'My own dearest love, if I could but describe to you all I have suffered before sitting down to write this letter! Since our last meeting I have not known one hour of quietness. To think that I missed you when you called and left that note—for it was you yourself, was it not? The journey was horrible, and the week that I have spent here—I assure you I have not slept for more than a few minutes at a time, and I am utterly broken down by misery. My darling'—etc. 'I regard myself as a criminal; if you have suffered a thousandth part of what I have, I deserve any punishment that could be devised. For it has all been my fault. Knowing as I did that our love could never end in happiness, it was my duty to hide what I felt. I ought never to have contrived that first meeting alone—for it was contrived; I sent my sisters away on purpose. I ought never'—etc. 'The only reflection that can ever bring me comfort is that our love has been pure. We can always think of each other without shame. And why should this love ever have an end? We are separated, and perhaps shall never see each other again, but may not our hearts remain for ever true? May we not think'—etc. 'If I were to bid you leave your home and come to me, I should be once more acting with base selfishness. I should ruin your life, and load my own with endless self-reproach. I find that even mere outward circumstances would not allow of what for a moment we dreamt might be possible, and of that I am glad, since it helps me to overcome the terrible temptation. Oh, if you knew how that temptation'—etc. 'Time will be a friend to both of us, dearest Monica. Forget each other we never can, we never will. But our unsullied love'—etc.
Monica read it through again, the long rigmarole. Since the day that she received it—addressed to 'Mrs. Williamson' at the little stationer's by Lavender Hill—the day before she consented to accompany her sister into new lodgings—the letter had lain in its hiding-place. Alone this afternoon, for Virginia was gone to call on Miss Nunn, alone and miserable, every printed page a weariness to her sight, she took out the French-stamped envelope and tried to think that its contents interested her. But not a word had power of attraction or of repulsion. The tender phrases affected her no more than if they had been addressed to a stranger. Love was become a meaningless word. She could not understand how she had ever drifted into such relations with the writer. Fear and anger were the sole passions surviving in her memory from those days which had violently transformed her life, and it was not with Bevis, but her husband, that these emotions were connected. Bevis's image stood in that already distant past like a lay figure, the mere semblance of a man. And with such conception of him his letter corresponded; it was artificial, lifeless, as if extracted from some vapid novel.
But she must not destroy it. Its use was still to come. Letter and envelope must go back again into hiding, and await the day which would give them power over human lives.
Suffering, as always, from headache and lassitude, she sat by the window and watched the people who passed along—her daily occupation. This sitting-room was on the ground floor. In a room above some one was receiving a music lesson; every now and then the teacher's voice became audible, raised in sharp impatience, and generally accompanied by a clash upon the keys of the piano. At the area gate of the house opposite a servant was talking angrily with a tradesman's errand boy, who at length put his thumb to his nose with insulting significance and scampered off. Then, at the house next to that one, there stopped a cab, from which three busy-looking men alighted. Cabs full of people were always stopping at that door. Monica wondered what it meant, who might live there. She thought of asking the landlady.
Virginia's return aroused her. She went upstairs with her sister into the double-bedded room which they occupied.
'What have you heard?'
'He went there. He told them everything.'
'How did Miss Nunn look? How did she speak?'
'Oh, she was very, very distant,' lamented Virginia. 'I don't quite know why she sent for me. She said there would be no use in her coming to see you—and I don't think she ever will. I told her that there was no truth in—'
'But how did she look?' asked Monica impatiently.
'Not at all well, I thought. She had been away for her holiday, but it doesn't seem to have done her much good.'
'He went there and told them everything?'
'Yes—just after it happened. But he hasn't seen them since that. I could see they believed him. It was no use all that I said. She looked so stern and—'
'Did you ask anything about Mr. Barfoot?'
'My dear, I didn't venture to. It was impossible. But I feel quite sure that they must have broken off all intercourse with him. Whatever he may have said, they evidently didn't believe it. Miss Barfoot is away now.
'And what did you tell her about me?'
'Everything that you said I might, dear.'
'Nothing else—you are sure?'
Virginia coloured, but made asseveration that nothing else had passed her lips.
'It wouldn't have mattered if you had,' said Monica indifferently. 'I don't care.'
The sister, struggling with shame, was irritated by the needlessness of her falsehood.
'Then why were you so particular to forbid me, Monica?'
'It was better—but I don't care. I don't care for anything. Let them believe and say what they like—'
'Monica, if I find out at last that you have deceived me—'
'Oh, do, do, do be quiet!' cried the other wretchedly. 'I shall go somewhere and live alone—or die alone. You worry me—I'm tired of it.'
'You are not very grateful, Monica.'
