As Miss Barfoot's eye fell on the letters brought to her at breakfast-time, she uttered an exclamation, doubtful in its significance. Rhoda Nunn, who rarely had a letter from any one, looked up inquiringly.
'I am greatly mistaken if that isn't my cousin Everard's writing. I thought so. He is in London.'
Rhoda made no remark.
'Pray read it,' said the other, handing her friend the epistle after she had gone through it.
The handwriting was remarkably bold, but careful. Punctuation was strictly attended to, and in places a word had been obliterated with a circular scrawl which left it still legible.
'DEAR COUSIN MARY,—I hear that you are still active in an original way, and that civilization is more and more indebted to you. Since my arrival in London a few weeks ago, I have several times been on the point of calling at your house, but scruples withheld me. Our last interview was not quite friendly on your side, you will remember, and perhaps your failure to write to me means continued displeasure; in that case I might be rejected at your door, which I shouldn't like, for I am troubled with a foolish sense of personal dignity. I have taken a flat, and mean to stay in London for at least half a year. Please let me know whether I may see you. Indeed I should like to. Nature meant us for good friends, but prejudice came between us. Just a line, either of welcome or "get thee behind me!" In spite of your censures, I always was, and still am, affectionately yours,
Rhoda perused the sheet very attentively.
'An impudent letter,' said Miss Barfoot. 'Just like him.'
'Where does he appear from?'
'Japan, I suppose. "But prejudice came between us." I like that! Moral conviction is always prejudice in the eyes of these advanced young men. Of course he must come. I am anxious to see what time has made of him.'
'Was it really moral censure that kept you from writing to him?' inquired Rhoda, with a smile.
'Decidedly. I didn't approve of him at all, as I have frequently told you.'
'But I gather that he hasn't changed much.'
'Not in theories,' replied Miss Barfoot. 'That isn't to be expected. He is far too stubborn. But in mode of life he may possibly be more tolerable.'
'After two or three years in Japan,' rejoined Rhoda, with a slight raising of the eyebrows.
'He is about three-and-thirty, and before he left England I think he showed possibilities of future wisdom. Of course I disapprove of him, and, if necessary, shall let him understand that quite as plainly as before. But there's no harm in seeing if he has learnt to behave himself.'
Everard Barfoot received an invitation to dine. It was promptly accepted, and on the evening of the appointment he arrived at half-past seven. His cousin sat alone in the drawing-room. At his entrance she regarded him with keen but friendly scrutiny.
He had a tall, muscular frame, and a head of striking outline, with large nose, full lips, deep-set eyes, and prominent eyebrows. His hair was the richest tone of chestnut; his moustache and beard—the latter peaking slightly forward—inclined to redness. Excellent health manifested itself in the warm purity of his skin, in his cheerful aspect, and the lightness of his bearing. The lower half of his forehead was wrinkled, and when he did not fix his look on anything in particular, his eyelids drooped, giving him for the moment an air of languor. On sitting down, he at once abandoned himself to a posture of the completest ease, which his admirable proportions made graceful. From his appearance one would have expected him to speak in rather loud and decided tones; but he had a soft voice, and used it with all the discretion of good-breeding, so that at times it seemed to caress the ear. To this mode of utterance corresponded his smile, which was frequent, but restrained to the expression of a delicate, good-natured irony.
'No one had told me of your return,' were Miss Barfoot's first words as she shook hands with him.
'I fancy because no one knew. You were the first of my kinsfolk to whom I wrote.'
'Much honour, Everard. You look very well.'
'I am glad to be able to say the same of you. And yet I hear that you work harder than ever.'
'Who is the source of your information about me?'
'I had an account of you from Tom, in a letter that caught me at Constantinople.'
'Tom? I thought he had forgotten my existence. Who told him about me I can't imagine. So you didn't come straight home from Japan?'
Barfoot was nursing his knee, his head thrown back.
'No; I loitered a little in Egypt and Turkey. Are you living quite alone?'
