A week's notice to her employers would release Monica from the engagement in Walworth Road. Such notice must be given on Monday, so that, if she could at once make up her mind to accept Miss Barfoot's offer, the coming week would be her last of slavery behind the counter. On the way home from Queen's Road, Alice and Virginia pressed for immediate decision; they were unable to comprehend how Monica could hesitate for another moment. The question of her place of abode had already been discussed. One of Miss Barfoot's young women, who lived at a convenient distance from Great Portland Street, would gladly accept a partner in her lodging—an arrangement to be recommended for its economy. Yet Monica shrank from speaking the final word.
'I don't know whether it's worth while,' she said, after a long silence, as they drew near to York Road Station, whence they were to take train for Clapham Junction.
'Not worth while?' exclaimed Virginia. 'You don't think it would be an improvement?'
'Yes, I suppose it would. I shall see how I feel about it tomorrow morning.'
She spent the evening at Lavender Hill, but without change in the mood thus indicated. A strange inquietude appeared in her behaviour. It was as though she were being urged to undertake something hard and repugnant.
On her return to Walworth Road, just as she came within sight of the shop, she observed a man's figure some twenty yards distant, which instantly held her attention. The dim gaslight occasioned some uncertainty, but she believed the figure was that of Widdowson. He was walking on the other side of the street, and away from her. When the man was exactly opposite Scotcher's establishment he gazed in that direction, but without stopping. Monica hastened, fearing to be seen and approached. Already she had reached the door, when Widdowson—yes, he it was—turned abruptly to walk back again. His eye was at once upon her; but whether he recognized her or not Monica could not know. At that moment she opened the door and passed in.
A fit of trembling seized her, as if she had barely escaped some peril. In the passage she stood motionless, listening with the intensity of dread. She could hear footsteps on the pavement; she expected a ring at the door-bell. If he were so thoughtless as to come to the door, she would on no account see him.
But there was no ring, and after a few minutes' waiting she recovered her self-command. She had not made a mistake; even his features had been discernible as he turned towards her. Was this the first time that he had come to look at the place where she lived—possibly to spy upon her? She resented this behaviour, yet the feeling was confused with a certain satisfaction.
From one of the dormitories there was a view of Walworth Road. She ran upstairs, softly opened the door of that room, and peeped in. The low burning gas showed her that only one bed had an occupant, who appeared to be asleep. Softly she went to the window, drew the blind aside, and looked down into the street. But Widdowson had disappeared. He might of course be on this side of the way.
'Who's that?' suddenly asked a voice from the occupied bed.
The speaker was Miss Eade. Monica looked at her, and nodded.
'You? What are you doing here?'
'I wanted to see if some one was standing outside.'
'You mean him?'
The other nodded.
'I've got a beastly headache. I couldn't hold myself up, and I had to come home at eight o'clock. There's such pains all down my back too. I shan't stay at this beastly place much longer. I don't want to get ill, like Miss Radford. Somebody went to see her at the hospital this afternoon, and she's awfully bad. Well, have you seen him?'
'He's gone. Good-night.'
And Monica left the room.
Next day she notified her intention of leaving her employment. No questions were asked; she was of no particular importance; fifty, or, for the matter of that, five score, young women equally capable could be found to fill her place.
On Tuesday morning there came a letter from Virginia—a few lines requesting her to meet her sisters, as soon as possible after closing time that evening, in front of the shop. 'We have something very delightful to tell you. We do hope you gave notice to-day, as things are getting so bright in every direction.'
At a quarter to ten she was able to run out, and close at hand were the two eagerly awaiting her.
'Mrs. Darby has found a place for Alice,' began Virginia. 'We heard by the afternoon post yesterday. A lady at Yatton wants a governess for two young children. Isn't it fortunate?'
'So delightfully convenient for what we were thinking of,' put in the eldest, with her croaking voice. 'Nothing could have been better.'
