The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 27

The Reascent

Whilst the rain pelted, and it did so until afternoon, Rhoda sat in her little parlour, no whit less miserable than Barfoot imagined. She could not be sure whether Everard had gone to London; at the last moment reflection or emotion might have detained him. Early in the morning she had sent to post a letter for Miss Barfoot, written last night — a letter which made no revelation of her feelings, but merely expressed a cold curiosity to hear anything that might become known as to the course of Mr. Widdowson’s domestic troubles. ‘You may still write to this address; if I leave, letters shall be forwarded.’

When the sky cleared she went out. In the evening she again rambled about the shore. Evidently Barfoot had gone; if still here, he would have watched and joined her.

Her solitude now grew insufferable, yet she could not decide whither to betake herself. The temptation to return to London was very strong, but pride prevailed against it. Everard might perhaps go to see his cousin, and relate all that had happened at Seascale, justifying himself as he had here done. Whether Miss Barfoot became aware of the story or not, Rhoda could not reconcile it with her self-respect to curtail the stipulated three weeks of holiday. Rather she would strain her nerves to the last point of endurance — and if she were not suffering, then never did woman suffer.

Another cheerless day helped her to make up her mind. She cared nothing now for lake and mountain; human companionship was her supreme need. By the earliest train next day she started, not for London, but for her brother’s home in Somerset, and there she remained until it was time to return to work. Miss Barfoot wrote twice in the interval, saying that she had heard nothing more of Monica. Of Everard she made no mention.

Rhoda got back again to Chelsea on the appointed Saturday afternoon. Miss Barfoot knew when she would arrive, but was not at home to meet her, and did not return till a couple of hours had passed. They met at length as if nothing remarkable had occurred during the three weeks. Mary, if she felt any solicitude, effectually concealed it; Rhoda talked as if very glad to be at home again, explaining her desertion of the lake country by the bad weather that prevailed there. It was not till after dinner that the inevitable subject came up between them.

‘Have you seen Everard since you went away?’ Miss Barfoot began by asking.

So he had not been here to tell his story and plead his cause — or it seemed not.

‘Yes, I saw him at Seascale,’ Rhoda replied, without sign of emotion.

‘Before or after that news came?’

‘Both before and after. I showed him your letter, and all he had to say was that he knew nothing of the affair.’

‘That’s all he has to say to me. I haven’t seen him. A letter I sent to his address was answered, after a week, from a place I never heard of — Arromanches, in Normandy. The shortest and rudest letter I ever had from him. Practically he told me to mind my own business. And there things stand.’

Rhoda smiled a little, conscious of the extreme curiosity her friend must be feeling, and determined not to gratify it. For by this time, though her sunken cheeks were hard to reconcile with the enjoyment of a summer holiday, she had matured a resolve to betray nothing of what she had gone through. Her state of mind resembled that of the ascetic who has arrived at a morbid delight in self-torture. She regarded the world with an intense bitterness, and persuaded herself not only that the thought of Everard Barfoot was hateful to her soul, but that sexual love had become, and would ever be, to her an impure idea, a vice of blood.

‘I suppose,’ she said carelessly, ‘Mr. Widdowson will try to divorce his wife.’

‘I am in dread of that. But they may have made it up.’

‘Of course you have no doubt of her guilt?’

Mary tried to understand the hard, austere face, with its touch of cynicism. Conjecture as to its meaning was not difficult, but, in the utter absence of information, certainty there could be none. Under any circumstances, it was to be expected that Rhoda would think and speak of Mrs. Widdowson no less severely than of the errant Bella Royston.

‘I have some doubt,’ was Miss Barfoot’s answer. ‘But I should be glad of some one else’s favourable opinion to help my charity.’

‘Miss Madden hasn’t been here, you see. She certainly would have come if she had felt convinced that her sister was wronged.’

‘Unless a day or two saw the end of the trouble — when naturally none of them would say any more about it.’

This was the possibility which occupied Rhoda’s reflections as long as she lay awake that night.

