When they reached the house at Herne Hill the sisters were both in a state of nervous tremor. Monica had only the vaguest idea of the kind of person Mrs. Luke Widdowson would prove to be, and Virginia seemed to herself to be walking in a dream.
'Have you been here often?' whispered the latter, as soon as they came in view of the place. Its aspect delighted her, but the conflict of her emotions was so disturbing that she had to pause and seek the support of her sister's arm.
'I've never been inside,' Monica answered indistinctly. 'Come; we shall be unpunctual.'
'I do wish you would tell me, dear—'
'I can't talk, Virgie. Try and keep quiet, and behave as if it were all quite natural.'
This was altogether beyond Virginia's power. It happened most luckily, though greatly to Widdowson's annoyance, that the sister-in-law, Mrs. Luke Widdowson, arrived nearly half an hour later than the time she had appointed. Led by the servant into a comfortable drawing-room, the visitors were received by the master of the house alone; with a grim smile, the result of his embarrassment, with profuse apologies and a courtesy altogether excessive, Widdowson did his best to put them at their ease—of course with small result. The sisters side by side on a settee at one end of the room, and the host seated far away from them, they talked with scarcely any understanding of what was said on either side—the weather and the vastness of London serving as topics—until of a sudden the door was thrown open, and there appeared a person of such imposing presence that Virginia gave a start and Monica gazed in painful fascination. Mrs. Luke was a tall and portly woman in the prime of life, with rather a high colour; her features were handsome, but without much refinement, their expression a condescending good-humour. Her mourning garb, if mourning it could be called, represented an extreme of the prevailing fashion; its glint and rustle inspired awe in the female observer. A moment ago the drawing-room had seemed empty; Mrs. Luke, in her sole person, filled and illumined it.
Widdowson addressed this resplendent personage by her Christian name, his familiarity exciting in Monica an irrational surprise. He presented the sisters to her, and Mrs. Luke, bowing grandly at a distance, drew from her bosom a gold-rimmed pince-nez, through which she scrutinized Monica. The smile which followed might have been interpreted in several senses; Widdowson, alone capable of remarking it, answered with a look of severe dignity.
Mrs. Luke had no thought of apologizing for the lateness of her arrival, and it was evident that she did not intend to stay long. Her purpose seemed to be to make the occasion as informal as possible.
'Do you, by chance, know the Hodgson Bulls?' she asked of her relative, interrupting him in the nervous commonplaces with which he was endeavouring to smooth the way to a general conversation. She had the accent of cultivation, but spoke rather imperiously.
'I never heard of them,' was the cold reply.
'No? They live somewhere about here. I have to make a call on them. I suppose my coachman will find the place.'
There was an awkward silence. Widdowson was about to say something to Monica, when Mrs. Luke, who had again closely observed the girl through the glasses, interposed in a gentle tone.
'Do you like this neighbourhood, Miss Madden?'
Monica gave the expected answer, her voice sounding very weak and timid by comparison. And so, for some ten minutes, an appearance of dialogue was sustained. Mrs. Luke, though still condescending, evinced a desire to be agreeable; she smiled and nodded in reply to the girl's remarks, and occasionally addressed Virginia with careful civility, conveying the impression, perhaps involuntarily, that she commiserated the shy and shabbily-dressed person. Tea was brought in, and after pretending to take a cup, she rose for departure.
'Perhaps you will come and see me some day, Miss Madden,' fell from her with unanticipated graciousness, as she stepped forward to the girl and offered her hand. 'Edmund must bring you—at some quiet time when we can talk. Very glad to have met you—very glad indeed.'
And the personage was gone; they heard her carriage roll away from beneath the window. All three drew a breath of relief, and Widdowson, suddenly quite another man, took a place near to Virginia, with whom in a few minutes he was conversing in the friendliest way. Virginia, experiencing a like relief, also became herself; she found courage to ask needful questions, which in every case were satisfactorily met. Of Mrs. Luke there was no word, but when they had taken their leave—the visit lasted altogether some two hours—Monica and her sister discussed that great lady with the utmost freedom. They agreed that she was personally detestable.
'But very rich, my dear,' said Virginia in a murmuring voice. 'You can see that. I have met such people before; they have a manner—oh! Of course Mr. Widdowson will take you to call upon her.'
'When nobody else is likely to be there; that's what she meant,' remarked Monica coldly.
'Never mind, my love. You don't wish for grand society. I am very glad to tell you that Edmund impresses me very favourably. He is reserved, but that is no fault. Oh, we must write to Alice at once! Her surprise! Her delight!'
