Widdowson tried two or three lodgings; he settled at length in a small house at Hampstead; occupying two plain rooms. Here, at long intervals, his friend Newdick came to see him, but no one else. He had brought with him a selection of solid books from his library, and over these the greater part of each day was spent. Not that he studied with any zeal; reading, and of a kind that demanded close attention, was his only resource against melancholia; he knew not how else to occupy himself. Adam Smith's classical work, perused with laborious thoroughness, gave him employment for a couple of months; subsequently he plodded through all the volumes of Hallam.
His landlady, and the neighbours who were at leisure to observe him when he went out for his two hours' walk in the afternoon, took him for an old gentleman of sixty-five or so. He no longer held himself upright, and when out of doors seldom raised his eyes from the ground; grey streaks had begun to brindle his hair; his face grew yellower and more deeply furrowed. Of his personal appearance, even of cleanliness, he became neglectful, and occasionally it happened that he lay in bed all through the morning, reading, dozing, or in a state of mental vacuity.
It was long since he had seen his relative, the sprightly widow; but he had heard from her. On the point of leaving England for her summer holiday, Mrs. Luke sent him a few lines, urging him, in the language of the world, to live more sensibly, and let his wife 'have her head' now and then; it would be better for both of them. Then followed the time of woe, and for many weeks he gave no thought to Mrs. Luke. But close upon the end of the year he received one day a certain society journal, addressed in a hand he knew to the house at Herne Hill. In it was discoverable, marked with a red pencil, the following paragraph.
'Among the English who this year elected to take their repose and recreation at Trouville there was no more brilliant figure than Mrs. Luke Widdowson. This lady is well known in the monde where one never s'ennuie; where smart people are gathered together, there is the charming widow sure to be seen. We are able to announce that, before leaving Trouville, Mrs. Widdowson had consented to a private engagement with Capt. William Horrocks—no other, indeed, than "Captain Bill," the universal favourite, so beloved by hostesses as a sure dancing man. By the lamented death of his father, this best of good fellows has now become Sir William, and we understand that his marriage will be celebrated after the proper delays. Our congratulations!'
Subsequently arrived a newspaper with an account of the marriage. Mrs. Luke was now Lady Horrocks: she had the title desired of her heart.
Another two months went by, and there came a letter—re-addressed, like the other communications, at the post office—in which the baronet's wife declared herself anxious to hear of her friends. She found they had left Herne Hill; if this letter reached him, would not Edmund come and see her at her house in Wimpole Street?
Misery of solitude, desire for a woman's sympathy and counsel, impelled him to use this opportunity, little as it seemed to promise. He went to Wimpole Street and had a very long private talk with Lady Horrocks, who, in some way he could not understand, had changed from her old self. She began frivolously, but in rather a dull, make-believe way; and when she heard that Widdowson had parted from his wife, when a few vague, miserable words had suggested the domestic drama so familiar to her observation, she at once grew quiet, sober, sympathetic, as if really glad to have something serious to talk about.
'Now look here, Edmund. Tell the whole story from the first. You're the sort of man to make awful blunders in such a case as this. Just tell me all about it. I'm not a bad sort, you know, and I have troubles of my own—I don't mind telling you so much. Women make fools of themselves—well, never mind. Just tell me about the little girl, and see if we can't square things somehow.'
He had a struggle with himself, but at length narrated everything, often interrupted by shrewd questions.
'No one writes to you?' the listener finally inquired.
'I am expecting to hear from them,' was Widdowson's answer, as he sat in the usual position, head hanging forward and hands clasped between his knees.
'To hear what?'
'I think I shall be sent for.'
'Sent for? To make it up?'
'She is going to give birth to a child.'
Lady Horrocks nodded twice thoughtfully, and with a faint smile.
'How did you find this out?'
'I have known it long enough. Her sister Virginia told me before they went away. I had a suspicion all at once, and I forced her to tell me.'
'And if you are sent for shall you go?'
Widdowson seemed to mutter an affirmative, and added,—
'I shall hear what she has to tell me, as she promised.'
'Is it—is it possible—?'
The lady's question remained incomplete. Widdowson, though he understood it, vouchsafed no direct answer. Intense suffering was manifest in his face, and at length he spoke vehemently.
