The Odd Women

by George Gissing

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Chapter XXIII - In Ambush

Hitherto, Widdowson had entertained no grave mistrust of his wife. The principles she had avowed, directly traceable as it seemed to her friendship with the militant women in Chelsea, he disliked and feared; but her conduct he fully believed to be above reproach. His jealousy of Barfoot did not glance at Monica's attitude towards the man; merely at the man himself, whom he credited with native scoundreldom. Barfoot represented to his mind a type of licentious bachelor; why, he could not have made perfectly clear to his own understanding. Possibly the ease of Everard's bearing, the something aristocratic in his countenance and his speech, the polish of his manner, especially in formal converse with women, from the first gave offence to Widdowson's essentially middle-class sensibilities. If Monica were in danger at all, it was, he felt convinced, from that quarter. The subject of his wife's intimate dialogue with Barfoot at the Academy still remained a mystery to him. He put faith in her rebellious declaration that every word might have been safely repeated in his hearing, but, be the matter what it might, the manner of Barfoot's talk meant evil. Of that conviction he could not get rid.

He had read somewhere that a persistently jealous husband may not improbably end by irritating an innocent wife into affording real ground for jealousy. A man with small knowledge of the world is much impressed by dicta such as these; they get into the crannies of his mind, and thence direct the course of his thinking. Widdowson, before his marriage, had never suspected the difficulty of understanding a woman; had he spoken his serious belief on that subject, it would have been found to represent the most primitive male conception of the feminine being. Women were very like children; it was rather a task to amuse them and to keep them out of mischief. Therefore the blessedness of household toil, in especial the blessedness of child-bearing and all that followed. Intimacy with Monica had greatly affected his views, yet chiefly by disturbing them; no firmer ground offered itself to his treading when he perforce admitted that his former standpoint was every day assailed by some incontestable piece of evidence. Woman had individual characters; that discovery, though not a very profound one, impressed him with the force of something arrived at by independent observation. Monica often puzzled him gravely; he could not find the key to her satisfactions and discontents. To regard her simply as a human being was beyond the reach of his intelligence. He cast the blame of his difficulties upon sex, and paid more attention to the hints on such topics afforded him by his reading. He would endeavour to keep his jealousy out of sight, lest the mysterious tendency of the female nature might prompt Monica to deliberate wrongdoing.

To-day for the first time there flashed across him the thought that already he might have been deceived. It originated in a peculiarity of Monica's behaviour at luncheon. She ate scarcely anything; she seemed hurried, frequently glancing at the clock; and she lost herself in reverie. Discovering that his eye was upon her, she betrayed uneasiness, and began to talk without considering what she meant to say. All this might mean nothing more than her barely-concealed regret at being obliged to leave London; but Widdowson remarked it with a vivacity of feeling perhaps due to the excitement in which he had lived for the past week. Perhaps the activity, the resolution to which he had urged himself, caused a sharpening of his perceptions. And the very thought, never out of his mind, that only a few days had to elapse before he carried off his wife from the scene of peril, tended to make him more vividly conscious of that peril. Certain it was that a moment's clairvoyance assailed his peace, and left behind it all manner of ugly conjectures. Women—so said the books—are adepts at dissimulation. Was it conceivable that Monica had taken advantage of the liberty he had of late allowed her? If a woman could not endure a direct, searching gaze, must it not imply some enormous wickedness?—seeing that nature has armed them for this very trial.

In her setting forth for the railway station hurry was again evident, and disinclination to exchange parting words. If the eagerness were simple and honest, would she not have accepted his suggestion and have gone in the morning?

For five minutes after her departure he stood in the hall, staring before him. A new jealousy, a horrible constriction of the heart, had begun to torture him. He went and walked about in the library, but could not dispel his suffering. Vain to keep repeating that Monica was incapable of baseness. Of that he was persuaded, but none the less a hideous image returned upon his mental vision—a horror—a pollution of thought.

