The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 26

The Unideal Tested

And neither was content.

Barfoot, over his cigar and glass of whisky at the hotel, fell into a mood of chagrin. The woman he loved would be his, and there was matter enough for ardent imagination in the indulgence of that thought; but his temper disturbed him. After all, he had not triumphed. As usual the woman had her way. She played upon his senses, and made him her obedient slave. To prolong the conflict would have availed nothing; Rhoda, doubtless, was in part actuated by the desire to conquer, and she knew her power over him. So it was a mere repetition of the old story — a marriage like any other. And how would it result?

She had great qualities; but was there not much in her that he must subdue, reform, if they were really to spend their lives together? Her energy of domination perhaps excelled his. Such a woman might be unable to concede him the liberty in marriage which theoretically she granted to be just. Perhaps she would torment him with restless jealousies, suspecting on every trivial occasion an infringement of her right. From that point of view it would have been far wiser to persist in rejecting legal marriage, that her dependence upon him might be more complete. Later, if all went well, the concession could have been made — if, for instance, she became a mother. But then returned the exasperating thought that Rhoda had overcome his will. Was not that a beginning of evil augury?

To be sure, after marriage their relations would be different. He would not then be at the mercy of his senses. But how miserable to anticipate a long, perhaps bitter, struggle for predominance. After all, that could hardly come about. The commencement of any such discord would be the signal for separation. His wealth assured his freedom. He was not like the poor devils who must perforce live with an intolerable woman because they cannot support themselves and their families in different places. Need he entertain that worst of fears — the dread that his independence might fail him, subdued by his wife’s will?

Free as he boasted himself from lover’s silliness, he had magnified Rhoda’s image. She was not the glorious rebel he had pictured. Like any other woman, she mistrusted her love without the sanction of society. Well, that was something relinquished, lost. Marriage would after all be a compromise. He had not found his ideal — though in these days it assuredly existed.


And Rhoda, sitting late in the little lodging-house parlour, visited her soul with questionings no less troublesome. Everard was not satisfied with her. He had yielded, perhaps more than half contemptuously, to what he thought a feminine weakness. In going with her to the registrar’s office he would feel himself to be acting an ignoble part. Was it not a bad beginning to rule him against his conscience?

She had triumphed splendidly. In the world’s eye this marriage of hers was far better than any she could reasonably have hoped, and her heart approved it with rapture. At a stage in life when she had sternly reconciled herself never to know a man’s love, this love had sought her with passionate persistency of which even a beautiful young girl might feel proud. She had no beauty; she was loved for her mind, her very self. But must not Everard’s conception of her have suffered? In winning her had he obtained the woman of his desire?

Why was she not more politic? Would it not have been possible to gratify him, and yet to gain his consent to legal marriage? By first of all complying she would have seemed to confirm all he believed of her; and then, his ardour at height, how simple to point out to him — without entreaty, without show of much concern — that by neglecting formalities they gained absolutely nothing. Artifice of that kind was perhaps demanded by the mere circumstances. Possibly he himself would have welcomed it — after the grateful sense of inspiring such complete devotion. It is the woman’s part to exercise tact; she had proved herself lamentably deficient in that quality.

To-morrow she must study his manner. If she discerned any serious change, any grave indication of disappointment  —

What was her life to be? At first they would travel together; but before long it might be necessary to have a settled home, and what then would be her social position, her duties and pleasures? Housekeeping, mere domesticities, could never occupy her for more than the smallest possible part of each day. Having lost one purpose in life, dignified, absorbing, likely to extend its sphere as time went on, what other could she hope to substitute for it?

Love of husband — perhaps of child. There must be more than that. Rhoda did not deceive herself as to the requirements of her nature. Practical activity in some intellectual undertaking; a share — nay, leadership — in some “movement;” contact with the revolutionary life of her time — the impulses of her heart once satisfied, these things would again claim her. But how if Everard resisted such tendencies? Was he in truth capable of respecting her individuality? Or would his strong instinct of lordship urge him to direct his wife as a dependent, to impose upon her his own view of things? She doubted whether he had much genuine sympathy with woman’s emancipation as she understood it. Yet in no particular had her convictions changed; nor would they change. She herself was no longer one of the ‘odd women’; fortune had — or seemed to have — been kind to her; none the less her sense of a mission remained. No longer an example of perfect female independence, and unable therefore to use the same language as before, she might illustrate woman’s claim of equality in marriage. — If her experience proved no obstacle.


