The sick girl whom Miss Barfoot had been to see was Monica Madden.
With strange suddenness, after several weeks of steady application to her work, in a cheerful spirit which at times rose to gaiety, Monica became dull, remiss, unhappy; then violent headaches attacked her, and one morning she declared herself unable to rise. Mildred Vesper went to Great Portland Street at the usual hour, and informed Miss Barfoot of her companion's illness. A doctor was summoned; to him it seemed probable that the girl was suffering from consequences of overstrain at her old employment; there was nervous collapse, hysteria, general disorder of the system. Had the patient any mental disquietude? Was trouble of any kind (the doctor smiled) weighing upon her? Miss Barfoot, unable to answer these questions, held private colloquy with Mildred; but the latter, though she pondered a good deal with corrugated brows, could furnish no information.
In a day or two Monica was removed to her sister's lodgings at Lavender Hill. Mrs. Conisbee managed to put a room at her disposal, and Virginia tended her. Thither Miss Barfoot went on the evening when Everard found her away; she and Virginia, talking together after being with the invalid for a quarter of an hour, agreed that there was considerable improvement, but felt a like uneasiness regarding Monica's state of mind.
'Do you think,' asked the visitor, 'that she regrets the step I persuaded her to take?'
'Oh, I can't think that! She has been so delighted with her progress each time I have seen her. No, I feel sure it's only the results of what she suffered at Walworth Road. In a very short time we shall have her at work again, and brighter than ever.'
Miss Barfoot was not convinced. After Everard's departure that evening she talked of the matter with Rhoda.
'I'm afraid,' said Miss Nunn, 'that Monica is rather a silly girl. She doesn't know her own mind. If this kind of thing is repeated, we had better send her back to the country.'
'To shop work again?'
'It might be better.'
'Oh, I don't like the thought of that.'
Rhoda had one of her fits of wrathful eloquence.
'Now could one have a better instance than this Madden family of the crime that middle-class parents commit when they allow their girls to go without rational training? Of course I know that Monica was only a little child when they were left orphans; but her sisters had already grown up into uselessness, and their example has been harmful to her all along. Her guardians dealt with her absurdly; they made her half a lady and half a shop-girl. I don't think she'll ever be good for much. And the elder ones will go on just keeping themselves alive; you can see that. They'll never start the school that there's so much talk of. That poor, helpless, foolish Virginia, alone there in her miserable lodging! How can we hope that any one will take her as a companion? And yet they are capitalists; eight hundred pounds between them. Think what capable women might do with eight hundred pounds.'
'I am really afraid to urge them to meddle with the investments.'
'Of course; so am I. One is afraid to do or propose anything. Virginia is starving, must be starving. Poor creature! I can never forget how her eyes shone when I put that joint of meat before her.'
'I do, do wish,' sighed Miss Barfoot, with a pained smile, 'that I knew some honest man who would be likely to fall in love with little Monica! In spite of you, my dear, I would devote myself to making the match. But there's no one.'
'Oh, I would help,' laughed Rhoda, not unkindly. 'She's fit for nothing else, I'm afraid. We mustn't look for any kind of heroism in Monica.'
Less than half an hour after Miss Barfoot had left the house at Lavender Hill, Mildred Vesper made a call there. It was about half-past nine; the invalid, after sitting up since midday, had gone to bed, but could not sleep. Summoned to the house-door, Virginia acquainted Miss Vesper with the state of affairs.
'I think you might see her for a few minutes.'
'I should like to, if you please, Miss Madden,' replied Mildred, who had a rather uneasy look.
She went upstairs and entered the bedroom, where a lamp was burning. At the sight of her friend Monica showed much satisfaction; they kissed each other affectionately.
'Good old girl! I had made up my mind to come back tomorrow, or at all events the day after. It's so frightfully dull here. Oh, and I wanted to know if anything—any letter—had come for me.'
'That's just why I came to see you to-night.'
Mildred took a letter from her pocket, and half averted her face as she handed it.
'It's nothing particular,' said Monica, putting it away under her pillow. 'Thank you, dear.'
But her cheeks had become hot, and she trembled.
'You wouldn't care to tell me about—anything? You don't think it would make your mind easier?'
