Having allowed exactly a week to go by, Everard Barfoot made use of his cousin's permission, and called upon her at nine in the evening. Miss Barfoot's dinner-hour was seven o'clock; she and Rhoda, when alone, rarely sat for more than half an hour at table, and in this summer season they often went out together at sunset to enjoy a walk along the river. This evening they had returned only a few minutes before Everard's ring sounded at the door. Miss Barfoot (they were just entering the library) looked at her friend and smiled.
'I shouldn't wonder if that is the young man. Very flattering if he has come again so soon.'
The visitor was in mirthful humour, and met with a reception of corresponding tone. He remarked at once that Miss Nunn had a much pleasanter aspect than a week ago; her smile was ready and agreeable; she sat in a sociable attitude and answered a jesting triviality with indulgence.
'One of my reasons for coming to-day,' said Everard, 'was to tell you a remarkable story. It connects'—he addressed his cousin—'with our talk about the matrimonial disasters of those two friends of mine. Do you remember the name of Micklethwaite—a man who used to cram me with mathematics? I thought you would. He is on the point of marrying, and his engagement has lasted just seventeen years.'
'The wisest of your friends, I should say.'
'An excellent fellow. He is forty, and the lady the same. An astonishing case of constancy.'
'And how is it likely to turn out?'
'I can't predict, as the lady is unknown to me. But,' he added with facetious gravity, 'I think it likely that they are tolerably well acquainted with each other. Nothing but sheer poverty has kept them apart. Pathetic, don't you think? I have a theory that when an engagement has lasted ten years, with constancy on both sides, and poverty still prevents marriage, the State ought to make provision for a man in some way, according to his social standing. When one thinks of it, a whole socialistic system lies in that suggestion.'
'If,' remarked Rhoda, 'it were first provided that no marriage should take place until after a ten years' engagement.'
'Yes,' Barfoot assented, in his smoothest and most graceful tone. 'That completes the system. Unless you like to add that no engagement is permitted except between people who have passed a certain examination; equivalent, let us say, to that which confers a university degree.'
'Admirable. And no marriage, except where both, for the whole decennium, have earned their living by work that the State recognizes.'
'How would that affect Mr. Micklethwaite's betrothed?' asked Miss Barfoot.
'I believe she has supported herself all along by teaching.'
'Of course!' exclaimed the other impatiently. 'And more likely than not, with loathing of her occupation. The usual kind of drudgery, was it?'
'After all, there must be some one to teach children to read and write.'
'Yes; but people who are thoroughly well trained for the task, and who take a pleasure in it. This lady may be an exception; but I picture her as having spent a lifetime of uncongenial toil, longing miserably for the day when poor Mr. Micklethwaite was able to offer her a home. That's the ordinary teacher-woman, and we must abolish her altogether.'
'How are you to do that?' inquired Everard suavely. 'The average man labours that he may be able to marry, and the average woman certainly has the same end in view. Are female teachers to be vowed to celibacy?'
'Nothing of the kind. But girls are to be brought up to a calling in life, just as men are. It's because they have no calling that, when need comes, they all offer themselves as teachers. They undertake one of the most difficult and arduous pursuits as if it were as simple as washing up dishes. We can't earn money in any other way, but we can teach children! A man only becomes a schoolmaster or tutor when he has gone through laborious preparation—anything but wise or adequate, of course, but still conscious preparation; and only a very few men, comparatively, choose that line of work. Women must have just as wide a choice.'
'That's plausible, cousin Mary. But remember that when a man chooses his calling he chooses it for life. A girl cannot but remember that if she marries her calling at once changes. The old business is thrown aside—henceforth profitless.'
'No. Not henceforth profitless! There's the very point I insist upon. So far is it from profitless, that it has made her a wholly different woman from what she would otherwise have been. Instead of a moping, mawkish creature, with—in most instances—a very unhealthy mind, she is a complete human being. She stands on an equality with the man. He can't despise her as he now does.'
'Very good,' assented Everard, observing Miss Nunn's satisfied smile. 'I like that view very much. But what about the great number of girls who are claimed by domestic duties? Do you abandon them, with a helpless sigh, to be moping and mawkish and unhealthy?'