Next morning, as had been agreed, they met at some distance from Seascale, and spent two or three hours together. There was little danger in observation unless by a casual peasant; for the most part their privacy could not have been more secure in a locked chamber. Lest curiosity should be excited by his making inquiries at the hotel, Barfoot proposed to walk over to Gosforth, the nearest town, this afternoon, and learn where the registrar for the locality of Seascale might be found. By neither was allusion made to their difference of last evening, but Rhoda distressed herself by imagining a diminished fervour in her companion; he seemed unusually silent and meditative, and was content to hold her hand now and then.

‘Shall you stay here all the week?’ she inquired.

‘If you wish me to.’

‘You will find it wearisome.’

‘Impossible, with you here. But if I run up to London for a day or two it might be better. There are preparations. We shall go first of all to my rooms —’

‘I would rather not have stayed in London.’

‘I thought you might wish to make purchases.’

‘Let us go to some other town, and spend a few days there before leaving England.’

‘Very well. Manchester or Birmingham.’

‘You speak rather impatiently,’ said Rhoda, looking at him with an uneasy smile. ‘Let it be London if you prefer —’

‘On no account. It’s all indifferent to me so long as we get safely away together. Every man is impatient of these preliminaries. Yes, in that case I must of course go up to London. To-morrow, and back on Saturday?’

A shower of rain caused them some discomfort. Through the afternoon it still rained at intervals whilst Barfoot was discharging his business at Gosforth. He was to see Rhoda again at eight o’clock, and as the time threatened to hang heavily on his hands he returned by a long detour, reaching the Seascale hotel about half-past six. No sooner had he entered than there was delivered to him a letter, brought by messenger an hour or two ago. It surprised him to recognize Rhoda’s writing on the envelope, which seemed to contain at least two sheets of notepaper. What now? Some whimsey? Agitated and annoyed by the anticipation of trouble, he went apart and broke the letter open.

First appeared an enclosure — a letter in his cousin Mary’s writing. He turned to the other sheet and read these lines  —

‘I send you something that has come by post this afternoon. Please to bring it with you when you meet me at eight o’clock — if you still care to do so.’

His face flushed with anger. What contemptible woman’s folly was this? ‘If you still care to do so’— and written in a hand that shook. If this was to be his experience of matrimonial engagement — What rubbish had Mary been communicating?

‘My DEAR RHODA— I have just gone through a very painful scene, and I feel bound to let you know of it without delay, as it may concern you. This evening (Monday), when I came home from Great Portland Street, Emma told me that Mr. Widdowson had called, that he wished to see me as soon as possible, and would be here again at six o’clock. He came, and his appearance alarmed me, he was looking so dreadfully ill. Without preface, he said, “My wife has left me; she has gone to her sister, and refuses to return.” This was astonishing in itself, and I wondered still more why he should come and tell me about it in so strange a way. The explanation followed very promptly, and you may judge how I heard it. Mr. Widdowson said that his wife had been behaving very badly of late; that he had discovered several falsehoods she had told him as to her employment during absences from home, in daytime and evening. Having cause for suspecting the worst, he last Saturday engaged a private detective to follow Mrs. Widdowson wherever she went. This man saw her go to the flats in Bayswater where Everard lives and knock at his door. As no one replied, she went away for a time and returned, but again found no one at home. This being at once reported to Mr. Widdowson he asked his wife where she had been that afternoon. The answer was false; she said she had been here, with me. Thereupon he lost command of himself, and charged her with infidelity. She refused to offer any kind of explanation, but denied that she was guilty and at once left the house. Since, she has utterly refused to see him. Her sister can only report that Monica is very ill, and that she charges her husband with accusing her falsely.

‘He had come to me, he said, in unspeakable anguish and helplessness, to ask me whether I had seen anything suspicious in the relations between Monica and my cousin when they met at this house or elsewhere. A nice question! Of course I could only reply that it had never even occurred to me to observe them — that to my knowledge they had met so rarely — and that I should never have dreamt of suspecting Monica. “Yet you see she must be guilty,” he kept on repeating. I said no, that I thought her visit might have an innocent significance, though I couldn’t suggest why she had told falsehoods. Then he inquired what I knew about Everard’s present movements. I answered that I had every reason to think that he was out of town, but didn’t know when he went, or when he might be expected to return. The poor man was grievously dissatisfied; he looked at me as if I were in a base plot against him. It was an immense relief when he went away, after begging me to respect his confidence.

‘I write very hurriedly, as you see. That I ought to write is, I think, clear — though I may be doing lamentable mischief. I cannot credit this charge against Mrs. Widdowson; there must surely be some explanation. If you have already left Seascale, no doubt this letter will be forwarded. — Ever yours, dear Rhoda,

MARY BARFOOT.’

