Whilst the rain pelted, and it did so until afternoon, Rhoda sat in her littl_arlour, no whit less miserable than Barfoot imagined. She could not be sur_hether Everard had gone to London; at the last moment reflection or emotio_ight have detained him. Early in the morning she had sent to post a lette_or Miss Barfoot, written last night—a letter which made no revelation of he_eelings, but merely expressed a cold curiosity to hear anything that migh_ecome known as to the course of Mr. Widdowson's domestic troubles. 'You ma_till write to this address; if I leave, letters shall be forwarded.'
When the sky cleared she went out. In the evening she again rambled about th_hore. Evidently Barfoot had gone; if still here, he would have watched an_oined her.
Her solitude now grew insufferable, yet she could not decide whither to betak_erself. The temptation to return to London was very strong, but prid_revailed against it. Everard might perhaps go to see his cousin, and relat_ll that had happened at Seascale, justifying himself as he had here done.
Whether Miss Barfoot became aware of the story or not, Rhoda could no_econcile it with her self-respect to curtail the stipulated three weeks o_oliday. Rather she would strain her nerves to the last point of endurance—an_f she were not suffering, then never did woman suffer.
Another cheerless day helped her to make up her mind. She cared nothing no_or lake and mountain; human companionship was her supreme need. By th_arliest train next day she started, not for London, but for her brother'_ome in Somerset, and there she remained until it was time to return to work.
Miss Barfoot wrote twice in the interval, saying that she had heard nothin_ore of Monica. Of Everard she made no mention.
Rhoda got back again to Chelsea on the appointed Saturday afternoon. Mis_arfoot knew when she would arrive, but was not at home to meet her, and di_ot return till a couple of hours had passed. They met at length as if nothin_emarkable had occurred during the three weeks. Mary, if she felt an_olicitude, effectually concealed it; Rhoda talked as if very glad to be a_ome again, explaining her desertion of the lake country by the bad weathe_hat prevailed there. It was not till after dinner that the inevitable subjec_ame up between them.
'Have you seen Everard since you went away?' Miss Barfoot began by asking.
So he had not been here to tell his story and plead his cause—or it seeme_ot.
'Yes, I saw him at Seascale,' Rhoda replied, without sign of emotion.
'Before or after that news came?'
'Both before and after. I showed him your letter, and all he had to say wa_hat he knew nothing of the affair.'
'That's all he has to say to me. I haven't seen him. A letter I sent to hi_ddress was answered, after a week, from a place I never heard of—Arromanches, in Normandy. The shortest and rudest letter I ever had from him. Practicall_e told me to mind my own business. And there things stand.'
Rhoda smiled a little, conscious of the extreme curiosity her friend must b_eeling, and determined not to gratify it. For by this time, though her sunke_heeks were hard to reconcile with the enjoyment of a summer holiday, she ha_atured a resolve to betray nothing of what she had gone through. Her state o_ind resembled that of the ascetic who has arrived at a morbid delight i_elf-torture. She regarded the world with an intense bitterness, and persuade_erself not only that the thought of Everard Barfoot was hateful to her soul, but that sexual love had become, and would ever be, to her an impure idea, _ice of blood.
'I suppose,' she said carelessly, 'Mr. Widdowson will try to divorce hi_ife.'
'I am in dread of that. But they may have made it up.'
'Of course you have no doubt of her guilt?'
Mary tried to understand the hard, austere face, with its touch of cynicism.
Conjecture as to its meaning was not difficult, but, in the utter absence o_nformation, certainty there could be none. Under any circumstances, it was t_e expected that Rhoda would think and speak of Mrs. Widdowson no les_everely than of the errant Bella Royston.
'I have _some_ doubt,' was Miss Barfoot's answer. 'But I should be glad o_ome one else's favourable opinion to help my charity.'
'Miss Madden hasn't been here, you see. She certainly would have come if sh_ad felt convinced that her sister was wronged.'
'Unless a day or two saw the end of the trouble—when naturally none of the_ould say any more about it.'
This was the possibility which occupied Rhoda's reflections as long as she la_wake that night.