'In the first place, there needn't be a great number of unmarried women claimed by such duties. Most of those you are thinking of are not fulfilling a duty at all; they are only pottering about the house, because they have nothing better to do. And when the whole course of female education is altered; when girls are trained as a matter of course to some definite pursuit; then those who really are obliged to remain at home will do their duty there in quite a different spirit. Home work will be their serious business, instead of a disagreeable drudgery, or a way of getting through the time till marriage offers. I would have no girl, however wealthy her parent, grow up without a profession. There should be no such thing as a class of females vulgarized by the necessity of finding daily amusement.'
'Nor of males either, of course,' put in Everard, stroking his beard.
'Nor of males either, cousin Everard.'
'You thoroughly approve all this, Miss Nunn?'
'Oh yes. But I go further. I would have girls taught that marriage is a thing to be avoided rather than hoped for. I would teach them that for the majority of women marriage means disgrace.'
'Ah! Now do let me understand you. Why does it mean disgrace?'
'Because the majority of men are without sense of honour. To be bound to them in wedlock is shame and misery.'
Everard's eyelids drooped, and he did not speak for a moment.
'And you seriously think, Miss Nunn, that by persuading as many women as possible to abstain from marriage you will improve the character of men?'
'I have no hope of sudden results, Mr. Barfoot. I should like to save as many as possible of the women now living from a life of dishonour; but the spirit of our work looks to the future. When all women, high and low alike, are trained to self-respect, then men will regard them in a different light, and marriage may be honourable to both.'
Again Everard was silent, and seemingly impressed.
'We'll go on with this discussion another time,' said Miss Barfoot, with cheerful interruption. 'Everard, do you know Somerset at all?'
'Never was in that part of England.'
'Miss Nunn is going to take her holiday at Cheddar and we have been looking over some photographs of that district taken by her brother.'
From the table she reached a scrapbook, and Everard turned it over with interest. The views were evidently made by an amateur, but in general had no serious faults. Cheddar cliffs were represented in several aspects.
'I had no idea the scenery was so fine. Cheddar cheese has quite overshadowed the hills in my imagination. This might be a bit of Cumberland, or of the Highlands.'
'It was my playground when I was a child,' said Rhoda.
'You were born at Cheddar?'
'No; at Axbridge, a little place not far off. But I had an uncle at Cheddar, a farmer, and very often stayed with him. My brother is farming there now.'
'Axbridge? Here is a view of the market-place. What a delightful old town!'
'One of the sleepiest spots in England, I should say. The railway goes through it now, but hasn't made the slightest difference. Nobody pulls down or builds; nobody opens a new shop; nobody thinks of extending his trade. A delicious place!'
'But surely you find no pleasure in that kind of thing, Miss Nunn?'
'Oh yes—at holiday time. I shall doze there for a fortnight, and forget all about the "so-called nineteenth century."'
'I can hardly believe it. There will be a disgraceful marriage at this beautiful old church, and the sight of it will exasperate you.'
Rhoda laughed gaily.
'Oh, it will be a marriage of the golden age! Perhaps I shall remember the bride when she was a little girl; and I shall give her a kiss, and pat her on the rosy cheek, and wish her joy. And the bridegroom will be such a good-hearted simpleton, unable to pronounce f and s. I don't mind that sort of marriage a bit!'
The listeners were both regarding her—Miss Barfoot with an affectionate smile, Everard with a puzzled, searching look, ending in amusement.
'I must run down into that country some day,' said the latter.
He did not stay much longer, but left only because he feared to burden the ladies with too much of his company.
Again a week passed, and the same evening found Barfoot approaching the house in Queen's Road. To his great annoyance he learnt that Miss Barfoot was not at home; she had dined, but afterwards had gone out. He did not venture to ask for Miss Nunn, and was moving disappointedly away, when Rhoda herself, returning from a walk, came up to the door. She offered her hand gravely, but with friendliness.
'Miss Barfoot, I am sorry to say, has gone to visit one of our girls who is ill. But I think she will very soon be back. Will you come in?'
'Gladly. I had so counted on an hour's talk.'
