The Odd Women, by George Gissing

Chapter 9

The Simple Faith

Seated in the reading-room of a club to which he had newly procured admission, Everard Barfoot was glancing over the advertisement columns of a literary paper. His eye fell on an announcement that had a personal interest to him, and at once he went to the writing-table to pen a letter.

‘DEAR MICKLETHWAITE— I am back in England, and ought before this to have written to you. I see you have just published a book with an alarming title, “A Treatise on Trilinear Co-ordinates.” My hearty congratulations on the completion of such a labour; were you not the most disinterested of mortals, I would add a hope that it may somehow benefit you financially. I presume there are people who purchase such works. But of course the main point with you is to have delivered your soul on Trilinear Co-ordinates. Shall I run down to Sheffield to see you, or is there any chance of the holidays bringing you this way? I have found a cheap flat, poorly furnished, in Bayswater; the man who let it to me happens to be an engineer, and is absent on Italian railway work for a year or so. My stay in London won’t, I think, be for longer than six months, but we must see each other and talk over old times,’ etc.

This he addressed to a school at Sheffield. The answer, directed to the club, reached him in three days.

‘My DEAR BARFOOT— I also am in London; your letter has been forwarded from the school, which I quitted last Easter. Disinterested or not, I am happy to tell you that I have got a vastly better appointment. Let me know when and where to meet you; or if you like, come to these lodgings of mine. I don’t enter upon duties till end of October, and am at present revelling in mathematical freedom. There’s a great deal to tell. — Sincerely yours,

THOMAS MICKLETHWAITE.’

Having no occupation for his morning, Barfoot went at once to the obscure little street by Primrose Hill where his friend was lodging. He reached the house about noon, and, as he had anticipated, found the mathematician deep in study. Micklethwaite was a man of forty, bent in the shoulders, sallow, but not otherwise of unhealthy appearance; he had a merry countenance, a great deal of lank, disorderly hair, and a beard that reached to the middle of his waistcoat. Everard’s acquaintance with him dated from ten years ago, when Micklethwaite had acted as his private tutor in mathematics.

The room was a musty little back-parlour on the ground floor.

‘Quiet, perfectly quiet,’ declared its occupant, ‘and that’s all I care for. Two other lodgers in the house; but they go to business every morning at half-past eight, and are in bed by ten at night. Besides, it’s only temporary. I have great things in view — portentous changes! I’ll tell you all about it presently.’

He insisted, first of all, on hearing a full account of Barfoot’s history since they both met. They had corresponded about twice a year, but Everard was not fond of letter-writing, and on each occasion gave only the briefest account of himself. In listening, Micklethwaite assumed extraordinary positions, the result, presumably, of a need of physical exercise after hours spent over his work. Now he stretched himself at full length on the edge of his chair, his arms extended above him; now he drew up his legs, fixed his feet on the chair, and locked his hands round his knees; thus perched, he swayed his body backwards and forwards, till it seemed likely that he would pitch head foremost on to the floor. Barfoot knew these eccentricities of old, and paid no attention to them.

‘And what is the appointment you have got?’ he asked at length, dismissing his own affairs with impatience.

It was that of mathematical lecturer at a London college.

‘I shall have a hundred and fifty a year, and be able to take private pupils. On two hundred, at least, I can count, and there are possibilities I won’t venture to speak of, because it doesn’t do to be too hopeful. Two hundred a year is a great advance for me.’

‘Quite enough, I suppose,’ said Everard kindly.

‘Not — not enough. I must make a little more somehow.’

‘Hollo! Why this spirit of avarice all at once?’

The mathematician gave a shrill, cackling laugh, and rolled upon his chair.

‘I must have more than two hundred. I should be satisfied with three hundred, but I’ll take as much more as I can get.’

‘My revered tutor, this is shameless. I came to pay my respects to a philosopher, and I find a sordid worldling. Look at me! I am a man of the largest needs, spiritual and physical, yet I make my pittance of four hundred and fifty suffice, and never grumble. Perhaps you aim at an income equal to my own?’

‘I do! What’s four hundred and fifty? If you were a man of enterprise you would double or treble it. I put a high value on money. I wish to be rich!’

‘You are either mad or are going to get married.’

Micklethwaite cackled louder than ever.

‘I am planning a new algebra for school use. If I’m not much mistaken, I can turn out something that will supplant all the present books. Think! If Micklethwaite’s Algebra got accepted in all the schools, what would that mean to Mick? Hundreds a year, my boy — hundreds.’