'I can't be grateful! You must expect nothing from me. If you keep talking and questioning I shall go away. I don't care what becomes of me. The sooner I die the better.'
Scenes such as this had been frequent lately. The sisters were a great trial to each other's nerves. Tedium and pain drove Monica to the relief of altercation, and Virginia, through her secret vice, was losing all self-control. They wrangled, wailed, talked of parting, and only became quiet when their emotions had exhausted them. Yet no ill-feeling resulted from these disputes. Virginia had a rooted faith in her sister's innocence; when angry, she only tried to provoke Monica into a full explanation of the mystery, so insoluble by unaided conjecture. And Monica, say what she might, repaid this confidence with profound gratitude. Strangely, she had come to view herself as not only innocent of the specific charge brought against her, but as a woman in every sense maligned. So utterly void of significance, from her present point of view, was all that had passed between her and Bevis. One reason for this lay in the circumstance that, when exchanging declarations with her lover, she was ignorant of a fact which, had she known it, would have made their meetings impossible. Her husband she could never regard but as a cruel enemy; none the less, nature had set a seal upon their marriage against which the revolt of her heart was powerless. If she lived to bear a child, that child would be his. Widdowson, when he heard of her condition, would declare it the final proof of infidelity; and this injustice it was that exclusively occupied her mind. On this account she could think only of the accusation which connected her name with Barfoot's—all else was triviality. Had there been no slightest ground for imputation upon her conduct, she could not have resented more vigorously her husband's refusal to acquit her of dishonour.
On the following day, after their early dinner, Monica unexpectedly declared that she must go out.
'Come with me. We'll go into the town.'
'But you refused to go out this morning when it was fine,' complained Virginia. 'And now you can see it will rain.'
'Then I shall go alone.'
The sister at once started up.
'No, no; I'm quite ready. Where do you wish—'
'Anywhere out of this dead place. We'll go by train, and walk from Victoria—anywhere. To the Abbey, if you like.'
'You must be very careful not to catch cold. After all this time that you haven't left the house—'
Monica cut short the admonition and dressed herself with feverish impatience. As they set forth, drops of rain had begun to fall, but Monica would not hear of waiting. The journey by train made her nervous, but affected her spirits favourably. At Victoria it rained so heavily that they could not go out into the street.
'It doesn't matter. There's plenty to see here. Let us walk about and look at things. We'll buy something at the bookstall to take back.'
As they turned again towards the platform, Monica was confronted by a face which she at once recognized, though it had changed noticeably in the eighteen months since she last saw it. The person was Miss Eade, her old acquaintance at the shop. But the girl no longer dressed as in those days; cheap finery of the 'loudest' description arrayed her form, and it needed little scrutiny to perceive that her thin cheeks were artificially reddened. The surprise of the meeting was not Monica's only reason for evincing embarrassment. Seeing that Miss Eade was uncertain whether to make a sign of acquaintance, she felt it would be wiser to go by. But this was not permitted. As they were passing each other the girl bent her head and whispered—
'I want to speak to you—just a minute.'
Virginia perceived the communication, and looked in surprise at her sister.
'It's one of the girls from Walworth Road,' said Monica. 'Just walk on; I'll meet you at the bookstall.'
'But, my dear, she doesn't look respectable—'
'Go on; I won't be a minute.'
Monica motioned to Miss Eade, who followed her towards a more retired spot.
'You have left the shop?'
'Left—I should think so. Nearly a year ago. I told you I shouldn't stand it much longer. Are you married?'
Monica did not understand why the girl should eye her so suspiciously.
'You are?' said Miss Eade. 'Nobody that I know, I suppose?'
'Quite a stranger to you.'
The other made an unpleasant click with her tongue, and looked vaguely about her. Then she remarked inconsequently that she was waiting the arrival of her brother by train.
'He's a traveller for a West-end shop; makes five hundred a year. I keep house for him, because of course he's a widower.'
The 'of course' puzzled Monica for a moment, but she remembered that it was an unmeaning expletive much used by people of Miss Eade's education. However, the story did not win her credence; by this time her disagreeable surmises had too much support.
'Was there anything you wished particularly to speak about?'
'You haven't seen nothing of Mr. Bullivant?'
To what a remote period of her life this name seemed to recall Monica! She glanced quickly at the speaker, and again detected suspicion in her eyes.
'I have neither seen nor heard of him since I left Walworth Road. Isn't he still there?'
'Not he. He went about the same time you did, and nobody knew where he hid himself.'
'Hid? Why should he hide?'
'I only mean he got out of sight somewheres. I thought perhaps you might have come across him.'