Everard laughed bitterly. The completeness of the case against him in Rhoda’s eyes must be so overwhelming, and his absolute innocence made it exasperating to have to defend himself. How, indeed, was he to defend himself?

The story was strange enough. Could he be right in the interpretation which at once suggested itself to his mind — or perhaps to his vanity? He remembered the meeting with Mrs. Widdowson near his abode on Friday. He recollected, moreover, the signs of interest in himself which, as he now thought, she had shown on previous occasions. Had the poor little woman — doubtless miserable with her husband — actually let herself fall in love with him? But, even in that case, what a reckless thing to do — to come to his rooms! Why, she must have been driven by a despair that blinded her to all sense of delicacy! Perhaps, had he been at home, she would have made a pretence of wishing to speak about Rhoda Nunn. That was imprudent behaviour of his, making such a person his confidante. But he was tempted by his liking for her.

‘By Jove!’ he muttered, overcome by the thought. ‘I’m glad I was not at home!’

But then — he had told her that he was going away on Saturday. How could she expect to find him? The hour of her visit was not stated; probably she hoped to catch him before he left. And was her appearance in the neighbourhood on Friday — her troubled aspect — to be explained as an abortive attempt to have a private interview with him?

The queerest affair — and maddening in its issues! Rhoda was raging with jealousy. Well, he too would rage. And without affectation. It was strange that he felt almost glad of a ground of quarrel with Rhoda. All day he had been in an irritable temper, and so far as he could understand himself it was due to resentment of his last night’s defeat. He though of Rhoda as ardently as ever, but an element that was very like brutality had intruded into his emotions; that was his reason from refraining from caresses this morning; he could not trust himself.

He would endure no absurdities. If Rhoda did not choose to accept his simple assurance — let her take the consequences. Even now, perhaps, he would bring her to her knees before him. Let her wrong him by baseless accusation! Then it would no longer be he who sued for favour. He would whistle her down the wind, and await her penitent reappearance. Sooner or later his pride and hers, the obstinacy in their natures, must battle it out; better that it should be now, before the irrevocable step had been taken.

He ate his dinner with savage appetite, and drank a good deal more wine than of wont. Then he smoked until the last minute of delay that his engagement allowed. Of course she had sent the letter to the hotel because he might be unable to read it in twilight. Wise precaution. And he was glad to have been able to think the matter over, to work himself into reasonable wrath. If ever man did well to be angry —!

There she was, down by the edge of the waves. She would not turn to see if he were coming; he felt sure of that. Whether she heard his footsteps he could not tell. When quite close to her, he exclaimed  —

‘Well, Rhoda?’ She must have known of his approach, for she gave no start.

She faced slowly to him. No trace of tears on her countenance; no, Rhoda was above that. Gravity of the sternest — that was all.

‘Well,’ he continued, ‘what have you to say to me?’

‘I? Nothing.’

‘You mean that it is my business to explain what Mary has told you. I can’t, so there’s an end of it.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ she asked in clear, distant tones.

‘Precisely what I say, Rhoda. And I am obliged to ask what you mean by this odd way of speaking to me. What has happened since we parted this morning?’

Rhoda could not suppress her astonishment; she gazed fixedly at him.

‘If you can’t explain this letter, who can?’

‘I suppose Mrs. Widdowson would be able to account for her doings. I certainly am not able to. And it seems to me that you are strangely forgetful of something that passed between us yesterday.’

‘Of what?’ she asked coldly, her face, which was held proudly up, turning towards the sea.

‘Evidently you accuse me of concealing something from you. Please to remember a certain plain question you asked me, and the equally plain answer I gave.’

He detected the beginning of a smile about her rigid lips.

‘I remember,’ she said.

‘And you can still behave to me with indignation? Surely the indignation should be on my side. You are telling me that I deceived you.’

For a moment Rhoda lost her self-control.

‘How can I help thinking so?’ she exclaimed, with a gesture of misery. ‘What can this letter mean? Why should she go to your rooms?’

‘I simply don’t know, Rhoda.’

He preserved the show of calmness just because he saw that it provoked her to anger.

‘She has never been there before?’

‘Never to my knowledge.’

Rhoda watched his face with greedy attention. She seemed to find there a confirmation of her doubts. Indeed, it was impossible for her to credit his denials after what she had observed in London, and the circumstances which, even before Mary’s letter, had made her suspicious.

‘When did you last see Mrs. Widdowson?’