Her feelings on entering the familiar bedroom were very strange. Even befor_tarting for her holiday she had bidden it good-bye, and at Seascale, tha_ight following upon the "perfect day," she had thought of it as a part of he_ast life, a place abandoned for ever, already infinitely remote. Her firs_ensation when she looked upon the white bed was one of disgust; she though_t would be impossible to use this room henceforth, and that she must ask Mis_arfoot to let her change to another. Tonight she did not restore any of th_rnaments which were lying packed up. The scent of the room revived so man_ours of conflict, of hope, that it caused her a sick faintness. In frenzy o_etestation she cursed the man who had so disturbed and sullied the swift, pure stream of her life.
Arromanches, in Normandy—? On Sunday she sought the name on a map, but it wa_ot marked, being doubtless too insignificant. Improbable that he had gone t_uch a place alone; he was enjoying himself with friends, careless what becam_f her. Having allowed all this time to go by he would never seek her again.
He found that her will was the equal of his own, and, as he could not rul_er, she was numbered among the women who had afforded him interestin_xperiences, to be thought of seriously no more.
During the next week she threw herself with energy upon her work, stifling th_epugnance with which at first it affected her, and seeming at length t_ecover the old enthusiasm. This was the only way of salvation. Idleness an_bsence of purpose would soon degrade her in a sense she had never dreamt of.
She made a plan of daily occupation, which by leaving not a vacant moment fro_arly morning to late at night, should give her the sleep of utter weariness.
New studies were begun in the hour or two before breakfast. She eve_estricted her diet, and ate only just enough to support life, rejecting win_nd everything that was most agreeable to her palate.
She desired to speak privately with Mildred Vesper, and opportunity might hav_een made, but, as part of her scheme of self-subdual, this conversation wa_ostponed until the second week. It took place one evening when work was over.
'I have been wanting to ask you,' Rhoda began, 'whether you have any news o_rs. Widdowson.'
'I wrote to her not long ago, and she answered from a new address. She sai_he had left her husband and would never go back to him.'
Rhoda nodded gravely.
'Then what I had heard was true. You haven't seen her?'
'She asked me not to come. She is living with her sister.'
'Did she give you any reason for the separation from her husband?'
'None,' answered Mildred. 'But she said it was no secret; that every one knew.
That's why I haven't spoken to you about it—as I should have done otherwis_fter our last conversation.'
'The fact is no secret,' said Rhoda coldly. 'But why will she offer n_xplanation?'
Mildred shook her head, signifying inability to make any satisfactory reply, and there the dialogue ended; for Rhoda could not proceed in it withou_ppearing to encourage scandal. The hope of eliciting some suggestiv_nformation had failed; but whether Mildred had really disclosed all she kne_eemed doubtful.
At the end of the week Miss Barfoot left home for her own holiday; she wa_oing to Scotland, and would be away for nearly the whole of September. A_his time of the year the work in Great Portland Street was very light; no_uch employment offered for the typewriters, and the pupils numbered onl_bout half a dozen. Nevertheless, it pleased Rhoda to have the establishmen_nder her sole direction; she desired authority, and by magnifying th_mportance of that which now fell into her hands, she endeavoured to sustai_erself under the secret misery which, for all her efforts, weighed no les_pon her as time went on. It was a dreary make-believe. On the first night o_olitude at Chelsea she shed bitter tears; and not only wept, but agonized i_ute frenzy, the passions of her flesh torturing her until she thought o_eath as a refuge. Now she whispered the name of her lover with every word an_hrase of endearment that her heart could suggest; the next moment she curse_im with the fury of deadliest hatred. In the half-delirium of sleeplessness, she revolved wild, impossible schemes for revenging herself, or, as the moo_hanged, all but resolved to sacrifice everything to her love, to accus_erself of ignoble jealousy and entreat forgiveness. Of many woeful night_his was the worst she had yet suffered.
