The sisters did not exchange a word until morning, but both of them lay long awake. Monica was the first to lose consciousness; she slept for about an hour, then the pains of a horrid dream disturbed her, and again she took up the burden of thought. Such waking after brief, broken sleep, when mind and body are beset by weariness, yet cannot rest, when night with its awful hush and its mysterious movements makes a strange, dread habitation for the spirit—such waking is a grim trial of human fortitude. The blood flows sluggishly, yet subject to sudden tremors that chill the veins and for an instant choke the heart. Purpose is idle, the will impure; over the past hangs a shadow of remorse, and life that must yet be lived shows lurid, a steep pathway to the hopeless grave. Of this cup Monica drank deeply.
A fear of death compassed her about. Night after night it had thus haunted her. In the daytime she could think of death with resignation, as a refuge from miseries of which she saw no other end; but this hour of silent darkness shook her with terrors. Reason availed nothing; its exercise seemed criminal. The old faiths, never abandoned, though modified by the breath of intellectual freedom that had just touched her, reasserted all their power. She saw herself as a wicked woman, in the eye of truth not less wicked than her husband declared her. A sinner stubborn in impenitence, defending herself by a paltry ambiguity that had all the evil of a direct lie. Her soul trembled in its nakedness.
What redemption could there be for her? What path of spiritual health was discoverable? She could not command herself to love the father of her child; the repugnance with which she regarded him seemed to her a sin against nature, yet how was she responsible for it? Would it profit her to make confession and be humbled before him? The confession must some day be made, if only for her child's sake; but she foresaw in it no relief of mind. Of all human beings her husband was the one least fitted to console and strengthen her. She cared nothing for his pardon; from his love she shrank. But if there were some one to whom she could utter her thoughts with the certainty of being understood—
Her sisters had not the sympathetic intelligence necessary for aiding her; Virginia was weaker than she herself, and Alice dealt only in sorrowful commonplaces, profitable perhaps to her own heart, but powerless over the trouble of another's. Among the few people she had called her friends there was one strong woman—strong of brain, and capable, it might be, of speaking the words that go from soul to soul; this woman she had deeply offended, yet owing to mere mischance. Whether or no Rhoda Nunn had lent ear to Barfoot's wooing she must be gravely offended; she had given proof of it in the interview reported by Virginia. The scandal spread abroad by Widdowson might even have been fatal to a happiness of which she had dreamt. To Rhoda Nunn some form of reparation was owing. And might not an avowal of the whole truth elicit from her counsel of gratitude—some solace, some guidance?
Amid the tremors of night Monica felt able to take this step, for the mere chance of comfort that it offered. But when day came the resolution had vanished; shame and pride again compelled her to silence.
And this morning she had new troubles to think about. Virginia was keeping her room; would admit no one; answered every whisper of appeal with brief, vague words that signified anything or nothing. The others breakfasted in gloom that harmonized only too well with the heavy, dripping sky visible from their windows. Only at midday did Alice succeed in obtaining speech with her remorseful sister. They were closeted together for more than an hour, and the elder woman came forth at last with red, tear-swollen eyes.
'We must leave her alone today,' she said to Monica. 'She won't take any meal. Oh, the wretched state she is in! If only I could have known of this before!'
'Has it been going on for very long?'
'It began soon after she went to live at Mrs. Conisbee's. She has told me all about it—poor girl, poor thing! Whether she can ever break herself of it, who knows? She says that she will take the pledge of total abstinence, and I encouraged her to do so; it may be some use, don't you think?'
'Perhaps—I don't know—'
'But I have no faith in her reforming unless she goes away from London. She thinks herself that only a new life in a new place will give her the strength. My dear, at Mrs. Conisbee's she starved herself to have money to buy spirits; she went without any food but dry bread day after day.'
'Of course that made it worse. She must have craved for support.'
'Of course. And your husband knows about it. He came once when she was in that state—when you were away—'
Monica nodded sullenly, her eyes averted.
