When Barfoot made his next evening call Rhoda did not appear. He sat for some time in pleasant talk with his cousin, no reference whatever being made to Miss Nunn; then at length, beginning to fear that he would not see her, he inquired after her health. Miss Nunn was very well, answered the hostess, smiling.
'Not at home this evening?'
'Busy with some kind of study, I think.'
Plainly, the difference between these women had come to a happy end, as Barfoot foresaw that it would. He thought it better to make no mention of his meeting with Rhoda in the gardens.
'That was a very unpleasant affair that I saw your name connected with last week,' he said presently.
'It made me very miserable—ill indeed for a day or two.'
'That was why you couldn't see me?'
'But in your reply to my note you made no mention of the circumstances.'
Miss Barfoot kept silence; frowning slightly, she looked at the fire near which they were both sitting, for the weather had become very cold.
'No doubt,' pursued Everard, glancing at her, 'you refrained out of delicacy—on my account, I mean.'
'Need we talk of it?'
'For a moment, please. You are very friendly with me nowadays, but I suppose your estimate of my character remains very much the same as years ago?'
'What is the use of such questions?'
'I ask for a distinct purpose. You can't regard me with any respect?'
'To tell you the truth, Everard, I know nothing about you. I have no wish to revive disagreeable memories, and I think it quite possible that you may be worthy of respect.'
'So far so good. Now, in justice, please answer me another question. How have you spoken of me to Miss Nunn?'
'How can it matter?'
'It matters a good deal. Have you told her any scandal about me?'
'Yes, I have.'
Everard looked at her with surprise.
'I spoke to Miss Nunn about you,' she continued, 'before I thought of your coming here. Frankly, I used you as an illustration of the evils I abominate.'
'You are a courageous and plain-spoken woman, cousin Mary,' said Everard, laughing a little. 'Couldn't you have found some other example?'
There was no reply.
'So,' he proceeded, 'Miss Nunn regards me as a proved scoundrel?'
'I never told her the story. I made known the general grounds of my dissatisfaction with you, that was all.'
'Come, that's something. I'm glad you didn't amuse her with that unedifying bit of fiction.'
'Yes, fiction,' said Everard bluntly. 'I am not going into details; the thing's over and done with, and I chose my course at the time. But it's as well to let you know that my behaviour was grossly misrepresented. In using me to point a moral you were grievously astray. I shall say no more. If you can believe me, do; if you can't, dismiss the matter from your mind.'
There followed a silence of some moments. Then, with a perfectly calm manner, Miss Barfoot began to speak of a new subject. Everard followed her lead. He did not stay much longer, and on leaving asked to be remembered to Miss Nunn.
A week later he again found his cousin alone. He now felt sure that Miss Nunn was keeping out of his way. Her parting from him in the gardens had been decidedly abrupt, and possibly it signified more serious offence than at the time he attributed to her. It was so difficult to be sure of anything in regard to Miss Nunn. If another woman had acted thus he would have judged it coquetry. But perhaps Rhoda was quite incapable of anything of that kind. Perhaps she took herself so very seriously that the mere suspicion of banter in his talk had moved her to grave resentment. Or again, she might be half ashamed to meet him after confessing her disagreement with Miss Barfoot; on recovery from ill-temper (unmistakable ill-temper it was), she had seen her behaviour in an embarrassing light. Between these various conjectures he wavered whilst talking with Mary. But he did not so much as mention Miss Nunn's name.
Some ten days went by, and he paid a call at the hour sanctioned by society, five in the afternoon; it being Saturday. One of his reasons for coming at this time was the hope that he might meet other callers, for he felt curious to see what sort of people visited the house. And this wish was gratified. On entering the drawing-room, whither he was led by the servant straightway, after the manner of the world, he found not only his cousin and her friend, but two strangers, ladies. A glance informed him that both of these were young and good-looking, one being a type that particularly pleased him—dark, pale, with very bright eyes.
Miss Barfoot received him as any hostess would have done. She was her cheerful self once more, and in a moment introduced him to the lady with whom she had been talking—the dark one, by name Mrs. Widdowson. Rhoda Nunn, sitting apart with the second lady, gave him her hand, but at once resumed her conversation.
With Mrs. Widdowson he was soon chatting in his easy and graceful way, Miss Barfoot putting in a word now and then. He saw that she had not long been married; a pleasant diffidence and the maidenly glance of her bright eyes indicated this. She was dressed very prettily, and seemed aware of it.