When, on the next day, Monica met her betrothed in Regent's Park—she still lived with Mildred Vesper, but no longer went to Great Portland Street—their talk was naturally of Mrs. Luke. Widdowson speedily led to the topic.
'I had told you,' he said, with careful accent, 'that I see very little of her. I can't say that I like her, but she is a very difficult person to understand, and I fancy she often gives offence when she doesn't at all mean it. Still, I hope you were not—displeased?'
Monica avoided a direct answer.
'Shall you take me to see her?' were her words.
'If you will go, dear. And I have no doubt she will be present at our wedding. Unfortunately, she's my only relative; or the only one I know anything about. After our marriage I don't think we shall see much of her—'
'No, I dare say not,' was Monica's remark. And thereupon they turned to pleasanter themes.
That morning Widdowson had received from his sister-in-law a scribbled post-card, asking him to call upon Mrs. Luke early the day that followed. Of course this meant that the lady was desirous of further talk concerning Miss Madden. Unwillingly, but as a matter of duty, he kept the appointment. It was at eleven in the morning, and, when admitted to the flat in Victoria Street which was his relative's abode, he had to wait a quarter of an hour for the lady's appearance.
Luxurious fashion, as might have been expected, distinguished Mrs. Luke's drawing-room. Costly and beautiful things superabounded; perfume soothed the air. Only since her bereavement had Mrs. Widdowson been able to indulge this taste for modern exuberance in domestic adornment. The deceased Luke was a plain man of business, who clung to the fashions which had been familiar to him in his youth; his second wife found a suburban house already furnished, and her influence with him could not prevail to banish the horrors amid which he chose to live: chairs in maroon rep, Brussels carpets of red roses on a green ground, horse-hair sofas of the most uncomfortable shape ever designed, antimacassars everywhere, chimney ornaments of cut glass trembling in sympathy with the kindred chandeliers. She belonged to an obscure branch of a house that culminated in an obscure baronetcy; penniless and ambitious, she had to thank her imposing physique for rescue at a perilous age, and though despising Mr. Luke Widdowson for his plebeian tastes, she shrewdly retained the good-will of a husband who seemed no candidate for length of years. The money-maker died much sooner than she could reasonably have hoped, and left her an income of four thousand pounds. Thereupon began for Mrs. Luke a life of feverish aspiration. The baronetcy to which she was akin had inspired her, even from childhood, with an aristocratic ideal; a handsome widow of only eight-and-thirty, she resolved that her wealth should pave the way for her to a titled alliance. Her acquaintance lay among City people, but with the opportunities of freedom it was soon extended to the sphere of what is known as smart society; her flat in Victoria Street attracted a heterogeneous cluster of pleasure-seekers and fortune-hunters, among them one or two vagrant members of the younger aristocracy. She lived at the utmost pace compatible with technical virtue. When, as shortly happened, it became evident that her income was not large enough for her serious purpose, she took counsel with an old friend great in finance, and thenceforth the excitement of the gambler gave a new zest to her turbid existence. Like most of her female associates, she had free recourse to the bottle; but for such stimulus the life of a smart woman would be physically impossible. And Mrs. Luke enjoyed life, enjoyed it vastly. The goal of her ambition, if all went well in the City, was quite within reasonable hope. She foretasted the day when a vulgar prefix would no longer attach to her name, and when the journals of society would reflect her rising effulgence.
Widdowson was growing impatient, when his relative at length appeared. She threw herself into a deep chair, crossed her legs, and gazed at him mockingly.
'Well, it isn't quite so bad as I feared, Edmund.'
'What do you mean?'
'Oh, she's a decent enough little girl, I can see. But you're a silly fellow for all that. You couldn't have deceived me, you know. If there'd been anything—you understand?—I should have spotted it at once.'
'I don't relish this kind of talk,' observed Widdowson acidly. 'In plain English, you supposed I was going to marry some one about whom I couldn't confess the truth.'
'Of course I did. Now come; tell me how you got to know her.'
The man moved uneasily, but in the end related the whole story. Mrs. Luke kept nodding, with an amused air.
'Yes, yes; she managed it capitally. Clever little witch. Fetching eyes she has.'
'If you sent for me to make insulting remarks—'
'Bosh! I'll come to the wedding gaily. But you're a silly fellow. Now, why didn't you come and ask me to find you a wife? Why, I know two or three girls of really good family who would have jumped, simply jumped, at a man with your money. Pretty girls too. But you always were so horribly unpractical. Don't you know, my dear boy, that there are heaps of ladies, real ladies, waiting the first decent man who offers them five or six hundred a year? Why haven't you used the opportunities that you knew I could put in your way?'
