'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?'
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_?'
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.'
'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.