Rhoda led him to the drawing-room, excused herself for a few moments, and came back in her ordinary evening dress. Barfoot noticed that her hair was much more becomingly arranged than when he first saw her; so it had been on the last occasion, but for some reason its appearance attracted his eyes this evening. He scrutinized her, at discreet intervals, from head to foot. To Everard, nothing female was alien; woman, merely as woman, interested him profoundly. And this example of her sex had excited his curiosity in no common degree. His concern with her was purely intellectual; she had no sensual attraction for him, but he longed to see further into her mind, to probe the sincerity of the motives she professed, to understand her mechanism, her process of growth. Hitherto he had enjoyed no opportunity of studying this type. For his cousin was a very different person; by habit he regarded her as old, whereas Miss Nunn, in spite of her thirty years, could not possibly be considered past youth.
He enjoyed her air of equality; she sat down with him as a male acquaintance might have done, and he felt sure that her behaviour would be the same under any circumstances. He delighted in the frankness of her speech; it was doubtful whether she regarded any subject as improper for discussion between mature and serious people. Part cause of this, perhaps, was her calm consciousness that she had not a beautiful face. No, it was not beautiful; yet even at the first meeting it did not repel him. Studying her features, he saw how fine was their expression. The prominent forehead, with its little unevenness that meant brains; the straight eyebrows, strongly marked, with deep vertical furrows generally drawn between them; the chestnut-brown eyes, with long lashes; the high-bridged nose, thin and delicate; the intellectual lips, a protrusion of the lower one, though very slight, marking itself when he caught her profile; the big, strong chin; the shapely neck—why, after all, it was a kind of beauty. The head might have been sculptured with fine effect. And she had a well-built frame. He observed her strong wrists, with exquisite vein-tracings on the pure white. Probably her constitution was very sound; she had good teeth, and a healthy brownish complexion.
With reference to the sick girl whom Miss Barfoot was visiting, Everard began what was practically a resumption of their last talk.
'Have you a formal society, with rules and so on?'
'Oh no; nothing of the kind.'
'But you of course select the girls whom you instruct or employ?'
'How I should like to see them all!—I mean,' he added, with a laugh, 'it would be so very interesting. The truth is, my sympathies are strongly with you in much of what you said the other day about women and marriage. We regard the matter from different points of view, but our ends are the same.'
Rhoda moved her eyebrows, and asked calmly,—
'Are you serious?'
'Perfectly. You are absorbed in your present work, that of strengthening women's minds and character; for the final issue of this you can't care much. But to me that is the practical interest. In my mind, you are working for the happiness of men.'
'Indeed?' escaped Rhoda's lips, which had curled in irony.
'Don't misunderstand me. I am not speaking cynically or trivially. The gain of women is also the gain of men. You are bitter against the average man for his low morality; but that fault, on the whole, is directly traceable to the ignobleness of women. Think, and you will grant me this.'
'I see what you mean. Men have themselves to thank for it.'
'Assuredly they have. I say that I am on your side. Our civilization in this point has always been absurdly defective. Men have kept women at a barbarous stage of development, and then complain that they are barbarous. In the same way society does its best to create a criminal class, and then rages against the criminals. But, you see, I am one of the men, and an impatient one too. The mass of women I see about me are so contemptible that, in my haste, I use unjust language. Put yourself in the man's place. Say that there are a million or so of us very intelligent and highly educated. Well, the women of corresponding mind number perhaps a few thousands. The vast majority of men must make a marriage that is doomed to be a dismal failure. We fall in love it is true; but do we really deceive ourselves about the future? A very young man may; why, we know of very young men who are so frantic as to marry girls of the working class—mere lumps of human flesh. But most of us know that our marriage is a pis aller. At first we are sad about it; then we grow cynical, and snap our fingers at moral obligation.'
'Making a bad case very much worse, instead of bravely bettering it.'
'Yes, but human nature is human nature. I am only urging to you the case of average intelligent men. As likely as not—so preposterous are our conventions—you have never heard it put honestly. I tell you the simple truth when I say that more than half these men regard their wives with active disgust. They will do anything to be relieved of the sight of them for as many hours as possible at a time. If circumstances allowed, wives would be abandoned very often indeed.'
'You regret that it isn't done?'