One thing he could do to restore his sanity. He would walk over to Lavender Hill, and accompany his wife on her return home. Indeed, the mere difficulty of getting through the afternoon advised this project. He could not employ himself, and knew that his imagination, once inflamed, would leave him not a moment's rest. Yes, he would walk to Lavender Hill, and ramble about that region until Monica had had reasonable time for talk with her sister.

About three o'clock there fell a heavy shower of rain. Strangely against his habits, Widdowson turned into a quiet public-house, and sat for a quarter of an hour at the bar, drinking a glass of whisky. During the past week he had taken considerably more wine than usual at meals; he seemed to need the support. Whilst sipping at his glass of spirits, he oddly enough fell into talk with the barmaid, a young woman of some charms, and what appeared to be unaffected modesty. Not for twenty years had Widdowson conversed with a member of this sisterhood. Their dialogue was made up of the most trifling of trivialities—weather, a railway accident, the desirability of holidays at this season. And when at length he rose and put an end to the chat it was with appreciable reluctance.

'A good, nice sort of girl,' he went away saying to himself. 'Pity she should be serving at a bar—hearing doubtful talk, and seeing very often vile sights. A nice, soft-spoken little girl.'

And he mused upon her remembered face with a complacency which soothed his feelings.

Of a sudden he was checked by the conversion of his sentiment into thought. Would he not have been a much happier man if he had married a girl distinctly his inferior in mind and station? Provided she were sweet, lovable, docile—such a wife would have spared him all the misery he had known with Monica. From the first he had understood that Monica was no representative shopgirl, and on that very account he had striven so eagerly to win her. But it was a mistake. He had loved her, still loved her, with all the emotion of which he was capable. How many hours' genuine happiness of soul had that love afforded him? The minutest fraction of the twelve months for which she had been his wife. And of suffering, often amounting to frantic misery, he could count many weeks. Could such a marriage as this be judged a marriage at all, in any true sense of the word?

'Let me ask myself a question. If Monica were absolutely free to choose between continuing to live with me and resuming her perfect liberty, can I persuade myself that she would remain my wife? She would not. Not for a day, not for an hour. Of that I am morally convinced. And I acknowledge the grounds of her dissatisfaction. We are unsuited to each other. We do not understand each other. Our marriage is physical and nothing more. My love—what is my love? I do not love her mind, her intellectual part. If I did, this frightful jealousy from which I suffer would be impossible. My ideal of the wife perfectly suited to me is far liker that girl at the public-house bar than Monica. Monica's independence of thought is a perpetual irritation to me. I don't know what her thoughts really are, what her intellectual life signifies. And yet I hold her to me with the sternest grasp. If she endeavoured to release herself I should feel capable of killing her. Is not this a strange, a brutal thing?'

Widdowson had never before reached this height of speculation. In the moment, by the very fact, of admitting that Monica and he ought not to be living together, he became more worthy of his wife's companionship than ever hitherto.

Well, he would exercise greater forbearance. He would endeavour to win her respect by respecting the freedom she claimed. His recent suspicions of her were monstrous. If she knew them, how her soul would revolt from him! What if she took an interest in other men, perchance more her equals than he? Why, had he not just been thinking of another woman, reflecting that she, or one like her, would have made him a more suitable wife than Monica? Yet this could not reasonably be called unfaithfulness.

They were bound together for life, and their wisdom lay in mutual toleration, the constant endeavour to understand each other aright—not in fierce restraint of each other's mental liberty. How many marriages were anything more than mutual forbearance? Perhaps there ought not to be such a thing as enforced permanence of marriage. This was daring speculation; he could not have endured to hear it from Monica's lips. But—perhaps, some day, marriage would be dissoluble at the will of either party to it. Perhaps the man who sought to hold a woman when she no longer loved him would be regarded with contempt and condemnation.