He drawled slightly on the last word, its second vowel making quite a musical note, of wonderful expressiveness. The clear decision of his cousin's reply was a sharp contrast.
'A lady lives with me—Miss Nunn. She will join us in a moment.'
'Miss Nunn?' He smiled. 'A partner in your activity?'
'She gives me valuable help.'
'I must hear all about it—if you will kindly tell me some day. It will interest me greatly. You always were the most interesting of our family. Brother Tom promised to be a genius, but marriage has blighted the hope, I fear.'
'The marriage was a very absurd one.'
'Was it? I feared so; but Tom seems satisfied. I suppose they will stay at Madeira.'
'Until his wife is tired of her imaginary phthisis, and amuses herself with imagining some other ailment that requires them to go to Siberia.'
'Ah, that kind of person, is she?' He smiled indulgently, and played for a moment with the lobe of his right ear. His ears were small, and of the ideal contour; the hand, too, thus displayed, was a fine example of blended strength and elegance.
Rhoda came in, so quietly that she was able to observe the guest before he had detected her presence. The movement of Miss Barfoot's eyes first informed him that another person was in the room. In the quietest possible way the introduction was performed, and all seated themselves.
Dressed, like the hostess, in black, and without ornaments of any kind save a silver buckle at her waist, Rhoda seemed to have endeavoured to liken herself to the suggestion of her name by the excessive plainness with which she had arranged her hair; its tight smoothness was nothing like so becoming as the mode she usually adopted, and it made her look older. Whether by accident or design, she took an upright chair, and sat upon it in a stiff attitude. Finding it difficult to suspect Rhoda of shyness, Miss Barfoot once or twice glanced at her with curiosity. For settled conversation there was no time; a servant announced dinner almost immediately.
'There shall be no forms, cousin Everard,' said the hostess. 'Please to follow us.'
Doing so, Everard examined Miss Nunn's figure, which in its way was strong and shapely as his own. A motion of his lips indicated amused approval, but at once he commanded himself, and entered the dining-room with exemplary gravity. Naturally, he sat opposite Rhoda, and his eyes often skimmed her face; when she spoke, which was very seldom, he gazed at her with close attention.
During the first part of the meal, Miss Barfoot questioned her relative concerning his Oriental experiences. Everard spoke of them in a light, agreeable way, avoiding the tone of instruction, and, in short, giving evidence of good taste. Rhoda listened with a look of civil interest, but asked no question, and smiled only when it was unavoidable. Presently the talk turned to things of home.
'Have you heard of your friend Mr. Poppleton?' the hostess asked.
'Poppleton? Nothing whatever. I should like to see him.'
'I'm sorry to tell you he is in a lunatic asylum.'
As Barfoot kept the silence of astonishment, his cousin went on to tell him that the unhappy man seemed to have lost his wits among business troubles.
'Yet I should have suggested another explanation,' remarked the young man, in his most discreet tone, 'You never met Mrs. Poppleton?'
Seeing that Miss Nunn had looked up with interest, he addressed himself to her.
'My friend Poppleton was one of the most delightful men—perhaps the best and kindest I ever knew, and so overflowing with natural wit and humour that there was no resisting his cheerful influence. To the amazement of every one who knew him, he married perhaps the dullest woman he could have found. Mrs. Poppleton not only never made a joke, but couldn't understand what joking meant. Only the flattest literalism was intelligible to her; she could follow nothing but the very macadam of conversation—had no palate for anything but the suet-pudding of talk.'
Rhoda's eyes twinkled, and Miss Barfoot laughed. Everard was allowing himself a freedom in expression which hitherto he had sedulously avoided.
