Since Saturday evening Monica and her husband had not been on speaking terms.
A visit she paid to Mildred Vesper, after her call at Miss Barfoot's, prolonged itself so that she did not reach home until the dinner-hour was lon_ast. On arriving, she was met with an outburst of tremendous wrath, to whic_he opposed a resolute and haughty silence; and since then the two had kept a_uch apart as possible.
Widdowson knew that Monica was going to the Academy. He allowed her to se_orth alone, and even tried to persuade himself that he was indifferent as t_he hour of her return; but she had not long been gone before he followed.
Insufferable misery possessed him. His married life threatened to terminate i_tter wreck, and he had the anguish of recognizing that to a great extent thi_atastrophe would be his own fault. Resolve as he might, he found i_mpossible to repress the impulses of jealousy which, as soon as peace ha_een declared between them, brought about a new misunderstanding. Terribl_houghts smouldered in his mind; he felt himself to be one of those men wh_re driven by passion into crime. Deliberately he had brooded over a tragi_lose to the wretchedness of his existence; he would kill himself, and Monic_hould perish with him. But an hour of contentment sufficed to banish suc_isions as sheer frenzy. He saw once more how harmless, how natural, wer_onica's demands, and how peacefully he might live with her but for the curs_f suspicion from which he could not free himself. Any other man would dee_er a model wifely virtue. Her care of the house was all that reason coul_esire. In her behaviour he had never detected the slightest impropriety. H_elieved her chaste as any woman living She asked only to be trusted, an_hat, in spite of all, was beyond his power.
In no woman on earth could he have put perfect confidence. He regarded them a_orn to perpetual pupilage. Not that their inclinations were necessaril_anton; they were simply incapable of attaining maturity, remained throughou_heir life imperfect beings, at the mercy of craft, ever liable to be misle_y childish misconceptions. Of course he was right; he himself represented th_uardian male, the wife-proprietor, who from the dawn of civilization ha_aken abundant care that woman shall not outgrow her nonage. The bitterness o_is situation lay in the fact that he had wedded a woman who irresistibl_roved to him her claims as a human being. Reason and tradition contended i_im, to his ceaseless torment.
And again, he feared that Monica did not love him. Had she ever loved him?
There was too much ground for suspecting that she had only yielded to th_ersistence of his entreaties, with just liking enough to permit a semblanc_f tenderness, and glad to exchange her prospect of distasteful work for _omfortable married life. Her liking he might have fostered; during thos_irst happy weeks, assuredly he had done so, for no woman could be insensibl_o the passionate worship manifest in his every look, his every word. Later, he took the wrong path, seeking to oppose her instincts, to reform her mind, eventually to become her lord and master. Could he not even now retrace hi_teps? Supposing her incapable of bowing before him, of kissing his feet, could he not be content to make of her a loyal friend, a delightful companion?
In that mood he hastened towards Burlington House. Seeking Monica through th_alleries, he saw her at length—sitting side by side with that man Barfoot.
They were in closest colloquy. Barfoot bent towards her as if speaking in a_ndertone, a smile on his face. Monica looked at once pleased and troubled.
The blood boiled in his veins. His first impulse was to walk straight up t_onica and bid her follow him. But the ecstasy of jealous suffering kept hi_n observer. He watched the pair until he was descried.
There was no help for it. Though his brain whirled, and his flesh was stabbed, he had no choice but to take the hand Barfoot offered him. Smile he could not, nor speak a word.
'So you have come after all?' Monica was saying to him.
He nodded. On her countenance there was obvious embarrassment, but this neede_o explanation save the history of the last day or two. Looking into her eyes, he knew not whether consciousness of wrong might be read there. How to get a_he secrets of this woman's heart?
Barfoot was talking, pointing at this picture and that, doing his best t_mooth what he saw was an awkward situation. The gloomy husband, more like _yrant than ever, muttered incoherent phrases. In a minute or two Everar_reed himself and moved out of sight.
Monica turned from her husband and affected interest in the pictures. The_eached the end of the room before Widdowson spoke.
'How long do you want to stay here?'
'I will go whenever you like,' she answered, without looking at him.
'I have no wish to spoil your pleasure.'
'Really, I have very little pleasure in anything. Did you come to keep me i_ight?'
'I think we will go home now, and you can come another day.'
Monica assented by closing her catalogue and walking on.
Without a word, they made the journey back to Herne Hill. Widdowson shu_imself in the library, and did not appear till dinner-time. The meal was _retence for both of them, and as soon as they could rise from the table the_gain parted.
About ten o'clock Monica was joined by her husband in the drawing-room.
'I have almost made up my mind,' he said, standing near her, 'to take _erious step. As you have always spoken with pleasure of your old home, Clevedon, suppose we give up this house and go and live there?'
'It is for you to decide.'
'I want to know whether you would have any objection.'
'I shall do as you wish.'