'Her life has been so dreadfully unhealthy. She seems to have become weak-minded. All her old interests have gone; she reads nothing but novels, day after day.'
'I have noticed that.'
'How can we help her, Monica? Won't you make a sacrifice for the poor girl's sake? Cannot I persuade you, dear? Your position has a bad influence on her; I can see it has. She worries so about you, and then tries to forget the trouble—you know how.'
Not that day, nor the next, could Monica listen to these entreaties. But her sister at length prevailed. It was late in the evening; Virginia had gone to bed, and the others sat silently, without occupation. Miss Madden, after several vain efforts to speak, bent forward and said in a low, grave voice,—
'Monica—you are deceiving us all. You are guilty.'
'Why do you say that?'
'I know it. I have watched you. You betray yourself when you are thinking.'
The other sat with brows knitted, with hard, defiant lips.
'All your natural affection is dead, and only guilt could have caused that. You don't care what becomes of your sister. Only the fear, or the evil pride, that comes of guilt could make you refuse what we ask of you. You are afraid to let your husband know of your condition.'
Alice could not have spoken thus had she not believed what she said. The conviction had become irresistible to her mind. Her voice quivered with intensity of painful emotion.
'That last is true,' said her sister, when there had been silence for a minute.
'You confess it? O Monica—'
'I don't confess what you think,' went on the younger, with more calmness than she had yet commanded in these discussions.
'Of that I am not guilty. I am afraid of his knowing, because he will never believe me. I have a proof which would convince anyone else; but, even if I produced it, it would be no use. I don't think it is possible to persuade him—when once he knows—'
'If you were innocent you would disregard that.'
'Listen to me, Alice. If I were guilty I should not be living here at his expense. I only consented to do that when I knew what my condition was. But for this thing I should have refused to accept another penny from him. I should have drawn upon my own money until I was able to earn my own living again. If you won't believe this it shows you know nothing of me. Your reading of my face is all foolishness.'
'I would to God I were sure of what you say!' moaned Miss Madden, with vehemence which seemed extraordinary in such a feeble, flabby person.
'You know that I told my husband lies,' exclaimed Monica, 'so you think I am never to be trusted. I did tell him lies; I can't deny it, and I am ashamed of it. But I am not a deceitful woman—I can say that boldly. I love the truth better than falsehood. If it weren't for that I should never have left home. A deceitful woman, in my circumstances—you don't understand them—would have cheated her husband into forgiving her—such a husband as mine. She would have calculated the most profitable course. I left my husband because it was hateful to me to be with a man for whom I had lost every trace of affection. In keeping away from him I am acting honestly. But I have told you that I am also afraid of his making a discovery. I want him to believe—when the time comes—'
She broke off.
'Then, Monica, you ought to make known to him what you have been concealing. If you are telling the truth, that confession can't be anything very dreadful.'
'Alice, I am willing to make an agreement. If my husband will promise never to come near Clevedon until I send for him I will go and live there with you and Virgie.'
'He has promised that, darling,' cried Miss Madden delightedly.
'Not to me. He has only said that he will make his home in London for a time: that means he would come whenever he wished, if it were only to speak to you and Virgie. But he must undertake never to come near until I give him permission. If he will promise this, and keep his word, I pledge myself to let him know the whole truth in less than a year. Whether I live or die, he shall be told the truth in less than a year.'
Before going to bed Alice wrote and dispatched a few lines to Widdowson, requesting an interview with him as soon as possible. She would come to his house at any hour he liked to appoint. The next afternoon brought a reply, and that same evening Miss Madden went to Herne Hill. As a result of what passed there, a day or two saw the beginning of the long-contemplated removal to Clevedon. Widdowson found a lodging in the neighbourhood of his old home; he had engaged never to cross the bounds of Somerset until he received his wife's permission.
As soon as this compact was established Monica wrote to Miss Nunn. A short submissive letter. 'I am about to leave London, and before I go I very much wish to see you. Will you allow me to call at some hour when I could speak to you in private? There is something I must make known to you, and I cannot write it.' After a day's interval came the reply, which was still briefer. Miss Nunn would be at home at half-past eight this or the next evening.