Her feelings on entering the familiar bedroom were very strange. Even before starting for her holiday she had bidden it good-bye, and at Seascale, that night following upon the “perfect day,” she had thought of it as a part of her past life, a place abandoned for ever, already infinitely remote. Her first sensation when she looked upon the white bed was one of disgust; she thought it would be impossible to use this room henceforth, and that she must ask Miss Barfoot to let her change to another. Tonight she did not restore any of the ornaments which were lying packed up. The scent of the room revived so many hours of conflict, of hope, that it caused her a sick faintness. In frenzy of detestation she cursed the man who had so disturbed and sullied the swift, pure stream of her life.


Arromanches, in Normandy —? On Sunday she sought the name on a map, but it was not marked, being doubtless too insignificant. Improbable that he had gone to such a place alone; he was enjoying himself with friends, careless what became of her. Having allowed all this time to go by he would never seek her again. He found that her will was the equal of his own, and, as he could not rule her, she was numbered among the women who had afforded him interesting experiences, to be thought of seriously no more.

During the next week she threw herself with energy upon her work, stifling the repugnance with which at first it affected her, and seeming at length to recover the old enthusiasm. This was the only way of salvation. Idleness and absence of purpose would soon degrade her in a sense she had never dreamt of. She made a plan of daily occupation, which by leaving not a vacant moment from early morning to late at night, should give her the sleep of utter weariness. New studies were begun in the hour or two before breakfast. She even restricted her diet, and ate only just enough to support life, rejecting wine and everything that was most agreeable to her palate.

She desired to speak privately with Mildred Vesper, and opportunity might have been made, but, as part of her scheme of self-subdual, this conversation was postponed until the second week. It took place one evening when work was over.

‘I have been wanting to ask you,’ Rhoda began, ‘whether you have any news of Mrs. Widdowson.’

‘I wrote to her not long ago, and she answered from a new address. She said she had left her husband and would never go back to him.’

Rhoda nodded gravely.

‘Then what I had heard was true. You haven’t seen her?’

‘She asked me not to come. She is living with her sister.’

‘Did she give you any reason for the separation from her husband?’

‘None,’ answered Mildred. ‘But she said it was no secret; that every one knew. That’s why I haven’t spoken to you about it — as I should have done otherwise after our last conversation.’

‘The fact is no secret,’ said Rhoda coldly. ‘But why will she offer no explanation?’

Mildred shook her head, signifying inability to make any satisfactory reply, and there the dialogue ended; for Rhoda could not proceed in it without appearing to encourage scandal. The hope of eliciting some suggestive information had failed; but whether Mildred had really disclosed all she knew seemed doubtful.

At the end of the week Miss Barfoot left home for her own holiday; she was going to Scotland, and would be away for nearly the whole of September. At this time of the year the work in Great Portland Street was very light; not much employment offered for the typewriters, and the pupils numbered only about half a dozen. Nevertheless, it pleased Rhoda to have the establishment under her sole direction; she desired authority, and by magnifying the importance of that which now fell into her hands, she endeavoured to sustain herself under the secret misery which, for all her efforts, weighed no less upon her as time went on. It was a dreary make-believe. On the first night of solitude at Chelsea she shed bitter tears; and not only wept, but agonized in mute frenzy, the passions of her flesh torturing her until she thought of death as a refuge. Now she whispered the name of her lover with every word and phrase of endearment that her heart could suggest; the next moment she cursed him with the fury of deadliest hatred. In the half-delirium of sleeplessness, she revolved wild, impossible schemes for revenging herself, or, as the mood changed, all but resolved to sacrifice everything to her love, to accuse herself of ignoble jealousy and entreat forgiveness. Of many woeful nights this was the worst she had yet suffered.

