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Chapter 28 THE BURDEN OF FUTILE SOULS

  • 'My own dearest love, if I could but describe to you all I have suffere_efore sitting down to write this letter! Since our last meeting I have no_nown one hour of quietness. To think that I missed you when you called an_eft 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 mor_han a few minutes at a time, and I am utterly broken down by misery. M_arling'—etc. 'I regard myself as a criminal; if _you_  have suffered _housandth part of what  _I_  have, I deserve any punishment that could b_evised. For it has all been my fault. Knowing as I did that our love coul_ever end in happiness, it was my duty to hide what I felt. I ought never t_ave contrived that first meeting alone—for it  _was_  contrived; I sent m_isters away on purpose. I ought never'—etc. 'The only reflection that ca_ver bring me comfort is that our love has been pure. We can always think o_ach other without shame. And why should this love ever have an end? We ar_eparated, and perhaps shall never see each other again, but may not ou_earts remain for ever true? May we not think'—etc. 'If I were to bid yo_eave your home and come to me, I should be once more acting with bas_elfishness. I should ruin your life, and load my own with endless self- reproach. I find that even mere outward circumstances would not allow of wha_or a moment we dreamt might be possible, and of that I am  _glad_ , since i_elps me to overcome the terrible temptation. Oh, if you knew how tha_emptation'—etc. 'Time will be a friend to both of us, dearest Monica. Forge_ach other we never can, we  _never_  will. But our unsullied love'—etc.
  • Monica read it through again, the long rigmarole. Since the day that sh_eceived it—addressed to 'Mrs. Williamson' at the little stationer's b_avender Hill—the day before she consented to accompany her sister into ne_odgings—the letter had lain in its hiding-place. Alone this afternoon, fo_irginia was gone to call on Miss Nunn, alone and miserable, every printe_age a weariness to her sight, she took out the French-stamped envelope an_ried to think that its contents interested her. But not a word had power o_ttraction or of repulsion. The tender phrases affected her no more than i_hey had been addressed to a stranger. Love was become a meaningless word. Sh_ould not understand how she had ever drifted into such relations with th_riter. Fear and anger were the sole passions surviving in her memory fro_hose days which had violently transformed her life, and it was not wit_evis, but her husband, that these emotions were connected. Bevis's imag_tood in that already distant past like a lay figure, the mere semblance of _an. And with such conception of him his letter corresponded; it wa_rtificial, lifeless, as if extracted from some vapid novel.
  • But she must not destroy it. Its use was still to come. Letter and envelop_ust go back again into hiding, and await the day which would give them powe_ver human lives.
  • Suffering, as always, from headache and lassitude, she sat by the window an_atched the people who passed along—her daily occupation. This sitting-roo_as on the ground floor. In a room above some one was receiving a musi_esson; every now and then the teacher's voice became audible, raised in shar_mpatience, 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 _radesman's errand boy, who at length put his thumb to his nose with insultin_ignificance and scampered off. Then, at the house next to that one, ther_topped a cab, from which three busy-looking men alighted. Cabs full of peopl_ere always stopping at that door. Monica wondered what it meant, who migh_ive there. She thought of asking the landlady.
  • Virginia's return aroused her. She went upstairs with her sister into th_ouble-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 wh_he sent for me. She said there would be no use in her coming to see you—and _on'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'_eem 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 se_hey 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 tha_hey 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 he_ips.
  • 'It wouldn't have mattered if you had,' said Monica indifferently. 'I don'_are.'
  • The sister, struggling with shame, was irritated by the needlessness of he_alsehood.
  • '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 believ_nd 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 somewher_nd 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 an_uestioning I shall go away. I don't care what becomes of me. The sooner I di_he better.'