'No, that isn't enough. The plan I have in mind is this. I should take a goo_arge house—no doubt rents are low in the neighbourhood—and ask your sister_o come and live with us. I think it would be a good thing both for them an_or you.'
'You can't be sure that they would agree to it. You see that Virginia prefer_er lodgings to living here.'
Oddly enough, this was the case. On their return from Guernsey they ha_nvited Virginia to make a permanent home with them, and she refused. He_easons Monica could not understand; those which she alleged—vague argument_s to its being better for a wife's relatives not to burden the husband—hardl_eemed genuine. It was possible that Virginia had a distaste for Widdowson'_ociety.
'I think they both would be glad to live at Clevedon,' he urged, 'judging fro_our sisters' talk. It's plain that they have quite given up the idea of th_chool, and Alice, you tell me, is getting dissatisfied with her work a_atton. But I must know whether you will enter seriously into this scheme.'
Monica kept silence.
'Please answer me.'
'Why have you thought of it?'
'I don't think I need explain. We have had too many unpleasant conversations, and I wish to act for the best without saying things you would misunderstand.'
'There is no fear of my misunderstanding. You have no confidence in me, an_ou want to get me away into a quiet country place where I shall be under you_yes every moment. It's much better to say that plainly.'
'That means you would consider it going to prison.'
'How could I help? What other motive have you?'
He was prompted to make brutal declaration of authority, and so cut the knot.
Monica's unanswerable argument merely angered him. But he made an effort ove_imself.
'Don't you think it best that we should take some step before our happiness i_rretrievably ruined?'
'I see no need for its ruin. As I have told you before, in talking like tha_ou degrade yourself and insult me.'
'I have my faults; I know them only too well. One of them is that I canno_ear you to make friends with people who are not of my kind. I shall never b_ble to endure that.'
'Of course you are speaking of Mr. Barfoot.'
'Yes,' he avowed sullenly. 'It was a very unfortunate thing that I happened t_ome up just as he was in your company.'
'You are so very unreasonable,' exclaimed Monica tartly. 'What possible har_s there in Mr. Barfoot, when he meets me by chance in a public place, havin_ conversation with me? I wish I knew twenty such men. Such conversation give_e a new interest in life. I have every reason to think well of Mr. Barfoot.'
Widdowson was in anguish.
'And I,' he replied, in a voice shaken with angry feeling, 'feel that I hav_very reason to dislike and suspect him. He is not an honest man; his fac_ells me that. I know his life wouldn't bear inspection. You can't possibly b_s good a judge as I am in such a case. Contrast him with Bevis. No, Bevis i_ man one can trust; one talk with him produces a lasting favourabl_mpression.'
Monica, silent for a brief space, looked fixedly before her, her features al_ut expressionless.
'Yet even with Mr. Bevis,' she said at length, 'you don't make friends. Tha_s the fault in you which causes all this trouble. You haven't a sociabl_pirit. Your dislike of Mr. Barfoot only means that you don't know him, an_on't wish to. And you are completely wrong in your judgment of him. I hav_very reason for being sure that you are wrong.'
'Of course you think so. In your ignorance of the world—'
'Which you think very proper in a woman,' she interposed caustically.
'Yes, I do! That kind of knowledge is harmful to a woman.'
'Then, please, how is she to judge her acquaintances?'
'A married woman must accept her husband's opinion, at all events about men.'
He plunged on into the ancient quagmire. 'A man may know with impunity what i_njurious if it enters a woman's mind.'
'I don't believe that. I can't and won't believe it.'
He made a gesture of despair.
'We differ hopelessly. It was all very well to discuss these things when yo_ould do so in a friendly spirit. Now you say whatever you know will irritat_e, and you say it on purpose to irritate me.'
'No; indeed I do not. But you are quite right that I find it hard to b_riendly with you. Most earnestly I wish to be your friend—your true an_aithful friend. But you won't let me.'
'Friend!' he cried scornfully. 'The woman who has become my wife ought to b_omething more than a friend, I should think. You have lost all love fo_e—there's the misery.'
Monica could not reply. That word 'love' had grown a weariness to her upon hi_ips. She did not love him; could not pretend to love him. Every day th_istance between them widened, and when he took her in his arms she had t_truggle with a sense of shrinking, of disgust. The union was unnatural; sh_elt herself constrained by a hateful force when he called upon her for th_how of wifely tenderness. Yet how was she to utter this? The moment such _ruth had passed her lips she must leave him. To declare that no trace of lov_emained in her heart, and still to live with him—that was impossible! Th_ark foresight of a necessity of parting from him corresponded in her to thos_urid visions which at times shook Widdowson with a horrible temptation.
'You don't love me,' he continued in harsh, choking tones. 'You wish to be m_friend_. That's how you try to compensate me for the loss of your love.'
He laughed with bitterness.
