Throughout January, Barfoot was endeavouring to persuade his brother Tom to leave London, where the invalid's health perceptibly grew worse. Doctors were urgent to the same end, but ineffectually; for Mrs. Thomas, though she professed to be amazed at her husband's folly in remaining where he could not hope for recovery, herself refused to accompany him any whither. This pair had no children. The lady always spoke of herself as a sad sufferer from mysterious infirmities, and had, in fact, a tendency to hysteria, which confused itself inextricably with the results of evil nurture and the impulses of a disposition originally base; nevertheless she made a figure in a certain sphere of vulgar wealth, and even gave opportunity to scandalous tongues. Her husband, whatever his secret thought, would hear nothing against her; his temper, like Everard's, was marked with stubbornness, and after a good deal of wrangling he forbade his brother to address him again on the subject of their disagreement.
'Tom is dying,' wrote Everard, early in February, to his cousin in Queen's Road. 'Dr. Swain assures me that unless he be removed he cannot last more than a month or two. This morning I saw the woman'—it was thus he always referred to his sister-in-law—'and talked to her in what was probably the plainest language she ever had the privilege of hearing. It was a tremendous scene, brought to a close only by her flinging herself on the sofa with shrieks which terrified the whole household. My idea is that we must carry the poor fellow away by force. His infatuation makes me rage and curse, but I am bent on trying to save his life. Will you come and give your help?'
A week later they succeeded in carrying the invalid back to Torquay. Mrs. Barfoot had abandoned him to his doctors, nurses, and angry relatives; she declared herself driven out of the house, and went to live at a fashionable hotel. Everard remained in Devon for more than a month, devoting himself with affection, which the trial of his temper seemed only to increase, to his brother's welfare. Thomas improved a little; once more there was hope. Then on a sudden frantic impulse, after writing fifty letters which elicited no reply, he travelled in pursuit of his wife; and three days after his arrival in London he was dead.
By a will, executed at Torquay, he bequeathed to Everard about a quarter of his wealth. All the rest went to Mrs. Barfoot, who had declared herself too ill to attend the funeral, but in a fortnight was sufficiently recovered to visit one of her friends in the country.
Everard could now count upon an income of not much less than fifteen hundred a year. That his brother's death would enrich him he had always foreseen, but no man could have exerted himself with more ardent energy to postpone that advantage. The widow charged him, wherever she happened to be, with deliberate fratricide; she vilified his reputation, by word of mouth or by letter, to all who knew him, and protested that his furious wrath at not having profited more largely by the will put her in fear of her life. This last remarkable statement was made in a long and violent epistle to Miss Barfoot, which the recipient showed to her cousin on the first opportunity. Everard had called one Sunday morning—it was the end of March—to say good-bye on his departure for a few weeks' travel. Having read the letter, he laughed with a peculiar fierceness.
'This kind of thing,' said Miss Barfoot, 'may necessitate your prosecuting her. There is a limit, you know, even to a woman's licence.'
'I am far more likely,' he replied, 'to purchase a very nice little cane, and give her an exemplary thrashing.'
'Upon my word, I see no reason against it! That's how I should deal with a man who talked about me in this way, and none the less if he were a puny creature quite unable to protect himself. In that furious scene before we got Tom away I felt most terribly tempted to beat her. There's a great deal to be said for woman-beating. I am quite sure that many a labouring man who pommels his wife is doing exactly the right thing; no other measure would have the least result. You see what comes of impunity. If this woman saw the possibility that I should give her a public caning she would be far more careful how she behaved herself. Let us ask Miss Nunn's opinion.'
Rhoda had that moment entered the room. She offered her hand frankly, and asked what the subject was.
'Glance over this letter,' said Barfoot. 'Oh, you have seen it. I propose to get a light, supple, dandyish cane, and to give Mrs. Thomas Barfoot half a dozen smart cuts across the back in her own drawing-room, some afternoon when people were present. What have you to say to it?'
He spoke with such show of angry seriousness that Rhoda paused before replying.
'I sympathized with you,' she said at length, 'but I don't think I would go to that extremity.'
Everard repeated the argument he had used to his cousin.
'You are quite right,' Rhoda assented. 'I think many women deserve to be beaten, and ought to be beaten. But public opinion would be so much against you.'
'What do I care? So is public opinion against you.'