'Whatever she tells me—how can I believe it? When once a woman has lied how can she ever again be believed? I can't be sure of anything.'
'All that fibbing,' remarked Lady Horrocks, 'has an unpleasant look. No denying it. She got entangled somehow. But I think you had better believe that she pulled up just in time.'
'I have no love for her left,' he went on in a despairing voice. 'It all perished in those frightful days. I tried hard to think that I still loved her. I kept writing letters—but they meant nothing—or they only meant that I was driven half crazy by wretchedness. I had rather we lived on as we have been doing. It's miserable enough for me, God knows; but it would be worse to try and behave to her as if I could forget everything. I know her explanation won't satisfy me. Whatever it is I shall still suspect her. I don't know that the child is mine. It may be. Perhaps as it grows up there will be a likeness to help me to make sure. But what a life! Every paltry trifle will make me uneasy; and if I discovered any fresh deceit I should do something terrible. You don't know how near I was—'
He shuddered and hid his face.
'The Othello business won't do,' said Lady Horrocks not unkindly. 'You couldn't have gone on together, of course; you had to part for a time. Well, that's all over; take it as something that couldn't be helped. You were behaving absurdly, you know; I told you plainly; I guessed there'd be trouble. You oughtn't to have married at all, that's the fact; it would be better for most of us if we kept out of it. Some marry for a good reason, some for a bad, and mostly it all comes to the same in the end. But there, never mind. Pull yourself together, dear boy. It's all nonsense about not caring for her. Of course you're eating your heart out for want of her. And I'll tell you what I think: it's very likely Monica was pulled up just in time by discovering—you understand?—that she was more your wife than any one else's. Something tells me that's how it was. Just try to look at it in that way. If the child lives she'll be different. She has sowed her wild oats—why shouldn't a woman as well as a man? Go down to Clevedon and forgive her. You're an honest man, and it isn't every woman—never mind. I could tell you stories about people—but you wouldn't care to hear them. Just take things with a laugh—we all have to. Life's as you take it: all gloom or moderately shiny.'
With much more to the same solacing effect. For the time Widdowson was perchance a trifle comforted; at all events, he went away with a sense of gratitude to Lady Horrocks. And when he had left the house he remembered that not even a civil formality with regard to Sir William had fallen from his lips. But Sir William's wife, for whatever reason, had also not once mentioned the baronet's name.
* * *
Only a few days passed before Widdowson received the summons he was expecting. It came in the form of a telegram, bidding him hasten to his wife; not a word of news added. At the time of its arrival he was taking his afternoon walk; this delay made it doubtful whether he could get to Paddington by six-twenty, the last train which would enable him to reach Clevedon that night. He managed it, with only two or three minutes to spare.
Not till he was seated in the railway carriage could he fix his thoughts on the end of the journey. An inexpressible repugnance then affected him; he would have welcomed any disaster to the train, any injury which might prevent his going to Monica at such a time. Often, in anticipation, the event which was now come to pass had confused and darkened his mind; he loathed the thought of it. If the child, perhaps already born, were in truth his, it must be very long before he could regard it with a shadow of paternal interest; uncertainty, to which he was condemned, would in all likelihood make it an object of aversion to him as long as he lived.
He was at Bristol by a quarter past nine, and had to change for a slow train, which by ten o'clock brought him to Yatton, the little junction for Clevedon. It was a fine starry night, but extremely cold. For the few minutes of detention he walked restlessly about the platform. His chief emotion was now a fear lest all might not go well with Monica. Whether he could believe what she had to tell him or not, it would be worse if she were to die before he could hear her exculpation. The anguish of remorse would seize upon him.
Alone in his compartment, he did not sit down, but stamped backwards and forwards on the floor, and before the train stopped he jumped out. No cab was procurable; he left his bag at the station, and hastened with all speed in the direction that he remembered. But very soon the crossways had confused him. As he met no one whom he could ask to direct him, he had to knock at a door. Streaming with perspiration, he came at length within sight of his own house. A church clock was striking eleven.
Alice and Virginia were both standing in the hall when the door was opened; they beckoned him into a room.
'Is it over?' he asked, staring from one to the other with his dazzled eyes.
'At four this afternoon,' answered Alice, scarce able to articulate. 'A little girl.'
'She had to have chloroform,' said Virginia, who looked a miserable, lifeless object, and shook like one in an ague.