It recalled to her with much vividness a memory of girlhood, or indeed of childhood. She thought of that figure in the dim past, that rugged, harsh-featured man, who had given her the first suggestion of independence; thrice her own age, yet the inspirer of such tumultuous emotion in her ignorant heart; her friend at Clevedon — Mr. Smithson. A question from Mary Barfoot had caused her to glance back at him across the years, but only for an instant, and with self-mockery. What she now endured was the ripe intensity of a woe that fell upon her, at fifteen, when Mr. Smithson passed from her sight and away for ever. Childish folly! but the misery of it, the tossing at night, the blank outlook! How contemptible to revive such sensations, with mature intellect, after so long and stern a discipline!

Dreading the Sunday, so terrible in its depressing effect upon the lonely and unhappy, she breakfasted as soon as possible, and left home — simply to walk, to exert herself physically, that fatigue and sleep might follow. There was a dull sky, but no immediate fear of rain; the weather brightened a little towards noon. Careless of the direction, she walked on and on until the last maddening church bell had ceased its clangour; she was far out in the western suburbs, and weariness began to check her quick pace. Then she turned back. Without intending it, she passed by Mrs. Cosgrove’s house, or rather would have passed, when she saw Mrs. Cosgrove at the dining-room window making signs to her. In a moment the door opened and she went in. She was glad of this accident, for the social lady might have something to tell about Mrs. Widdowson, who often visited her.

‘In mercy, come and talk to me!’ exclaimed Mrs. Cosgrove. ‘I am quite alone, and feel as if I could hang myself. Are you obliged to go anywhere?’

‘No. I was having a walk.’

‘A walk? What astonishing energy! It never occurs to me to take a walk in London. I came from the country last night and expected to find my sister here, but she won’t arrive till Tuesday. I have been standing at the window for an hour, getting crazy with ennui.’

They went to the drawing-room. It was not long before Mrs. Cosgrove made an allusion which enabled Rhoda to speak of Mrs. Widdowson. For a month or more Mrs. Cosgrove had seen and heard nothing of her; she had been out of town all the time. Rhoda hesitated, but could not keep silence on the subject that had become a morbid preoccupation of her mind. She told as much as she knew — excepting the suspicion against Everard Barfoot.

‘It doesn’t in the least surprise me,’ said the listener, with interest. ‘I saw they wouldn’t be able to live together very well. Without children the thing was impossible. Of course she has told you all about it?’

‘I haven’t seen her since it happened.’

‘Do you know, I always have a distinct feeling of pleasure when I hear of married people parting. How horrible that would seem to some of our good friends! But it isn’t a malicious pleasure; there’s nothing personal in it. As I have told you before, I think, I led a very contented life with my husband. But marriage in general is such a humbug — you forgive the word.’

‘Of course it is,’ assented Rhoda, laughing with forced gaiety.

‘I am glad of anything that seems to threaten it as an institution — in its present form. A scandalous divorce case is a delight to me — anything that makes it evident how much misery would be spared if we could civilize ourselves in this respect. There are women whose conduct I think personally detestable, and whom yet I can’t help thanking for their assault upon social laws. We shall have to go through a stage of anarchy, you know, before reconstruction begins. Yes, in that sense I am an anarchist. Seriously, I believe if a few men and women in prominent position would contract marriage of the free kind, without priest or lawyer, open and defiantly, they would do more benefit to their kind than in any other possible way. I don’t declare this opinion to every one, but only because I am a coward. Whatever one believes with heart and soul one ought to make known.’

Rhoda wore a look of anxious reflection.

‘It needs a great deal of courage,’ she said. ‘To take that step, I mean.’

‘Of course. We need martyrs. And yet I doubt whether the martyrdom would be very long, or very trying, to intellectual people. A woman of brains who boldly acted upon her conviction would have no lack of congenial society. The best people are getting more liberal than they care to confess to each other. Wait until some one puts the matter to the test and you will see.’

Rhoda became so busy with her tumultuous thoughts that she spoke only a word now and then, allowing Mrs. Cosgrove to talk at large on this engrossing theme.

‘Where is Mrs. Widdowson living?’ the revolutionist at length inquired.

‘I don’t know. But I can get you her address.’

‘Pray do. I shall go and see her. We are quite friendly enough for me to do so without impertinence.’