Widdowson rose from his seat and stood stiffly.
'I see you don't understand me in the least. I am going to marry because, for the first time in my life, I have met the woman whom I can respect and love.'
'That's very nice and proper. But why shouldn't you respect and love a girl who belongs to good society?'
'Miss Madden is a lady,' he replied indignantly.
'Oh—yes—to be sure,' hummed the other, letting her head roll back. 'Well, bring her here some day when we can lunch quietly together. I see it's no use. You're not a sharp man, Edmund.'
'Do you seriously tell me,' asked Widdowson, with grave curiosity, 'that there are ladies in good society who would have married me just because I have a few hundreds a year?'
'My dear boy, I would get together a round dozen in two or three days. Girls who would make good, faithful wives, in mere gratitude to the man who saved them from—horrors.'
'Excuse me if I say that I don't believe it.'
Mrs. Luke laughed merrily, and the conversation went on in this strain for another ten minutes. At the end, Mrs. Luke made herself very agreeable, praised Monica for her sweet face and gentle manners, and so dismissed the solemn man with a renewed promise to countenance the marriage by her gracious presence.
When Rhoda Nunn returned from her holiday it wanted but a week to Monica's wedding, so speedily had everything been determined and arranged. Miss Barfoot, having learnt from Virginia all that was to be known concerning Mr. Widdowson, felt able to hope for the best; a grave husband, of mature years, and with means more than sufficient, seemed, to the eye of experience, no unsuitable match for a girl such as Monica. This view of the situation caused Rhoda to smile with contemptuous tolerance.
'And yet,' she remarked, 'I have heard you speak severely of such marriages.'
'It isn't the ideal wedlock,' replied Miss Barfoot. 'But so much in life is compromise. After all, she may regard him more affectionally than we imagine.'
'No doubt she has weighed advantages. If the prospects you offered her had proved more to her taste she would have dismissed this elderly admirer. His fate has been decided during the last few weeks. It's probable that the invitation to your Wednesday evenings gave her a hope of meeting young men.'
'I see no harm if it did,' said Miss Barfoot, smiling. 'But Miss Vesper would very soon undeceive her on that point.'
'I hardly thought of her as a girl likely to make chance friendships with men in highways and by-ways.'
'No more did I; and that makes all the more content with what has come about. She ran a terrible risk, poor child. You see, Rhoda, nature is too strong for us.'
Rhoda threw her head back.
'And the delight of her sister! It is really pathetic. The mere fact that Monica is to be married blinds the poor woman to every possibility of misfortune.' In the course of the same conversation, Rhoda remarked thoughtfully,—
'It strikes me that Mr. Widdowson must be of a confiding nature. I don't think men in general, at all events those with money, care to propose marriage to girls they encounter by the way.'
'I suppose he saw that the case was exceptional.'
'How was he to see that?'
'You are severe. Her shop training accounts for much. The elder sisters could never have found a husband in this way. The revelation must have shocked them at first.'
Rhoda dismissed the subject lightly, and henceforth showed only the faintest interest in Monica's concerns.
Monica meanwhile rejoiced in her liberation from the work and philosophic severities of Great Portland Street. She saw Widdowson somewhere or other every day, and heard him discourse on the life that was before them, herself for the most part keeping silence. Together they called upon Mrs. Luke, and had luncheon with her. Monica was not displeased with her reception, and began secretly to hope that more than a glimpse of that gorgeous world might some day be vouchsafed to her.
Apart from her future husband, Monica was in a sportive mood, with occasional fits of exhilaration which seemed rather unnatural. She had declared to Mildred her intention of inviting Miss Nunn to the wedding, and her mind was evidently set on carrying out this joke, as she regarded it. When the desire was intimated by letter, Rhoda replied with a civil refusal: she would be altogether out of place at such a ceremony, but hoped that Monica would accept her heartiest good wishes. Virginia was then dispatched to Queen's Road, and appealed so movingly that the prophetess at length yielded. On hearing this Monica danced with delight, and her companion in Rutland Street could not help sharing her merriment.