It recalled to her with much vividness a memory of girlhood, or indeed o_hildhood. She thought of that figure in the dim past, that rugged, harsh- featured man, who had given her the first suggestion of independence; thric_er own age, yet the inspirer of such tumultuous emotion in her ignoran_eart; her friend at Clevedon—Mr. Smithson. A question from Mary Barfoot ha_aused her to glance back at him across the years, but only for an instant, and with self-mockery. What she now endured was the ripe intensity of a wo_hat fell upon her, at fifteen, when Mr. Smithson passed from her sight an_way for ever. Childish folly! but the misery of it, the tossing at night, th_lank outlook! How contemptible to revive such sensations, with matur_ntellect, after so long and stern a discipline!
Dreading the Sunday, so terrible in its depressing effect upon the lonely an_nhappy, she breakfasted as soon as possible, and left home—simply to walk, t_xert herself physically, that fatigue and sleep might follow. There was _ull sky, but no immediate fear of rain; the weather brightened a littl_owards noon. Careless of the direction, she walked on and on until the las_addening church bell had ceased its clangour; she was far out in the wester_uburbs, and weariness began to check her quick pace. Then she turned back.
Without intending it, she passed by Mrs. Cosgrove's house, or rather woul_ave passed, when she saw Mrs. Cosgrove at the dining-room window making sign_o her. In a moment the door opened and she went in. She was glad of thi_ccident, for the social lady might have something to tell about Mrs.
Widdowson, who often visited her.
'In mercy, come and talk to me!' exclaimed Mrs. Cosgrove. 'I am quite alone, and feel as if I could hang myself. Are you obliged to go anywhere?'
'No. I was having a walk.'
'A walk? What astonishing energy! It never occurs to me to take a walk i_ondon. I came from the country last night and expected to find my siste_ere, but she won't arrive till Tuesday. I have been standing at the windo_or an hour, getting crazy with _ennui_.'
They went to the drawing-room. It was not long before Mrs. Cosgrove made a_llusion which enabled Rhoda to speak of Mrs. Widdowson. For a month or mor_rs. Cosgrove had seen and heard nothing of her; she had been out of town al_he time. Rhoda hesitated, but could not keep silence on the subject that ha_ecome a morbid preoccupation of her mind. She told as much as sh_new—excepting the suspicion against Everard Barfoot.
'It doesn't in the least surprise me,' said the listener, with interest. '_aw they wouldn't be able to live together very well. Without children th_hing was impossible. Of course she has told you all about it?'
'I haven't seen her since it happened.'
'Do you know, I always have a distinct feeling of pleasure when I hear o_arried people parting. How horrible that would seem to some of our goo_riends! But it isn't a malicious pleasure; there's nothing personal in it. A_ have told you before, I think, I led a very contented life with my husband.
But marriage in general is _such_ a humbug—you forgive the word.'
'Of course it is,' assented Rhoda, laughing with forced gaiety.
'I am glad of anything that seems to threaten it as an institution—in it_resent form. A scandalous divorce case is a delight to me—anything that make_t evident how much misery would be spared if we could civilize ourselves i_his respect. There are women whose conduct I think personally detestable, an_hom yet I can't help thanking for their assault upon social laws. We shal_ave to go through a stage of anarchy, you know, before reconstruction begins.
Yes, in that sense I am an anarchist. Seriously, I believe if a few men an_omen in prominent position would contract marriage of the free kind, withou_riest or lawyer, open and defiantly, they would do more benefit to their kin_han in any other possible way. I don't declare this opinion to every one, bu_nly because I am a coward. Whatever one believes with heart and soul on_ught to make known.'
Rhoda wore a look of anxious reflection.
'It needs a great deal of courage,' she said. 'To take that step, I mean.'
'Of course. We need martyrs. And yet I doubt whether the martyrdom would b_ery long, or very trying, to intellectual people. A woman of brains wh_oldly acted upon her conviction would have no lack of congenial society. Th_est people are getting more liberal than they care to confess to each other.
Wait until some one puts the matter to the test and you will see.'
Rhoda became so busy with her tumultuous thoughts that she spoke only a wor_ow and then, allowing Mrs. Cosgrove to talk at large on this engrossin_heme.
'Where is Mrs. Widdowson living?' the revolutionist at length inquired.
'I don't know. But I can get you her address.'
'Pray do. I shall go and see her. We are quite friendly enough for me to do s_ithout impertinence.'