'And all's well?'
'We think so—we hope so,' they stammered together.
Alice added that the doctor was to make another call to-night. They had a good nurse. The infant seemed healthy, but was a very, very little mite, and had only made its voice heard for a few minutes.
'She knows you sent for me?'
'Yes. And we have something to give you. You were to have this as soon as you arrived.'
Miss Madden handed him a sealed envelope; then both the sisters drew away, as if fearing the result of what they had done. Widdowson just glanced at the unaddressed missive and put it into his pocket.
'I must have something to eat,' he said, wiping his forehead. 'When the doctor comes I'll see him.'
This visit took place while he was engaged on his supper. On coming down from the patient the doctor gave him an assurance that things were progressing 'fairly well'; the morning, probably, would enable him to speak with yet more confidence. Widdowson had another brief conversation with the sisters, then bade them good-night, and went to the room that had been prepared for him. As he closed the door he heard a thin, faint wail, and stood listening until it ceased; it came from a room on the floor below.
Having brought himself with an effort to open the envelope he had received, he found several sheets of notepaper, one of them, remarked immediately, in a man's writing. At this he first glanced, and the beginning showed him that it was a love-letter written to Monica. He threw it aside and took up the other sheets, which contained a long communication from his wife; it was dated two months ago. In it Monica recounted to him, with scrupulous truthfulness, the whole story of her relations with Bevis.
'I only make this confession'—so she concluded—'for the sake of the poor child that will soon be born. The child is yours, and ought not to suffer because of what I did. The enclosed letter will prove this to you, if anything can. For myself I ask nothing. I don't think I shall live. If I do I will consent to anything you propose. I only ask you to behave without any pretence; if you cannot forgive me, do not make a show of it. Say what your will is, and that shall be enough'.
He did not go to bed that night. There was a fire in the room, and he kept it alight until daybreak, when he descended softly to the hall and let himself out of the house.
In a fierce wind that swept from the north-west down the foaming Channel, he walked for an hour or two, careless whither the roads directed him. All he desired was to be at a distance from that house, with its hideous silence and the faint cry that could scarcely be called a sound. The necessity of returning, of spending days there, was an oppression which held him like a nightmare.
Monica's statement he neither believed nor disbelieved; he simply could not make up his mind about it. She had lied to him so resolutely before; was she not capable of elaborate falsehood to save her reputation and protect her child? The letter from Bevis might have been a result of conspiracy between them.
That Bevis was the man against whom his jealousy should have been directed at first astounded him. By now he had come to a full perception of his stupidity in never entertaining such a thought. The revelation was equivalent to a second offence just discovered; for he found it impossible to ignore his long-cherished suspicion of Barfoot, and he even surmised the possibility of Monica's having listened to love-making from that quarter previously to her intimacy with Bevis. He loathed the memory of his life since marriage; and as for pardoning his wife, he could as soon pardon and smile upon the author of that accursed letter from Bordeaux.
But go back to the house he must. By obeying his impulse, and straightway returning to London, he might be the cause of a fatal turn in Monica's illness. Constraint of bare humanity would keep him here until his wife was out of danger. But he could not see her, and as soon as possible he must escape from such unendurable circumstances.
Re-entering at half-past eight, he was met by Alice, who seemed to have slept as little as he himself had done. They went into the dining-room.
'She has been inquiring about you,' began Miss Madden timorously.
'How is she?'
'Not worse, I believe. But so very weak. She wishes me to ask you—'
His manner did not encourage the poor woman.
'I shall be obliged to tell her something. If I have nothing to say she will fret herself into a dangerous state. She wants to know if you have read her letter, and if—if you will see the child.'
Widdowson turned away and stood irresolute. He felt Miss Madden's hand upon his arm.
'Oh, don't refuse! Let me give her some comfort.'
'It's the child she's anxious about?'
Alice admitted it, looking into her brother-in-law's face with woeful appeal.
'Say I will see it,' he answered, 'and have it brought into some room—then say I have seen it.'
'Mayn't I take her a word of forgiveness?'
'Yes, say I forgive her. She doesn't wish me to go to her?'
Alice shook her head.
'Then say I forgive her.'
As he directed so it was done; and in the course of the morning Miss Madden brought word to him that her sister had experienced great relief. She was sleeping.