The ceremony was performed at a church at Herne Hill. By an odd arrangement—like everything else in the story of this pair, a result of social and personal embarrassments—Monica's belongings, including her apparel for the day, were previously dispatched to the bridegroom's house, whither, in company with Virginia, the bride went early in the morning. It was one of the quietest of weddings, but all ordinary formalities were complied with, Widdowson having no independent views on the subject. Present were Virginia (to give away the bride), Miss Vesper (who looked decidedly odd in a pretty dress given her by Monica), Rhoda Nunn (who appeared to advantage in a costume of quite unexpected appropriateness), Mrs. Widdowson (an imposing figure, evidently feeling that she had got into strange society), and, as friend of the bridegroom, one Mr. Newdick, a musty and nervous City clerk. Depression was manifest on every countenance, not excepting Widdowson's; the man had such a stern, gloomy look, and held himself with so much awkwardness, that he might have been imagined to stand here on compulsion. For an hour before going to the church, Monica cried and seemed unutterably doleful; she had not slept for two nights; her face was ghastly. Virginia's gladness gave way just before the company assembled, and she too shed many tears.
There was a breakfast, more dismal fooling than even this species of fooling is wont to be. Mr. Newdick, trembling and bloodless, proposed Monica's health; Widdowson, stern and dark as ever, gloomily responded; and then, that was happily over. By one o'clock the gathering began to disperse. Monica drew Rhoda Nunn aside.
'It was very kind of you to come,' she whispered, with half a sob. 'It all seems very silly, and I'm sure you have wished yourself away a hundred times. I am really, seriously, grateful to you.'
Rhoda put a hand on each side of the girl's face, and kissed her, but without saying a word; and thereupon left the house. Mildred Vesper, after changing her dress in the room used by Monica, as she had done on arriving, went off by train to her duties in Great Portland Street. Virginia alone remained to see the married couple start for their honeymoon. They were going into Cornwall, and on the return journey would manage to see Miss Madden at her Somerset retreat. For the present, Virginia was to live on at Mrs. Conisbee's, but not in the old way; henceforth she would have proper attendance, and modify her vegetarian diet—at the express bidding of the doctor, as she explained to her landlady.
Though that very evening Everard Barfoot made a call upon his friends in Chelsea, the first since Rhoda's return from Cheddar, he heard nothing of the event that marked the day. But Miss Nunn appeared to him unlike herself; she was absent, had little to say, and looked, what he had never yet known her, oppressed by low spirits. For some reason or other Miss Barfoot left the room.
'You are thinking with regret of your old home,' Everard remarked, taking a seat nearer to Miss Nunn.
'No. Why should you fancy that?'
'Only because you seem rather sad.'
'One is sometimes.'
'I like to see you with that look. May I remind you that you promised me some flowers from Cheddar?'
'Oh, so I did,' exclaimed the other in a tone of natural recollection. 'I have brought them, scientifically pressed between blotting-paper. I'll fetch them.'
When she returned it was together with Miss Barfoot, and the conversation became livelier.
A day or two after this Everard left town, and was away for three weeks, part of the time in Ireland.
'I left London for a while,' he wrote from Killarney to his cousin, 'partly because I was afraid I had begun to bore you and Miss Nunn. Don't you regret giving me permission to call upon you? The fact is, I can't live without intelligent female society; talking with women, as I talk with you two, is one of my chief enjoyments. I hope you won't get tired of my visits; in fact, they are all but a necessity to me, as I have discovered since coming away. But it was fair that you should have a rest.'
'Don't be afraid,' Miss Barfoot replied to this part of his letter. 'We are not at all weary of your conversation. The truth is, I like it much better than in the old days. You seem to me to have a healthier mind, and I am quite sure that the society of intelligent women (we affect no foolish self-depreciation, Miss Nunn and I) is a good thing for you. Come back to us as soon as you like; I shall welcome you.'
It happened that his return to England was almost simultaneous with the arrival from Madeira of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Barfoot. Everard at once went to see his brother, who for the present was staying at Torquay. Ill-health dictated his choice of residence; Thomas was still suffering from the results of his accident; his wife had left him at a hotel, and was visiting relatives in different parts of England. The brothers exhibited much affectionate feeling after their long separation; they spent a week together, and planned for another meeting when Mrs. Thomas should have returned to her husband.
An engagement called Everard back to town. He was to be present at the wedding of his friend Micklethwaite, now actually on the point of taking place. The mathematician had found a suitable house, very small and of very low rental, out at South Tottenham, and thither was transferred the furniture which had been in his bride's possession since the death of her parents; Micklethwaite bought only a few new things. By discreet inquiry, Barfoot had discovered that 'Fanny,' though musically inclined, would not possess a piano, her old instrument being quite worn out and not worth the cost of conveyance; thus it came to pass that, a day or two before the wedding, Micklethwaite was astonished by the arrival of an instrument of the Cottage species, mysteriously addressed to a person not yet in existence, Mrs. Micklethwaite.