'Very well. Do as you like. Miss Barfoot and I will come to the police court and give strong evidence in your favour.'
'Now there's a woman!' exclaimed Everard, not all in jest, for Rhoda's appearance had made his nerves thrill and his pulse beat. 'Look at her, Mary. Do you wonder that I would walk the diameter of the globe to win her love?'
Rhoda flushed scarlet, and Miss Barfoot was much embarrassed. Neither could have anticipated such an utterance as this. 'That's the simple truth,' went on Everard recklessly, 'and she knows it, and yet won't listen to me. Well, good-bye to you both! Now that I have so grossly misbehaved myself, she has a good excuse for refusing even to enter the room when I am here. But do speak a word for me whilst I am away, Mary.'
He shook hands with them, scarcely looking at their faces, and abruptly departed.
The women stood for a moments at a distance from each other. Then Miss Barfoot glanced at her friend and laughed.
'Really my poor cousin is not very discreet.'
'Anything but,' Rhoda answered, resting on the back of a chair, her eyes cast down. 'Do you think he will really cane his sister-in-law?'
'How can you ask such a question?'
'It would be amusing. I should think better of him for it.'
'Well, make it a condition. We know the story of the lady and her glove. I can see you sympathize with her.'
Rhoda laughed and went away, leaving Miss Barfoot with the impression that she had revealed a genuine impulse. It seemed not impossible that Rhoda might wish to say to her lover: 'Face this monstrous scandal and I am yours.'
A week passed and there arrived a letter, with a foreign stamp, addressed to Miss Nunn. Happening to receive it before Miss Barfoot had come down to breakfast, she put it away in a drawer till evening leisure, and made no mention of its arrival. Exhilaration appeared in her behaviour through the day. After dinner she disappeared, shutting herself up to read the letter.
'DEAR MISS NUNN,—I am sitting at a little marble table outside a café on the Cannibiere. Does that name convey anything to you? The Cannibiere is the principal street of Marseilles, street of gorgeous cafés and restaurants, just now blazing with electric light. You, no doubt, are shivering by the fireside; here it is like an evening of summer. I have dined luxuriously, and I am taking my coffee whilst I write. At a table near to me sit two girls, engaged in the liveliest possible conversation, of which I catch a few words now and then, pretty French phrases that caress the ear. One of them is so strikingly beautiful that I cannot take my eyes from her when they have been tempted to that quarter. She speaks with indescribable grace and animation, has the sweetest eyes and lips—
'And all the time I am thinking of some one else. Ah, if you were here! How we would enjoy ourselves among these southern scenes! Alone, it is delightful; but with you for a companion, with you to talk about everything in your splendidly frank way! This French girl's talk is of course only silly chatter; it makes me long to hear a few words from your lips—strong, brave, intelligent.
'I dream of the ideal possibility. Suppose I were to look up and see you standing just in front of me, there on the pavement. You have come in a few hours straight from London. Your eyes glow with delight. To-morrow we shall travel on to Genoa, you and I, more than friends, and infinitely more than the common husband and wife! We have bidden the world go round for our amusement; henceforth it is our occupation to observe and discuss and make merry.
'Is it all in vain? Rhoda, if you never love me, my life will be poor to what it might have been; and you, you also, will lose something. In imagination I kiss your hands and your lips.
There was an address at the head of this letter, but certainly Barfoot expected no reply, and Rhoda had no thought of sending one. Every night, however, she unfolded the sheet of thin foreign paper, and read, more than once, what was written upon it. Read it with external calm, with a brow of meditation, and afterwards sat for some time in absent mood.
Would he write again? Her daily question was answered in rather more than a fortnight. This time the letter came from Italy; it was lying on the hall table when Rhoda returned from Great Portland Street, and Miss Barfoot was the first to read the address. They exchanged no remark. On breaking the envelope—she did so at once—Rhoda found a little bunch of violets crushed but fragrant.
'These in return for your Cheddar pinks,' began the informal note accompanying the flowers. 'I had them an hour ago from a pretty girl in the streets of Parma. I didn't care to buy, and walked on, but the pretty girl ran by me, and with gentle force fixed the flowers in my button-hole, so that I had no choice but to stroke her velvety cheek and give her a lira. How hungry I am for the sight of your face! Think of me sometimes, dear friend.'