Having lunched with her acquaintance, Rhoda went in the afternoon to Mildre_esper's lodgings. Miss Vesper was at home, reading, in her usual placid mood.
She gave Rhoda the address that was on Mrs. Widdowson's last brief note, an_hat evening Rhoda sent it to Mrs. Cosgrove by letter.
In two days she received a reply. Mrs. Cosgrove had called upon Mrs. Widdowso_t her lodgings at Clapham. 'She is ill, wretched, and unwilling to talk. _ould only stay about a quarter of an hour, and to ask questions wa_mpossible. She mentioned your name, and appeared very anxious to hear abou_ou; but when I asked whether she would like you to call she grew timid all a_nce, and said she hoped you wouldn't unless you really desired to see her.
Poor thing! Of course I don't know what it all means, but I came away wit_aledictions on marriage in my heart—one is always safe in indulging tha_eeling.'
A week or so after this there arrived for Miss Barfoot a letter from Everard.
The postmark was Ostend.
Never before had Rhoda been tempted to commit a break of confidence such as i_ny one else she would have scorned beyond measure. She had heard, of course, of people secretly opening letters with the help of steam; whether it could b_one with absolute security from detection she did not feel sure, but he_houghts dwelt on the subject for several hours. It was terrible to hold thi_etter of Everard's writing, and yet be obliged to send it away withou_nowledge of the contents, which perhaps gravely concerned her. She could no_sk Miss Barfoot to let her know what Everard had written. The informatio_ight perhaps be voluntarily granted; but perhaps not.
To steam the back of the envelope—would it not leave marks, a rumpling o_iscoloration? Even to be suspected of such dishonour would be more bitter t_er than death. Could she even think of it? How she was degraded by thi_ateful passion, which wrought in her like a disease!
With two others which that day had arrived she put the letter into a larg_nvelope, and so dispatched it. But no satisfaction rewarded her; her hear_aged against the world, against every law of life.
When, in a few days, a letter came to her from Miss Barfoot, she tore it Open, and there—yes, there was Everard's handwriting. Mary had sent th_ommunication for her to read.
> 'DEAR COUSIN MARY,—After all I was rather too grumpy In my last note to you.
But my patience had been desperately tried. I have gone through a good deal; now at last I am recovering sanity, and can admit that you had no choice bu_o ask those questions. I know and care nothing about Mrs. Widdowson. By he_ccentric behaviour she either did me a great injury or a great service, I'_ot quite sure which, but I incline to the latter view. Here is _onundrum—not very difficult to solve, I dare say.
> 'Do you know anything about Arromanches? A very quiet little spot on th_ormandy coast. You get to it by an hour's coach from Bayeux. Not infested b_nglish. I went there on an invitation from the Brissendens; who discovere_he place last year. Excellent people these. I like them better the more _now of them. A great deal of quiet liberality—even extreme liberality—in th_wo girls. They would suit you, I am sure. Well instructed. Agnes, th_ounger, reads half a dozen languages, and shames me by her knowledge of al_orts of things. And yet delightfully feminine.
> 'As they were going to Ostend I thought I might as well follow them, and w_ontinue to see each other pretty frequently.
> 'By-the-bye, I shall have to find new quarters if I come back to London. Th_ngineer, back from Italy after a longer absence than he anticipated, want_is flat, and of course must have it. But then I may not come back at all, except to gather my traps. I shall not call on you, unless I have heard tha_ou don't doubt the assurance I have now twice given.—Your profligat_elative, > > E. B.'
'I think,' wrote Mary, 'that we may safely believe him. Such a lie would b_oo bad; he is incapable of it. Remember, I have never charged him wit_alsehood. I shall write and tell him that I accept his word. Has it, or ha_t not, occurred to you to see Mrs. Widdowson herself? Or, if there ar_nsuperable objections, why not see Miss Madden? We talk to each other in _ort of cypher, dear Rhoda. Well, I desire nothing but your good, as I thin_ou know, and you must decide for yourself where that good lies.'
Everard's letter put Rhoda beside herself with wrath. In writing it he knew i_ould come into her hands; he hoped to sting her with jealousy. So Mrs.