'Yes,' he continued, 'she was by birth a lady—which made the infliction harder to bear. Poor old Poppleton! Again and again I have heard him—what do you think?—laboriously explaining jests to her. That was a trial, as you may imagine. There we sat, we three, in the unbeautiful little parlour—for they were anything but rich. Poppleton would say something that convulsed me with laughter—in spite of my efforts, for I always dreaded the result so much that I strove my hardest to do no more than smile appreciation. My laugh compelled Mrs. Poppleton to stare at me—oh, her eyes! Thereupon, her husband began his dread performance. The patience, the heroic patience, of that dear, good fellow! I have known him explain, and re-explain, for a quarter of an hour, and invariably without success. It might be a mere pun; Mrs. Poppleton no more understood the nature of a pun than of the binomial theorem. But worse was when the jest involved some allusion. When I heard Poppleton begin to elucidate, to expound, the perspiration already on his forehead, I looked at him with imploring anguish. Why would he attempt the impossible? But the kind fellow couldn't disregard his wife's request. Shall I ever forget her. "Oh—yes—I see"?—when obviously she saw nothing but the wall at which she sat staring.'
'I have known her like,' said Miss Barfoot merrily.
'I am convinced his madness didn't come from business anxiety. It was the necessity, ever recurring, ever before him, of expounding jokes to his wife. Believe me, it was nothing but that.'
'It seems very probable,' asserted Rhoda dryly.
'Then there's another friend of yours whose marriage has been unfortunate,' said the hostess. 'They tell me that Mr. Orchard has forsaken his wife, and without intelligible reason.'
'There, too, I can offer an explanation,' replied Barfoot quietly, 'though you may doubt whether it justifies him. I met Orchard a few months ago in Alexandria, met him by chance in the street, and didn't recognize him until he spoke to me. He was worn to skin and bone. I found that he had abandoned all his possessions to Mrs. Orchard, and just kept himself alive on casual work for the magazines, wandering about the shores of the Mediterranean like an uneasy spirit. He showed me the thing he had last written, and I see it is published in this month's Macmillan. Do read it. An exquisite description of a night in Alexandria. One of these days he will starve to death. A pity; he might have done fine work.'
'But we await your explanation. What business has he to desert his wife and children?'
'Let me give an account of a day I spent with him at Tintern, not long before I left England. He and his wife were having a holiday there, and I called on them. We went to walk about the Abbey. Now, for some two hours—I will be strictly truthful—whilst we were in the midst of that lovely scenery, Mrs. Orchard discoursed unceasingly of one subject—the difficulty she had with her domestic servants. Ten or twelve of these handmaidens were marshalled before our imagination; their names, their ages, their antecedents, the wages they received, were carefully specified. We listened to a catalogue raisonne of the plates, cups, and other utensils that they had broken. We heard of the enormities which in each case led to their dismissal. Orchard tried repeatedly to change the subject, but only with the effect of irritating his wife. What could he or I do but patiently give ear? Our walk was ruined, but there was no help for it. Now, be good enough to extend this kind of thing over a number of years. Picture Orchard sitting down in his home to literary work, and liable at any moment to an invasion from Mrs. Orchard, who comes to tell him, at great length, that the butcher has charged for a joint they have not consumed—or something of that kind. He assured me that his choice lay between flight and suicide, and I firmly believed him.'
As he concluded, his eyes met those of Miss Nunn, and the latter suddenly spoke.
'Why will men marry fools?'
Barfoot was startled. He looked down into his plate, smiling.
'A most sensible question,' said the hostess, with a laugh. 'Why, indeed?'
'But a difficult one to answer,' remarked Everard, with his most restrained smile. 'Possibly, Miss Nunn, narrow social opportunity has something to do with it. They must marry some one, and in the case of most men choice is seriously restricted.'
'I should have thought,' replied Rhoda, elevating her eyebrows, 'that to live alone was the less of two evils.'
'Undoubtedly. But men like these two we have been speaking of haven't a very logical mind.'
Miss Barfoot changed the topic.
When, not long after, the ladies left him to meditate over his glass of wine, Everard curiously surveyed the room. Then his eyelids drooped, he smiled absently, and a calm sigh seemed to relieve his chest. The claret had no particular quality to recommend it, and in any case he would have drunk very little, for as regards the bottle his nature was abstemious.