'No, I haven't. Now I must say good-bye. That lady is waiting for me.'
Miss Eade nodded, but immediately altered her mind and checked Monica as she was turning away.
'You wouldn't mind telling me what your married name may be?'
'That really doesn't concern you, Miss Eade,' replied the other stiffly. 'I must go—'
'If you don't tell me, I'll follow you till I find out, and chance it!'
The change from tolerable civility to coarse insolence was so sudden that Monica stood in astonishment. There was unconcealed malignity in the gaze fixed upon her.
'What do you mean? What interest have you in learning my name?'
The girl brought her face near, and snarled in the true voice of the pavement—
'Is it a name as you're ashamed to let out?'
Monica walked away to the bookstall. When she had joined her sister, she became aware that Miss Eade was keeping her in sight.
'Let us buy a book,' she said, 'and go home again. The rain won't stop.'
They selected a cheap volume, and, having their return tickets, moved towards the departure platform. Before she could reach the gates Monica heard Miss Eade's voice just behind her; it had changed again, and the appealing note reminded her of many conversations in Walworth Road.
'Do tell me! I beg your pardon for bein' rude. Don't go without telling me.'
The meaning of this importunity had already flashed upon Monica, and now she felt a slight pity for the tawdry, abandoned creature, in whom there seemed to survive that hopeless passion of old days.
'My name,' she said abruptly, 'is Mrs. Widdowson.'
'Are you telling me the truth?'
'I have told you what you wish to know. I can't talk—'
'And you don't really know nothing about him?'
Miss Eade moved sullenly away, not more than half convinced. Long after Monica's disappearance she strayed about the platform and the approaches to the station. Her brother was slow in arriving. Once or twice she held casual colloquy with men who also stood waiting—perchance for their sisters; and ultimately one of these was kind enough to offer her refreshment, which she graciously accepted. Rhoda Nunn would have classed her and mused about her: a not unimportant type of the odd woman.
* * *
After this Monica frequently went out, always accompanied by her sister. It happened more than once that they saw Widdowson, who walked past the house at least every other day; he didn't approach them, and had he done so Monica would have kept an obstinate silence.
For more than a fortnight he had not written to her. At length there came a letter, merely a repetition of his former appeals.
'I hear,' he wrote, 'that your elder sister is coming to London. Why should she live here in lodgings, when a comfortable house is at the disposal of you all? Let me again entreat you to go to Clevedon. The furniture shall be moved any moment you wish. I solemnly promise not to molest you in any way, not even by writing. It shall be understood that business makes it necessary for me to live in London. For your sister's sake do accept this offer. If I could see you in private, I should be able to give you a very good reason why your sister Virginia would benefit by the change; perhaps you yourself know of it. Do answer me, Monica. Never again will I refer by word or look to what has passed. I am anxious only to put an end to the wretched life that you are leading. Do go to the house at Clevedon, I implore you.'
It was not the first time he had hinted darkly at a benefit that might accrue to Virginia if she left London. Monica had no inkling of what he meant. She showed her sister this communication, and asked if she could understand the passage which concerned her.
'I haven't the least idea,' Virginia replied, her hand trembling as she held the paper. 'I can only suppose that he thinks that I am not looking well.'
The letter was burnt, as all the others had been, no answer vouchsafed. Virginia's mind seemed to waver with regard to the proposed settlement at Clevedon. Occasionally she had urged Monica, with extreme persistence, to accept what was offered; at other times, as now, for instance, she said nothing. Yet Alice had written beseeching her to use all means for Monica's persuasion. Miss Madden infinitely preferred the thought of dwelling at Clevedon—however humble the circumstances had been—to that of coming back into London lodgings whilst she sought for a new engagement. The situation she was about to quit had proved more laborious than any in her experience. At first merely a governess, she had gradually become children's nurse as well, and for the past three months had been expected to add the tendance of a chronic invalid to her other duties. Not a day's holiday since she came. She was broken down and utterly woebegone.
But Monica could not be moved. She refused to go again under her husband's roof until he had stated that his charge against her was absolutely unfounded. This concession went beyond Widdowson's power; he would forgive, but still declined to stultify himself by a statement that could have no meaning. To what extent his wife had deceived him might be uncertain, but the deception was a proved fact. Of course it never occurred to him that Monica's demand had a significance which emphasized the name of Barfoot. Had he said, 'I am convinced that your relations with Barfoot were innocent,' he would have seemed to himself to be acquitting her of all criminality; whereas Monica, from her point of view, illogically supposed that he might credit her on this one issue without overthrowing all the evidence that declared her untrustworthy. In short, she expected him to read a riddle which there was scarcely a possibility of his understanding.