For a minute Monica lay back, gazing at the wall, then she looked round quickly, with a shamefaced laugh.
'It's very silly of me not to have told you long before this. But you're so sensible; I was afraid. I'll tell you everything. Not now, but as soon as I get to Rutland Street. I shall come to-morrow.'
'Do you think you can? You look dreadfully bad still.'
'I shan't get any better here,' replied the invalid in a whisper. 'Poor Virgie does depress me so. She doesn't understand that I can't bear to hear her repeating the kind of things she has heard from Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn. She tries so hard to look forward hopefully—but I know she is miserable, and it makes me more miserable still. I oughtn't to have left you; I should have been all right in a day or two, with you to help me. You don't make-believe, Milly; it's all real and natural good spirits. It has done me good only to see your dear old face.'
'Oh, you're a flatterer. And do you really feel better?'
'Very much better. I shall go to sleep very soon.'
The visitor took her leave. When, a few minutes after, Monica had bidden good-night to her sister (requesting that the lamp might be left), she read what Mildred had brought.
'MY DEAREST MONICA,'—the missive began—'Why have you not written before this? I have been dreadfully uneasy ever since receiving your last letter. Your headache soon went away, I hope? Why haven't you made another appointment? It is all I can do to keep from breaking my promise and coming to ask about you. Write at once, I implore you, my dearest. It's no use telling me that I must not use these words of affection; they come to my lips and to my pen irresistibly. You know so well that I love you with all my heart and soul; I can't address you like I did when we first corresponded. My darling! My dear, sweet, beautiful little girl—'
Four close pages of this, with scarce room at the end for 'E.W.' When she had gone through it, Monica turned her face upon the pillow and lay so for a long time. A clock in the house struck eleven; this roused her, and she slipped out of the bed to hide the letter in her dress-pocket. Not long after she was asleep.
The next day, on returning from her work and opening the sitting-room door, Mildred Vesper was greeted with a merry laugh. Monica had been here since three o'clock, and had made tea in readiness for her friend's arrival. She looked very white, but her eyes gleamed with pleasure, and she moved about the room as actively as before.
'Virgie came with me, but she wouldn't stay. She says she has a most important letter to write to Alice—about the school, of course. Oh, that school! I do wish they could make up their minds. I've told them they may have all my money, if they like.'
'Have you? I should like the sensation of offering hundreds of pounds to some one. It must give a strange feeling of dignity and importance.'
'Oh, only two hundred! A wretched little sum.'
'You are a person of large ideas, as I have often told you. Where did you get them, I wonder?'
'Don't put on that face! It's the one I like least of all your many faces. It's suspicious.'
Mildred went to take off her things, and was quickly at the tea-table. She had a somewhat graver look than usual, and chose rather to listen than talk.
Not long after tea, when there had been a long and unnatural silence, Mildred making pretence of absorption in a 'Treasury' and her companion standing at the window, whence she threw back furtive glances, the thunder of a postman's knock downstairs caused both of them to start, and look at each other in a conscience-stricken way.
'That may be for me,' said Monica, stepping to the door. 'I'll go and look.'
Her conjecture was right. Another letter from Widdowson, still more alarmed and vehement than the last. She read it rapidly on the staircase, and entered the room with sheet and envelope squeezed together in her hand.
'I'm going to tell you all about this, Milly.'
The other nodded and assumed an attitude of sober attention. In relating her story, Monica moved hither and thither; now playing with objects on the mantlepiece, now standing in the middle of the floor, hands locked nervously behind her. Throughout, her manner was that of defence; she seemed doubtful of herself, and anxious to represent the case as favourably as possible; not for a moment had her voice the ring of courageous passion, nor the softness of tender feeling. The narrative hung together but awkwardly, and in truth gave a very indistinct notion of how she had comported herself at the various stages of the irregular courtship. Her behaviour had been marked by far more delicacy and scruple than she succeeded in representing. Painfully conscious of this, she exclaimed at length,—
'I see your opinion of me has suffered. You don't like this story. You wonder how I could do such things.'
'Well, dear, I certainly wonder how you could begin,' Mildred made answer, with her natural directness, but gently. 'Afterwards, of course, it was different. When you had once got to be sure that he was a gentleman—'
'I was sure of that so soon,' exclaimed Monica, her cheeks still red. 'You will understand it much better when you have seen him.'