But the doctor thought it necessary to make two visits before nightfall, and late in the evening he came again. He explained to Widdowson that there were complications, not unlikely to be dangerous, and finally he suggested that, if the morrow brought no decided improvement, a second medical man should be called in to consult. This consultation was held. In the afternoon Virginia came weeping to her brother-in-law, and told him that Monica was delirious. That night the whole household watched. Another day was passed in the gravest anxiety, and at dusk the medical attendant no longer disguised his opinion that Mrs. Widdowson was sinking. She became unconscious soon after, and in the early morning breathed her last.
Widdowson was in the room, and at the end sat by the bedside for an hour. But he did not look upon his wife's face. When it was told him that she had ceased to breathe, he rose and went into his own chamber, death-pale, but tearless.
* * *
On the day after the funeral—Monica was buried in the cemetery, which is hard by the old church—Widdowson and the elder sister had a long conversation in private. It related first of all to the motherless baby. Widdowson's desire was that Miss Madden should undertake the care of the child. She and Virginia might live wherever they preferred; their needs would be provided for. Alice had hardly dared to hope for such a proposal—as it concerned the child, that is to say. Gladly she accepted it.
'But there's something I must tell you,' she said, with embarrassed appeal in her wet eyes. 'Poor Virginia wishes to go into an institution.'
Widdowson looked at her, not understanding; whereupon she broke into tears, and made known that her sister was such a slave to strong drink that they both despaired of reformation unless by help of the measure she had indicated. There were people, she had heard, who undertook the care of inebriates.
'You know that we are by no means penniless,' sobbed Alice. 'We can very well bear the expense. But will you assist us to find a suitable place?'
He promised to proceed at once in the matter.
'And when she is cured,' said Miss Madden, 'she shall come and live with me. And when baby is about two years old we will do what we have been purposing for a long time. We will open a school for young children, either here or at Weston. That will afford my poor sister occupation. Indeed, we shall both be better for the exertion of such an undertaking—don't you think so?'
'It would be a wise thing, I have no doubt whatever.'
The large house was to be abandoned, and as much of the furniture as seemed needful transported to a smaller dwelling in another part of Clevedon. For Alice resolved to stay here in spite of painful associations. She loved the place, and looked forward with quiet joy to the life that was prepared for her. Widdowson's books would go back to London; not to the Hampstead lodgings, however. Fearful of solitude, he proposed to his friend Newdick that they should live together, he, as a man of substance, bearing the larger share of the expense. And this plan also came into execution.
* * *
Three months went by, and on a day of summer, when the wooded hills and green lanes and rich meadows of Clevedon looked their best, when the Channel was still and blue, and the Welsh mountains loomed through a sunny haze, Rhoda Nunn came over from the Mendips to see Miss Madden. It could not be a gladsome meeting, but Rhoda was bright and natural, and her talk as inspiriting as ever. She took the baby in her arms, and walked about with it for a long time in the garden, often murmuring, 'Poor little child! Dear little child!' There had been doubt whether it would live, but the summer seemed to be fortifying its health. Alice, it was plain, had found her vocation; she looked better than at any time since Rhoda had known her. Her complexion was losing its muddiness and spottiness; her step had become light and brisk.
'And where is your sister?' inquired Miss Nunn.
'Staying with friends at present. She will be back before long, I hope. And as soon as baby can walk we are going to think very seriously about the school. You remember?'
'The school? You will really make the attempt?'
'It will be so good for us both. Why, look,' she added laughingly, 'here is one pupil growing for us!'
'Make a brave woman of her,' said Rhoda kindly.
'We will try—ah, we will try! And is your work as successful as ever?'
'More!' replied Rhoda. 'We flourish like the green bay-tree. We shall have to take larger premises. By-the-bye, you must read the paper we are going to publish; the first number will be out in a month, though the name isn't quite decided upon yet. Miss Barfoot was never in such health and spirit—nor I myself. The world is moving!'
Whilst Miss Madden went into the house to prepare hospitalities, Rhoda, still nursing, sat down on a garden bench. She gazed intently at those diminutive features, which were quite placid and relaxing in soft drowsiness. The dark, bright eye was Monica's. And as the baby sank into sleep, Rhoda's vision grew dim; a sigh made her lips quiver, and once more she murmured, 'Poor little child!'