Having lunched with her acquaintance, Rhoda went in the afternoon to Mildred Vesper’s lodgings. Miss Vesper was at home, reading, in her usual placid mood. She gave Rhoda the address that was on Mrs. Widdowson’s last brief note, and that evening Rhoda sent it to Mrs. Cosgrove by letter.

In two days she received a reply. Mrs. Cosgrove had called upon Mrs. Widdowson at her lodgings at Clapham. ‘She is ill, wretched, and unwilling to talk. I could only stay about a quarter of an hour, and to ask questions was impossible. She mentioned your name, and appeared very anxious to hear about you; but when I asked whether she would like you to call she grew timid all at once, and said she hoped you wouldn’t unless you really desired to see her. Poor thing! Of course I don’t know what it all means, but I came away with maledictions on marriage in my heart — one is always safe in indulging that feeling.’

A week or so after this there arrived for Miss Barfoot a letter from Everard. The postmark was Ostend.

Never before had Rhoda been tempted to commit a break of confidence such as in any one else she would have scorned beyond measure. She had heard, of course, of people secretly opening letters with the help of steam; whether it could be done with absolute security from detection she did not feel sure, but her thoughts dwelt on the subject for several hours. It was terrible to hold this letter of Everard’s writing, and yet be obliged to send it away without knowledge of the contents, which perhaps gravely concerned her. She could not ask Miss Barfoot to let her know what Everard had written. The information might perhaps be voluntarily granted; but perhaps not.

To steam the back of the envelope — would it not leave marks, a rumpling or discoloration? Even to be suspected of such dishonour would be more bitter to her than death. Could she even think of it? How she was degraded by this hateful passion, which wrought in her like a disease!

With two others which that day had arrived she put the letter into a large envelope, and so dispatched it. But no satisfaction rewarded her; her heart raged against the world, against every law of life.

When, in a few days, a letter came to her from Miss Barfoot, she tore it Open, and there — yes, there was Everard’s handwriting. Mary had sent the communication for her to read.

‘DEAR COUSIN MARY— After all I was rather too grumpy In my last note to you. But my patience had been desperately tried. I have gone through a good deal; now at last I am recovering sanity, and can admit that you had no choice but to ask those questions. I know and care nothing about Mrs. Widdowson. By her eccentric behaviour she either did me a great injury or a great service, I’m not quite sure which, but I incline to the latter view. Here is a conundrum — not very difficult to solve, I dare say.

‘Do you know anything about Arromanches? A very quiet little spot on the Normandy coast. You get to it by an hour’s coach from Bayeux. Not infested by English. I went there on an invitation from the Brissendens; who discovered the place last year. Excellent people these. I like them better the more I know of them. A great deal of quiet liberality — even extreme liberality — in the two girls. They would suit you, I am sure. Well instructed. Agnes, the younger, reads half a dozen languages, and shames me by her knowledge of all sorts of things. And yet delightfully feminine.

‘As they were going to Ostend I thought I might as well follow them, and we continue to see each other pretty frequently.

‘By-the-bye, I shall have to find new quarters if I come back to London. The engineer, back from Italy after a longer absence than he anticipated, wants his flat, and of course must have it. But then I may not come back at all, except to gather my traps. I shall not call on you, unless I have heard that you don’t doubt the assurance I have now twice given. — Your profligate relative,

E. B.’

‘I think,’ wrote Mary, ‘that we may safely believe him. Such a lie would be too bad; he is incapable of it. Remember, I have never charged him with falsehood. I shall write and tell him that I accept his word. Has it, or has it not, occurred to you to see Mrs. Widdowson herself? Or, if there are insuperable objections, why not see Miss Madden? We talk to each other in a sort of cypher, dear Rhoda. Well, I desire nothing but your good, as I think you know, and you must decide for yourself where that good lies.’

Everard’s letter put Rhoda beside herself with wrath. In writing it he knew it would come into her hands; he hoped to sting her with jealousy. So Mrs. Widdowson had done him a service. He was free to devote himself to Agnes Brissenden, with her six languages, her extreme liberality, her feminine charm.