'It is as I expected,' Miss Barfoot was saying to her friend in the drawing-room. 'He has changed very noticeably.'
'Mr. Barfoot isn't quite the man your remarks had suggested to me,' Rhoda replied.
'I fancy he is no longer the man I knew. His manners are wonderfully improved. He used to assert himself in rather alarming ways. His letter, to be sure, had the old tone, or something of it.'
'I will go to the library for an hour,' said Rhoda, who had not seated herself. 'Mr. Barfoot won't leave before ten, I suppose?'
'I don't think there will be any private talk.'
'Still, if you will let me—'
So, when Everard appeared, he found his cousin alone.
'What are you going to do?' she asked of him good-naturedly.
'To do? You mean, how do I propose to employ myself? I have nothing whatever in view, beyond enjoying life.'
'At your age?'
'So young? Or so old? Which?'
'So young, of course. You deliberately intend to waste your life?'
'To enjoy it, I said. I am not prompted to any business or profession; that's all over for me; I have learnt all I care to of the active world.'
'But what do you understand by enjoyment?' asked Miss Barfoot, with knitted brows.
'Isn't the spectacle of existence quite enough to occupy one through a lifetime? If a man merely travelled, could he possibly exhaust all the beauties and magnificences that are offered to him in every country? For ten years and more I worked as hard as any man; I shall never regret it, for it has given me a feeling of liberty and opportunity such as I should not have known if I had always lived at my ease. It taught me a great deal, too; supplemented my so-called education as nothing else could have done. But to work for ever is to lose half of life. I can't understand those people who reconcile themselves to quitting the world without having seen a millionth part of it.'
'I am quite reconciled to that. An infinite picture gallery isn't my idea of enjoyment.'
'Nor mine. But an infinite series of modes of living. A ceaseless exercise of all one's faculties of pleasure. That sounds shameless to you? I can't understand why it should. Why is the man who toils more meritorious than he who enjoys? What is the sanction for this judgment?'
'Social usefulness, Everard.'
'I admit the demand for social usefulness, up to a certain point. But, really, I have done my share. The mass of men don't toil with any such ideal, but merely to keep themselves alive, or to get wealth. I think there is a vast amount of unnecessary labour.'
'There is an old proverb about Satan and idle hands. Pardon me; you alluded to that personage in your letter.'
'The proverb is a very true one, but, like other proverbs, it applies to the multitude. If I get into mischief, it will not be because I don't perspire for so many hours every day, but simply because it is human to err. I have no intention whatever of getting into mischief.'
The speaker stroked his beard, and smiled with a distant look.
'Your purpose is intensely selfish, and all indulged selfishness reacts on the character,' replied Miss Barfoot, still in a tone of the friendliest criticism.
'My dear cousin, for anything to be selfish, it must be a deliberate refusal of what one believes to be duty. I don't admit that I am neglecting any duty to others, and the duty to myself seems very clear indeed.'
'Of that I have no doubt,' exclaimed the other, laughing. 'I see that you have refined your arguments.'
'Not my arguments only, I hope,' said Everard modestly. 'My time has been very ill spent if I haven't in some degree, refined my nature.'
'That sounds very well, Everard. But when it comes to degrees of self-indulgence—'
She paused and made a gesture of dissatisfaction.
'It comes to that, surely, with every man. But we certainly shall not agree on this subject. You stand at the social point of view; I am an individualist. You have the advantage of a tolerably consistent theory; whilst I have no theory at all, and am full of contradictions. The only thing clear to me is that I have a right to make the most of my life.'
'No matter at whose expense?'
'You are quite mistaken. My conscience is a tender one. I dread to do any one an injury. That has always been true of me, in spite of your sceptical look; and the tendency increases as I grow older. Let us have done with so unimportant a matter. Isn't Miss Nunn able to rejoin us?'
'She will come presently, I think.'
'How did you make this lady's acquaintance?'
Miss Barfoot explained the circumstances.