‘I never knew you so indecent.’

‘I am renewing my youth. Nay, for the first time I am youthful. I never had time for it before. At the age of sixteen I began to teach in a school, and ever since I have pegged away at it, school and private. Now luck has come to me, and I feel five-and-twenty. When I was really five-and-twenty, I felt forty.’

‘Well, what has that to do with money-making?’

‘After Mick’s Algebra would follow naturally Mick’s Arithmetic, Mick’s Euclid, Mick’s Trigonometry. Twenty years hence I should have an income of thousands — thousands! I would then cease to teach (resign my professorship — that is to say, for of course I should be professor), and devote myself to a great work on Probability. Many a man has begun the best of his life at sixty — the most enjoyable part of it, I mean.’

Barfoot was perplexed. He knew his friend’s turn for humorous exaggeration, but had never once heard him scheme for material advancement, and evidently this present talk meant something more than a jest.

‘Am I right or not? You are going to get married?’

Micklethwaite glanced at the door, then said in a tone of caution  —

‘I don’t care to talk about it here. Let us go somewhere and eat together. I invite you to have dinner with me — or lunch, as I suppose you would call it, in your aristocratic language.’

‘No, you had better have lunch with me. Come to my club.’

‘Confound your impudence! Am I not your father in mathematics?’

‘Be so good as to put on a decent pair of trousers, and brush your hair. Ah, here is your Trilinear production. I’ll look over it whilst you make yourself presentable.’

‘There’s a bad misprint in the Preface. Let me show you —’

‘It’s all the same to me, my dear fellow.’

But Micklethwaite was not content until he had indicated the error, and had talked for five minutes about the absurdities that it involved.

‘How do you suppose I got the thing published?’ he then asked. ‘Old Bennet, the Sheffield headmaster, is security for loss if the book doesn’t pay for itself in two years’ time. Kind of him, wasn’t it? He pressed the offer upon me, and I think he’s prouder of the book than I am myself. But it’s quite remarkable how kind people are when one is fortunate. I fancy a great deal of nonsense is talked about the world’s enviousness. Now as soon as it got known that I was coming to this post in London, people behaved to me with surprising good nature all round. Old Bennet talked in quite an affectionate strain. “Of course,” he said, “I have long known that you ought to be in a better place than this; your payment is altogether inadequate; if it had depended upon me, I should long ago have increased it. I truly rejoice that you have found a more fitting sphere for your remarkable abilities.” No; I maintain that the world is always ready to congratulate you with sincerity, if you will only give it a chance.’

‘Very gracious of you to give it the chance. But, by-the-bye, how did it come about?’

‘Yes, I ought to tell you that. Why, about a year ago, I wrote an answer to a communication signed by a Big Gun in one of the scientific papers. It was a question in Probability — you wouldn’t understand it. My answer was printed, and the Big Gun wrote privately to me — a very flattering letter. That correspondence led to my appointment; the Big Gun exerted himself on my behalf. The fact is, the world is bursting with good nature.’

‘Obviously. And how long did it take you to write this little book?’

‘Oh, only about seven years — the actual composition. I never had much time to myself, you must remember.’

‘You’re a good soul, Thomas. Go and equip yourself for civilized society.’

To the club they repaired on foot. Micklethwaite would talk of anything but that which his companion most desired to hear.

‘There are solemnities in life,’ he answered to an impatient question, ‘things that can’t be spoken of in the highway. When we have eaten, let us go to your flat, and there I will tell you everything.’

They lunched joyously. The mathematician drank a bottle of excellent hock, and did corresponding justice to the dishes. His eyes gleamed with happiness; again he enlarged upon the benevolence of mankind, and the admirable ordering of the world. From the club they drove to Bayswater, and made themselves comfortable in Barfoot’s flat, which was very plainly, but sufficiently, furnished. Micklethwaite, cigar in mouth, threw his legs over the side of the easy-chair in which he was sitting.

‘Now,’ he began gravely, ‘I don’t mind telling you that your conjecture was right. I am going to be married.’

‘Well,’ said the other, ‘you have reached the age of discretion. I must suppose that you know what you are about.’

‘Yes, I think I do. The story is unexciting. I am not a romantic person, nor is my future wife. Now, you must know that when I was about twenty-three years old I fell in love. You never suspected me of that, I dare say?’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, I did fall in love. The lady was a clergyman’s daughter at Hereford, where I had a place in a school; she taught the infants in an elementary school connected with ours; her age was exactly the same as my own. Now, the remarkable thing was that she took a liking for me, and when I was scoundrel enough to tell her of my feeling, she didn’t reject me.’