'We went to hear the new opera at the Savoy last night,' she said to Miss Barfoot, with a smile of remembered enjoyment.
'Did you? Miss Nunn and I were there.'
Everard gazed at his cousin with humorous incredulity.
'Is it possible?' he exclaimed. 'You were at the Savoy?'
'Where is the impossibility? Why shouldn't Miss Nunn and I go to the theatre?'
'I appeal to Mrs. Widdowson. She also was astonished.'
'Yes, indeed I was, Miss Barfoot!' exclaimed the younger lady, with a merry little laugh. 'I hesitated before speaking of such a frivolous entertainment.'
Lowering her voice, and casting a smile in Rhoda's direction, Miss Barfoot replied,—
'I have to make a concession occasionally on Miss Nunn's account. It would be unkind never to allow her a little recreation.'
The two at a distance were talking earnestly, with grave countenances. In a few moments they rose, and the visitor came towards Miss Barfoot to take her leave. Thereupon Everard crossed to Miss Nunn.
'Is there anything very good in the new Gilbert and Sullivan opera?' he asked.
'Many good things. You really haven't been yet?'
'No—I'm ashamed to say.'
'Do go this evening, if you can get a seat. Which part of the theatre do you prefer?'
His eye rested on her, but he could detect no irony.
'I'm a poor man, you know. I have to be content with the cheap places. Which do you like best, the Savoy operas or the burlesques at the Gaiety?'
A few more such questions and answers, of laboured commonplace or strained flippancy, and Everard, after searching his companion's face, broke off with a laugh.
'There now,' he said, 'we have talked in the approved five o'clock way. Precisely the dialogue I heard in a drawing-room yesterday. It goes on day after day, year after year, through the whole of people's lives.'
'You are on friendly terms with such people?'
'I am on friendly terms with people of every kind.' He added, in an undertone, 'I hope I may include you, Miss Nunn?'
But to this she paid no attention. She was looking at Monica and Miss Barfoot, who had just risen from their seats. They approached, and presently Barfoot found himself alone with the familiar pair.
'Another cup of tea, Everard?' asked his cousin.
'Thank you. Who was the young lady you didn't introduce me to?'
'Miss Haven—one of our pupils.'
'Does she think of going into business?'
'She has just got a place in the publishing department of a weekly paper.'
'But really—from the few words of her talk that fell upon my ear I should have thought her a highly educated girl.'
'So she is,' replied Miss Barfoot. 'What is your objection?'
'Why doesn't she aim at some better position?'
Miss Barfoot and Rhoda exchanged smiles.
'But nothing could be better for her. Some day she hopes to start a paper of her own, and to learn all the details of such business is just what she wants. Oh, you are still very conventional, Everard. You meant she ought to take up something graceful and pretty—something ladylike.'
'No, no. It's all right. I thoroughly approve. And when Miss Haven starts her paper, Miss Nunn will write for it.'
'I hope so,' assented his cousin.
'You make me feel that I am in touch with the great movements of our time. It's delightful to know you. But come now, isn't there any way in which I could help?'
'None whatever, I'm afraid.'
'Well,—"They also serve who only stand and wait."'
If Everard had pleased himself he would have visited the house in Queen's Road every other day. As this might not be, he spent a good deal of his time in other society, not caring to read much, or otherwise occupy his solitude. Starting with one or two acquaintances in London, people of means and position, he easily extended his social sphere. Had he cared to marry, he might, notwithstanding his poverty, have wooed with fair chance in a certain wealthy family, where two daughters, the sole children, plain but well-instructed girls, waited for the men of brains who should appreciate them. So rare in society, these men of brains, and, alas! so frequently deserted by their wisdom when it comes to choosing a wife. It being his principle to reflect on every possibility, Barfoot of course asked himself whether it would not be reasonable to approach one or other of these young women—the Miss Brissendens. He needed a larger income; he wanted to travel in a more satisfactory way than during his late absence. Agnes Brissenden struck him as a very calm and sensible girl; not at all likely to marry any one but the man who would be a suitable companion for her, and probably disposed to look on marriage as a permanent friendship, which must not be endangered by feminine follies. She had no beauty, but mental powers above the average—superior, certainly, to her sister's.