Monica's announcement that she must go out alone after nightfall alarmed her sisters. When told that her visit was to Rhoda Nunn they were somewhat relieved, but Alice begged to be permitted to accompany her.
'It will be lost trouble,' Monica declared. 'More likely than not there is a spy waiting to follow me wherever I go. Your assurance that I really went to Miss Barfoot's won't be needed.'
When the others still opposed her purpose she passed from irony into anger.
'Have you undertaken to save him the expense of private detectives? Have you promised never to let me go out of your sight?'
'Certainly I have not,' said Alice.
'Nor I, dear,' protested Virginia. 'He has never asked anything of the kind.'
'Then you may be sure that the spies are still watching me. Let them have something to do, poor creatures. I shall go alone, so you needn't say any more.'
She took train to York Road Station, and thence, as the night was fine, walked to Chelsea. This semblance of freedom, together with the sense of having taken a courageous resolve, raised her spirits. She hoped that a detective might be tracking her; the futility of such measures afforded her a contemptuous satisfaction. Not to arrive before the appointed hour she loitered on Chelsea Embankment, and it gave her pleasure to reflect that in doing this she was outraging the proprieties. Her mind was in a strange tumult of rebellious and distrustful thought. She had determined on making a confession to Rhoda; but would she benefit by it? Was Rhoda generous enough to appreciate her motives? It did not matter much. She would have discharged a duty at the expense of such shame, and this fact alone might strengthen her to face the miseries beyond.
As she stood at Miss Barfoot's door her heart quailed. To the servant who opened she could only speak Miss Nunn's name; fortunately instructions had been given, and she was straightway led to the library. Here she waited for nearly five minutes. Was Rhoda doing this on purpose? Her face, when at length she entered, made it seem probable; a cold dignity, only not offensive haughtiness, appeared in her bearing. She did not offer to shake hands, and used no form of civility beyond requesting her visitor to be seated.
'I am going away,' Monica began, when silence compelled her to speak.
'Yes, so you told me.'
'I can see that you can't understand why I have come.'
'Your note only said that you wished to see me.'
Their eyes met, and Monica knew in the moment that succeeded that she was being examined from head to foot. It seemed to her that she had undertaken something beyond her strength; her impulse was to invent a subject of brief conversation and escape into the darkness. But Miss Nunn spoke again.
'Is it possible that I can be of any service to you?'
'Yes. You might be. But—I find it is very difficult to say what I—'
Rhoda waited, offering no help whatever, not even that of a look expressing interest.
'Will you tell me, Miss Nunn, why you behave so coldly to me?'
'Surely that doesn't need any explanation, Mrs. Widdowson?'
'You mean that you believe everything Mr. Widdowson has said?'
'Mr. Widdowson has said nothing to me. But I have seen your sister, and there seemed no reason to doubt what she told me.'
'She couldn't tell you the truth, because she doesn't know it.'
'I presume she at least told no untruth.'
'What did Virginia say? I think I have a right to ask that.'
Rhoda appeared to doubt it. She turned her eyes to the nearest bookcase, and for a moment reflected.
'Your affairs don't really concern me, Mrs. Widdowson,' she said at length. 'They have been forced upon my attention, and perhaps I regard them from a wrong point of view. Unless you have come to defend yourself against a false accusation, is there any profit in our talking of these things?'
'I have come for that.'
'Then I am not so unjust as to refuse to hear you.'
'My name has been spoken of together with Mr. Barfoot's. This is wrong. It began from a mistake.'
Monica could not shape her phrases. Hastening to utter the statement that would relieve her from Miss Nunn's personal displeasure, she used the first simple words that rose to her lips.
'When I went to Bayswater that day I had no thought of seeing Mr. Barfoot. I wished to see someone else.'
The listener manifested more attention. She could not mistake the signs of sincerity in Monica's look and speech.