'You scoundrel!' he cried, when, on the next day, Barfoot presented himself at the house. 'This is your doing. What the deuce do you mean? A man who complains of poverty! Well, it's the greatest kindness I ever received, that's all. Fanny will be devoted to you. With music in the house, our blind sister will lead quite a different life. Confound it! I want to begin crying. Why, man, I'm not accustomed to receive presents, even as a proxy; I haven't had one since I was a schoolboy.'
'That's an audacious statement. When you told me that Miss Wheatley never allowed your birthday to pass without sending something.'
'Oh, Fanny! But I have never thought of Fanny as a separate person. Upon my word, now I think of it, I never have. Fanny and I have been one for ages.'
That evening the sisters arrived from their country home. Micklethwaite gave up the house to them, and went to a lodging.
It was with no little curiosity that, on the appointed morning, Barfoot repaired to South Tottenham. He had seen a photograph of Miss Wheatley, but it dated from seventeen years ago. Standing in her presence, he was moved with compassion, and with another feeling more rarely excited in him by a woman's face, that of reverential tenderness. Impossible to recognize in this countenance the features known to him from the portrait. At three-and-twenty she had possessed a sweet, simple comeliness on which any man's eye would have rested with pleasure; at forty she was wrinkled, hollow-cheeked, sallow, indelible weariness stamped upon her brow and lips. She looked much older than Mary Barfoot, though they were just of an age. And all this for want of a little money. The life of a pure, gentle, tender-hearted woman worn away in hopeless longing and in hard struggle for daily bread. As she took his hand and thanked him with an exquisite modesty for the present she had received, Everard felt a lump rise in his throat. He was ashamed to notice that the years had dealt so unkindly with her; fixing his look upon her eyes, he gladdened at the gladness which shone in them, at the soft light which they could still shed forth.
Micklethwaite was probably unconscious of the poor woman's faded appearance. He had seen her from time to time, and always with the love which idealizes. In his own pathetic phrase, she was simply a part of himself; he no more thought of criticizing her features than of standing before the glass to mark and comment upon his own. It was enough to glance at him as he took his place beside her, the proudest and happiest of men. A miracle had been wrought for him; kind fate, in giving her to his arms, had blotted out those long years of sorrow, and to-day Fanny was the betrothed of his youth, beautiful in his sight as when first he looked upon her.
Her sister, younger by five years, had more regular lineaments, but she too was worn with suffering, and her sightless eyes made it more distressing to contemplate her. She spoke cheerfully, however, and laughed with joy in Fanny's happiness. Barfoot pressed both her hands with the friendliest warmth.
One vehicle conveyed them all to the church, and in half an hour the lady to whom the piano was addressed had come into being. The simplest of transformations; no bridal gown, no veil, no wreath; only the gold ring for symbol of union. And it might have happened nigh a score of years ago; nigh a score of years lost from the span of human life—all for want of a little money.
'I will say good-bye to you here,' muttered Everard to his friend at the church door.
The married man gripped him by the arm.
'You will do nothing of the kind.—Fanny, he wants to be off at once!—You won't go until you have heard my wife play something on that blessed instrument.'
So all entered a cab again and drove back to the house. A servant who had come with Fanny from the country, a girl of fifteen, opened the door to them, smiling and curtseying. And all sat together in happy talk, the blind woman gayest among them; she wished to have the clergyman described to her, and the appearance of the church. Then Mrs. Micklethwaite placed herself at the piano, and played simple, old-fashioned music, neither well nor badly, but to the infinite delight of two of her hearers.
'Mr. Barfoot,' said the sister at length, 'I have known your name for a long time, but I little thought to meet you on such a day as this, and to owe you such endless thanks. So long as I can have music I forget that I can't see.'
'Barfoot is the finest fellow on earth,' exclaimed Micklethwaite. 'At least, he would be if he understood Trilinear Co-ordinates.'
'Are you strong in mathematics, Mrs. Micklethwaite?' asked Everard.
'I? Oh dear, no! I never got much past the Rule of Three. But Tom has forgiven me that long ago.'
'I don't despair of getting you into plane trigonometry, Fanny. We will gossip about sines and co-sines before we die.'
It was said half-seriously, and Everard could not but burst into laughter.
He sat down with them to their plain midday meal, and early in the afternoon took his leave. He had no inclination to go home, if the empty flat could be dignified with such a name. After reading the papers at his club, he walked aimlessly about the streets until it was time to return to the same place for dinner. Then he sat with a cigar, dreaming, and at half-past eight went to the Royal Oak Station, and journeyed to Chelsea.