'She makes an impression,' resumed Everard. 'A strong character, of course. More decidedly one of the new women than you yourself—isn't she?'
'Oh, I am a very old-fashioned woman. Women have thought as I do at any time in history. Miss Nunn has much more zeal for womanhood militant.'
'I should delight to talk with her. Really, you know, I am very strongly on your side.'
Miss Barfoot laughed.
'Oh, sophist! You despise women.'
'Why, yes, the great majority of women—the typical woman. All the more reason for my admiring the exceptions, and wishing to see them become more common. You, undoubtedly, despise the average woman.'
'I despise no human being, Everard.'
'Oh, in a sense! But Miss Nunn, I feel sure, would agree with me.'
'I am very sure Miss Nunn wouldn't. She doesn't admire the feebler female, but that is very far from being at one with your point of view, my cousin.'
Everard mused with a smile.
'I must get to understand her line of thought. You permit me to call upon you now and then?'
'Oh, whenever you like, in the evening. Except,' Miss Barfoot added, 'Wednesday evening. Then we are always engaged.'
'Summer holidays are unknown to you, I suppose?'
'Not altogether. I had mine a few weeks ago. Miss Nunn will be going away in a fortnight, I think.'
Just before ten o'clock, when Barfoot was talking of some acquaintances he had left in Japan, Rhoda entered the room. She seemed little disposed for conversation, and Everard did not care to assail her taciturnity this evening. He talked on a little longer, observing her as she listened, and presently took an opportunity to rise for departure.
'Wednesday is the forbidden evening, is it not?' he said to his cousin.
'Yes, that is devoted to business.'
As soon as he had gone, the friends exchanged a look. Each understood the other as referring to this point of Wednesday evening, but neither made a remark. They were silent for some time. When Rhoda at length spoke it was in a tone of half-indifferent curiosity.
'You are sure you haven't exaggerated Mr. Barfoot's failings?'
The reply was delayed for a moment.
'I was a little indiscreet to speak of him at all. But no, I didn't exaggerate.'
'Curious,' mused the other dispassionately, as she stood with one foot on the fender. 'He hardly strikes one as that kind of man.'
'Oh, he has certainly changed a great deal.'
Miss Barfoot went on to speak of her cousin's resolve to pursue no calling.
'His means are very modest. I feel rather guilty before him; his father bequeathed to me much of the money that would in the natural course have been Everard's. But he is quite superior to any feeling of grudge on that score.'
'Practically, his father disinherited him?'
'It amounted to that. From quite a child, Everard was at odds with his father. A strange thing, for in so many respects they resembled each other very closely. Physically, Everard is his father walking the earth again. In character, too, I think they must be very much alike. They couldn't talk about the simplest thing without disagreeing. My uncle had risen from the ranks but he disliked to be reminded of it. He disliked the commerce by which he made his fortune. His desire was to win social position; if baronetcies could be purchased in our time, he would have given a huge sum to acquire one. But he never distinguished himself, and one of the reasons was, no doubt, that he married too soon. I have heard him speak bitterly, and very indiscreetly, of early marriages; his wife was dead then, but every one knew what he meant. Rhoda, when one thinks how often a woman is a clog upon a man's ambition, no wonder they regard us as they do.'
'Of course, women are always retarding one thing or another. But men are intensely stupid not to have remedied that long ago.'
'He determined that his boys should be gentlemen. Tom, the elder, followed his wishes exactly; he was remarkably clever, but idleness spoilt him, and now he has made that ridiculous marriage—the end of poor Tom. Everard went to Eton, and the school had a remarkable effect upon him; it made him a furious Radical. Instead of imitating the young aristocrats he hated and scorned them. There must have been great force of originality in the boy. Of course I don't know whether any Etonians of his time preached Radicalism, but it seems unlikely. I think it was sheer vigour of character, and the strange desire to oppose his father in everything. From Eton he was of course to pass to Oxford, but at that stage came practical rebellion. No, said the boy; he wouldn't go to a university, to fill his head with useless learning; he had made up his mind to be an engineer. This was an astonishment to every one; engineering didn't seem at all the thing for him; he had very little ability in mathematics, and his bent had always been to liberal studies. But nothing could shake his idea. He had got it into his head that only some such work as engineering—something of a practical kind, that called for strength and craftsmanship—was worthy of a man with his opinions. He would rank with the classes that keep the world going with their sturdy toil: that was how he spoke. And, after a great fight, he had his way. He left Eton to study civil engineering.'