'Some one,' she asked coldly, 'who was living with Mr. Barfoot?'
'No. Some one in the same building; in another flat. When I knocked at Mr. Barfoot's door, I knew—or I felt sure—no one would answer. I knew Mr. Barfoot was going away that day—going into Cumberland.'
Rhoda's look was fixed on the speaker's countenance.
'You knew he was going to Cumberland?' she asked in a slow, careful voice.
'He told me so. I met him, quite by chance, the day before.'
'Where did you meet him?'
'Near the flats,' Monica answered, colouring. 'He had just come out—I saw him come out. I had an appointment there that afternoon, and I walked a short way with him, so that he shouldn't—'
Her voice failed. She saw that Rhoda had begun to mistrust her, to think that she was elaborating falsehoods. The burdensome silence was broken by Miss Nunn's saying repellently,—
'I haven't asked for your confidence, remember.'
'No—and if you try to imagine what it means for me to be speaking like this—I am not shameless. I have suffered a great deal before I could bring myself to come here and tell you. If you were more human—if you tried to believe—'
The agitation which found utterance in these words had its effect upon Rhoda. In spite of herself she was touched by the note of womanly distress.
'Why have you come? Why do you tell me this?'
'Because it isn't only that I have been falsely accused. I felt I must tell you that Mr. Barfoot had never—that there was nothing between us. What has he said? How did he meet the charge Mr. Widdowson made against him?'
'Simply by denying it.'
'Hasn't he wished to appeal to me?'
'I don't know. I haven't heard of his expressing such a wish. I can't see that you are called upon to take any trouble about Mr. Barfoot. He ought to be able to protect his own reputation.'
'Has he done so?' Monica asked eagerly. 'Did you believe him when he denied—'
'But what does it matter whether I believed him or not?'
'He would think it mattered a great deal.'
'Mr. Barfoot would think so? Why?'
'He told me how much he wished to have your good opinion That is what we used to talk about. I don't know why he took me into his confidence. It happened first of all when we were going by train—the same train, by chance—after we had both been calling here. He asked me many questions about you, and at last said—that he loved you—or something that meant the same.'
Rhoda's eyes had fallen.
'After that,' pursued Monica, 'we several times spoke of you. We did so when we happened to meet near his rooms—as I have told you. He told me he was going to Cumberland with the hope of seeing you; and I understood him to mean he wished to ask you—'
The sudden and great change in Miss Nunn's expression checked the speaker. Scornful austerity had given place to a smile, stern indeed, but exultant. There was warmth upon her face; her lips moved and relaxed; she altered her position in the chair as if inclined for more intimate colloquy.
'There was never more than that between us,' pursued Monica with earnestness. 'My interest in Mr. Barfoot was only on your account. I hoped he might be successful. And I have come to you because I feared you would believe my husband—as I see you have done.'
Rhoda, though she thought it very unlikely that all this should be admirable acting, showed that the explanation had by no means fully satisfied her. Unwilling to put the crucial question, she waited, with gravity which had none of the former harshness, for what else Mrs. Widdowson might choose to say. A look of suffering appeal obliged her to break the silence.
'I am very sorry you have laid this task upon yourself—'
Still Monica looked at her, and at length murmured,—
'If only I could know that I had done any good—'
'But,' said Rhoda, with a searching glance, 'you don't wish me to repeat what you have said?'
'It was only for you. I thought—if you felt able to let Mr. Barfoot know that you had no longer any—'
A flash of stern intelligence shot from the listener's eyes.
'You have seen him then?' she asked with abrupt directness.
'He has written to you?'—still in the same voice.
'Indeed he has not. Mr. Barfoot never wrote to me. I know nothing whatever about him. No one asked me to come to you—don't think that. No one knows of what I have been telling you.'
Again Rhoda was oppressed by the difficulty of determining how much credit was due to such assertions. Monica understood her look.
'As I have said so much I must tell you all. It would be dreadful after this to go away uncertain whether you believed me or not.'