'You mean about the school?' said Monica dreamily.
'Yes, the school,' Virginia replied, with trembling earnestness. 'Yatton is convenient both for Clevedon and Weston. Alice will be able to run over to both places and make enquiries, and ascertain where the best opening would be.'
Miss Nunn's suggestion, hitherto but timidly discussed, had taken hold upon their minds as soon as Alice received the practical call to her native region. Both were enthusiastic for the undertaking. It afforded them a novel subject of conversation, and inspirited them by seeming to restore their self-respect. After all, they might have a mission, a task in the world. They pictured themselves the heads of a respectable and thriving establishment, with subordinate teachers, with pleasant social relations; they felt young again, and capable of indefinite activity. Why had they not thought of this long ago? and thereupon they reverted to antistrophic laudation of Rhoda Nunn.
'Is it a good place?' their younger sister inquired.
'Oh, pretty good. Only twelve pounds a year, but nice people, Mrs. Darby says. They want me at once, and it is very likely that in a few weeks I shall go with them to the seaside.'
'What could have been better?' cried Virginia. 'Her health will be established, and in half a year, or less, we shall be able to come to a decision about the great step. Oh, and have you given notice, darling?'
'Yes, I have.'
Both clapped their hands like children. It was an odd little scene on the London pavement at ten o'clock at night; so intimately domestic amid surroundings the very antithesis of domesticity. Only a few yards away, a girl, to whom the pavement was a place of commerce, stood laughing with two men. The sound of her voice hinted to Monica the advisability of walking as they conversed, and they moved towards Walworth Road Station.
'We thought at first,' said Virginia, 'that when Alice had gone you might like to share my room; but then the distance from Great Portland Street would be a decided objection. I might move, but we doubt whether that would be worth while. It is so comfortable with Mrs. Conisbee, and for the short remaining time—Christmas, I should think, would be a very good time for opening. If it were possible to decide upon dear old Clevedon, of course we should prefer it; but perhaps Weston will offer more scope. Alice will weigh all the arguments on the spot. Don't you envy her, Monica? Think of being there in this summer weather!'
'Why don't you go as well?' Monica asked.
'I? And take lodgings, you mean? We never thought of that. But we still have to consider expenditure very seriously, you know. If possible, I must find employment for the rest of the year. Remember how very likely it is that Miss Nunn will have something to suggest for me. And when I think it will be of so much practical use for me to see her frequently for a few weeks. Already I have learnt so much from her and from Miss Barfoot. Their conversation is so encouraging. I feel that it is a training of the mind to be in contact with them.'
'Yes, I quite share that view,' said Alice, with tremulous earnestness. 'Virginia can reap much profit from intercourse with them. They have the new ideas in education, and it would be so good if our school began with the advantage of quite a modern system.'
Monica became silent. When her sisters had talked in the same strain for a quarter of an hour, she said absently,—
'I wrote to Miss Barfoot last night, so I suppose I shall be able to move to those lodgings next Sunday.'
It was eleven o'clock before they parted. Having taken leave of her sisters near the station, Monica turned to walk quickly home. She had gone about half the way, when her name was spoken just behind her, in Widdowson's voice. She stopped, and there stood the man, offering his hand.
'Why are you here at this time?' she asked in an unsteady voice.
'Not by chance. I had a hope that I might see you.'
He was gloomy, and looked at her searchingly.
'I mustn't wait to talk now, Mr. Widdowson. It's very late.'
'Very late indeed. It surprised me to see you.'
'Surprised you? Why should it?'
'I mean that it seemed so very unlikely—at this hour.'
'Then how could you have hoped to see me?'
Monica walked on, with an air of displeasure, and Widdowson kept beside her, incessantly eyeing her countenance.
'No, I didn't really think of seeing you, Miss Madden. I wished to be near the place where you were, that was all.'
'You saw me come out I dare say.'