Widdowson had done him a service. He was free to devote himself to Agne_rissenden, with her six languages, her extreme liberality, her feminin_harm.
If she could not crush out her love for this man she would poison herself—a_he had so often decided she would do if ever some hopeless malady, such a_ancer, took hold upon her—
And be content to feed his vanity? To give him the lifelong reflection that, for love of him, a woman excelled by few in qualities of brain and heart ha_ied like a rat?
She walked about the rooms, here and there, upstairs and downstairs, in _ever of unrest. After all, was he not behaving in the very way she ought t_esire? Was he not helping her to hate him? He struck at her with unmanl_lows, thinking, no doubt, to quell her pride, and bring her to him i_rostrate humility. Never! Even if it were proved in the clearest way that sh_ught to have believed him she would make no submission. If he loved her h_ust woo once more.
But the suggestion in Mary's letter was not fruitless. When she had though_ver it for a day or two she wrote to Virginia Madden, asking her as a favou_o come to Queen's Road on Saturday afternoon. Virginia quickly replied with _romise to call, and punctually kept the engagement. Though she was muc_etter dressed than in the days previous to Monica's marriage, she had los_omething for which costume could not compensate: her face had no longer tha_nmistakable refinement which had been wont to make her attire a secondar_onsideration. A disagreeable redness tinged her eyelids and the lower part o_er nose; her mouth was growing coarse and lax, the under-lip hanging _ittle; she smiled with a shrinking, apologetic shyness only seen in peopl_ho have done something to be ashamed of—smiled even when she was endeavourin_o look sorrowful; and her glance was furtive. She sat down on the edge of _hair, like an anxious applicant for work or charity, and a moistness of th_yes, which obliged her to use her handkerchief frequently, strengthened thi_esemblance.
Rhoda could not play at smooth phrases with this poor, dispirited woman, whos_hange during the last few years, and especially during the last twelv_onths, had often occupied her thoughts in a very unpleasant way. She cam_lmost at once to the subject of their interview.
'Why have you not been to see me before this?'
'I—really couldn't. The circumstances—everything is so very painful. Yo_now—of course you know what has happened?'
'Of course I do.'
'How,' asked Virginia timidly, 'did the news first of all reach you?'
'Mr. Widdowson came here and told Miss Barfoot everything.'
'He came? We didn't know that. Then you have heard the accusation he makes?'
'It is quite unfounded, I do assure you. Monica is not guilty. The poor chil_as done nothing—it was an indiscretion—nothing more than indiscretion—'
'I am very anxious to believe it. Can you give me certainty? Can you explai_onica's behaviour—not only on that one occasion, but the deceit she practise_t other times? Her husband told Miss Barfoot that she had frequently told hi_ntruths—such as saying that she called here when she certainly did not.'
'I can't explain that,' lamented Virginia. 'Monica won't tell me why sh_oncealed her movements.'
'Then how can you ask me to believe your assurance that she isn't guilty?'
The sternness of this question caused Virginia to redden and become utterl_isconcerted. She dropped her handkerchief, fumbled for it, breathed hard.
'Oh, Miss Nunn! How can you think Monica—? You know her better; I'm sure yo_o!'
'Any human being may commit a crime,' said the other impatiently, exasperate_y what seemed to be merely new evidence against Barfoot. 'Who knows any on_ell enough to say that a charge _must_ be unfounded?'
Miss Madden began to sob.
'I'm afraid that is true. But my sister—my dear sister—'
'I didn't want to distress you. Do command yourself, and let us talk about i_almly.'
'Yes—I will—I shall be so glad to talk about it with you. Oh, if I coul_ersuade her to return to her husband! He is willing to receive her. I mee_im very often on Clapham Common, and—We are living at his expense. Whe_onica had been with me in my old lodgings for about a week he took these ne_ooms for us, and Monica consented to remove. But she won't hear of going bac_o live with him. He has offered to let us have the house to ourselves, bu_t's no use. He writes to her, but she won't reply. Do you know that he ha_aken a house at Clevedon—a beautiful house? They were to go to it in a wee_r two, and Alice and I would have gone to share it with them—then thi_readful thing happened. And Mr. Widdowson doesn't even insist on her tellin_im what she keeps secret. He is willing to take her back under an_ircumstances. And she is so ill—'
Virginia broke off, as if there were something more that she did not ventur_o impart. Her cheeks coloured, and she looked distressfully about the room.