If she could not crush out her love for this man she would poison herself — as she had so often decided she would do if ever some hopeless malady, such as cancer, took hold upon her  —

And be content to feed his vanity? To give him the lifelong reflection that, for love of him, a woman excelled by few in qualities of brain and heart had died like a rat?

She walked about the rooms, here and there, upstairs and downstairs, in a fever of unrest. After all, was he not behaving in the very way she ought to desire? Was he not helping her to hate him? He struck at her with unmanly blows, thinking, no doubt, to quell her pride, and bring her to him in prostrate humility. Never! Even if it were proved in the clearest way that she ought to have believed him she would make no submission. If he loved her he must woo once more.

But the suggestion in Mary’s letter was not fruitless. When she had thought over it for a day or two she wrote to Virginia Madden, asking her as a favour to come to Queen’s Road on Saturday afternoon. Virginia quickly replied with a promise to call, and punctually kept the engagement. Though she was much better dressed than in the days previous to Monica’s marriage, she had lost something for which costume could not compensate: her face had no longer that unmistakable refinement which had been wont to make her attire a secondary consideration. A disagreeable redness tinged her eyelids and the lower part of her nose; her mouth was growing coarse and lax, the under-lip hanging a little; she smiled with a shrinking, apologetic shyness only seen in people who have done something to be ashamed of — smiled even when she was endeavouring to look sorrowful; and her glance was furtive. She sat down on the edge of a chair, like an anxious applicant for work or charity, and a moistness of the eyes, which obliged her to use her handkerchief frequently, strengthened this resemblance.

Rhoda could not play at smooth phrases with this poor, dispirited woman, whose change during the last few years, and especially during the last twelve months, had often occupied her thoughts in a very unpleasant way. She came almost at once to the subject of their interview.

‘Why have you not been to see me before this?’

‘I— really couldn’t. The circumstances — everything is so very painful. You know — of course you know what has happened?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘How,’ asked Virginia timidly, ‘did the news first of all reach you?’

‘Mr. Widdowson came here and told Miss Barfoot everything.’

‘He came? We didn’t know that. Then you have heard the accusation he makes?’

‘Everything.’

‘It is quite unfounded, I do assure you. Monica is not guilty. The poor child has done nothing — it was an indiscretion — nothing more than indiscretion —’

‘I am very anxious to believe it. Can you give me certainty? Can you explain Monica’s behaviour — not only on that one occasion, but the deceit she practised at other times? Her husband told Miss Barfoot that she had frequently told him untruths — such as saying that she called here when she certainly did not.’

‘I can’t explain that,’ lamented Virginia. ‘Monica won’t tell me why she concealed her movements.’

‘Then how can you ask me to believe your assurance that she isn’t guilty?’

The sternness of this question caused Virginia to redden and become utterly disconcerted. She dropped her handkerchief, fumbled for it, breathed hard.

‘Oh, Miss Nunn! How can you think Monica —? You know her better; I’m sure you do!’

‘Any human being may commit a crime,’ said the other impatiently, exasperated by what seemed to be merely new evidence against Barfoot. ‘Who knows any one well enough to say that a charge must be unfounded?’

Miss Madden began to sob.

‘I’m afraid that is true. But my sister — my dear sister —’

‘I didn’t want to distress you. Do command yourself, and let us talk about it calmly.’

‘Yes — I will — I shall be so glad to talk about it with you. Oh, if I could persuade her to return to her husband! He is willing to receive her. I meet him very often on Clapham Common, and — We are living at his expense. When Monica had been with me in my old lodgings for about a week he took these new rooms for us, and Monica consented to remove. But she won’t hear of going back to live with him. He has offered to let us have the house to ourselves, but it’s no use. He writes to her, but she won’t reply. Do you know that he has taken a house at Clevedon — a beautiful house? They were to go to it in a week or two, and Alice and I would have gone to share it with them — then this dreadful thing happened. And Mr. Widdowson doesn’t even insist on her telling him what she keeps secret. He is willing to take her back under any circumstances. And she is so ill —’

Virginia broke off, as if there were something more that she did not venture to impart. Her cheeks coloured, and she looked distressfully about the room.