'If you had done, you would have known that I came to meet two ladies, my sisters. I walked with them to the station, and now I am going home. You seem to think an explanation necessary—'
'Do forgive me! What right have I to ask anything of the kind? But I have been very restless since Sunday. I wished so to meet you, if only for a few minutes. Only an hour or two ago I posted a letter to you.'
Monica said nothing.
'It was to ask you to meet me next Sunday, as we arranged. Shall you be able to do so?'
'I'm afraid I can't. At the end of this week I leave my place here, and on Sunday I shall be moving to another part of London.'
'You are leaving? You have decided to make the change you spoke of?'
'And will you tell me where you are going to live?'
'In lodgings near Great Portland Street. I must say good-night, Mr. Widdowson. I must, indeed.'
'Please—do give me one moment!'
'I can't stay—I can't—good-night!'
It was impossible for him to detain her. Ungracefully he caught at his hat, made the salute, and moved away with rapid, uneven strides. In less than half an hour he was back again at this spot. He walked past the shop many times without pausing; his eyes devoured the front of the building, and noted those windows in which there was a glimmer of light. He saw girls enter by the private door, but Monica did not again show herself. Some time after midnight, when the house had long been dark and perfectly quiet, the uneasy man took a last look, and then sought a cab to convey him home.
The letter of which he had spoken reached Monica's hands next morning. It was a very respectful invitation to accompany the writer on a drive in Surrey. Widdowson proposed to meet her at Herne Hill railway station, where his vehicle would be waiting. 'In passing, I shall be able to point out to you the house which has been my home for about a year.'
As circumstances were, it would be hardly possible to accept this invitation without exciting curiosity in her sisters. The Sunday morning would be occupied, probably, in going to the new lodgings and making the acquaintance of her future companion there; in the afternoon, her sisters were to pay her a visit, as Alice had decided to start for Somerset on the Monday. She must write a refusal, but it was by no means her wish to discourage Widdowson altogether. The note which at length satisfied her ran thus:
'DEAR MR. WIDDOWSON—I am very sorry that it will be impossible for me to see you next Sunday. All day I shall be occupied. My eldest sister is leaving London, and Sunday will be my last day with her, perhaps for a long time. Please do not think that I make light of your kindness. When I am settled in my new life, I hope to be able to let you know how it suits me.—Sincerely yours,
In a postscript she mentioned her new address. It was written in very small characters—perhaps an unpurposed indication of the misgiving with which she allowed herself to pen the words.
Two days went by, and again a letter from Widdowson was delivered,
'DEAR MISS MADDEN—My chief purpose in writing again so soon is to apologize sincerely for my behaviour on Tuesday evening. It was quite unjustifiable. The best way of confessing my fault is to own that I had a foolish dislike of your walking in the streets unaccompanied at so late an hour. I believe that any man who had newly made your acquaintance, and had thought as much about you as I have, would have experienced the same feeling. The life which made it impossible for you to see friends at any other time of the day was so evidently unsuited to one of your refinement that I was made angry by the thought of it. Happily it is coming to an end, and I shall be greatly relieved when I know that you have left the house of business.
'You remember that we are to be friends. I should be much less than your friend if I did not desire for you a position very different from that which necessity forced upon you. Thank you very much for the promise to tell me how you like the new employment and your new friends. Shall you not henceforth be at leisure on other days besides Sunday? As you will now be near Regent's Park, perhaps I may hope to meet you there some evening before long. I would go any distance to see you and speak with you for only a few minutes.
'Do forgive my impertinence, and believe me, dear Miss Madden.— Ever yours,
Now this undoubtedly might be considered a love-letter, and it was the first of its kind that Monica had ever received. No man had ever written to her that he was willing to go 'any distance' for the reward of looking on her face. She read the composition many times, and with many thoughts. It did not enchant her; presently she felt it to be dull and prosy—anything but the ideal of a love-letter, even at this early stage.