Rhoda was listening with an amused smile.
'Then,' pursued her friend, 'came another display of firmness or obstinacy, whichever you like to call it. He soon found out that he had made a complete mistake. The studies didn't suit him at all, as others had foreseen. But he would have worked himself to death rather than confess his error; none of us knew how he was feeling till long after. Engineering he had chosen, and an engineer he would be, cost him what effort it might. His father shouldn't triumph over him. And from the age of eighteen till nearly thirty he stuck to a profession which I am sure he loathed. By force of resolve he even got on to it, and reached a good position with the firm he worked for. Of course his father wouldn't assist him with money after he came of age; he had to make his way just like any young man who has no influence.'
'All this puts him in quite another light,' remarked Rhoda.
'Yes, it would be all very well, if there were no vices to add to the picture. I never experienced such a revulsion of feeling as the day when I learnt shameful things about Everard. You know, I always regarded him as a boy, and very much as if he had been my younger brother; then came the shock—a shock that had a great part in shaping my life thenceforward. Since, I have thought of him as I have spoken of him to you—as an illustration of evils we have to combat. A man of the world would tell you that I grossly magnified trifles; it is very likely that Everard was on a higher moral level than most men. But I shall never forgive him for destroying my faith in his honour and nobility of feeling.'
Rhoda had a puzzled look.
'Perhaps even now you are unintentionally misleading me,' she said. 'I have supposed him an outrageous profligate.'
'He was vicious and cowardly—I can't say any more.'
'And that was the immediate cause of his father's leaving him poorly provided for?'
'It had much to do with it, I have no doubt.'
'I see. I imagined that he was cast out of all decent society.'
'If society were really decent, he would have been. It's strange how completely his Radicalism has disappeared. I believe he never had a genuine sympathy with the labouring classes. And what's more, I fancy he had a great deal of his father's desire for command and social distinction. If he had seen his way to become a great engineer, a director of vast enterprises, he wouldn't have abandoned his work. An incredible stubbornness has possibly spoilt his whole life. In a congenial pursuit he might by this time have attained to something noteworthy. It's too late now, I fear.'
'Does he aim at nothing whatever?'
'He won't admit any ambition. He has no society. His friends are nearly all obscure people, like those you heard him speak of this evening.'
'After all, what ambition should he have?' said Rhoda, with a laugh. 'There's one advantage in being a woman. A woman with brains and will may hope to distinguish herself in the greatest movement of our time—that of emancipating her sex. But what can a man do, unless he has genius?'
'There's the emancipation of the working classes. That is the great sphere for men; and Everard cares no more for the working classes than I do.'
'Isn't it enough to be free oneself?'
'You mean that he has task enough in striving to be an honourable man?'
'Perhaps. I hardly know what I meant.'
Miss Barfoot mused, and her face lighted up with a glad thought.
'You are right. It's better to be a woman, in our day. With us is all the joy of advance, the glory of conquering. Men have only material progress to think about. But we—we are winning souls, propagating a new religion, purifying the earth!'
Rhoda nodded thrice.
'My cousin is a fine specimen of a man, after all, in body and mind. But what a poor, ineffectual creature compared with you, Rhoda! I don't flatter you, dear. I tell you bluntly of your faults and extravagances. But I am proud of your magnificent independence, proud of your pride, dear, and of your stainless heart. Thank Heaven we are women!'
It was rare indeed for Miss Barfoot to be moved to rhapsody. Again Rhoda nodded, and then they laughed together, with joyous confidence in themselves and in their cause.