'You wish me to?'
'I am going to write now, and say that I will marry him.'
They looked long at each other.
'Yes. I made up my mind last night.'
'But, Monica—you mustn't mind my speaking plainly—I don't think you love him.'
'Yes, I love him well enough to feel that I am doing right in marrying him.' She sat down by the table, and propped her head on her hand. 'He loves me; I can't doubt that. If you could read his letters, you would see how strong his feeling is.'
She shook with the cold induced by excitement; her voice was at moments all but choked.
'But, putting love aside,' went on the other, very gravely, 'what do you really know of Mr. Widdowson? Nothing whatever but what he has told you himself. Of course you will let your friends make inquiries for you?'
'Yes. I shall tell my sisters, and no doubt they will go to Miss Nunn at once. I don't want to do anything rash. But it will be all right—I mean, he has told me the truth about everything. You would be sure of that if you knew him.'
Mildred, with hands before her on the table, made the tips of her fingers meet. Her lips were drawn in; her eyes seemed looking for something minute on the cloth.
'You know,' she said at length, 'I suspected what was going on. I couldn't help.'
'Of course you couldn't.'
'Naturally I thought it was some one whose acquaintance you had made at the shop.'
'How could I think of marrying any one of that kind?'
'I should have been grieved.'
'You may believe me, Milly; Mr. Widdowson is a man you will respect and like as soon as you know him. He couldn't have behaved to me with more delicacy. Not a word from him, spoken or written, has ever pained me—except that he tells me he suffers so dreadfully, and of course I can't hear that without pain.'
'To respect, and even to like, a man, isn't at all the same as loving him.'
'I said you would respect and like him,' exclaimed Monica, with humorous impatience. 'I don't want you to love him.'
Mildred laughed, with constraint.
'I never loved any one yet, dear, and it's very unlikely I ever shall. But I think I know the signs of the feeling.'
Monica came behind her, and leaned upon her shoulder.
'He loves me so much that he has made me think I must marry him. And I am glad of it. I'm not like you, Milly; I can't be contented with this life. Miss Barfoot and Miss Nunn are very sensible and good people, and I admire them very much, but I can't go their way. It seems to me that it would be dreadful, dreadful, to live one's life alone. Don't turn round and snap at me; I want to tell you the truth whilst you can't see me. Whenever I think of Alice and Virginia, I am frightened; I had rather, oh, far rather, kill myself than live such a life at their age. You can't imagine how miserable they are, really. And I have the same nature as theirs, you know. Compared with you and Miss Haven I'm very weak and childish.'
After drumming on the table for a moment, with wrinkled brows, Mildred made grave response.
'You must let me tell the truth as well. I think you're going to marry with altogether wrong ideas. I think you'll do an injustice to Mr. Widdowson. You will marry him for a comfortable home—that's what it amounts to. And you'll repent it bitterly some day—you'll repent.'
Monica raised herself and stood apart.
'For one thing,' pursued Mildred, with nervous earnestness, 'he's too old. Your habits and his won't suit.'
'He has assured me that I shall live exactly the kind of life I please. And that will be what he pleases. I feel his kindness to me very much, and I shall do my utmost to repay him.'
'That's a very nice spirit; but I believe married life is no easy thing even when the people are well matched. I have heard the most dreadful stories of quarrelling and all sorts of unhappiness between people I thought safe from any such dangers. You may be fortunate; I only say that the chances are very much against it, marrying from such motives as you confess.'
Monica drew herself up.
'I haven't confessed any motive to be ashamed of, Milly.'
'You say you have decided to marry now because you are afraid of never having another chance.'
'No; that's turning it very unkindly. I only said that after I had told you that I did love him. And I do love him. He has made me love him.'
'Then I have no right to say any more. I can only wish you happiness.'
Mildred heaved a sigh, and pretended to give her attention to Maunder.
After waiting irresolutely for some minutes, Monica looked for notepaper, and took it, together with her inkstand, into the bedroom. She was absent half an hour. On her return there was a stamped letter in her hand.
'It is going, Milly.'
'Very well, dear. I have nothing more to say.'
'You give me up for lost. We shall see.'