The remarks concerning Widdowson made in the bedroom by the girl who fancied her asleep had greatly disturbed her conception of him. He was old, and looked still older to a casual eye. He had a stiff dry way, and already had begun to show how precise and exacting he could be. A year or two ago the image of such a man would have repelled her. She did not think it possible to regard him with warm feelings; yet, if he asked her to marry him—and that seemed likely to happen very soon—almost certainly her answer would be yes. Provided, of course, that all he had told her about himself could be in some satisfactory way confirmed.
Her acquaintance with him was an extraordinary thing. With what amazement and rapture would any one of her shop companions listen to the advances of a man who had six hundred a year! Yet Monica did not doubt his truthfulness and the honesty of his intentions. His life-story sounded credible enough, and the very dryness of his manner inspired confidence. As things went in the marriage war, she might esteem herself a most fortunate young woman. It seemed that he had really fallen in love with her; he might prove a devoted husband. She felt no love in return; but between the prospect of a marriage of esteem and that of no marriage at all there was little room for hesitation. The chances were that she might never again receive an offer from a man whose social standing she could respect.
In the meantime there had come a civil little note from the girl whose rooms she was to share. 'Miss Barfoot has spoken of you so favourably that I did not think it necessary to see you before consenting to what she suggested. Perhaps she has told you that I have my own furniture; it is very plain, but, I think, comfortable. For the two rooms, with attendance, I pay eight and sixpence a week; my landlady will ask eleven shillings when there are two of us, so that your share would be five-and-six. I hope you won't think this is too much. I am a quiet and I think a very reasonable person.' The signature was 'Mildred H. Vesper.'
The day of release arrived. As it poured with rain all the morning, Monica the less regretted that she had been obliged to postpone her meeting with Widdowson. At breakfast-time she said good-bye to the three or four girls in whom she had any interest. Miss Eade was delighted to see her go. This rival finally out of the way, Mr. Bullivant might perchance turn his attention to the faithful admirer who remained.
She went by train to Great Portland Street, and thence by cab, with her two boxes, to Rutland Street, Hampstead Road—an uphill little street of small houses. When the cab stopped, the door of the house she sought at once opened, and on the threshold appeared a short, prim, plain-featured girl, who smiled a welcome.
'You are Miss Vesper?' Monica said, approaching her.
'Yes—very pleased to see you, Miss Madden. As London cabmen have a narrow view of their duties, I'll help you to get the boxes in.'
Monica liked the girl at once. Jehu condescending to hand down the luggage, they transferred it to the foot of the staircase, then, the fare having been paid, went up to the second floor, which was the top of the house. Miss Vesper's two rooms were very humble, but homely. She looked at Monica to remark the impression produced by them.
'Will it do?'
'Oh, very nicely indeed. After my quarters in Walworth Road! But I feel ashamed to intrude upon you.'
'I have been trying to find someone to share my rent,' said the other, with a simple frankness that was very agreeable. 'Miss Barfoot was full of your praises—and indeed I think we may suit each other.'
'I shall try to be as little disturbance to you as possible.'
'And I to you. The street is a very quiet one. Up above here is Cumberland Market; a hay and straw market. Quite pleasant odours—country odours—reach us on market day. I am country-bred; that's why I speak of such a trifle.'
'So am I,' said Monica. 'I come from Somerset.'
'And I from Hampshire. Do you know, I have a strong suspicion that all the really nice girls in London are country girls.'
Monica had to look at the speaker to be sure that this was said in pleasantry. Miss Vesper was fond of making dry little jokes in the gravest tone; only a twinkle of her eyes and a movement of her tight little lips betrayed her.
'Shall I ask the landlady to help me up with the luggage?'
'You are rather pale, Miss Madden. Better let me see to that. I have to go down to remind Mrs. Hocking to put salt into the saucepan with the potatoes. She cooks for me only on Sunday, and if I didn't remind her every week she would boil the potatoes without salt. Such a state of mind is curious, but one ends by accepting it as a fact in nature.'