'I prefer to say that I approve it when it is done without disregard of common humanity. There's my friend Orchard. With him it was suicide or freedom from his hateful wife. Most happily, he was able to make provision for her and the children, and had strength to break his bonds. If he had left them to starve, I should have understood it, but couldn't have approved it. There are men who might follow his example, but prefer to put up with a life of torture. Well, they do prefer it, you see. I may think that they are foolishly weak, but I can only recognize that they make a choice between two forms of suffering. They have tender consciences; the thought of desertion is too painful to them. And in a great number of cases, mere considerations of money and the like keep a man bound. But conscience and habit—detestable habit—and fear of public opinion generally hold him.'
'All this is very interesting,' said Rhoda, with grave irony. 'By-the-bye, under the head of detestable habit you would put love of children?'
'That's a motive I oughtn't to have left out. Yet I believe, for most men, it is represented by conscience. The love of children would not generally, in itself, be strong enough to outweigh matrimonial wretchedness. Many an intelligent and kind-hearted man has been driven from his wife notwithstanding thought for his children. He provides for them as well as he can—but, and even for their sakes, he must save himself.'
The expression of Rhoda's countenance suddenly changed. An extreme mobility of facial muscles was one of the things in her that held Everard's attention.
'There's something in your way of putting it that I don't like,' she said, with much frankness; 'but of course I agree with you in the facts. I am convinced that most marriages are hateful, from every point of view. But there will be no improvement until women have revolted against marriage, from a reasonable conviction of its hatefulness.'
'I wish you all success—most sincerely I do.'
He paused, looked about the room, and stroked his ear. Then, in a grave tone,—
'My own ideal of marriage involves perfect freedom on both sides. Of course it could only be realized where conditions are favourable; poverty and other wretched things force us so often to sin against our best beliefs. But there are plenty of people who might marry on these ideal terms. Perfect freedom, sanctioned by the sense of intelligent society, would abolish most of the evils we have in mind. But women must first be civilized; you are quite right in that.'
The door opened, and Miss Barfoot came in. She glanced from one to the other, and without speaking gave her hand to Everard.
'How is your patient?' he asked.
'A little better, I think. It is nothing dangerous. Here's a letter from your brother Tom. Perhaps I had better read it at once; there may be news you would like to hear.'
She sat down and broke the envelope. Whilst she was reading the letter to herself, Rhoda quietly left the room.
'Yes, there is news,' said Miss Barfoot presently, 'and of a disagreeable kind. A few weeks ago—before writing, that is—he was thrown off a horse and had a rib fractured.'
'Oh? How is he going on?'
'Getting right again, he says. And they are coming back to England; his wife's consumptive symptoms have disappeared, of course, and she is very impatient to leave Madeira. It is to be hoped she will allow poor Tom time to get his rib set. Probably that consideration doesn't weigh much with her. He says that he is writing to you by the same mail.'
'Poor old fellow!' said Everard, with feeling. 'Does he complain about his wife?'
'He never has done till now, but there's a sentence here that reads doubtfully. "Muriel," he says, "has been terribly upset about my accident. I can't persuade her that I didn't get thrown on purpose; yet I assure you I didn't."'
'If old Tom becomes ironical, he must be hard driven. I have no great longing to meet Mrs. Thomas.'
'She's a silly and a vulgar woman. But I told him that in plain terms before he married. It says much for his good nature that he remains so friendly with me. Read the letter, Everard.'
He did so.
'H'm—very kind things about me. Good old Tom! Why don't I marry? Well, now, one would have thought that his own experience—'
Miss Barfoot began to talk about something else. Before very long Rhoda came back, and in the conversation that followed it was mentioned that she would leave for her holiday in two days.
'I have been reading about Cheddar,' exclaimed Everard, with animation. 'There's a flower grows among the rocks called the Cheddar pink. Do you know it?'
'Oh, very well,' Rhoda answered. 'I'll bring you some specimens.'
'Will you? That's very kind.'
'Bring me a genuine pound or two of the cheese, Rhoda,' requested Miss Barfoot gaily.
'I will. What they sell in the shops there is all sham, Mr. Barfoot—like so much else in this world.'
'I care nothing about the cheese. That's all very well for a matter-of-fact person like cousin Mary, but I have a strong vein of poetry; you must have noticed it?'
When they shook hands,—
'You will really bring me the flowers?' Everard said in a voice sensibly softened.
'I will make a note of it,' was the reassuring answer.