‘No, I shan’t consent to be cross-examined,’ replied Everard, with a disdainful smile. ‘As soon as you refuse to accept my word it’s folly to ask further questions. You don’t believe me. Say it honestly and let us understand each other.’

‘I have good reason for thinking that you could explain Mrs. Widdowson’s behaviour if you chose.’

‘Exactly. There’s no misunderstanding that. And if I get angry I am an unpardonable brute. Come now, you can’t be offended if I treat you as simply my equal, Rhoda. Let me test your sincerity. Suppose I had seen you talking somewhere with some man who seemed to interest you very much, and then — today, let us say — I heard that he had called upon you when you were alone. I turn with a savage face and accuse you of grossly deceiving me — in the worst sense. What would your answer be?’

‘These are idle suppositions,’ she exclaimed scornfully.

‘But the case is possible, you must admit. I want you to realize what I am feeling. In such a case as that, you could only turn from me with contempt. How else can I behave to you— conscious of my innocence, yet in the nature of things unable to prove it?’

‘Appearances are very strongly against you.’

‘That’s an accident — to me quite unaccountable. If I charged you with dishonour you would only have your word to offer in reply. So it is with me. And my word is bluntly rejected. You try me rather severely.’

Rhoda kept silence.

‘I know what you are thinking. My character was previously none of the best. There is a prejudice against me in such a matter for your good. My record is not immaculate; nor, I believe, is any as this. Well, you shall hear some more plain speech, altogether man’s. I have gone here and there, and have had my adventures like other men. One of them you have heard about — the story of that girl Amy Drake — the subject of Mrs. Goodall’s righteous wrath. You shall know the truth, and if it offends your ears I can’t help it. The girl simply threw herself into my arms, on a railway journey, when we met by pure chance.’

‘I don’t care to hear that,’ said Rhoda, turning away.

‘But you shall hear it. That story has predisposed you to believe the worst things of me. If I hold you by force, you shall hear every word of it. Mary seems to have given you mere dark hints —’

‘No; she has told me the details. I know it all.’

‘From their point of view. Very well; that saves me a lot of narrative. What those good people didn’t understand was the girl’s character. They thought her a helpless innocent; she was a — I’ll spare you the word. She simply planned to get me into her power — thought I should be forced to marry her. It’s the kind of thing that happens far oftener than you would suppose; that’s the reason why men so often smile in what you would call a brutal way when certain stories are told to other men’s discredit. You will have to take this into account, Rhoda, before you reach satisfactory results on the questions that have occupied you so much. I was not in the least responsible for Amy Drake’s desertion of creditable paths. At the worst I behaved foolishly; and knowing I had done so, knowing how thankless it was to try and clear myself at her expense, I let people say what they would; it didn’t matter. And you don’t believe me; I can see you don’t. Sexual pride won’t let you believe me. In such a case the man must necessarily be the villain.’

‘What you mean by saying you only behaved “foolishly,” I can’t understand.’

‘Perhaps not, and I can’t explain as I once did in telling the story to a man, a friend of mine. But however strict your moral ideas, you will admit that a girl of thoroughly bad character isn’t a subject for the outcry that was raised about Miss Amy Drake. By taking a little trouble I could have brought things to light which would have given worthy Mrs. Goodall and cousin Mary a great shock. Well, that’s enough. I have never pretended to sanctity; but, on the other hand, I have never behaved like a scoundrel. You charge me, deliberately, with being a scoundrel, and I defend myself as best I can. You argue that the man who would mislead an innocent girl and then cast her off is more likely than not to be guilty in a case like this of Mrs. Widdowson, when appearances are decidedly against him. There is only my word in each instance. The question is — Will you accept my word?’

For a wonder, their privacy was threatened by the approach of two men who were walking this way from Seascale. Voices in conversation caused Rhoda to look round; Barfoot had already observed the strangers.

‘Let us go up on to the higher sand,’ he said.

Without reply Rhoda accompanied him, and for several minutes they exchanged no word. The men, talking and laughing loudly, went by; they seemed to be tourists of a kind that do not often trouble this quiet spot on the coast; their cigars glowed in the dusk.

‘After all this, what have you to say to me, Rhoda?’

‘Will you please to give me your cousin’s letter?’ she said coldly.

‘Here it is. Now you will go back to your lodgings, and sit with that letter open before you half through the night. You will make yourself unutterably wretched, and all for what?’

He felt himself once more in danger of weakness. Rhoda, in her haughty, resentful mood, was very attractive to him. He was tempted to take her in his arms, and kiss her until she softened, pleaded with him. He wished to see her shed tears. But the voice in which she now spoke to him was far enough from tearfulness.