They joined in merry laughter. When Miss Vesper gave way to open mirth, she enjoyed it so thoroughly that it was a delight to look at her.
By the time dinner was over they were on excellent terms, and had exchanged a great deal of personal information. Mildred Vesper seemed to be one of the most contented of young women. She had sisters and brothers, whom she loved, all scattered about England in pursuit of a livelihood; it was rare for any two of them to see each other, but she spoke of this as quite in the order of things. For Miss Barfoot her respect was unbounded.
'She had made more of me than any one else could have done. When I first met her, three years ago, I was a simpleton; I thought myself ill-used because I had to work hard for next to no payment and live in solitude. Now I should be ashamed to complain of what falls to the lot of thousands of girls.'
'Do you like Miss Nunn?' asked Monica.
'Not so well as Miss Barfoot, but I think very highly of her. Her zeal makes her exaggerate a little now and then, but then the zeal is so splendid. I haven't it myself—not in that form.'
'I mean that I feel a shameful delight when I hear of a girl getting married. It's very weak, no doubt; perhaps I shall improve as I grow older. But I have half a suspicion, do you know, that Miss Barfoot is not without the same weakness.'
Monica laughed, and spoke of something else. She was in good spirits; already her companion's view of life began to have an effect upon her; she thought of people and things in a more lightsome way, and was less disposed to commiserate herself.
The bedroom which both were to occupy might with advantage have been larger, but they knew that many girls of instinct no less delicate than their own had to endure far worse accommodation in London—where poverty pays for its sheltered breathing-space at so much a square foot. It was only of late that Miss Vesper had been able to buy furniture (four sovereigns it cost in all), and thus to allow herself the luxury of two rooms at the rent she previously paid for one. Miss Barfoot did not remunerate her workers on a philanthropic scale, but strictly in accordance with market prices; common sense dictated this principle. In talking over their arrangements, Monica decided to expend a few shillings on the purchase of a chair-bedstead for her own use.
'I often have nightmares,' she remarked, 'and kick a great deal. It wouldn't be nice to give you bruises.'
A week passed. Alice had written from Yatton, and in a cheerful tone. Virginia, chronically excited, had made calls at Rutland Street and at Queen's Road; she talked like one who had suddenly received a great illumination, and her zeal in the cause of independent womanhood rivalled Miss Nunn's. Without enthusiasm, but seemingly contented, Monica worked at the typewriting machine, and had begun certain studies which her friends judged to be useful. She experienced a growth of self-respect. It was much to have risen above the status of shop-girl, and the change of moral atmosphere had a very beneficial effect upon her.
Mildred Vesper was a studious little person, after a fashion of her own. She possessed four volumes of Maunder's 'Treasuries', and to one or other of these she applied herself for at least an hour every evening.
'By nature,' she said, when Monica sought an explanation of this study, 'my mind is frivolous. What I need is a store of solid information, to reflect upon. No one could possibly have a worse memory, but by persevering I manage to learn one or two facts a day.'
Monica glanced at the books now and then, but had no desire to cultivate Maunder's acquaintance. Instead of reading, she meditated the problems of her own life.
Edmund Widdowson, of course, wrote to her at the new address. In her reply she again postponed their meeting. Whenever she went out in the evening, it was with expectation of seeing him somewhere in the neighbourhood; she felt assured that he had long ago come to look at the house, and more likely than not his eyes had several times been upon her. That did not matter; her life was innocent, and Widdowson might watch her coming and going as much as he would.
At length, about nine o'clock one evening, she came face to face with him. It was in Hampstead Road; she had been buying at a draper's, and carried the little parcel. At the moment of recognition, Widdowson's face so flushed and brightened that Monica could not help a sympathetic feeling of pleasure.
'Why are you so cruel to me?' he said in a low voice, as she gave her hand. 'What a time since I saw you!'