‘Seriously ill, do you mean?’ inquired Rhoda, with difficulty softening her voice.

‘She gets up each day, but I’m often afraid that — She has had fainting fits —’

Rhoda gazed at the speaker with pitiless scrutiny.

‘What can have caused this? Is it the result of her being falsely accused?’

‘Partly that. But —’

Suddenly Virginia rose, stepped to Rhoda’s side, and whispered a word or two. Rhoda turned pale; her eyes glared fiercely.

‘And still you believe her innocent?’

‘She has sworn to me that she is innocent. She says that she has a proof of it which I shall see some day — and her husband also. A presentiment has fixed itself in her mind that she can’t live, and before the end she will tell everything.’

‘Her husband knows of this, of course — of what you have told me?’

‘No. She has forbidden me to say anything — and how could I, Miss Nunn? She has made me promise solemnly that he shall not be told. I haven’t even told Alice. But she will know very soon. At the end of September she leaves her place, and will come to London to be with us — for a time at all events. We do so hope that we shall succeed in persuading Monica to go to the house at Clevedon. Mr. Widdowson is keeping it, and will move the furniture from Herne Hill at any moment. Couldn’t you help us, dear Miss Nunn? Monica would listen to you; I am sure she would.’

‘I’m afraid I can be of no use,’ Rhoda answered coldly.

‘She has been hoping to see you.’

‘She has said so?’

‘Not in so many words — but I am sure she wishes to see you. She has asked about you several times, and when your note came she was very pleased. It would be a great kindness to us —’

‘Does she declare that she will never return to her husband?’

‘Yes — I am sorry to say she does. But the poor child believes that she has only a short time to live. Nothing will shake her presentiment. “I shall die, and give no more trouble”— that’s what she always says to me. And a conviction of that kind is so likely to fulfil itself. She never leaves the house, and of course that is very wrong; she ought to go out every day. She won’t see a medical man.’

‘Has Mr. Widdowson given her any cause for disliking him?’ Rhoda inquired.

‘He was dreadfully violent when he discovered — I’m afraid it was natural — he thought the worst of her, and he has always been so devoted to Monica. She says he seemed on the point of killing her. He is a man of very severe nature, I have always thought. He never could bear that Monica should go anywhere alone. They were very, very unhappy, I’m afraid — so ill-matched in almost every respect. Still, under the circumstances — surely she ought to return to him?’

‘I can’t say. I don’t know.’

Rhoda’s voice signified a conflict of feeling. Had she been disinterested her opinion would not have wavered for a moment; she would have declared that the wife’s inclination must be the only law in such a case. As it was, she could only regard Monica with profound mistrust and repugnance. The story of decisive evidence kept back seemed to her only a weak woman’s falsehood — a fiction due to shame and despair. Undoubtedly it would give some vague relief to her mind if Monica were persuaded to go to Clevedon, but she could not bring herself to think of visiting the suffering woman. Whatever the end might be, she would have not part in bringing it about. Her dignity, her pride, should remain unsullied by such hateful contact.

‘I mustn’t stay longer,’ said Virginia, rising after a painful silence. ‘I am always afraid to be away from her even for an hour; the fear of dreadful things that might happen haunts me day and night. How glad I shall be when Alice comes!’

Rhoda had no words of sympathy. Her commiseration for Virginia was only such as she might have felt for any stranger involved in sordid troubles; all the old friendliness had vanished. Nor would she have been greatly shocked or astonished had she followed Miss Madden on the way to the railway station and seen her, after a glance up and down the street, turn quickly into a public-house, and come forth again holding her handkerchief to her lips. A feeble, purposeless, hopeless woman; type of a whole class; living only to deteriorate  —

Will! Purpose! Was she not in danger of forgetting these watchwords, which had guided her life out of youth into maturity? That poor creature’s unhappiness was doubtless in great measure due to the conviction that in missing love and marriage she had missed everything. So thought the average woman, and in her darkest hours she too had fallen among those poor of spirit, the flesh prevailing. But the soul in her had not finally succumbed. Passion had a new significance; her conception of life was larger, more liberal; she made no vows to crush the natural instincts. But her conscience, her sincerity should not suffer. Wherever destiny might lead, she would still be the same proud and independent woman, responsible only to herself, fulfilling the nobler laws of her existence.

