the ground.

‘Have you had bad news — in the City?’

‘Yes, I have.’

Still he came nearer, and at length, when a yard or two away, raised his look to her face.

‘Have you been out this afternoon?’

She was prompted to a falsehood, but durst not utter it, so keenly was he regarding her.

‘Yes, I went to see Miss Barfoot.’

‘Liar!’

As the word burst from his lips, he sprang at her, clutched her dress at the throat, and flung her violently upon her knees. A short cry of terror escaped her; then she was stricken dumb, with eyes starting and mouth open. It was well that he held her by the garment and not by the neck, for his hand closed with murderous convulsion, and the desire of crushing out her life was for an instant all his consciousness.

‘Liar!’ again burst from him. ‘Day after day you have lied to me. Liar! Adultress!’

‘I am not! I am not that!’

She clung upon his arms and strove to raise herself. The bloodless lips, the choked voice, meant dread of him, but the distortion of her features was hatred and the will to resist.

‘Not that? What is your word worth? The prostitute in the street is sooner to be believed. She has the honesty to say what she is, but you — Where were you yesterday when you were not at your sister’s? Where were you this afternoon?’

She had nearly struggled to her feet; he thrust her down again, crushed her backwards until her head all but touched the floor.

‘Where were you? Tell the truth, or you shall never speak again!’

‘Oh — help! help! He will kill me!’

Her cry rang through the room.

‘Call them up — let them come and look at you and hear what you are. Soon enough every one will know. Where were you this afternoon? You were watched every step of the way from here to that place where you have made yourself a base, vile, unclean creature —.’

‘I am not that! Your spies have misled you.’

‘Misled? Didn’t you go to that man Barfoot’s door and knock there? And because you were disappointed, didn’t you wait about, and go there a second time?’

‘What if I did? It doesn’t mean what you think.’

‘What? You go time after time to the private chambers of an unmarried man — a man such as that — and it means no harm?’

‘I have never been there before.’

‘You expect me to believe you?’ Widdowson cried with savage contumely. He had just loosed his hold of her, and she was upright again before him, her eyes flashing defiance, though every muscle in her frame quivered. ‘When did your lies begin? Was it when you told me you had been to hear Miss Barfoot’s lecture, and never went there at all?’

He aimed the charge at a venture, and her face told him that his suspicion had been grounded.

‘For how many weeks, for how many months, have you been dishonouring me and yourself?’

‘I am not guilty of what you believe, but I shan’t try to defend myself. Thank Heaven, this is the end of everything between us! Charge me with what you like. I am going away from you, and I hope we may never meet again.’

‘Yes, you are going — no doubt of that. But not before you have answered my questions. Whether with lies or not doesn’t matter much. You shall give your own account of what you have been doing.’

Both panting as if after some supreme effort of their physical force, they stood and looked at each other. Each to the other’s eyes was incredibly transformed. Monica could not have imagined such brutal ferocity in her husband’s face, and she herself had a wild recklessness in her eyes, a scorn and abhorrence in all the lines of her countenance, which made Widdowson feel as if a stranger were before him.

‘I shall answer no question whatever,’ Monica replied. ‘All I want is to leave your house, and never see you again.’

He regretted what he had done. The result of the first day’s espionage being a piece of evidence so incomplete, he had hoped to command himself until more solid proof of his wife’s guilt were forthcoming. But jealousy was too strong for such prudence, and the sight of Monica as she uttered her falsehood made a mere madman of him. Predisposed to believe a story of this kind, he could not reason as he might have done if fear of Barfoot had never entered his thoughts. The whole course of dishonour seemed so clear; he traced it from Monica’s earliest meetings with Barfoot at Chelsea. Wavering between the impulse to cast off his wife with every circumstance of public shame, and the piteous desire to arrest her on her path of destruction, he rushed into a middle course, compatible with neither of these intentions. If at this stage he chose to tell Monica what had come to his knowledge, it should have been done with the sternest calm, with dignity capable of shaming her guilt. As it was, he had spoilt his chances in every direction. Perhaps Monica understood this; he had begun to esteem her a mistress in craft and intrigue.

‘You say you were never at that man’s rooms before today?’ he asked in a lower voice.

‘What I have said you must take the trouble to recollect. I shall answer no question.’

Again the impulse assailed him to wring confession from her by terror. He took a step forward, the demon in his face. Monica in that moment leapt past him, and reached the door of the room before he could stop her.

‘Stay where you are!’ she cried, ‘If your hands touch me again I shall call for help until someone comes up. I won’t endure your touch!’

‘Do you pretend you are innocent of any crime against me?’

‘I am not what you called me. Explain everything as you like. I will explain nothing. I want only to be free from you.’

She opened the door, rapidly crossed the landing, and went upstairs. Feeling it was useless to follow, Widdowson allowed the door to remain wide, and waited. Five minutes passed and Monica came down again, dressed for leaving the house.

‘Where are you going?’ he asked, stepping out of the room to intercept her.

‘It is nothing to you. I am going away.’

They subdued their voices, which might else have been audible to the servants below.

‘No, that you shall not!’

He stepped forward to block the head of the stairs, but again Monica was too quick for him. She fled down, and across the hall, and to the house-door. Only there, as she was arrested by the difficulty of drawing back the two latches, did Widdowson overtake her.

‘Make what scandal you like, you don’t leave this house.’

His tones were violent rather than resolute. What could he do? If Monica persisted, what means had he of confining her to the house — short of carrying her by main force to an upper room and there locking her in? He knew that his courage would not sustain him through such a task as this.

‘For scandal I care nothing,’ was her reply. ‘One way or another I will leave the house.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘To my sister’s.’

His hand on the door, Widdowson stood as if determined in opposition. But her will was stronger than his. Only by homicide can a man maintain his dignity in a situation of this kind; Widdowson could not kill his wife, and every moment that he stood there made him more ridiculous, more contemptible.

He turned back into the hall and reached his hat. Whilst he was doing so Monica opened the door. Heavy rain was falling, but she paid no heed to it. In a moment Widdowson hastened after her, careless, he too, of the descending floods. Her way was towards the railway station, but the driver of a cab chancing to attract her notice, she accepted the man’s offer, and bade him drive to Lavender Hill.

On the first opportunity Widdowson took like refuge from the rain, and was driven in the same direction. He alighted not far from Mrs. Conisbee’s house. That Monica had come hither he felt no doubt, but he would presently make sure of it. As it still rained he sought shelter in a public-house, where he quenched a painful thirst, and then satisfied his hunger with such primitive foods as a licensed victualler is disposed to vend. It was nearing eleven o’clock, and he had neither eaten nor drunk since luncheon.

After that he walked to Mrs. Conisbee’s, and knocked at the door. The landlady came.

‘Will you please to tell me,’ he asked ‘whether Mrs. Widdowson is here?’

The sly curiosity of the woman’s face informed him at once that she saw something unusual in these circumstances.

‘Yes, sir. Mrs. Widdowson is with her sister,’

‘Thank you.’

Without another word he departed. But went only a short distance, and until midnight kept Mrs. Conisbee’s door in view. The rain fell, the air was raw; shelterless, and often shivering with fever, Widdowson walked the pavement with a constable’s regularity. He could not but remember the many nights when he thus kept watch in Walworth Road and in Rutland Street, with jealousy, then too, burning in his heart, but also with amorous ardours, never again to be revived. A little more than twelve months ago! And he had waited, longed for marriage through half a lifetime.

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