It was worth thinking about, but in the meantime he wanted to see much more of Rhoda Nunn. Rhoda he was beginning to class with women who are attractive both physically and mentally. Strange how her face had altered to his perception since the first meeting. He smiled now when he beheld it—smiled as a man does when his senses are pleasantly affected. He was getting to know it so well, to be prepared for its constant changes, to watch for certain movements of brows or lips when he had said certain things. That forcible holding of her hand had marked a stage in progressive appreciation; since then he felt a desire to repeat the experiment.
'Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows, Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave—'
The lines occurred to his memory, and he understood them better than heretofore. It would delight him to enrage Rhoda, and then to detain her by strength, to overcome her senses, to watch her long lashes droop over the eloquent eyes. But this was something very like being in love, and he by no means wished to be seriously in love with Miss Nunn.
It was another three weeks before he had an opportunity of private talk with her. Trying a Sunday afternoon, about four, he found Rhoda alone in the drawing-room; Miss Barfoot was out of town. Rhoda's greeting had a frank friendliness which she had not bestowed upon him for a long time; not, indeed, since they met on her return from Cheddar. She looked very well, readily laughed, and seemed altogether in a coming-on disposition. Barfoot noticed that the piano was open.
'Do you play?' he inquired. 'Strange that I should still have to ask the question.'
'Oh, only a hymn on Sunday,' she answered off-hand.
'Why not? I like some of the old tunes very much. They remind me of the golden age.'
'In your own life, you mean?'
'You have once or twice spoken of that time as if you were not quite happy in the present.'
'Of course I am not quite happy. What woman is? I mean, what woman above the level of a petted pussy-cat?'
Everard was leaning towards her on the head of the couch where he sat. He gazed into her face fixedly.
'I wish it were in my power to remove some of your discontents. I would, more gladly than I can tell you.'
'You abound in good nature, Mr. Barfoot,' she replied laughing. 'But unfortunately you can't change the world.'
'Not the world at large. But might I not change your views of it—in some respects?'
'Indeed I don't see how you could. I think I had rather have my own view than any you might wish to substitute for it.'
In this humour she seemed more than ever a challenge to his manhood. She was armed at all points. She feared nothing that he might say. No flush of apprehension; no nervous tremor; no weak self-consciousness. Yet he saw her as a woman, and desirable.
'My views are not ignoble,' he murmured.
'I hope not. But they are the views of a man.'
'Man and woman ought to see life with much the same eyes.'
'Ought they? Perhaps so. I am not sure. But they never will in our time.'
'Individuals may. The man and woman who have thrown away prejudice and superstition. You and I, for instance.'
'Oh, those words have such different meanings. In your judgment I should seem full of idle prejudice.'
She liked this conversation; he read pleasure in her face, saw in her eyes a glint of merry defiance. And his pulses throbbed the quicker for it.
'You have a prejudice against me, for instance.'
'Pray, did you go to the Savoy?' inquired Rhoda absently.
'I have no intention of talking about the Savoy, Miss Nunn. It is teacup time, but as yet we have the room to ourselves.'
Rhoda went and rang the bell.
'The teacups shall come at once.'
He laughed slightly, and looked at her from beneath drooping lids. Rhoda went on with talk of trifles, until the tea was brought and she had given a cup. Having emptied it at two draughts, he resumed his former leaning position.
'Well, you were saying that you had a prejudice against me. Of course my cousin Mary is accountable for that. Mary has used me rather ill. Before ever you saw me, I represented to your mind something very disagreeable indeed. That was too bad of my cousin.'
Rhoda, sipping her tea, had a cold, uninterested expression.
'I didn't know of this,' he proceeded, 'when we met that day in the gardens, and when I made you so angry.'
'I wasn't disposed to jest about what had happened.'
'But neither was I. You quite misunderstood me. Will you tell me how that unpleasantness came to an end?'
'Oh yes. I admitted that I had been ill-mannered and obstinate.'
'How delightful! Obstinate? I have a great deal of that in my character. All the active part of my life was one long fit of obstinacy. As a lad I determined on a certain career, and I stuck to it in spite of conscious unfitness, in spite of a great deal of suffering, out of sheer obstinacy. I wonder whether Mary ever told you that.'
'She mentioned something of the kind once.'