  • Scenes such as this had been frequent lately. The sisters were a great tria_o each other's nerves. Tedium and pain drove Monica to the relief o_ltercation, and Virginia, through her secret vice, was losing all self- control. They wrangled, wailed, talked of parting, and only became quiet whe_heir emotions had exhausted them. Yet no ill-feeling resulted from thes_isputes. 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, s_nsoluble by unaided conjecture. And Monica, say what she might, repaid thi_onfidence with profound gratitude. Strangely, she had come to view herself a_ot only innocent of the specific charge brought against her, but as a woma_n every sense maligned. So utterly void of significance, from her presen_oint of view, was all that had passed between her and Bevis. One reason fo_his lay in the circumstance that, when exchanging declarations with he_over, she was ignorant of a fact which, had she known it, would have mad_heir meetings impossible. Her husband she could never regard but as a crue_nemy; none the less, nature had set a seal upon their marriage against whic_he revolt of her heart was powerless. If she lived to bear a child, tha_hild would be his. Widdowson, when he heard of her condition, would declar_t the final proof of infidelity; and this injustice it was that exclusivel_ccupied her mind. On this account she could think only of the accusatio_hich connected her name with Barfoot's—all else was triviality. Had ther_een no slightest ground for imputation upon her conduct, she could not hav_esented more vigorously her husband's refusal to acquit her of dishonour.
  • On the following day, after their early dinner, Monica unexpectedly declare_hat 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,' complaine_irginia. '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 fro_ictoria—anywhere. To the Abbey, if you like.'
  • 'You must be very careful not to catch cold. After all this time that yo_aven'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 hea_f waiting. The journey by train made her nervous, but affected her spirit_avourably. At Victoria it rained so heavily that they could not go out int_he street.
  • 'It doesn't matter. There's plenty to see here. Let us walk about and look a_hings. We'll buy something at the bookstall to take back.'
  • As they turned again towards the platform, Monica was confronted by a fac_hich she at once recognized, though it had changed noticeably in the eightee_onths since she last saw it. The person was Miss Eade, her old acquaintanc_t the shop. But the girl no longer dressed as in those days; cheap finery o_he 'loudest' description arrayed her form, and it needed little scrutiny t_erceive that her thin cheeks were artificially reddened. The surprise of th_eeting was not Monica's only reason for evincing embarrassment. Seeing tha_iss Eade was uncertain whether to make a sign of acquaintance, she felt i_ould be wiser to go by. But this was not permitted. As they were passing eac_ther 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'l_eet 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 i_uch longer. Are you married?'
  • 'Yes.'
  • 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 abou_er. Then she remarked inconsequently that she was waiting the arrival of he_rother by train.
  • 'He's a traveller for a West-end shop; makes five hundred a year. I keep hous_or him, because of course he's a widower.'
  • The 'of course' puzzled Monica for a moment, but she remembered that it was a_nmeaning expletive much used by people of Miss Eade's education. However, th_tory did not win her credence; by this time her disagreeable surmises had to_uch 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! Sh_lanced 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 h_till there?'
  • 'Not he. He went about the same time you did, and nobody knew where he hi_imself.'
  • 'Hid? Why should he hide?'
  • 'I only mean he got out of sight somewheres. I thought perhaps you might hav_ome 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 sh_as 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. '_ust 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 tha_onica stood in astonishment. There was unconcealed malignity in the gaz_ixed 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, sh_ecame 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 toward_he departure platform. Before she could reach the gates Monica heard Mis_ade's voice just behind her; it had changed again, and the appealing not_eminded 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 sh_elt a slight pity for the tawdry, abandoned creature, in whom there seemed t_urvive 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_?'
  • 'Nothing whatever.'
  • Miss Eade moved sullenly away, not more than half convinced. Long afte_onica's disappearance she strayed about the platform and the approaches t_he station. Her brother was slow in arriving. Once or twice she held casua_olloquy with men who also stood waiting—perchance for their sisters; an_ltimately one of these was kind enough to offer her refreshment, which sh_raciously accepted. Rhoda Nunn would have classed her and mused about her: _ot unimportant type of the odd woman.
  • * * *
  • After this Monica frequently went out, always accompanied by her sister. I_appened more than once that they saw Widdowson, who walked past the house a_east every other day; he didn't approach them, and had he done so Monic_ould have kept an obstinate silence.
  • For more than a fortnight he had not written to her. At length there came _etter, merely a repetition of his former appeals.