Alice was in correspondence with the gloomy husband. She promised him to use every effort to gain Monica's confidence. Perhaps as the eldest sister she might succeed where Virginia had failed. Her faith in Monica's protestations had been much shaken by the item of intelligence which Virginia secretly communicated; she thought it too likely that her unhappy sister saw no refuge from disgrace but in stubborn denial of guilt. And in the undertaking that was before her she had no hope save through the influence of religion—with her a much stronger force than with either of the others.
Her arrival was expected on the last day of September. The evening before, Monica went to bed soon after eight o'clock; for a day or two she had suffered greatly, and at length had allowed a doctor to be called. Whenever her sister retired very early, Virginia also went to her own bedroom, saying that she preferred to sit there.
The room much surpassed in comfort that which she had occupied at Mrs. Conisbee's; it was spacious, and provided with a couple of very soft armchairs. Having locked her door, Virginia made certain preparations which had nothing to do with natural repose. From the cupboard she brought out a little spirit-kettle, and put water to boil. Then from a more private repository were produced a bottle of gin and a sugar-basin, which, together with a tumbler and spoon, found a place on a little table drawn up within reach of the chair where she was going to sit. On the same table lay a novel procured this afternoon from the library. Whilst the water was boiling, Virginia made a slight change of dress, conducive to bodily ease. Finally, having mixed a glass of gin and water—one-third only of the diluent—she sat down with one of her frequent sighs and began to enjoy the evening.
The last, the very last, of such enjoyment; so she assured herself. Alice's presence in the house would render impossible what she had hitherto succeeded in disguising from Monica. Her conscience welcomed the restraint, which was coming none too soon, for her will could no longer be depended upon. If she abstained from strong liquors for three or four days it was now a great triumph; yet worthless, for even in abstaining she knew that the hour of indulgence had only been postponed. A fit of unendurable depression soon drove her to the only resource which had immediate efficacy. The relief, she knew, was another downward step; but presently she would find courage to climb back again up to the sure ground. Save for her trouble on Monica's account the temptation would already have been conquered. And now Alice's arrival made courage a mere necessity.
Her bottle was all but empty; she would finish it to-night, and in the morning, as her custom was, take it back to the grocer's in her little hand-bag. How convenient that this kind of thing could be purchased at the grocer's! In the beginning she had chiefly made use of railway refreshment rooms. Only on rare occasions did she enter a public-house, and always with the bitterest sense of degradation. To sit comfortably at home, the bottle beside her, and a novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst shame attaching to this vice; she went to bed, and in the morning—ah, the morning brought its punishment, but she incurred no risk of being detected.
Brandy had first of all been her drink, as is generally the case with women of the educated class. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop of brandy. But it cost too much. Whisky she had tried, and did not like. Finally she had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. The name, debased by such foul associations, still confused her when she uttered it; as a rule, she wrote it down in a list of groceries which she handed over the counter.
To-night she drank her first glass quickly; a consuming thirst was upon her. By half-past eight the second was gently steaming at her elbow. At nine she had mixed the third; it must last a long time, for the bottle was now empty.
The novel entertained her, but she often let her thoughts stray from it; she reflected with exultation that to-night's indulgence was her very last. On the morrow she would be a new woman. Alice and she would devote themselves to their poor sister, and never rest till they had restored her to a life of dignity. This was a worthy, a noble task; success in it must need minister to her own peace. Before long they would all be living at Clevedon—a life of ideal contentment. It was no longer necessary to think of the school, but she would exert herself for the moral instruction of young women—on the principles inculcated by Rhoda Nunn.
The page before her was no longer legible; the book dropped from her lap. Why this excited her laughter she could not understand; but she laughed for a long time, until her eyes were dim with tears. It might be better to go to bed. What was the hour? She tried vainly to read her watch, and again laughed at such absurd incapacity. Then—
Surely that was a knock at her door? Yes; it was repeated, with a distinct calling of her name. She endeavoured to stand up.
'Miss Madden!' It was the landlady's voice. 'Miss Madden! Are you in bed yet?'
Virginia succeeded in reaching the door.
'What is it?'
Another voice spoke.
'It is I, Virginia. I have come this evening instead of to-morrow. Please let me come in.'
'Alice? You can't—I'll come—wait downstairs.'
She was still able to understand the situation, and able, she thought, to speak coherently, to disguise her condition. The things on the table must be put out of sight. In trying to do this, she upset her glass and knocked the empty bottle on to the floor. But in a few minutes bottle, glass, and spirit-kettle were hidden away. The sugar-basin she lost sight of; it still remained in its former place.
Then she opened the door, and with uncertain step went out into the passage.