'Seriously ill, do you mean?' inquired Rhoda, with difficulty softening he_oice.
'She gets up each day, but I'm often afraid that—She has had fainting fits—'
Rhoda gazed at the speaker with pitiless scrutiny.
'What can have caused this? Is it the result of her being falsely accused?'
'Partly that. But—'
Suddenly Virginia rose, stepped to Rhoda's side, and whispered a word or two.
Rhoda turned pale; her eyes glared fiercely.
'And _still_ you believe her innocent?'
'She has sworn to me that she is innocent. She says that she has a proof of i_hich I shall see some day—and her husband also. A presentiment has fixe_tself in her mind that she can't live, and before the end she will tel_verything.'
'Her husband knows of this, of course—of what you have told me?'
'No. She has forbidden me to say anything—and how could I, Miss Nunn? She ha_ade me promise solemnly that he shall not be told. I haven't even told Alice.
But she will know very soon. At the end of September she leaves her place, an_ill come to London to be with us—for a time at all events. We do so hope tha_e shall succeed in persuading Monica to go to the house at Clevedon. Mr.
Widdowson is keeping it, and will move the furniture from Herne Hill at an_oment. Couldn't you help us, dear Miss Nunn? Monica would listen to you; I a_ure she would.'
'I'm afraid I can be of no use,' Rhoda answered coldly.
'She has been hoping to see you.'
'She has said so?'
'Not in so many words—but I am sure she wishes to see you. She has asked abou_ou several times, and when your note came she was very pleased. It would be _reat kindness to us—'
'Does she declare that she will never return to her husband?'
'Yes—I am sorry to say she does. But the poor child believes that she has onl_ short time to live. Nothing will shake her presentiment. "I shall die, an_ive no more trouble"—that's what she always says to me. And a conviction o_hat kind is so likely to fulfil itself. She never leaves the house, and o_ourse that is very wrong; she ought to go out every day. She won't see _edical man.'
'Has Mr. Widdowson given her any cause for disliking him?' Rhoda inquired.
'He was dreadfully violent when he discovered—I'm afraid it was natural—h_hought the worst of her, and he has always been so devoted to Monica. Sh_ays he seemed on the point of killing her. He is a man of very severe nature, I have always thought. He never could bear that Monica should go anywher_lone. They were very, very unhappy, I'm afraid—so ill-matched in almost ever_espect. Still, under the circumstances—surely she ought to return to him?'
'I can't say. I don't know.'
Rhoda's voice signified a conflict of feeling. Had she been disinterested he_pinion would not have wavered for a moment; she would have declared that th_ife's inclination must be the only law in such a case. As it was, she coul_nly regard Monica with profound mistrust and repugnance. The story o_ecisive evidence kept back seemed to her only a weak woman's falsehood—_iction due to shame and despair. Undoubtedly it would give some vague relie_o her mind if Monica were persuaded to go to Clevedon, but she could no_ring herself to think of visiting the suffering woman. Whatever the end migh_e, she would have not part in bringing it about. Her dignity, her pride, should remain unsullied by such hateful contact.
'I mustn't stay longer,' said Virginia, rising after a painful silence. 'I a_lways afraid to be away from her even for an hour; the fear of dreadfu_hings that might happen haunts me day and night. How glad I shall be whe_lice comes!'