‘You must prove to me that you have been wrongly suspected.’

Ah, that was to be her line of conduct. She believed her power over him was absolute. She stood on her dignity, would bring him to supplication, would give him all the trouble she could before she professed herself satisfied.

‘How am I to prove it?’ he asked bluntly.

‘If there was nothing wrong between you and Mrs. Widdowson, there must be some very simple explanation of her coming to your rooms and being so anxious to see you.’

‘And is it my business to discover that explanation?’

‘Can it be mine?’

‘It must either be yours, Rhoda, or no one’s. I shall take no single step in the matter.’

The battle was declared. Each stood at full height, pertinacious, resolved on victory.

‘You are putting yourself wildly in the wrong,’ Everard continued. ‘By refusing to take my word you make it impossible for me to hope that we could live together as we imagined.’

The words fell upon her heart like a crushing weight. But she could not yield. Last night she had suffered in his opinion by urging what he thought a weak, womanly scruple; she had condescended to plead tenderly with him, and had won her cause. Now she would prevail in another way. If he were telling the truth, he should acknowledge that natural suspicion made it incumbent upon him to clear so strange a case of its difficulties. If he were guilty of deception, as she still believed, though willing to admit to herself that Monica might be most at fault, that there might have been no actual wrongdoing between them — he should confess with humblest penitence, and beseech pardon. Impossible to take any other attitude. Impossible to marry him with this doubt in her mind — equally out of the question to seek Monica, and humiliate herself by making inquiries on such a subject. Guilty or not, Monica would regard her with secret disdain, with woman’s malice. Were she able to believe him, that indeed would be a grand consummation of their love, an ideal union of heart and soul. Listening to him, she had tried to put faith in his indignant words. But it was useless. The incredulity she could not help must either part them for ever, or be to her an occasion of new triumph.

‘I don’t refuse to take your word,’ she said, with conscious quibbling. ‘I only say that your name must be cleared from suspicion. Mr. Widdowson is sure to tell his story to other people. Why has his wife left him?’

‘I neither know nor care.’

‘You must prove to me that you are not the cause of it.’

‘I shall not make the slightest effort to do so.’

Rhoda began to move away from him. As he kept silence, she walked on in the Seascale direction. He followed at a distance of a few yards, watching her movements. When they had gone so far that five minutes more must bring them within sight of the hotel, Everard spoke.

‘Rhoda!’

She paused and awaited him.

‘You remember that I was going to London tomorrow. It seems that I had better go and not trouble to return.’

‘That is for you to decide.’

‘For you rather.’

‘I have said all that I can say.’

‘And so have I. But surely you must be unconscious how grossly you are insulting me.’

‘I want only to understand what purpose Mrs. Widdowson had in going to your rooms.’

‘Then why not ask her? You are friends. She would doubtless tell you the truth.’

‘If she comes to me voluntarily to make an explanation, I will hear it. But I shall not ask her.’

‘Your view of the fitness of things is that I should request her to wait upon you for that purpose?’

‘There are others who can act for you.’

‘Very well. Then we are at a deadlock. It seems to me that we had better shake hands like sensible people, and say good-bye.’

‘Much better — if it seems so to you.’

The time for emotional help was past. In very truth they had nothing more to say to each other, being now hardened in obstinacy. Each suffered from the other’s coldness, each felt angry with the other’s stubborn refusal to concede a point of dignity. Everard put out his hand.

‘When you are ready to say that you have used me very ill, I shall remember only yesterday. Till then — good-bye, Rhoda.’

She made a show of taking his hand, but said nothing. And so they parted.


At eight o’clock next morning Barfoot was seated in the southward train. He rejoiced that his strength of will had thus far asserted itself. Of final farewell to Rhoda he had no thought whatever. Her curiosity would, of course, compel her to see Monica; one way or another she would learn that he was blameless. His part was to keep aloof from her, and to wait for her inevitable submission.

Violent rain was beating upon the carriage windows; it drove from the mountains, themselves invisible, though dense low clouds marked their position. Poor Rhoda! She would not have a very cheerful day at Seascale. Perhaps she would follow him by a later train. Certain it was that she must be suffering intensely — and that certainly rejoiced him. The keener her suffering the sooner her submission. Oh, but the submission should be perfect! He had seen her in many moods, but not yet in the anguish of broken pride. She must shed tears before him, declare her spirit worn and subjugated by torment of jealousy and fear. Then he would raise her, and seat her in the place of honour, and fall down at her feet, and fill her soul with rapture.

Many times between Seascale and London he smiled in anticipation of that hour.

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