'When you say that,' Monica answered, 'do you ever ask yourself whether yo_ry to make me love you? Scenes like this are ruining my health. I have com_o dread your talk. I have almost forgotten the sound of your voice when i_sn't either angry or complaining.'
Widdowson walked about the room, and a deep moan escaped him.
'That is why I have asked you to go away from here, Monica. We must have a ne_ome if our life is to begin anew.'
'I have no faith in mere change of place. You would be the same man. If yo_annot command your senseless jealousy here, you never would anywhere else.'
He made an effort to say something; seemed to abandon it; again tried, an_poke in a thick, unnatural voice.
'Can you honestly repeat to me what Barfoot was saying to-day, when you wer_n the seat together?'
Monica's eyes flashed.
'I could; every word. But I shall not try to do so.'
'Not if I beseech you to, Monica? To put my mind at rest—'
'No. When I tell you that you might have heard every syllable, I have said al_hat I shall.'
It mortified him profoundly that he should have been driven to make s_umiliating a request. He threw himself into a chair and hid his face, sittin_hus for a long time in the hope that Monica would be moved to compassion. Bu_hen she rose it was only to retire for the night. And with wretchedness i_er heart, because she must needs go to the same chamber in which her husban_ould sleep. She wished so to be alone. The poorest bed in a servant's garre_ould have been thrice welcome to her; liberty to lie awake, to think withou_ disturbing presence, to shed tears of need be—that seemed to her a preciou_oon. She thought with envy of the shop-girls in Walworth Road; wished hersel_ack there. What unspeakable folly she had committed! And how true wa_verything she had heard from Rhoda Nunn on the subject of marriage! The nex_ay Widdowson resorted to an expedient which he had once before tried in lik_ircumstances. He wrote his wife a long letter, eight close pages, reviewin_he cause of their troubles, confessing his own errors, insisting gently o_hose chargeable to her, and finally imploring her to cooperate with him in _incere endeavour to restore their happiness. This he laid on the table afte_unch, and then left Monica alone that she might read it. Knowing beforehan_ll that the letter contained, Monica glanced over it carelessly. An answe_as expected, and she wrote one as briefly as possible.
'Your behaviour seems to me very weak, very unmanly. You make us bot_iserable, and quite without cause. I can only say as I have said before, tha_hings will never be better until you come to think of me as your fre_ompanion, not as your bond-woman. If you can't do this, you will make me wis_hat I had never met you, and in the end I am sure it won't be possible for u_o go on living together.'
She left this note, in a blank envelope, on the hall table, and went out t_alk for an hour.
It was the end of one more acute stage in their progressive discord. B_eeping at home for a fortnight. Monica soothed her husband and obtained som_epose for her own nerves. But she could no longer affect a cordia_econciliation; caresses left her cold, and Widdowson saw that his company wa_ever so agreeable to her as solitude. When they sat together, both wer_eading. Monica found more attraction in books as her life grew more unhappy.
Though with reluctance Widdowson had consented to a subscription at Mudie's, and from the new catalogues she either chose for herself, necessarily a_andom, or by the advice of better-read people, such as she met at Mrs.
Cosgrove's. What modern teaching was to be got from these volumes her min_eadily absorbed. She sought for opinions and arguments which were congenia_o her mood of discontent, all but of revolt.
Sometimes the perusal of a love-story embittered her lot to the last point o_ndurance. Before marriage, her love-ideal had been very vague, elusive; i_ound scarcely more than negative expression, as a shrinking from the vulga_r gross desires of her companions in the shop. Now that she had a cleare_nderstanding of her own nature, the type of man correspondent to her natura_ympathies also became clear. In every particular he was unlike her husband.
She found a suggestion of him in books; and in actual life, already, perhap_omething more than a suggestion. Widdowson's jealousy, in so far as i_irected itself against her longing for freedom, was fully justified; thi_onsciousness often made her sullen when she desired to express a noble_ndignation; but his special prejudice led him altogether astray, and in fre_esistance on this point she found the relief which enabled her to bear _ecret self-reproach. Her refusal to repeat the substance of Barfoot'_onversation was, in some degree, prompted by a wish for the continuance o_is groundless fears. By persevering in suspicion of Barfoot, he afforded he_ firm foothold in their ever-renewed quarrels.
A husband's misdirected jealousy excites in the wife derision and a sense o_uperiority; more often than not, it fosters an unsuspected attachment, prompts to a perverse pleasure in misleading. Monica became aware of this; i_er hours of misery she now and then gave a harsh laugh, the result o_houghts not seriously entertained, but tempting the fancy to recklessness.
What, she asked herself again, would be the end of it all? Ten years hence, would she have subdued her soul to a life of weary insignificance, if not o_ishonour? For it was dishonour to live with a man she could not love, whethe_er heart cherished another image or was merely vacant. A dishonour to whic_nnumerable women submitted, a dishonour glorified by social precept, enforce_nder dread penalties.
But she was so young, and life abounds in unexpected changes.