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Chapter 31 A NEW BEGINNING

  • Widdowson tried two or three lodgings; he settled at length in a small hous_t Hampstead; occupying two plain rooms. Here, at long intervals, his frien_ewdick came to see him, but no one else. He had brought with him a selectio_f solid books from his library, and over these the greater part of each da_as spent. Not that he studied with any zeal; reading, and of a kind tha_emanded close attention, was his only resource against melancholia; he kne_ot how else to occupy himself. Adam Smith's classical work, perused wit_aborious thoroughness, gave him employment for a couple of months; subsequently he plodded through all the volumes of Hallam.
  • His landlady, and the neighbours who were at leisure to observe him when h_ent out for his two hours' walk in the afternoon, took him for an ol_entleman of sixty-five or so. He no longer held himself upright, and when ou_f doors seldom raised his eyes from the ground; grey streaks had begun t_rindle his hair; his face grew yellower and more deeply furrowed. Of hi_ersonal appearance, even of cleanliness, he became neglectful, an_ccasionally it happened that he lay in bed all through the morning, reading, dozing, or in a state of mental vacuity.
  • It was long since he had seen his relative, the sprightly widow; but he ha_eard from her. On the point of leaving England for her summer holiday, Mrs.
  • Luke sent him a few lines, urging him, in the language of the world, to liv_ore sensibly, and let his wife 'have her head' now and then; it would b_etter for both of them. Then followed the time of woe, and for many weeks h_ave no thought to Mrs. Luke. But close upon the end of the year he receive_ne day a certain society journal, addressed in a hand he knew to the house a_erne Hill. In it was discoverable, marked with a red pencil, the followin_aragraph.
  • 'Among the English who this year elected to take their repose and recreatio_t Trouville there was no more brilliant figure than Mrs. Luke Widdowson. Thi_ady is well known in the  _monde_  where one never  _s'ennuie_ ; where smar_eople are gathered together, there is the charming widow sure to be seen. W_re able to announce that, before leaving Trouville, Mrs. Widdowson ha_onsented to a private engagement with Capt. William Horrocks—no other, indeed, than "Captain Bill," the universal favourite, so beloved by hostesse_s a sure dancing man. By the lamented death of his father, this best of goo_ellows has now become Sir William, and we understand that his marriage wil_e celebrated after the proper delays. Our congratulations!'
  • Subsequently arrived a newspaper with an account of the marriage. Mrs. Luk_as now Lady Horrocks: she had the title desired of her heart.
  • Another two months went by, and there came a letter—re-addressed, like th_ther communications, at the post office—in which the baronet's wife declare_erself anxious to hear of her friends. She found they had left Herne Hill; i_his letter reached him, would not Edmund come and see her at her house i_impole Street?
  • Misery of solitude, desire for a woman's sympathy and counsel, impelled him t_se this opportunity, little as it seemed to promise. He went to Wimpol_treet and had a very long private talk with Lady Horrocks, who, in some wa_e could not understand, had changed from her old self. She began frivolously, but in rather a dull, make-believe way; and when she heard that Widdowson ha_arted from his wife, when a few vague, miserable words had suggested th_omestic drama so familiar to her observation, she at once grew quiet, sober, sympathetic, as if really glad to have something serious to talk about.
  • 'Now look here, Edmund. Tell the whole story from the first. You're the sor_f man to make awful blunders in such a case as this. Just tell me all abou_t. I'm not a bad sort, you know, and I have troubles of my own—I don't min_elling you so much. Women make fools of themselves—well, never mind. Jus_ell me about the little girl, and see if we can't square things somehow.'
  • He had a struggle with himself, but at length narrated everything, ofte_nterrupted by shrewd questions.
  • 'No one writes to you?' the listener finally inquired.
  • 'I am expecting to hear from them,' was Widdowson's answer, as he sat in th_sual position, head hanging forward and hands clasped between his knees.
  • 'To hear what?'
  • 'I think I shall be sent for.'
  • 'Sent for? To make it up?'
  • 'She is going to give birth to a child.'
  • Lady Horrocks nodded twice thoughtfully, and with a faint smile.
  • 'How did you find this out?'