Human feeling prompted the listener to declare that she had no doubts left. Yet she could not give utterance to the words. She knew they would sound forced, insincere. Shame at inflicting shame caused her to bend her head. Already she had been silent too long.
'I will tell you everything,' Monica was saying in low, tremulous tones. 'If no one else believes me, you at all events shall. I have not done what—'
'No—I can't hear this,' Rhoda broke in, the speaker's voice affecting her too powerfully. 'I will believe you without this.'
Monica broke into sobbing. The strain of this last effort had overtaxed her strength.
'We won't talk any more of it,' said Rhoda, with an endeavour to speak kindly. 'You have done all that could be asked of you. I am grateful to you for coming on my account.
The other controlled herself.
'Will you hear what I have to say, Miss Nunn? Will you hear it as a friend? I want to put myself right in your thoughts. I have told no one else; I shall be easier in mind if you will hear me. My husband will know everything before very long—but perhaps I shall not be alive—'
Something in Miss Nunn's face suggested to Monica that her meaning was understood. Perhaps, notwithstanding her denial, Virginia had told more when she was here than she had permission to make known.
'Why should you wish to tell me?' asked Rhoda uneasily.
'Because you are so strong. You will say something that will help me. I know you think that I have committed a sin which it is a shame to speak of. That isn't true. If it were true I should never consent to go and live in my husband's house.'
'You are returning to him?'
'I forgot that I haven't told you.'
And Monica related the agreement that had been arrived at. When she spoke of the time that must elapse before she would make a confession to her husband, it again seemed to her that Miss Nunn understood.
'There is a reason why I consent to be supported by him,' she continued. 'If it were true that I had sinned as he suspects I would rather kill myself than pretend still to be his wife. The day before he had me watched I thought I had left him forever. I thought that if I went back to the house again it would only be to get a few things that I needed. It was some one who lived in the same building as Mr. Barfoot. You have met him—'
She raised her eyes for an instant, and they encountered the listener's. Rhoda was at no loss to supply the omitted name; she saw at once how plain things were becoming.
'He has left England,' pursued Monica in a hurried but clear voice. 'I thought then that I should go away with him. But—it was impossible. I loved him—or thought I loved him; but I was guiltless of anything more than consenting to leave my husband. Will you believe me?'
'Yes, Monica, I do believe you.'
'If you have any doubt, I can show you a letter he wrote to me from abroad, which will prove—'
'I believe you absolutely.'
'But let me tell you more. I must explain how the misunderstanding—'
Rapidly she recounted the incidents of that fatal Saturday afternoon. At the conclusion her self-command was again overcome; she shed tears, and murmured broken entreaties for kindness.
'What shall I do, Miss Nunn? How can I live until—? I know it's only for a short time. My wretched life will soon be at an end—'
'Monica—there is one thing you must remember.'
The voice was so gentle, though firm—so unlike what she had expected to hear—that the sufferer looked up with grateful attention.
'Tell me—give me what help you can.'
'Life seems so bitter to you that you are in despair. Yet isn't it your duty to live as though some hope were before you?'
Monica gazed in uncertainty.
'You mean—' she faltered.
'I think you will understand. I am not speaking of your husband. Whether you have duties to him or not I can't say; that is for your own mind and heart to determine. But isn't it true that your health has a graver importance than if you yourself only were concerned?'
'Yes—you have understood me—'
'Isn't it your duty to remember at every moment that your thoughts, your actions, may affect another life—that by heedlessness, by abandoning yourself to despair, you may be the cause of suffering it was in your power to avert?'
Herself strongly moved, Rhoda had never spoken so impressively, had never given counsel of such earnest significance. She felt her power in quite a new way, without touch of vanity, without posing or any trivial self-consciousness. When she least expected it an opportunity had come for exerting the moral influence on which she prided herself, and which she hoped to make the ennobling element of her life. All the better that the case was one calling for courage, for contempt of vulgar reticences; the combative soul in her became stronger when faced by such conditions. Seeing that her words were not in vain, she came nearer to Monica and spoke yet more kindly.