She laughed, and laid the letter and its violets away with the other.
'I must depend on you, it seems, for news of Everard,' said Miss Barfoot after dinner.
'I can only tell you,' Rhoda answered lightly, 'that he has travelled from the south of France to the north of Italy, with much observation of female countenances.'
'He informs you of that?'
'Very naturally. It is his chief interest. One likes people to tell the truth.'
* * * * * * * * * *
Barfoot was away until the end of April, but after that note from Parma he did not write. One bright afternoon in May, a Saturday, he presented himself at his cousin's house, and found two or three callers in the drawing-room, ladies as usual; one of them was Miss Winifred Haven, another was Mrs. Widdowson. Mary received him without effusiveness, and after a few minutes' talk with her he took a place by Mrs. Widdowson, who, it struck him, looked by no means in such good spirits as during the early days of her marriage. As soon as she began to converse, his impression of a change in her was confirmed; the girlishness so pleasantly noticeable when first he knew her had disappeared, and the gravity substituted for it was suggestive of disillusion, of trouble.
She asked him if he knew some people named Bevis, who occupied a flat just above his own.
'Bevis? I have seen the name on the index at the foot of the stairs; but I don't know them personally.'
'That was how I came to know that you live there,' said Monica. 'My husband took me to call upon the Bevises, and there we saw your name. At least, we supposed it was you, and Miss Barfoot tells me we were right.'
'Oh yes; I live there all alone, a gloomy bachelor. How delightful if you knocked at my door some day, when you and Mr. Widdowson are again calling on your friends.'
Monica smiled, and her eyes wandered restlessly.
'You have been away—out of England?' she next said.
'Yes; in Italy.'
'I envy you.'
'You have never been there?'
He talked a little of the agreeables and disagreeables of life in that country. But Mrs. Widdowson had become irresponsive; he doubted at length whether she was listening to him, so, as Miss Haven stepped this way, he took an opportunity of a word aside with his cousin.
'Miss Nunn not at home?'
'No. Won't be till dinner-time.'
'Never was better. Would you care to come back and dine with us at half-past seven?'
'Of course I should.'
With this pleasant prospect he took his leave. The afternoon being sunny, instead of walking straight to the station, to return home, he went out on to the Embankment, and sauntered round by Chelsea Bridge Road. As he entered Sloane Square he saw Mrs. Widdowson, who was coming towards the railway; she walked rather wearily, with her eyes on the ground, and did not become aware of him until he addressed her.
'Are we travelling the same way?' he asked. 'Westward?'
'Yes. I am going all the way round to Portland Road.'
They entered the station, Barfoot chatting humorously. And, so intent was he on the expression of his companion's downcast face, that he allowed an acquaintance to pass close by him unobserved. It was Rhoda Nunn, returning sooner than Miss Barfoot had expected. She saw the pair, regarded them with a moment's keen attentiveness, and went on, out into the street.
In the first-class carriage which they entered there was no other passenger as far as Barfoot's station. He could not resist the temptation to use rather an intimate tone, though one that was quite conventional, in the hope that he might discover something of Mrs. Widdowson's mind. He began by asking whether she thought it a good Academy this year. She had not yet visited it, but hoped to do so on Monday. Did she herself do any kind of artistic work? Oh, nothing whatever; she was a very useless and idle person. He believed she had been a pupil of Miss Barfoot's at one time? Yes, for a very short time indeed, just before her marriage. Was she not an intimate friend of Miss Nunn? Hardly intimate. They knew each other a few years ago, but Miss Nunn did not care much about her now.
'Probably because I married,' she added with a smile.
'Is Miss Nunn really such a determined enemy of marriage?'
'She thinks it pardonable in very weak people. In my case she was indulgent enough to come to the wedding.'
This piece of news surprised Barfoot.
'She came to your wedding? And wore a wedding garment?'
'Oh yes. And looked very nice.'
'Do describe it to me. Can you remember?'
Seeing that no woman ever forgot the details of another's dress, on however trivial an occasion, and at whatever distance of time, Monica was of course able to satisfy the inquirer. Her curiosity excited, she ventured in turn upon one or two insidious questions.
'You couldn't imagine Miss Nunn in such a costume?'
'I should very much like to have seen her.'
'She has a very striking face—don't you think so?'
'Indeed I do. A wonderful face.'