‘Scoundrel enough? Why scoundrel?’

‘Why? But I hadn’t a penny in the world. I lived at the school, and received a salary of thirty pounds, half of which had to go towards the support of my mother. What could possibly have been more villainous? What earthly prospect was there of my being able to marry?’

‘Well, grant the monstrosity of it.’

‘This lady — a very little lower than the angels — declared that she was content to wait an indefinite time. She believed in me, and hoped for my future. Her father — the mother was dead — sanctioned our engagement. She had three sisters, one of them a governess, another keeping house, and the third a blind girl. Excellent people, all of them. I was at their house as often as possible, and they made much of me. It was a pity, you know, for in those few leisure hours I ought to have been working like a nigger.’

‘Plainly you ought.’

‘Fortunately, I left Hereford, and went to a school at Gloucester, where I had thirty-five pounds. How we gloried over that extra five pounds! But it’s no use going on with the story in this way; it would take me till tomorrow morning. Seven years went by; we were thirty years old, and no prospect whatever of our engagement coming to anything. I had worked pretty hard; I had taken my London degree; but not a penny had I saved, and all I could spare was still needful to my mother. It struck me all at once that I had no right to continue the engagement. On my thirtieth birthday I wrote a letter to Fanny — that is her name — and begged her to be free. Now, would you have done the same, or not?’

‘Really, I am not imaginative enough to put myself in such a position. It would need a stupendous effort, at all events.’

‘But was there anything gross in the proceeding?’

‘The lady took it ill?’

‘Not in the sense of being offended. But she said it had caused her much suffering. She begged me to consider myself free. She would remain Faithful, and if, in time to come, I cared to write to her again — After all these years, I can’t speak of it without huskiness. It seemed to me that I had behaved more like a scoundrel than ever. I thought I had better kill myself, and even planned ways of doing it — I did indeed. But after all we decided that our engagement should continue.’

‘Of course.’

‘You think it natural? Well, the engagement has continued till this day. A month ago I was forty, so that we have waited for seventeen years.’

Micklethwaite paused on a note of awe.

‘Two of Fanny’s sisters are dead; they never married. The blind one Fanny has long supported, and she will come to live with us. Long, long ago we had both of us given up thought of marriage. I have never spoken to any one of the engagement; it was something too absurd, and also too sacred.’

The smile died from Everard’s face, and he sat in thought.

‘Now, when are you going to marry?’ cried Micklethwaite, with a revival of his cheerfulness.

‘Probably never.’

‘Then I think you will neglect a grave duty. Yes. It is the duty of every man, who has sufficient means, to maintain a wife. The life of unmarried women is a wretched one; every man who is able ought to save one of them from that fate.’

‘I should like my cousin Mary and her female friends to hear you talk in that way. They would overwhelm you with scorn.’

‘Not sincere scorn, is my belief. Of course I have heard of that kind of woman. Tell me something about them.’

Barfoot was led on to a broad expression of his views.

‘I admire your old-fashioned sentiment, Micklethwaite. It sits well on you, and you’re a fine fellow. But I have much more sympathy with the new idea that women should think Of marriage only as men do — I mean, not to grow up in the thought that they must marry or be blighted creatures. My own views are rather extreme, perhaps; strictly, I don’t believe in marriage at all. And I haven’t anything like the respect for women, as women, that you have. You belong to the Ruskin school; and I— well, perhaps my experience has been unusual, though I don’t think so. You know, by-the-bye, that my relatives consider me a blackguard?’

‘That affair you told me about some years ago?’

‘Chiefly that. I have a good mind to tell you the true story; I didn’t care to at the time. I accepted the charge of black-guardism; it didn’t matter much. My cousin will never forgive me, though she has an air of friendliness once more. And I suspect she had told her friend Miss Nunn all about me. Perhaps to put Miss Nunn on her guard — Heaven knows!’

He laughed merrily.

‘Miss Nunn, I dare say, needs no protection against you.’

‘I had an odd thought whilst I was there.’ Everard leaned his head back, and half closed his eyes. ‘Miss Nunn, I warrant, considers herself proof against any kind of wooing. She is one of the grandly severe women; a terror, I imagine, to any young girl at their place who betrays weak thoughts of matrimony. Now, it’s rather a temptation to a man of my kind. There would be something piquant in making vigorous love to Miss Nunn, just to prove her sincerity.’

Micklethwaite shook his head.