'You could hardly believe it, I dare say? I am a far more reasonable being now. I have changed in so many respects that I hardly know my old self when I look back on it. Above all, in my thoughts about women. If I had married during my twenties I should have chosen, as the average man does, some simpleton—with unpleasant results. If I marry now, it will be a woman of character and brains. Marry in the legal sense I never shall. My companion must be as independent of forms as I am myself.'
Rhoda looked into her teacup for a second or two, then said with a smile,—
'You also are a reformer?'
'In that direction.'
He had difficulty in suppressing signs of nervousness. The bold declaration had come without forethought, and Rhoda's calm acceptance of it delighted him.
'Questions of marriage,' she went on to say, 'don't interest me much; but this particular reform doesn't seem very practical. It is trying to bring about an ideal state of things whilst we are yet struggling with elementary obstacles.'
'I don't advocate this liberty for all mankind. Only for those who are worthy of it.'
'And what'—she laughed a little—'are the sure signs of worthiness? I think it would be very needful to know them.'
Everard kept a grave face.
'True. But a free union presupposes equality of position. No honest man would propose it, for instance, to a woman incapable of understanding all it involved, or incapable of resuming her separate life if that became desirable. I admit all the difficulties. One must consider those of feeling, as well as the material. If my wife should declare that she must be released, I might suffer grievously, but being a man of some intelligence, I should admit that the suffering couldn't be helped; the brutality of enforced marriage doesn't seem to me an alternative worth considering. It wouldn't seem so to any woman of the kind I mean.'
Would she have the courage to urge one grave difficulty that he left aside? No. He fancied her about to speak, but she ended by offering him another cup of tea.
'After all, that is not your ideal?' he said.
'I haven't to do with the subject at all,' Rhoda answered, with perhaps a trace of impatience. 'My work and thought are for the women who do not marry—the 'odd women' I call them. They alone interest me. One mustn't undertake too much.'
'And you resolutely class yourself with them?'
'Of course I do.'
'And therefore you have certain views of life which I should like to change. You are doing good work, but I had rather see any other woman in the world devote her life to it. I am selfish enough to wish—'
The door opened, and the servant announced,—
'Mr. and Mrs. Widdowson.'
With perfect self-command Miss Nunn rose and stepped forward. Barfoot, rising more slowly, looked with curiosity at the husband of the pretty, black-browed woman whom he had already met. Widdowson surprised and amused him. How had this stiff, stern fellow with the grizzled beard won such a wife? Not that Mrs. Widdowson seemed a remarkable person, but certainly it was an ill-assorted union.
She came and shook hands. As he spoke a few natural words, Everard chanced to notice that the husband's eye was upon him, and with what a look! If ever a man declared in his countenance the worst species of jealous temper, Mr. Widdowson did so. His fixed smile became sardonic.
Presently Barfoot and he were introduced. They had nothing to say to each other, but Everard maintained a brief conversation just to observe the man. Turning at length, he began to talk with Mrs. Widdowson, and, because he was conscious of the jealous eye, assumed an especial sprightliness, an air of familiar pleasantry, to which the lady responded, but with a nervous hesitation.
The arrival of these people was an intense annoyance to him. Another quarter of an hour and things would have come to an exciting pass between Rhoda and himself; he would have heard how she received a declaration of love. Rhoda's self-possession notwithstanding, he believed that he was not without power over her. She liked to talk with him, enjoyed the freedom he allowed himself in choice of subject. Perhaps no man before had ever shown an appreciation of her qualities as woman. But she would not yield, was in no real danger from his love-making. Nay, the danger was to his own peace. He felt that resistance would intensify the ardour of his wooing, and possibly end by making him a victim of genuine passion. Well, let her enjoy that triumph, if she were capable of winning it.
He had made up his mind to outstay the Widdowsons, who clearly would not make a long call. But the fates were against him. Another visitor arrived, a lady named Cosgrove, who settled herself as if for at least an hour. Worse than that, he heard her say to Rhoda,—
'Oh, then do come and dine with us. Do, I beg!'
'I will, with pleasure,' was Miss Nunn's reply. 'Can you wait and take me with you?'
Useless to stay longer. As soon as the Widdowsons had departed he went up to Rhoda and silently offered his hand. She scarcely looked at him, and did not in the least return his pressure.
Rhoda dined at Mrs. Cosgrove's, and was home again at eleven o'clock. When the house was locked up, and the servants had gone to bed, she sat in the library, turning over a book that she had brought from her friend's house. It was a volume of essays, one of which dealt with the relations between the sexes in a very modern spirit, treating the subject as a perfectly open one, and arriving at unorthodox conclusions. Mrs. Cosgrove had spoken of this dissertation with lively interest. Rhoda perused it very carefully, pausing now and then to reflect.
