The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 5

The Casual Acquaintance

At that corner of Battersea Park which is near Albert Bridge there has lain for more than twenty years a curious collection of architectural fragments, chiefly dismembered columns, spread in order upon the ground, and looking like portions of a razed temple. It is the colonnade of old Burlington House, conveyed hither from Piccadilly who knows why, and likely to rest here, the sporting ground for adventurous infants, until its origin is lost in the abyss of time.

It was at this spot that Monica had agreed to meet with her casual acquaintance, Edmund Widdowson, and there, from a distance, she saw his lank, upright, well-dressed figure moving backwards and forwards upon the grass. Even at the last moment Monica doubted whether to approach. Emotional interest in him she had none, and the knowledge of life she had gained in London assured her that in thus encouraging a perfect stranger she was doing a very hazardous thing. But the evening must somehow be spent, and if she went off in another direction it would only be to wander about with an adventurous mind; for her conversation with Miss Nunn had had precisely the opposite effect of that which Rhoda doubtless intended; she felt something of the recklessness which formerly excited her wonder when she remarked it in the other shop-girls. She could no longer be without a male companion, and as she had given her promise to this man  —

He had seen her, and was coming forward. Today he carried a walking-stick, and wore gloves; otherwise his appearance was the same as at Richmond. At the distance of a few yards he raised his hat, not very gracefully. Monica did not offer her hand, nor did Widdowson seem to expect it. But he gave proof of an intense pleasure in the meeting; his sallow cheeks grew warm, and in the many wrinkles about his eyes played a singular smile, good-natured but anxious, apprehensive.

‘I am so glad you were able to come,’ he said in a low voice, bending towards her.

‘It has been even finer than last Sunday,’ was Monica’s rather vague reply, as she glanced at some people who were passing.

‘Yes, a wonderful day. But I only left home an hour ago. Shall we walk this way?’

They went along the path by the river. Widdowson exhibited none of the artifices of gallantry practised by men who are in the habit of picking up an acquaintance with shop-girls. His smile did not return; an extreme sobriety characterized his manner and speech; for the most part he kept his eyes on the ground, and when silent he had the look of one who inwardly debates a grave question.

‘Have you been into the country?’ was one of his first inquiries.

‘No. I spent the morning with my sisters, and in the afternoon I had to see a lady in Chelsea.’

‘Your sisters are older than yourself?’

‘Yes, some years older.’

‘Is it long since you went to live apart from them?’

‘We have never had a home of our own since I was quite a child.’

And, after a moment’s hesitation, she went on to give a brief account of her history. Widdowson listened with the closest attention, his lips twitching now and then, his eyes half closed. But for cheek-bones that were too prominent and nostrils rather too large, he was not ill-featured. No particular force of character declared itself in his countenance, and his mode of speech did not suggest a very active brain. Speculating again about his age, Monica concluded that he must be two or three and forty, in spite of the fact that his grizzled beard argued for a higher figure. He had brown hair untouched by any sign of advanced life, his teeth were white and regular, and something — she could not make clear to her mind exactly what — convinced her that he had a right to judge himself comparatively young.

‘I supposed you were not a Londoner,’ he said, when she came to a pause.

‘How?’

‘Your speech. Not,’ he added quickly, ‘that you have any provincial accent. And even if you had been a Londoner you would not have shown it in that way.’

He seemed to be reproving himself for a blunder, and after a short silence asked in a tone of kindness  —

‘Do you prefer the town?’

‘In some ways — not in all.’

‘I am glad you have relatives here, and friends. So many young ladies come up from the country who are quite alone.’

‘Yes, many.’

Their progress to familiarity could hardly have been slower. Now and then they spoke with a formal coldness which threatened absolute silence. Monica’s brain was so actively at work that she lost consciousness of the people who were moving about them, and at times her companion was scarcely more to her than a voice.

They had walked along the whole front of the park, and were near Chelsea Bridge. Widdowson gazed at the pleasure-boats lying below on the strand, and said diffidently  —

‘Would you care to go on the river?’

The proposal was so unexpected that Monica looked up with a startled air. She had not thought of the man as likely to offer any kind of amusement.

‘It would be pleasant, I think,’ he added. ‘The tide is still running up. We might go very quietly for a mile or two, and be back as soon as you like.’

‘Yes, I should like it.’