A day or two after this she had guests to dine with her — Mildred Vesper and Winifred Haven. Among the girls whom she had helped to educate, these two seemed by far the most self-reliant, the most courageous and hopeful. In minor details of character they differed widely, and intellectually Miss Haven was far in advance. Rhoda had a strong desire to observe them as they talked about the most various subjects; she knew them well, but hoped to find in them some new suggestion of womanly force which would be of help to her in her own struggle for redemption.

It was seldom that either of them ailed anything. Mildred still showed traces of her country breeding; she was the more robust, walked with a heavier step, had less polish of manner. Under strain of any kind Winifred’s health would sooner give way, but her natural vivacity promised long resistance to oppressing influences. Mildred had worked harder, and amid privations of which the other girl knew nothing. She would never distinguish herself, but it was difficult indeed to imagine her repining so long as she had her strength and her congenial friends. Twenty years hence, in all probability, she would keep the same clear, steady eye, the same honest smile, and the same dry humour in her talk. Winifred was more likely to traverse a latitude of storm. For one thing, her social position brought her in the way of men who might fall in love with her, whereas Mildred lived absolutely apart from the male world; doubtless, too, her passions were stronger. She loved literature, spent as much time as possible in study, and had set her mind upon helping to establish that ideal woman’s paper of which there was often talk at Miss Barfoot’s.

In this company Rhoda felt her old ambitions regaining their power over her. To these girls she was an exemplar; it made her smile to think how little they could dream of what she had experienced during the last few weeks; if ever a moment of discontent assailed them, they must naturally think of her, of the brave, encouraging words she had so often spoken. For a moment she had deserted them, abandoning a course which her reason steadily approved for one that was beset with perils of indignity. It would shame her if they knew the whole truth — and yet she wished it were possible for them to learn that she had been passionately wooed. A contemptible impulse of vanity; away with it!

There was a chance, it seemed to her, that during Miss Barfoot’s absence Everard might come to the house. Mary had written to him; he would know that she was away. What better opportunity, if he had not dismissed her memory from his thoughts?

Every evening she made herself ready to receive a possible visitor. She took thought for her appearance. But the weeks passed by, Miss Barfoot returned, and Everard had given no sign.

She would set a date, a limit. If before Christmas he neither came nor wrote all was at an end; after that she would not see him, whatever his plea. And having persuaded herself that this decision was irrevocable, she thought it as well to gratify Miss Barfoot’s curiosity, for by now she felt able to relate what had happened in Cumberland with a certain satisfaction — the feeling she had foreseen when, in the beginning of her acquaintance with Everard, it flattered her to observe his growing interest. Her narrative, to which Mary listened with downcast eyes, presented the outlines of the story veraciously; she told of Everard’s wish to dispense with the legal bond, of her own indecision, and of the issue.

‘When your letter came, could I very well have acted otherwise than I did? It was not a flat refusal to believe him; all I asked was that things should be cleared up before our marriage. For his own sake he ought to have willingly agreed to that. He preferred to take my request as an insult. His unreasonable anger made me angry too. And now I don’t think we shall ever meet again unless as mere acquaintances.’

‘I think,’ commented the listener, ‘that he behaved with extraordinary impudence.’

‘In the first proposal? But I myself attach no importance to the marriage ceremony.’

‘Then why did you insist upon it?’ asked Mary, with a smile that might have become sarcastic but that her eye met Rhoda’s.

‘Would you have received us?’

‘In the one case as readily as in the other.’

Rhoda was silent and darkly thoughtful.

‘Perhaps I never felt entire confidence in him.’

Mary smiled and sighed.

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