‘Unworthy of you, Barfoot. Of course you couldn’t really do such a thing.’

‘But such women really challenge one. If she were rich, I think I could do it without scruple.’

‘You seem to be taking it for granted,’ said the mathematician, smiling, ‘that this lady would — would respond to your lovemaking.’

‘I confess to you that women have spoilt me. And I am rather resentful when any one cries out against me for lack of respect to womanhood. I have been the victim of this groundless veneration for females. Now you shall hear the story; and bear in mind that you are the only person to whom I have ever told it. I never tried to defend myself when I was vilified on all hands. Probably the attempt would have been useless; and then it would certainly have increased the odium in which I stood. I think I’ll tell cousin Mary the truth some day; it would be good for her.’

The listener looked uneasy, but curious.

‘Well now, I was staying in the summer with some friends of ours at a little place called Upchurch, on a branch line from Oxford. The people were well-to-do — Goodall their name — and went in for philanthropy. Mrs. Goodall always had a lot of Upchurch girls about her, educated and not; her idea was to civilize one class by means of the other, and to give a new spirit to both. My cousin Mary was staying at the house whilst I was there. She had more reasonable views than Mrs. Goodall, but took a great interest in what was going on.

‘Now one of the girls in process of spiritualization was called Amy Drake. In the ordinary course of things I shouldn’t have met her, but she served in a shop where I went two or three times to get a newspaper; we talked a little — with absolute propriety on my part, I assure you — and she knew that I was a friend of the Goodalls. The girl had no parents, and she was on the point of going to London to live with a married sister.

‘It happened that by the very train which took me back to London, when my visit was over, this girl also travelled, and alone. I saw her at Upchurch Station, but we didn’t speak, and I got into a smoking carriage. We had to change at Oxford, and there, as I walked about the platform, Amy put herself in my way, so that I was obliged to begin talking with her. This behaviour rather surprised me. I wondered what Mrs. Goodall would think of it. But perhaps it was a sign of innocent freedom in the intercourse of men and women. At all events, Amy managed to get me into the same carriage with herself, and on the way to London we were alone. You foresee the end of it. At Paddington Station the girl and I went off together, and she didn’t get to her sister’s till the evening.

‘Of course I take it for granted that you believe my account of the matter. Miss Drake was by no means the spiritual young person that Mrs. Goodall thought her, or hoped to make her; plainly, she was a reprobate of experience. This, you will say, doesn’t alter the fact that I also behaved like a reprobate. No; from the moralist’s point of view I was to blame. But I had no moral pretentions, and it was too much to expect that I should rebuke the young woman and preach her a sermon. You admit that, I dare say?’

The mathematician, frowning uncomfortably, gave a nod of assent.

‘Amy was not only a reprobate, but a rascal. She betrayed me to the people at Upchurch, and, I am quite sure, meant from the first to do so. Imagine the outcry. I had committed a monstrous crime — had led astray an innocent maiden, had outraged hospitality — and so on. In Amy’s case there were awkward results. Of course I must marry the girl forthwith. But of course I was determined to do no such thing. For the reasons I have explained, I let the storm break upon me. I had been a fool, to be sure, and couldn’t help myself. No one would have believed my plea — no one would have allowed that the truth was an excuse. I was abused on all hands. And when, shortly after, my father made his will and died, doubtless he cut me off with my small annuity on this very account. My cousin Mary got a good deal of the money that would otherwise have been mine. The old man had been on rather better terms with me just before that; in a will that he destroyed I believe he had treated me handsomely.’

‘Well, well,’ said Micklethwaite, ‘every one knows there are detestable women to be found. But you oughtn’t to let this affect your view of women in general. What became of the girl?’

‘I made her a small allowance for a year and a half. Then her child died, and the allowance ceased. I know nothing more of her. Probably she has inveigled some one into marriage.’

‘Well, Barfoot,’ said the other, rolling about in his chair, ‘my Opinion remains the same. You are in debt to some worthy woman to the extent of half your income. Be quick and find her. It will be better for you.’

‘And do you suppose,’ asked Everard, with a smile of indulgence, ‘that I could marry on four hundred and fifty a year.

‘Heavens! Why not?’

‘Quite impossible. A wife might be acceptable to me; but marriage with poverty — I know myself and the world too well for that.’

‘Poverty!’ screamed the mathematician. ‘Four hundred and fifty pounds!’

‘Grinding poverty — for married people.’

Micklethwaite burst into indignant eloquence, and Everard sat listening with the restrained smile on his lips.

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