He brightened up, and moved with a livelier step. In a few minutes they had chosen their boat, had pushed off, and were gliding to the middle of the broad water. Widdowson managed the sculls without awkwardness, but by no means like a man well trained in this form of exercise. On sitting down, he had taken off his hat, stowed it away, and put on a little travelling-cap, which he drew from his pocket. Monica thought this became him. After all, he was not a companion to be ashamed of. She looked with pleasure at his white hairy hands with their firm grip; then at his boots — very good boots indeed. He had gold links in his white shirt-cuffs, and a gold watch-guard chosen with a gentleman’s taste.

‘I am at your service,’ he said, with an approach to gaiety. ‘Direct me. Shall we go quickly — some distance, or only just a little quicker than the tide would float us?’

‘Which you like. To row much would make you too hot.’

‘You would like to go some distance — I see.’

‘No, no. Do exactly what you like. Of course we must be back in an hour or two.’

He drew out his watch.

‘It’s now ten minutes past six, and there is daylight till nine or after. When do you wish to be home?’

‘Not much later than nine,’ Monica answered, with the insincerity of prudence.

‘Then we will just go quietly along. I wish we could have started early in the afternoon. But that may be for another day, I hope.’

On her lap Monica had the little brown-paper parcel which contained her present. She saw that Widdowson glanced at it from time to time, but she could not bring herself to explain what it was.

‘I was very much afraid that I should not see you today,’ he said, as they glided softly by Chelsea Embankment.

‘But I promised to come if it was fine.’

‘Yes. I feared something might prevent you. You are very kind to give me your company.’ He was looking at the tips of her little boots. ‘I can’t say how I thank you.’

Much embarrassed, Monica could only gaze at one of the sculls, as it rose and fell, the water dripping from it in bright beads.

‘Last year,’ he pursued, ‘I went on the river two or three times, but alone. This year I haven’t been in a boat till today.’

‘You prefer driving?’

‘Oh, it’s only chance. I do drive a good deal, however. I wish it were possible to take you through the splendid country I saw a day or two ago — down in Surrey. Perhaps some day you will let me. I live rather a lonely life, as you see. I have a housekeeper; no relative lives with me. My only relative in London is a sister-inlaw, and we very seldom meet.’

‘But don’t you employ yourself in any way?’

‘I’m very idle. But that’s partly because I have worked very hard and hopelessly all my life — till a year and a half ago. I began to earn my own living when I was fourteen, and now I am forty-four — today.’

‘This is your birthday?’ said Monica, with an odd look the other could not understand.

‘Yes — I only remembered it a few hours ago. Strange that such a treat should have been provided for me. Yes, I am very idle. A year and a half ago my only brother died. He had been very successful in life, and he left me what I regard as a fortune, though it was only a small part of what he had.’

The listener’s heart throbbed. Without intending it, she pulled the tiller so that the boat began to turn towards land.

‘The left hand a little,’ said Widdowson, smiling correctly. ‘That’s right. Many days I don’t leave home. I am fond of reading, and now I make up for all the time lost in years gone by. Do you care for books?’

‘I never read very much, and I feel very ignorant.’

‘But that is only for want of opportunity, I’m sure.’

He glanced at the brown-paper parcel. Acting on an impulse which perturbed her, Monica began to slip off the loosely-tied string, and to unfold the paper.

‘I thought it was a book!’ exclaimed Widdowson merrily, when she had revealed a part of her present.

‘When you told me your name,’ said Monica, ‘I ought perhaps to have told you mine. It’s written here. My sisters gave me this today.’

She offered the little volume. He took it as though it were something fragile, and — the sculls fixed under his elbows — turned to the fly-leaf.

‘What? It is your birthday?’

‘Yes. I am twenty-one.’

‘Will you let me shake hands with you?’ His pressure of her fingers was the lightest possible. ‘Now that’s rather a strange thing — isn’t it? Oh, I remember this book very well, though I haven’t seen it or heard of it for twenty years. My mother used to read it on Sundays. And it is really your birthday? I am more than twice your age, Miss Madden.’

The last remark was uttered anxiously, mournfully. Then, as if to reassure himself by exerting physical strength, he drove the boat along with half a dozen vigorous strokes. Monica was rustling over the pages, but without seeing them.

‘I don’t think,’ said her companion presently, ‘you are very well contented with your life in that house of business.’

‘No, I am not.’

‘I have heard a good deal of the hardships of such a life. Will you tell me something about yours?’

Readily she gave him a sketch of her existence from Sunday to Sunday, but without indignation, and as if the subject had no great interest for her.

‘You must be very strong,’ was Widdowson’s comment.

‘The lady I went to see this afternoon told me I looked ill.’

‘Of course I can see the effects of overwork. My wonder is that you endure it at all. Is that lady an old acquaintance?’