  • 'I hear,' he wrote, 'that your elder sister is coming to London. Why shoul_he live here in lodgings, when a comfortable house is at the disposal of yo_ll? Let me again entreat you to go to Clevedon. The furniture shall be move_ny moment you wish. I solemnly promise not to molest you in any way, not eve_y writing. It shall be understood that business makes it necessary for me t_ive in London. For your sister's sake do accept this offer. If I could se_ou in private, I should be able to give you a very good reason why you_ister 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 ha_assed. I am anxious only to put an end to the wretched life that you ar_eading. 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 accru_o Virginia if she left London. Monica had no inkling of what he meant. Sh_howed her sister this communication, and asked if she could understand th_assage which concerned her.
  • 'I haven't the least idea,' Virginia replied, her hand trembling as she hel_he 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 a_levedon. Occasionally she had urged Monica, with extreme persistence, t_ccept what was offered; at other times, as now, for instance, she sai_othing. Yet Alice had written beseeching her to use all means for Monica'_ersuasion. Miss Madden infinitely preferred the thought of dwelling a_levedon—however humble the circumstances had been—to that of coming back int_ondon lodgings whilst she sought for a new engagement. The situation she wa_bout to quit had proved more laborious than any in her experience. At firs_erely a governess, she had gradually become children's nurse as well, and fo_he past three months had been expected to add the tendance of a chroni_nvalid to her other duties. Not a day's holiday since she came. She wa_roken down and utterly woebegone.
  • But Monica could not be moved. She refused to go again under her husband'_oof until he had stated that his charge against her was absolutely unfounded.
  • This concession went beyond Widdowson's power; he would forgive, but stil_eclined to stultify himself by a statement that could have no meaning. T_hat extent his wife had deceived him might be uncertain, but the deceptio_as a proved fact. Of course it never occurred to him that Monica's demand ha_ significance which emphasized the name of Barfoot. Had he said, 'I a_onvinced that your relations with Barfoot were innocent,' he would hav_eemed to himself to be acquitting her of all criminality; whereas Monica, from her point of view, illogically supposed that he might credit her on thi_ne issue without overthrowing all the evidence that declared he_ntrustworthy. In short, she expected him to read a riddle which there wa_carcely a possibility of his understanding.
  • Alice was in correspondence with the gloomy husband. She promised him to us_very effort to gain Monica's confidence. Perhaps as the eldest sister sh_ight succeed where Virginia had failed. Her faith in Monica's protestation_ad been much shaken by the item of intelligence which Virginia secretl_ommunicated; she thought it too likely that her unhappy sister saw no refug_rom disgrace but in stubborn denial of guilt. And in the undertaking that wa_efore her she had no hope save through the influence of religion—with her _uch 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 suffere_reatly, and at length had allowed a doctor to be called. Whenever her siste_etired very early, Virginia also went to her own bedroom, saying that sh_referred 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 sof_rmchairs. Having locked her door, Virginia made certain preparations whic_ad nothing to do with natural repose. From the cupboard she brought out _ittle spirit-kettle, and put water to boil. Then from a more privat_epository were produced a bottle of gin and a sugar-basin, which, togethe_ith a tumbler and spoon, found a place on a little table drawn up withi_each of the chair where she was going to sit. On the same table lay a nove_rocured 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 sa_own 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'_resence in the house would render impossible what she had hitherto succeede_n disguising from Monica. Her conscience welcomed the restraint, which wa_oming none too soon, for her will could no longer be depended upon. If sh_bstained from strong liquors for three or four days it was now a grea_riumph; yet worthless, for even in abstaining she knew that the hour o_ndulgence had only been postponed. A fit of unendurable depression soon drov_er to the only resource which had immediate efficacy. The relief, she knew, was another downward step; but presently she would find courage to climb bac_gain up to the sure ground. Save for her trouble on Monica's account th_emptation would already have been conquered. And now Alice's arrival mad_ourage a mere necessity.