'Is that really true?' she replied, with an air more resembling coquetry than any he had yet seen in her.
'Since I spoke to you, then.'
'When did you see me?'
'Three evenings ago. You were walking in Tottenham Court Road with a young lady.'
'Miss Vesper, the friend I live with.'
'Will you give me a few minutes now?' he asked humbly. 'Is it too late?'
For reply Monica moved slowly on. They turned up one of the ways parallel with Rutland Street, and so came into the quiet district that skirts Regent's Park, Widdowson talking all the way in a strain of all but avowed tenderness, his head bent towards her and his voice so much subdued that occasionally she lost a few words.
'I can't live without seeing you,' he said at length. 'If you refuse to meet me, I have no choice but to come wandering about the places where you are. Don't, pray don't think I spy upon you. Indeed, it is only just to see your face or your form as you walk along. When I have had my journey in vain I go back in misery. You are never out of my thoughts—never.'
'I am sorry for that, Mr. Widdowson.'
'Sorry? Are you really sorry? Do you think of me with less friendliness than when we had our evening on the river?'
'Oh, not with less friendliness. But if I only make you unhappy—'
'In one way unhappy, but as no one else ever had the power to. If you would let me meet you at certain times my restlessness would be at an end. The summer is going so quickly. Won't you come for that drive with me next Sunday? I will be waiting for you at any place you like to appoint. If you could imagine what joy it would give me!'
Presently Monica assented. If it were fine, she would be by the southeast entrance to Regent's Park at two o'clock. He thanked her with words of the most submissive gratitude, and then they parted.
The day proved doubtful, but she kept her appointment. Widdowson was on the spot with horse and trap. These were not, as he presently informed Monica, his own property, but hired from a livery stable, according to his custom.
'It won't rain,' he exclaimed, gazing at the sky. 'It shan't rain! These few hours are too precious to me.'
'It would be very awkward if it did,' Monica replied, in merry humour, as they drove along.
The sky threatened till sundown, but Widdowson was able to keep declaring that rain would not come. He took a south-westward course, crossed Waterloo Bridge, and thence by the highways made for Herne Hill. Monica observed that he made a short detour to avoid Walworth Road. She asked his reason.
'I hate the road!' Widdowson answered, with vehemence.
'You hate it?'
'Because you slaved and suffered there. If I had the power, I would destroy it—every house. Many a time,' he added, in a lower voice, 'when you were lying asleep, I walked up and down there in horrible misery.'
'Just because I had to stand at a counter?'
'Not only that. It wasn't fit for you to work in that way—but the people about you! I hated every face of man or woman that passed along the street.'
'I didn't like the society.'
'I should hope not. Of course, I know you didn't. Why did you ever come to such a place?'
There was severity rather than sympathy in his look.
'I was tired of the dull country life,' Monica replied frankly. 'And then I didn't know what the shops and the people were like.'
'Do you need a life of excitement?' he asked, with a sidelong glance.
'Excitement? No, but one must have change.'
When they reached Herne Hill, Widdowson became silent, and presently he allowed the horse to walk.
'That is my house, Miss Madden—the right-hand one.'
Monica looked, and saw two little villas, built together with stone facings, porches at the doors and ornamented gables.
'I only wanted to show it you,' he added quickly. 'There's nothing pretty or noticeable about it, and it isn't at all grandly furnished. My old housekeeper and one servant manage to keep it in order.'
They passed, and Monica did not allow herself to look back.
'I think it's a nice house,' she said presently.
'All my life I have wished to have a house of my own, but I didn't dare to hope I ever should. Men in general don't seem to care so long as they have lodgings that suit them—I mean unmarried men. But I always wanted to live alone—without strangers, that is to say. I told you that I am not very sociable. When I got my house, I was like a child with a toy; I couldn't sleep for satisfaction. I used to walk all over it, day after day, before it was furnished. There was something that delighted me in the sound of my footsteps on the staircases and the bare floors. Here I shall live and die, I kept saying to myself. Not in solitude, I hoped. Perhaps I might meet some one—'
Monica interrupted him to ask a question about some object in the landscape. He answered her very briefly, and for a long time neither spoke. Then the girl, glancing at him with a smile of apology, said in a gentle tone—
'You were telling me how the house pleased you. Have you still the same pleasure in living there?'