What a simple thing marriage had always seemed to him, and how far from simple he had found it! Why, it led him to musings which overset the order of the world, and flung all ideas of religion and morality into wildest confusion. It would not do to think like this. He was a man wedded to a woman very difficult to manage—there was the practical upshot of the matter. His duty was to manage her. He was responsible for her right conduct. With intentions perfectly harmless, she might run into unknown jeopardy—above all, just at this time when she was taking reluctant leave of her friends. The danger justified him in exceptional vigilance.

So, from his excursion into the realms of reason did he return to the safe sphere of the commonplace. And now he might venture to press on towards Mrs. Conisbee's house, for it was half-past four, and already Monica must have been talking with her sister for a couple of hours.

His knock at the door was answered by the landlady herself. She told of Mrs. Widdowson's arrival and departure. Ah, then Monica had no doubt gone straight home again. But, as Miss Madden had returned, he would speak with her.

'The poor lady isn't very well, sir,' said Mrs. Conisbee, fingering the hem of her apron.

'Not very well? But couldn't I see her for a moment?'

Virginia answered this question by appearing on the staircase.

'Some one for me, Mrs. Conisbee?' she called from above. 'Oh, is it you, Edmund? So very glad! I'm sure Mrs. Conisbee will have the kindness to let you come into her sitting-room. What a pity I was away when Monica called! I've had—business to see to in town; and I've walked and walked, until I'm really—hardly able—'

She sank upon a chair in the room, and looked fixedly at the visitor with a broad, benevolent smile, her head moving up and down. Widdowson was for a moment in perplexity. If the evidence of his eyes could be trusted, Miss Madden's indisposition pointed to a cause so strange that it seemed incredible. He turned to look for Mrs. Conisbee, but the landlady had hurriedly withdrawn, closing the door behind her.

'It is so foolish of me, Edmund,' Virginia rambled on, addressing him with a familiarity she had never yet used. 'When I am away from home I forget all about my meals—really forget—and then all at once I find that I am quite exhausted—quite exhausted—as you see. And the worst of it is I have altogether lost my appetite by the time I get back. I couldn't eat a mouthful of food—not a mouthful—I assure you I couldn't. And it does so distress good Mrs. Conisbee. She is exceedingly kind to me—exceedingly careful about my health. Oh, and in Battersea Park Road I saw such a shocking sight; a great cart ran over a poor little dog, and it was killed on the spot. It unnerved me dreadfully. I do think, Edmund, those drivers ought to be more careful. I was saying to Mrs. Conisbee only the other day—and that reminds me, I do so want to know all about your visit to Clevedon. Dear, dear Clevedon! And have you really taken a house there, Edmund? Oh, if we could all end our days at Clevedon! You know that our dear father and mother are buried in the old churchyard. You remember Tennyson's lines about the old church at Clevedon? Oh, and what did Monica decide about—about—really, what was I going to ask? It is so foolish of me to forget that dinner-time has come and gone. I get so exhausted, and even my memory fails me.'

He could doubt no longer. This poor woman had yielded to one of the temptations that beset a life of idleness and solitude. His pity was mingled with disgust.

'I only wished to tell you,' he said gravely, 'that we have taken a house at Clevedon—'

'You really have!' She clasped her hands together. 'Whereabouts?'

'Near Dial Hill.'

Virginia began a rhapsody which her brother-in-law had no inclination to hear. He rose abruptly.

'Perhaps you had better come and see us to-morrow.'

'But Monica left a message that she wouldn't be at home for the next few days, and that I wasn't to come till I heard from her.'

'Not at home—? I think there's a mistake.'

'Oh, impossible! We'll ask Mrs. Conisbee.'

She went to the door and called. From the landlady Widdowson learnt exactly what Monica had said. He reflected for a moment.

'She shall write to you then. Don't come just yet. I mustn't stay any longer now.'

And with a mere pretence of shaking hands he abruptly left the house.