Monica answered with all necessary detail, and went on to mention the proposal that had been made to her. The hearer reflected, and put further questions. Unwilling to speak of the little capital she possessed, Monica told him that her sisters might perhaps help her to live whilst she was learning a new occupation. But Widdowson had become abstracted; he ceased pulling, crossed his arms on the oars, and watched other boats that were near. Two deep wrinkles, rippling in their course, had formed across his forehead, and his eyes widened in a gaze of complete abstraction at the farther shore.

‘Yes,’ fell from him at length, as though in continuation of something he had been saying, ‘I began to earn my bread when I was fourteen. My father was an auctioneer at Brighton. A few years after his marriage he had a bad illness, which left him completely deaf. His partnership with another man was dissolved, and as things went worse and worse with him, my mother started a lodging-house, which somehow supported us for a long time. She was a sensible, good, and brave woman. I’m afraid my father had a good many faults that made her life hard. He was of a violent temper, and of course the deafness didn’t improve it. Well, one day a cab knocked him down in the King’s Road, and from that injury, though not until a year after, he died. There were only two children; I was the elder. My mother couldn’t keep me at school very long, so, at fourteen, I was sent into the office of the man who had been my father’s partner, to serve him and learn the business. I did serve him for years, and for next to no payment, but he taught me nothing more than he could help. He was one of those heartless, utterly selfish men that one meets too often in the business world. I ought never to have been sent there, for my father had always an ill opinion of him; but he pretended a friendly interest in me — just, I am convinced, to make the use of me that he did.’

He was silent, and began rowing again.

‘What happened them?’ asked Monica.

‘I mustn’t make out that I was a faultless boy,’ he continued, with the smile that graved wrinkles about his eyes; ‘quite the opposite. I had a good deal of my father’s temper; I often behaved very badly to my mother; what I needed was some stern but conscientious man to look after me and make me work. In my spare time I lay about on the shore, or got into mischief with other boys. It needed my mother’s death to make a more sensible fellow of me, and by that time it was too late. I mean I was too old to be trained into profitable business habits. Up to nineteen I had been little more than an errand and office boy, and all through the after years I never got a much better position.’

‘I can’t understand that,’ remarked Monica thoughtfully.

‘Why not?’

‘You seem to — to be the kind of man that would make your way.’

‘Do I?’ The description pleased him; he laughed cheerfully. ‘But I never found what my way was to be. I have always hated office work, and business of every kind; yet I could never see an opening in any other direction. I have been all my life a clerk — like so many thousands of other men. Nowadays, if I happen to be in the City when all the clerks are coming away from business, I feel an inexpressible pity for them. I feel I should like to find two or three of the hardest driven, and just divide my superfluous income between. A clerk’s life — a life of the office without any hope of rising — that is a hideous fate!’

‘But your brother got on well. Why didn’t he help you?’

‘We couldn’t agree. We always quarrelled.’

‘Are you really so ill-tempered?’

It was asked in Monica’s most naive tone, with a serious air of investigation which at first confused Widdowson, then made him laugh.

‘Since I was a lad,’ he replied, ‘I have never quarrelled with any one except my brother. I think it’s only very unreasonable people that irritate me. Some men have told me that I was far too easy-going, too good-natured. Certainly I desire to be good-natured. But I don’t easily make friends; as a rule I can’t talk to strangers. I keep so much to myself that those who know me only a little think me surly and unsociable.’

‘So your brother always refused to help you?’

‘It wasn’t easy for him to help me. He got into a stockbroker’s, and went on step by step until he had saved a little money; then he speculated in all sorts of ways. He couldn’t employ me himself — and if he could have done so, we should never have got on together. It was impossible for him to recommend me to any one except as a clerk. He was a born money-maker. I’ll give you an example of how he grew rich. In consequence of some mortgage business he came into possession of a field at Clapham. As late as 1875 this field brought him only a rent of forty pounds; it was freehold property, and he refused many offers of purchase. Well, in 1885, the year before he died, the ground-rents from that field — now covered with houses — were seven hundred and ninety pounds a year. That’s how men get on who have capital and know how to use it. If I had had capital, it would never have yielded me more than three or four per cent. I was doomed to work for other people who were growing rich. It doesn’t matter much now, except that so many years of life have been lost.’

‘Had your brother any children?’

‘No children. All the same, it astonished me when I heard his will; I had expected nothing. In one day — in one hour — I passed from slavery to freedom, from poverty to more than comfort. We never hated each other; I don’t want you to think that.’

‘But — didn’t it bring you friends as well as comfort?’