'Yes. But lately I have been hoping—I daren't say more. You will interrupt me again.'
'Which way are we going now, Mr. Widdowson?'
'To Streatham, then on to Carshalton. At five o'clock we will use our right as travellers, and get some innkeeper to make tea for us. Look, the sun is trying to break through; we shall have a fine evening yet. May I, without rudeness, say that you look better since you left that abominable place.'
'Oh, I feel better.'
After keeping his look fixed for a long time on the horse's ears, Widdowson turned gravely to his companion.
'I told you about my sister-in-law. Would you be willing to make her acquaintance?'
'I don't feel able to do that, Mr. Widdowson,' Monica answered with decision.
Prepared for this reply, he began a long and urgent persuasion. It was useless; Monica listened quietly, but without sign of yielding. The subject dropped, and they talked of indifferent things.
On the homeward drive, when the dull sky grew dusk about them, and the suburban street-lamps began to show themselves in long glimmering lines, Widdowson returned with shamefaced courage to the subject which for some hours had been in abeyance.
'I can't part from you this evening without a word of hope to remember. You know that I want you to be my wife. Will you tell me if there is anything I can say or do to make your consent possible? Have you any doubt of me?'
'No doubt whatever of your sincerity.'
'In one sense, I am still a stranger to you. Will you give me the opportunity of making things between us more regular? Will you allow me to meet some friend of yours whom you trust?'
'I had rather you didn't yet.'
'You wish to know still more of me, personally?'
'Yes—I think I must know you much better before I can consent to any step of that kind.'
'But,' he urged, 'if we became acquaintances in the ordinary way, and knew each other's friends, wouldn't that be most satisfactory to you?'
'It might be. But you forget that so much would have to be explained. I have behaved very strangely. If I told everything to my friends I should leave myself no choice.'
'Oh, why not? You would be absolutely free. I could no more than try to recommend myself to you. If I am so unhappy as to fail, how would you be anything but quite free?'
'But surely you must understand me. In this position, I must either not speak of you at all, or make it known that I am engaged to you. I can't have it taken for granted that I am engaged to you when I don't wish to be.'
Widdowson's head drooped; he set his lips in a hard gloomy expression.
'I have behaved very imprudently,' continued the girl. But I don't see—I can't see—what else I could have done. Things are so badly arranged. It wasn't possible for us to be introduced by any one who knew us both, so I had either to break off your acquaintance after that first conversation, or conduct myself as I have been doing. I think it's a very hard position. My sisters would call me an immodest girl, but I don't think it is true. I may perhaps come to feel you as a girl ought to when she marries, and how else can I tell unless I meet you and talk with you? And your position is just the same. I don't blame you for a moment; I think it would be ridiculous to blame you. Yet we have gone against the ordinary rule, and people would make us suffer for it—or me, at all events.
Her voice at the close was uncertain. Widdowson looked at her with eyes of passionate admiration.
'Thank you for saying that—for putting it so well, and so kindly for me. Let us disregard people, then. Let us go on seeing each other. I love you with all my soul'—he choked a little at this first utterance of the solemn word—'and your rules shall be mine. Give me a chance of winning you. Tell me if I offend you in anything—if there's anything you dislike in me.'
'Will you cease coming to look for me when I don't know of it?'
'I promise you. I will never come again. And you will meet me a little oftener?'
'I will see you once every week. But I must still be perfectly free.'
'Perfectly! I will only try to win you as any man may who loves a woman.'
The tired horse clattered upon the hard highway and clouds gathered for a night of storm.