Suspicions thickened about him. He would have thought it utterly impossible for Miss Madden to disgrace herself in this vulgar way, and the appalling discovery affected his view of Monica. They were sisters; they had characteristics in common, family traits, weaknesses. If the elder woman could fall into this degradation, might there not be possibilities in Monica's character such as he had refused to contemplate? Was there not terrible reason for mistrusting her? What did she mean by her message to Virginia?

Black and haggard, he went home as fast as a hansom could take him. It was half-past five when he reached the house. His wife was not here, and had not been here.

At this moment Monica was starting by train from Bayswater, after her parting with Bevis. Arrived at Victoria, she crossed to the main station, and went to the ladies' waiting-room for the purpose of bathing her face. She had red, swollen eyes, and her hair was in slight disorder. This done, she inquired as to the next train for Herne Hill. One had just gone; another would leave in about a quarter of an hour.

A dreadful indecision was harassing her. Ought she, did she dare, to return home at all? Even if her strength sufficed for simulating a natural manner, could she consent to play so base a part?

There was but one possible alternative. She might go to Virginia's lodgings, and there remain, writing to her husband that she had left him. The true cause need not be confessed. She would merely declare that life with him had become intolerable to her, that she demanded a release. Their approaching removal to Clevedon offered the occasion. She would say that her endurance failed before that prospect of solitude, and that, feeling as she did, it was dishonourable to make longer pretence of doing her duty as a wife. Then, if Bevis wrote to her in such a way as to revive her love, if he seriously told her to come to him, all difficulties could be solved by her disappearance.

Was such revival of disheartened love a likely or a possible thing? At this moment she felt that to flee in secret, and live with Bevis as he proposed, would be no less dishonour than abiding with the man who had a legal claim upon her companionship. Her lover, as she had thought of him for the past two or three months, was only a figment of her imagination; Bevis had proved himself a complete stranger to her mind; she must reshape her knowledge of him. His face was all that she could still dwell upon with the old desire; nay, even that had suffered a change.

Insensibly the minutes went by. Whilst she sat in the waiting-room her train started; and when she had become aware of that, her irresolution grew more tormenting.

Suddenly there came upon her a feeling of illness, of nausea. Perspiration broke out on her forehead; her eyes dazzled; she had to let her head fall back. It passed, but in a minute or two the fit again seized her, and with a moan she lost consciousness.

Two or three women who were in the room rendered assistance. The remarks they exchanged, though expressing uncertainty and discreetly ambiguous, would have been significant to Monica. On her recovery, which took place in a few moments, she at once started up, and with hurried thanks to those about her, listening to nothing that was said and answering no inquiry, went out on to the platform. There was just time to catch the train now departing for Herne Hill.

She explained her fainting fit by the hours of agitation through which she had passed. There was no room for surprise. She had suffered indescribably, and still suffered. Her wish was to get back into the quietness of home, to rest and to lose herself in sleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

On entering, she saw nothing of her husband. His hat hung on the hall-tree, and he was perhaps sitting in the library; the more genial temper would account for his not coming forth at once to meet her, as had been his custom when she returned from an absence alone.

She changed her dress, and disguised as far as was possible the traces of suffering on her features. Weakness and tremor urged her to lie down, but she could not venture to do this until she had spoken to her husband. Supporting herself by the banisters, she slowly descended, and opened the library door. Widdowson was reading a newspaper. He did not look round, but said carelessly,—

'So you are back?'

'Yes. I hope you didn't expect me sooner.'

'Oh, it's all right.' He threw a rapid glance at her over his shoulder. 'Had a long talk with Virginia, I suppose?'

'Yes. I couldn't get away before.'

Widdowson seemed to be much interested in some paragraph. He put his face closer to the paper, and was silent for two or three seconds. Then he again looked round, this time observing his wife steadily, but with a face that gave no intimation of unusual thoughts.

'Does she consent to go?'

Monica replied that it was still uncertain; she thought, however, that Virginia's objections would be overcome.

'You look very tired,' remarked the other.

'I am, very.'

And thereupon she withdrew, unable to command her countenance, scarce able to remain standing for another moment.


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