In this reading of her mind, Barfoot came near the truth.
No man had ever made love to her; no man, to her knowledge, had ever been tempted to do so. In certain moods she derived satisfaction from this thought, using it to strengthen her life's purpose; having passed her thirtieth year, she might take it as a settled thing that she would never be sought in marriage, and so could shut the doors on every instinct tending to trouble her intellectual decisions. But these instincts sometimes refused to be thus treated. As Miss Barfoot told her, she was very young for her years, young in physique, young in emotion. As a girl she had dreamt passionately, and the fires of her nature, though hidden beneath aggregations of moral and mental attainment, were not yet smothered. An hour of lassitude filled her with despondency, none the less real because she was ashamed of it. If only she had once been loved, like other women—if she had listened to an offer of devotion, and rejected it—her heart would be more securely at peace. So she thought. Secretly she deemed it a hard thing never to have known that common triumph of her sex. And, moreover, it took away from the merit of her position as a leader and encourager of women living independently. There might be some who said, or thought, that she made a virtue of necessity.
Everard Barfoot's advances surprised her not a little. Judging him as a man wholly without principle, she supposed at first that this was merely his way with all women, and resented it as impertinence. But even then she did not dislike the show of homage; what her mind regarded with disdain, her heart was all but willing to feed upon, after its long hunger. Barfoot interested her, and not the less because of his evil reputation. Here was one of the men for whom women—doubtless more than one—had sacrificed themselves; she could not but regard him with sexual curiosity. And her interest grew, her curiosity was more haunting, as their acquaintance became a sort of friendship; she found that her moral disapprobation wavered, or was altogether forgotten. Perhaps it was to compensate for this that she went the length of outraging Miss Barfoot's feelings on the death of Bella Royston.
Certainly she thought with much frequency of Barfoot, and looked forward to his coming. Never had she wished so much to see him again as after their encounter in Chelsea Gardens, and on that account she forced herself to hold aloof when he came. It was not love, nor the beginning of love; she judged it something less possible to avow. The man's presence affected her with a perturbation which she had no difficulty in concealing at the time, though afterwards it distressed and shamed her. She took refuge in the undeniable fact that the quality of his mind made an impression upon her, that his talk was sympathetic. Miss Barfoot submitted to this influence; she confessed that her cousin's talk had always had a charm for her.
Could it be that this man reciprocated, and more than reciprocated, her complex feeling? To-day only accident had prevented him from making an avowal of love—unless she strangely mistook him. All the evening she had dwelt on this thought; it grew more and more astonishing. Was he worse than she had imagined? Under cover of independent thought, of serious moral theories, did he conceal mere profligacy and heartlessness? It was an extraordinary thing to have to ask such questions in relation to herself. It made her feel as if she had to learn herself anew, to form a fresh conception of her personality. She the object of a man's passion!
And the thought was exultant. Even thus late, then, the satisfaction of vanity had been granted her—nay, not of vanity alone.
He must be sincere. What motive could he possibly have for playing a part? Might it not be true that he was a changed man in certain respects, and that a genuine emotion at length had control of him? If so, she had only to wait for his next speech with her in private; she could not misjudge a lover's pleading.
The interest would only be that of comedy. She did not love Everard Barfoot, and saw no likelihood of ever doing so; on the whole, a subject for thankfulness. Nor could he seriously anticipate an assent to his proposal for a free union; in declaring that legal marriage was out of the question for him, he had removed his love-making to the region of mere ideal sentiment. But, if he loved her, these theories would sooner or later be swept aside; he would plead with her to become his legal wife.
To that point she desired to bring him. Offer what he might, she would not accept it; but the secret chagrin that was upon her would be removed. Love would no longer be the privilege of other women. To reject a lover in so many respects desirable, whom so many women might envy her, would fortify her self-esteem, and enable her to go forward in the chosen path with firmer tread.
It was one o'clock; the fire had died out and she began to shiver with cold. But a trembling of joy at the same time went through her limbs; again she had the sense of exultation, of triumph. She would not dismiss him peremptorily. He should prove the quality of his love, if love it were. Coming so late, the experience must yield her all it had to yield of delight and contentment.
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