  • Her bottle was all but empty; she would finish it to-night, and in th_orning, 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 th_rocer's! In the beginning she had chiefly made use of railway refreshmen_ooms. Only on rare occasions did she enter a public-house, and always wit_he bitterest sense of degradation. To sit comfortably at home, the bottl_eside her, and a novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst sham_ttaching to this vice; she went to bed, and in the morning—ah, the mornin_rought 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 o_he educated class. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop o_randy. But it cost too much. Whisky she had tried, and did not like. Finall_he had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. The name, debase_y 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 sh_ad 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; sh_eflected with exultation that to-night's indulgence was her very last. On th_orrow she would be a new woman. Alice and she would devote themselves t_heir poor sister, and never rest till they had restored her to a life o_ignity. This was a worthy, a noble task; success in it must need minister t_er own peace. Before long they would all be living at Clevedon—a life o_deal contentment. It was no longer necessary to think of the school, but sh_ould exert herself for the moral instruction of young women—on the principle_nculcated by Rhoda Nunn.
  • The page before her was no longer legible; the book dropped from her lap. Wh_his excited her laughter she could not understand; but she laughed for a lon_ime, 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 a_uch absurd incapacity. Then—
  • Surely that was a knock at her door? Yes; it was repeated, with a distinc_alling 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 le_e come in.'
  • 'Alice? You can't—I'll come—wait downstairs.'
  • She was still able to understand the situation, and able, she thought, t_peak coherently, to disguise her condition. The things on the table must b_ut out of sight. In trying to do this, she upset her glass and knocked th_mpty 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 remaine_n 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 ha_artly dressed herself.
  • 'Why have you come to-night?' Virginia exclaimed, in a voice which seemed t_er own ears perfectly natural.
  • She tottered, and was obliged to support herself against the wall. The ligh_rom her room fell full upon her, and Alice, who had stepped forward to giv_er a kiss, not only saw, but smelt, that something very strange was th_atter. 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 instantl_ade clear to her many things in Virginia's daily life. At the same moment sh_nderstood those mysterious hints concerning her sister in Widdowson'_etters.
  • '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 wit_ifficulty supported herself.
  • 'O Virgie!' cried the eldest sister, when the door was closed. 'What is th_atter? What does it mean?'
  • Already she had been shedding tears at the meeting with Monica, and no_istress 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 th_upboard and threw the door open. 'I thought so. Look, Alice. And to think _ever suspected this! It has been going on a long time—oh, a long time. Sh_as doing it at Mrs. Conisbee's before I was married. I remember smellin_pirits—'
  • Virginia was making efforts to rise.
  • 'What are you talking about?' she exclaimed in a thick voice, and with _ountenance which was changing from dazed astonishment to anger. 'It's onl_hen 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 bac_nto my room Alice, and I'll get her to bed.'
  • Ultimately this was done. With no slight trouble, Monica persuaded her siste_o undress, and got her into a recumbent position, Virginia all the tim_rotesting that she had perfect command of her faculties, that she needed n_elp whatever, and was utterly at a loss to comprehend the insults directe_gainst 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 stil_eeping. The unexpected arrival had already been explained to Monica. Sudde_ecessity 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, Alic_hose the alternative of leaving the house at once. It had been arranged tha_he 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 sh_as been drinking like that night after night. It explains the look she alway_as the first thing in the morning. Could you have imagined anything s_isgraceful?'
  • But Alice had softened towards the erring woman.
  • 'You must remember what her life has been, dear. I'm afraid loneliness is ver_ften a cause—'
  • 'She needn't have been lonely. She refused to come and live at Herne Hill, an_ow of course I understand why. Mrs. Conisbee must have known about it, and i_as 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, pimple_heeks. '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_  m_uty. It can be no woman's duty to live with a man she hates-or even to make _retence of living with him.'
  • 'But, dearest—'
  • 'You mustn't begin this to-night, Alice. I have been ill all day, and now m_ead is aching terribly. Go downstairs and eat the supper they have laid fo_ou.'
  • 'I couldn't touch a morsel,' sobbed Miss Madden. 'Oh, everything is to_readful! Life is too hard!'
  • Monica had returned to bed, and lay there with her face half hidden agains_he pillow.
  • 'If you don't want any supper,' she said in a moment, 'please go and tel_hem, 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 caus_er to move. Having sat in despondency for a while, Miss Madden opened one o_er boxes, and sought in it for the Bible which it was her custom to make us_f every night. She read in the book for about half an hour, then covered he_ace with her hands and prayed silently. This was  _her_  refuge from th_arrenness and bitterness of life.