'Why do you encourage that fear of your life coming to an end?'
'It's more a hope than a fear—at most times. I can see nothing before me. I don't wish to live.'
'That's morbid. It isn't yourself that speaks, but your trouble. You are young and strong, and in a year's time very much of this unhappiness will have passed.'
'I have felt it like a certainty—as if it had been foretold to me—ever since I knew—'
'I think it very likely that young wives have often the same dread. It is physical, Monica, and in your case there is so little relief from dark brooding. But again you must think of your responsibility. You will live, because the poor little life will need your care.'
Monica turned her head away and moaned.
'I shall not love my child.'
'Yes, you will. And that love, that duty, is the life to which you must look forward. You have suffered a great deal, but after such sorrow as yours there comes quietness and resignation. Nature will help you.'
'Oh, if you could give me some of your strength! I have never been able to look at life as you do. I should never have married him if I hadn't been tempted by the thoughts of living easily—and I feared so—that I might always be alone—My sisters are so miserable; it terrified me to think of struggling on through life as they do—'
'Your mistake was in looking only at the weak women. You had other examples before you—girls like Miss Vesper and Miss Haven, who live bravely and work hard and are proud of their place in the world. But it's idle to talk of the past, and just as foolish to speak as if you were sorrowing without hope. How old are you, Monica?'
'Well, I am two-and-thirty—and I don't call myself old. When you have reached my age I prophesy you will smile at your despair of ten years ago. At your age one talks so readily of "wrecked life" and "hopeless future," and all that kind of thing. My dear girl, you may live to be one of the most contented and most useful women in England. Your life isn't wrecked at all—nonsense! You have gone through a storm, that's true; but more likely than not you will be all the better for it. Don't talk or think about sins; simply make up your mind that you won't be beaten by trials and hardships. There cannot—can there?—be the least doubt as to how you ought to live through these next coming months. Your duty is perfectly clear. Strengthen yourself in body and mind. You have a mind, which is more than can be said of a great many women. Think bravely and nobly of yourself! Say to yourself: This and that it is in me to do, and I will do it!'
Monica bent suddenly forward and took one of her friend's hands, and clung to it.
'I knew you could say something that would help me. You have a way of speaking. But it isn't only now. I shall be so far away, and so lonely, all through the dark winter. Will you write to me?'
'Gladly. And tell you all we are doing.'
Rhoda's voice sank for a moment; her eyes wandered; but she recovered the air of confidence.
'We seemed to have lost you; but before long you will be one of us again. I mean, you will be one of the women who are fighting in woman's cause. You will prove by your life that we can be responsible human beings—trustworthy, conscious of purpose.'
'Tell me—do you think it right for me to live with my husband when I can't even regard him as a friend?'
'In that I dare not counsel you. If you can think of him as a friend, in time to come, surely it will be better. But here you must guide yourself. You seem to have made a very sensible arrangement, and before long you will see many things more clearly. Try to recover health—health; that is what you need. Drink in the air of the Severn Sea; it will be a cordial to you after this stifling London. Next summer I shall—I hope I shall be at Cheddar, and then I shall come over to Clevedon—and we shall laugh and talk as if we had never known a care.'
'Ah, if that time were come! But you have done me good. I shall try—'
'I mustn't forget,' said Rhoda, without looking at her, 'that I owe you thanks. You have done what you felt was right in spite of all it cost you; and you have very greatly relieved my mind. Of course it is all a secret between us. If I make it understood that a doubt is no longer troubling me I shall never say how it was removed.'
'How I wish I had come before.'
'For your own sake, if I have really helped you, I wish you had. But as for anything else—it is much better as it is.'
And Rhoda stood with erect head, smiling her smile of liberty. Monica did not dare to ask any question. She moved up to her friend, holding out both hands timidly.
'Till next summer.'
They embraced, and kissed each other, Monica, when she had withdrawn her hot lips, again murmuring words of gratitude. Then in silence they went together to the house-door, and in silence parted.