Rhoda had no words of sympathy. Her commiseration for Virginia was only suc_s she might have felt for any stranger involved in sordid troubles; all th_ld friendliness had vanished. Nor would she have been greatly shocked o_stonished had she followed Miss Madden on the way to the railway station an_een her, after a glance up and down the street, turn quickly into a public- house, and come forth again holding her handkerchief to her lips. A feeble, purposeless, hopeless woman; type of a whole class; living only t_eteriorate—
Will! Purpose! Was _she_ not in danger of forgetting these watchwords, whic_ad guided her life out of youth into maturity? That poor creature'_nhappiness was doubtless in great measure due to the conviction that i_issing love and marriage she had missed everything. So thought the averag_oman, and in her darkest hours she too had fallen among those poor of spirit, the flesh prevailing. But the soul in her had not finally succumbed. Passio_ad a new significance; her conception of life was larger, more liberal; sh_ade no vows to crush the natural instincts. But her conscience, her sincerit_hould not suffer. Wherever destiny might lead, she would still be the sam_roud and independent woman, responsible only to herself, fulfilling th_obler laws of her existence.
A day or two after this she had guests to dine with her—Mildred Vesper an_inifred Haven. Among the girls whom she had helped to educate, these tw_eemed by far the most self-reliant, the most courageous and hopeful. In mino_etails of character they differed widely, and intellectually Miss Haven wa_ar in advance. Rhoda had a strong desire to observe them as they talked abou_he most various subjects; she knew them well, but hoped to find in them som_ew suggestion of womanly force which would be of help to her in her ow_truggle for redemption.
It was seldom that either of them ailed anything. Mildred still showed trace_f her country breeding; she was the more robust, walked with a heavier step, had less polish of manner. Under strain of any kind Winifred's health woul_ooner give way, but her natural vivacity promised long resistance t_ppressing influences. Mildred had worked harder, and amid privations of whic_he other girl knew nothing. She would never distinguish herself, but it wa_ifficult indeed to imagine her repining so long as she had her strength an_er congenial friends. Twenty years hence, in all probability, she would kee_he same clear, steady eye, the same honest smile, and the same dry humour i_er talk. Winifred was more likely to traverse a latitude of storm. For on_hing, her social position brought her in the way of men who might fall i_ove with her, whereas Mildred lived absolutely apart from the male world; doubtless, too, her passions were stronger. She loved literature, spent a_uch time as possible in study, and had set her mind upon helping to establis_hat ideal woman's paper of which there was often talk at Miss Barfoot's.
In this company Rhoda felt her old ambitions regaining their power over her.
To these girls she was an exemplar; it made her smile to think how little the_ould dream of what she had experienced during the last few weeks; if ever _oment of discontent assailed them, they must naturally think of her, of th_rave, encouraging words she had so often spoken. For a moment she ha_eserted them, abandoning a course which her reason steadily approved for on_hat was beset with perils of indignity. It would shame her if they knew th_hole truth—and yet she wished it were possible for them to learn that she ha_een passionately wooed. A contemptible impulse of vanity; away with it!
There was a chance, it seemed to her, that during Miss Barfoot's absenc_verard might come to the house. Mary had written to him; he would know tha_he was away. What better opportunity, if he had not dismissed her memory fro_is thoughts?
Every evening she made herself ready to receive a possible visitor. She too_hought for her appearance. But the weeks passed by, Miss Barfoot returned, and Everard had given no sign.
She would set a date, a limit. If before Christmas he neither came nor wrot_ll was at an end; after that she would not see him, whatever his plea. An_aving persuaded herself that this decision was irrevocable, she thought it a_ell to gratify Miss Barfoot's curiosity, for by now she felt able to relat_hat had happened in Cumberland with a certain satisfaction—the feeling sh_ad foreseen when, in the beginning of her acquaintance with Everard, i_lattered her to observe his growing interest. Her narrative, to which Mar_istened with downcast eyes, presented the outlines of the story veraciously; she told of Everard's wish to dispense with the legal bond, of her ow_ndecision, and of the issue.
'When your letter came, could I very well have acted otherwise than I did? I_as not a flat refusal to believe him; all I asked was that things should b_leared up before our marriage. For his own sake he ought to have willingl_greed to that. He preferred to take my request as an insult. His unreasonabl_nger made me angry too. And now I don't think we shall ever meet again unles_s mere acquaintances.'
'I think,' commented the listener, 'that he behaved with extraordinar_mpudence.'
'In the first proposal? But I myself attach no importance to the marriag_eremony.'
'Then why did you insist upon it?' asked Mary, with a smile that might hav_ecome sarcastic but that her eye met Rhoda's.