Their eyes met. Barfoot bent forward from his place opposite Monica.
'To me the most interesting of all faces,' he said softly.
His companion blushed with surprise and pleasure.
'Does it seem strange to you, Mrs. Widdowson?'
'Oh—why? Not at all.'
All at once she had brightened astonishingly. This subject was not pursued, but for the rest of the time they talked with a new appearance of mutual confidence and interest, Monica retaining her pretty, half-bashful smile. And when Barfoot alighted at Bayswater they shook hands with an especial friendliness, both seeming to suggest a wish that they might soon meet again.
They did so not later than the following Monday. Remembering what Mrs. Widdowson had said of her intention to visit Burlington House, Barfoot went there in the afternoon. If he chanced to encounter the pretty little woman it would not be disagreeable. Perhaps her husband might be with her, and in that case he could judge of the terms on which they stood. A surly fellow, Widdowson; very likely to play the tyrant, he thought. If he were not mistaken, she had wearied of him and regretted her bondage—the old story. Thinking thus, and strolling through the rooms with casual glances at a picture, he discovered his acquaintance, catalogue in hand, alone for the present. Her pensive face again answered to his smile. They drew back from the pictures and sat down.
'I dined with our friends at Chelsea on Saturday evening,' said Barfoot.
'On Saturday? You didn't tell me you were going back again.'
'I wasn't thinking of it just at the time.'
Monica hinted an amused surprise.
'You see,' he went on, 'I expected nothing, and happy for me that it was so. Miss Nunn was in her severest mood; I think she didn't smile once through the evening. I will confess to you I wrote her a letter whilst I was abroad, and it offended her, I suppose.'
'I don't think you can always judge of her thoughts by her face.'
'Perhaps not. But I have studied her face so often and so closely. For all that, she is more a mystery to me than any woman I have ever known. That, of course, is partly the reason of her power over me. I feel that if ever—if ever she should disclose herself to me, it would be the strangest revelation. Every woman wears a mask, except to one man; but Rhoda's—Miss Nunn's—is, I fancy, a far completer disguise than I ever tried to pierce.'
Monica had a sense of something perilous in this conversation. It arose from a secret trouble in her own heart, which she might, involuntarily, be led to betray. She had never talked thus confidentially with any man; not, in truth, with her husband. There was no fear whatever of her conceiving an undue interest in Barfoot; certain reasons assured her of that; but talk that was at all sentimental gravely threatened her peace—what little remained to her. It would have been better to discourage this man's confidences; yet they flattered her so pleasantly, and afforded such a fruitful subject for speculation, that she could not obey the prompting of prudence.
'Do you mean,' she said, 'that Miss Nunn seems to disguise her feelings?'
'It is supposed to be wrong—isn't it?—for a man to ask one woman her opinion of another.'
'I can't be treacherous if I wished,' Monica replied. 'I don't feel that I understand her.'
Barfoot wondered how much intelligence he might attribute to Mrs. Widdowson. Obviously her level was much below that of Rhoda. Yet she seemed to possess delicate sensibilities, and a refinement of thought not often met with in women of her position. Seriously desiring her aid, he looked at her with a grave smile, and asked,—
'Do you believe her capable of falling in love?'
Monica showed a painful confusion. She overcame it, however, and soon answered.
'She would perhaps try not—not to acknowledge it to herself.'
'When, in fact, it had happened?'
'She thinks it so much nobler to disregard such feelings.'
'I know. She is to be an inspiring example to the women who cannot hope to marry.' He laughed silently. 'And I suppose it is quite possible that mere shame would withhold her from taking the opposite course.'
'I think she is very strong. But—'
He looked eagerly into her face.
'I can't tell. I don't really know her. A woman may be as much a mystery to another woman as she is to a man.'
'On the whole, I am glad to hear you say that. I believe it. It is only the vulgar that hold a different opinion.'
'Shall we look at the pictures, Mr. Barfoot?'
'Oh, I am so sorry. I have been wasting your time—'
Nervously disclaiming any such thought, Monica rose and drew near to the canvases. They walked on together for some ten minutes, until Barfoot, who had turned to look at a passing figure, said in his ordinary voice—
'I think that is Mr. Widdowson on the other side of the room.'
Monica looked quickly round, and saw her husband, as if occupied with the pictures, glancing in her direction.