‘Oh,’ he laughed, ‘I am not so rich as to have people pressing for my acquaintance. I have only about six hundred a year.’

Monica drew in her breath silently, then gazed at the distance.

‘No, I haven’t made any new friends. The one or two men I care for are not much better off than I used to be, and I always feel ashamed to ask them to come and see me. Perhaps they think I shun them because of their position, and I don’t know how to justify myself. Life has always been full of worrying problems for me. I can’t take things in the simple way that comes natural to other men.’

‘Don’t you think we ought to be turning back, Mr. Widdowson?’

‘Yes, we will. I am sorry the time goes so quickly.’

When a few minutes had passed in silence, he asked  —

‘Do you feel that I am no longer quite a stranger to you, Miss Madden?’

‘Yes — you have told me so much.’

‘It’s very kind of you to listen so patiently. I wish I had more interesting things to tell, but you see what a dull life mine has been.’ He paused, and let the boat waver on the stream for a moment. ‘When I dared to speak to you last Sunday I had only the faintest hope that you would grant me your acquaintance. You can’t, I am sure, repent of having done me that kindness —?’

‘One never knows. I doubted whether I ought to talk with a stranger —’

‘Rightly — quite rightly. It was my perseverance — you saw, I hope, that I could never dream of giving you offence. The rule is necessary, but you see there may be exceptional cases.’ He was giving a lazy stroke now and then, which, as the tide was still, just moved the boat onwards. ‘I saw something in your face that compelled me to speak to you. And now we may really be friends, I hope?’

‘Yes — I can think of you as a friend, Mr. Widdowson.’

A large boat was passing with four or five young men and girls who sang in good time and tune. Only a song of the music-hall or of the nigger minstrels, but it sounded pleasantly with the plash of the oars. A fine sunset had begun to glow upon the river; its warmth gave a tone to Monica’s thin cheeks.

‘And you will let me see you again before long? Let me drive you to Hampton Court next Sunday — or any other place you would choose.’

‘Very likely I shall be invited to my friend’s in Chelsea.’

‘Do you seriously think of leaving the shop?’

‘I don’t know — I must have time to think about it —’

‘Yes — yes. But if I write a line to you, say on Friday, would you let me know whether you can come?’

‘Please to let me refuse for next Sunday. The one after, perhaps —’

He bent his head, looked desperately grave, and drove the boat on Monica was disturbed, but held to her resolution, which Widdowson silently accepted. The rest of the way they exchanged only brief sentences, about the beauty of the sky, the scenes on river or bank, and other impersonal matters. After landing, they walked in silence towards Chelsea Bridge.

‘Now I must go quickly home,’ said Monica.

‘But how?’

‘By train — from York Road to Walworth Road.’

Widdowson cast a curious glance at her. One would have imagined that he found something to disapprove in this ready knowledge of London transit.

‘I will go with you to the station, then.’

Without a word spoken, they walked the short distance to York Road. Monica took her ticket, and offered a hand for good-bye.

‘I may write to you,’ said Widdowson, his face set in an expression of anxiety, ‘and make an appointment, if possible, for the Sunday after next?’

‘I shall be glad to come — if I can.’

‘It will be a very long time to me.’

With a faint smile, Monica hurried away to the platform. In the train she looked like one whose mind is occupied with grave trouble. Fatigue had suddenly overcome her; she leaned back and closed her eyes.

At a street corner very near to Messrs. Scotcher’s establishment she was intercepted by a tall, showily-dressed, rather coarse-featured girl, who seemed to have been loitering about. It was Miss Eade.

‘I want to speak to you, Miss Madden. Where did you go with Mr. Bullivant this morning?’

The voice could not have been more distinctive of a London shop-girl; its tone signified irritation.

‘With Mr. Bullivant? I went nowhere with him.’

‘But I saw you both get into the bus in Kennington Park Road.’

‘Did you?’ Monica returned coldly. ‘I can’t help it if Mr. Bullivant happened to be going the same way.’

‘Oh, very well! I thought you was to be trusted. It’s nothing to me —’

‘You behave very foolishly, Miss Eade,’ exclaimed the other, whose nerves at this moment would not allow her to use patience with the jealous girl. ‘I can only tell you that I have never thought again of Mr. Bullivant since he left the bus somewhere in Clapham Road. I’m tired of talking about such things.’

‘Now, see here, don’t be cross. Come and walk a bit and tell me —’

‘I’m too tired. And there’s nothing whatever to tell you.’

‘Oh, well, if you’re going to be narsty?’

Monica walked on, but the girl caught her up.