'Alice!' she called aloud.
At once both her sisters appeared, coming out of Monica's chamber. Monica had partly dressed herself.
'Why have you come to-night?' Virginia exclaimed, in a voice which seemed to her own ears perfectly natural.
She tottered, and was obliged to support herself against the wall. The light from her room fell full upon her, and Alice, who had stepped forward to give her a kiss, not only saw, but smelt, that something very strange was the matter. The odour proceeding from the bedroom, and that of Virginia's breath, left small doubt as to the cause of delay in giving admittance.
Whilst Alice stood bewildered, Monica received an illumination which instantly made clear to her many things in Virginia's daily life. At the same moment she understood those mysterious hints concerning her sister in Widdowson's letters.
'Come into the room,' she said abruptly. 'Come, Virgie.'
'I don't understand—why has Alice come to-night?—what's the time?'
Monica took hold of the tottering woman's arm and drew her out of the passage. The cold air had produced its natural effect upon Virginia, who now with difficulty supported herself.
'O Virgie!' cried the eldest sister, when the door was closed. 'What is the matter? What does it mean?'
Already she had been shedding tears at the meeting with Monica, and now distress overcame her; she sobbed and lamented.
'What have you been doing, Virgie?' asked Monica with severity.
'Doing? I feel a little faint—surprise—didn't expect—'
'Sit down at once. You are disgusting! Look, Alice.' She pointed to the sugar-basin on the table; then, after a rapid glance round the room, she went to the cupboard and threw the door open. 'I thought so. Look, Alice. And to think I never suspected this! It has been going on a long time—oh, a long time. She was doing it at Mrs. Conisbee's before I was married. I remember smelling spirits—'
Virginia was making efforts to rise.
'What are you talking about?' she exclaimed in a thick voice, and with a countenance which was changing from dazed astonishment to anger. 'It's only when I feel faint. Do you suppose I drink? Where's Alice? Wasn't Alice here?'
'O Virgie! What does it mean? How could you?'
'Go to bed at once, Virginia,' said Monica. 'We're ashamed of you. Go back into my room, Alice, and I'll get her to bed.'
Ultimately this was done. With no slight trouble, Monica persuaded her sister to undress, and got her into a recumbent position, Virginia all the time protesting that she had perfect command of her faculties, that she needed no help whatever, and was utterly at a loss to comprehend the insults directed against her.
'Lie quiet and go to sleep,' was Monica's last word, uttered contemptuously.
She extinguished the lamp and returned to her own room, where Alice was still weeping. The unexpected arrival had already been explained to Monica. Sudden necessity for housing a visitor had led to the proposition that Miss Madden, for her last night, should occupy a servant's bedroom. Glad to get away, Alice chose the alternative of leaving the house at once. It had been arranged that she should share Virginia's room, but to-night this did not seem advisable.
'To-morrow,' said Monica, 'we must talk to her very seriously. I believe she has been drinking like that night after night. It explains the look she always has the first thing in the morning. Could you have imagined anything so disgraceful?'
But Alice had softened towards the erring woman.
'You must remember what her life has been, dear. I'm afraid loneliness is very often a cause—'
'She needn't have been lonely. She refused to come and live at Herne Hill, and now of course I understand why. Mrs. Conisbee must have known about it, and it was her duty to tell me. Mr. Widdowson had found out somehow, I feel sure.'
She explained the reason of this belief.
'You know what it all points to,' said Miss Madden, drying her sallow, pimpled cheeks. 'You must do as your husband wishes, dearest. We must go to Clevedon. There the poor girl will be out of temptation.'
'You and Virgie may go.'
'You too, Monica. My dear sister, it is your duty.'
'Don't use that word to me!' exclaimed the other angrily. 'It is not my duty. It can be no woman's duty to live with a man she hates—or even to make a pretence of living with him.'
'You mustn't begin this to-night, Alice. I have been ill all day, and now my head is aching terribly. Go downstairs and eat the supper they have laid for you.'
'I couldn't touch a morsel,' sobbed Miss Madden. 'Oh, everything is too dreadful! Life is too hard!'
Monica had returned to bed, and lay there with her face half hidden against the pillow.
'If you don't want any supper,' she said in a moment, 'please go and tell them, so that they needn't sit up for you.'
Alice obeyed. When she came up again, her sister was, or pretended to be, asleep; even the noise made by bringing luggage into the room did not cause her to move. Having sat in despondency for a while, Miss Madden opened one of her boxes, and sought in it for the Bible which it was her custom to make use of every night. She read in the book for about half an hour, then covered her face with her hands and prayed silently. This was her refuge from the barrenness and bitterness of life.