It was spoken light-heartedly. Again she left the room, put on her out-of-door things, and went to post the letter. By this time she began to feel the results of exertion and excitement; headache and tremulous failing of her strength obliged her to go to bed almost as soon as she returned. Mildred waited upon her with undiminished kindness.
'It's all right,' Monica murmured, as her head sank on the pillow. 'I feel so relieved and so glad—so happy—now I have done it.'
'Good-night, dear,' replied the other, with a kiss, and went back to her semblance of reading.
Two days later Monica called unexpectedly at Mrs. Conisbee's. Being told by that worthy woman that Miss Madden was at home, she ran upstairs and tapped at the door. Virginia's voice inquired hurriedly who was there, and on Monica's announcing herself there followed a startled exclamation.
'Just a minute, my love! Only a minute.'
When the door opened Monica was surprised by a disorder in her sister's appearance. Virginia had flushed cheeks, curiously vague eyes, and hair ruffled as if she had just risen from a nap. She began to talk in a hurried, disconnected way, trying to explain that she had not been quite well, and was not yet properly dressed.
'What a strange smell!' Monica exclaimed, looking about the room. 'It's like brandy.'
'You notice it? I have—I was obliged to get—to ask Mrs. Conisbee for—I don't want to alarm you, dear, but I felt rather faint. Indeed, I thought I should have a fainting fit. I was obliged to call Mrs. Conisbee—But don't think anything about it. It's all over. The weather is very trying—'
She laughed nervously and began to pat Monica's hand. The girl was not quite satisfied, and pressed many questions, but in the end she accepted Virginia's assurances that nothing serious had happened. Then her own business occupied her; she sat down, and said with a smile,—
'I have brought you astonishing news. If you didn't faint before you'll be very likely to do so now.'
Her sister exhibited fresh agitation, and begged not to be kept in suspense.
'My nerves are in a shocking state to-day. It must be the weather. What can you have to tell me, Monica?'
'I think I shan't need to go on with typewriting.'
'Why? What are you going to do, child?' the other asked sharply.
'Virgie—I am going to be married.'
The shock was a severe one. Virginia's hands fell, her eyes started, her mouth opened; she became the colour of clay, even her lips losing for the moment all their colour.
'Married?' she at length gasped. 'Who—who is it?'
'Some one you have never heard of. His name is Mr. Edmund Widdowson. He is very well off, and has a house at Herne Hill.'
'A private gentleman?'
'Yes. He used to be in business, but is retired. Now, I am not going to tell you much more about him until you have made his acquaintance. Don't ask a lot of questions. You are to come with me this afternoon to his house. He lives alone, but a relative of his, his sister-in-law, is going to be with him to meet us.'
'Oh, but it's so sudden! I can't go to pay a call like that at a moment's notice. Impossible, darling! What does it all mean? You are going to be married, Monica? I can't understand it. I can't realize it. Who is this gentleman? How long—'
'No; you won't get me to tell you more than I have done, till you have seen him.'
'But what have you told me? I couldn't grasp it. I am quite confused. Mr.—what was the name?'
It took half an hour to familiarize Virginia with the simple fact. When she was convinced of its truth, a paroxysm of delight appeared in her. She laughed, uttered cries of joy, even clapped her hands.
'Monica to be married! A private gentleman—a large fortune! My darling, how shall I ever believe it? Yet I felt so sure that the day would come. What will Alice say? And Rhoda Nunn? Have you—have you ventured to tell her?'
'No, that I haven't. I want you to do that. You shall go and see them to-morrow, as it's Sunday.'
'Oh, the delight! Alice won't be able to contain herself. We always said the day would come.'
'You won't have any more anxieties, Virgie. You can take the school or not, as you like. Mr. Widdowson—'
'Oh, my dear,' interposed Virginia, with sudden dignity, 'we shall certainly open the school. We have made up our minds; that is to be our life's work. It is far, far more than a mere means of subsistence. But perhaps we shall not need to hurry. Everything can be matured at our leisure. If you would only just tell me, darling, when you were first introduced?'
Monica laughed gaily, and refused to explain. It was time for Virginia to make herself ready, and here arose a new perturbation; what had she suitable for wear under such circumstances? Monica had decked herself a little, and helped the other to make the best of her narrow resources. At four o'clock they set out.