‘Don’t be so sharp with me, Miss Madden. I don’t say as you wanted him to go in the bus with you. But you might tell me what he had to say.’

‘Nothing at all; except that he wished to know where I was going, which was no business of his. I did what I could for you. I told him that if he asked you to go up the river with him I felt sure you wouldn’t refuse.’

‘Oh, you did!’ Miss Eade threw up her head. ‘I don’t think it was a very delicate thing to say.’

‘You are very unreasonable. I myself don’t think it was very delicate, but haven’t you worried me to say something of the kind?’

‘No, that I’m sure I haven’t! Worrited you, indeed!’

‘Then please never to speak to me on the subject again. I’m tired of it.’

‘And what did he say, when you’d said that?’

‘I can’t remember.’

‘Oh, you are narsty today! Really you are! If it had been the other way about, I’d never have treated you like this, that I wouldn’t.’

‘Good-night!’

They were close to the door by which Messrs. Scotcher’s resident employees entered at night. Monica had taken out her latchkey. But Miss Eade could not endure the thought of being left in torturing ignorance.

Do tell me!’ she whispered. ‘I’ll do anything for you I can. Don’t be unkind, Miss Madden!’

Monica turned back again.

‘If I were you, I wouldn’t be so silly. I can’t do more than assure you and promise you that I shall never listen to Mr. Bullivant.’

‘But what did he say about me, dear?’

‘Nothing.’

Miss Eade kept a mortified silence.

‘You had much better not think of him at all. I would have more pride. I wish I could make you see him as I do.’

‘And you did really speak about me? Oh, I do wish you’d find some one to go out with. Then perhaps —’

Monica stood still, hesitated, and at length said  —

‘Well — I have found some one.’

‘You have?’ The girl all but danced with joy. ‘You really have?’

‘Yes — so now don’t trouble me any more.’

This time she was allowed to turn back and enter the house.

No one else had yet come in. Monica ate a mouthful of bread and cheese, which was in readiness on the long table down in the basement, and at once went to bed. But no welcome drowsiness fell upon her. At half-past eleven, when two of the other five girls who slept in the room made their appearance, she was still changing uneasily from side to side. They lit the gas (it was not turned off till midnight, after which hour the late arrivals had to use a candle of their own procuring), and began a lively conversation on the events of the day. Afraid of being obliged to talk, Monica feigned sleep.

At twelve, just as the gas went out, another pair came to repose. They had been quarrelling, and were very gloomy. After a long and acrimonious discussion in the dark as to which of them should find a candle — it ended in one of the girls who was in bed impatiently supplying a light — they began sullenly to throw off their garments.

‘Is Miss Madden awake?’ said one of them, looking in Monica’s direction.

There was no reply.

‘She’s picked up some feller today,’ continued the speaker, lowering her voice, and glancing round at her companions with a grin. ‘Or else she’s had him all along — I shouldn’t wonder.’

Heads were put forward eagerly, and inquiries whispered.

‘He’s oldish, I should say. I caught sight of them just as they was going off in a boat from Battersea Park, but I couldn’t see his face very well. He looked rather like Mr. Thomas.’

Mr. Thomas was a member of the drapery firm, a man of fifty, ugly and austere. At this description the listeners giggled and uttered exclamations.

‘Was he a swell?’ asked one.

‘Shouldn’t wonder if he was. You can trust Miss M. to keep her eyes open. She’s one of the sly and quiet ‘uns.’

‘Oh, is she?’ murmured another enviously. ‘She’s just one of those as gets made a fool of — that’s my opinion.’

The point was argued for some minutes. It led to talk about Miss Eade, who was treated with frank contempt because of her ill-disguised pursuit of a mere counter-man. These other damsels had, at present, more exalted views, for they were all younger than Miss Eade.

Just before one o’clock, when silence had reigned for a quarter of an hour, there entered with much bustle the last occupant of the bedroom. She was a young woman with a morally unenviable reputation, though some of her colleagues certainly envied her. Money came to her with remarkable readiness whenever she had need of it. As usual, she began to talk very loud, at first with innocent vulgarity; exciting a little laughter, she became anecdotic and very scandalous. It took her a long time to disrobe, and when the candle was out, she still had her richest story to relate — of point so Rabelaisian that one or two voices made themselves heard in serious protest. The gifted anecdotist replied with a long laugh, then cried, ‘Good-night, young ladies!’ and sank peacefully to slumber.

As for Monica, she saw the white dawn peep at the window, and closed her tear-stained eyes only when the life of a new week had begun noisily in Walworth Road.

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