  • 'I have known it long enough. Her sister Virginia told me before they wen_way. I had a suspicion all at once, and I forced her to tell me.'
  • 'And if you are sent for shall you go?'
  • Widdowson seemed to mutter an affirmative, and added,—
  • 'I shall hear what she has to tell me, as she promised.'
  • 'Is it—is it possible—?'
  • The lady's question remained incomplete. Widdowson, though he understood it, vouchsafed no direct answer. Intense suffering was manifest in his face, an_t length he spoke vehemently.
  • 'Whatever she tells me—how can I believe it? When once a woman has lied ho_an she ever again be believed? I can't be sure of anything.'
  • 'All that fibbing,' remarked Lady Horrocks, 'has an unpleasant look. N_enying it. She got entangled somehow. But I think you had better believe tha_he pulled up just in time.'
  • 'I have no love for her left,' he went on in a despairing voice. 'It al_erished in those frightful days. I tried hard to think that I still love_er. I kept writing letters—but they meant nothing—or they only meant that _as driven half crazy by wretchedness. I had rather we lived on as we hav_een doing. It's miserable enough for me, God knows; but it would be worse t_ry and behave to her as if I could forget everything. I know her explanatio_on't satisfy me. Whatever it is I shall still suspect her. I don't know tha_he child is mine. It may be. Perhaps as it grows up there will be a likenes_o help me to make sure. But what a life! Every paltry trifle will make m_neasy; and if I discovered any fresh deceit I should do something terrible.
  • You don't know how near I was—'
  • He shuddered and hid his face.
  • 'The Othello business won't do,' said Lady Horrocks not unkindly. 'Yo_ouldn't have gone on together, of course; you had to part for a time. Well, that's all over; take it as something that couldn't be helped. You wer_ehaving absurdly, you know; I told you plainly; I guessed there'd be trouble.
  • You oughtn't to have married at all, that's the fact; it would be better fo_ost of us if we kept out of it. Some marry for a good reason, some for a bad, and mostly it all comes to the same in the end. But there, never mind. Pul_ourself together, dear boy. It's all nonsense about not caring for her. O_ourse you're eating your heart out for want of her. And I'll tell you what _hink: it's very likely Monica was pulled up just in time by discovering—yo_nderstand?—that she was more your wife than any one else's. Something tell_e that's how it was. Just try to look at it in that way. If the child live_he'll be different. She has sowed her wild oats—why shouldn't a woman as wel_s a man? Go down to Clevedon and forgive her. You're an honest man, and i_sn't every woman—never mind. I could tell you stories about people—but yo_ouldn't care to hear them. Just take things with a laugh—we  _all_  have to.
  • Life's as you take it: all gloom or moderately shiny.'
  • With much more to the same solacing effect. For the time Widdowson wa_erchance a trifle comforted; at all events, he went away with a sense o_ratitude to Lady Horrocks. And when he had left the house he remembered tha_ot even a civil formality with regard to Sir William had fallen from hi_ips. But Sir William's wife, for whatever reason, had also not once mentione_he baronet's name.
  • Only a few days passed before Widdowson received the summons he was expecting.
  • It came in the form of a telegram, bidding him hasten to his wife; not a wor_f news added. At the time of its arrival he was taking his afternoon walk; this delay made it doubtful whether he could get to Paddington by six-twenty, the last train which would enable him to reach Clevedon that night. He manage_t, with only two or three minutes to spare.
  • Not till he was seated in the railway carriage could he fix his thoughts o_he end of the journey. An inexpressible repugnance then affected him; h_ould have welcomed any disaster to the train, any injury which might preven_is going to Monica at such a time. Often, in anticipation, the event whic_as now come to pass had confused and darkened his mind; he loathed th_hought of it. If the child, perhaps already born, were in truth his, it mus_e very long before he could regard it with a shadow of paternal interest; uncertainty, to which he was condemned, would in all likelihood make it a_bject of aversion to him as long as he lived.
  • He was at Bristol by a quarter past nine, and had to change for a slow train, which by ten o'clock brought him to Yatton, the little junction for Clevedon.
  • It was a fine starry night, but extremely cold. For the few minutes o_etention he walked restlessly about the platform. His chief emotion was now _ear lest all might not go well with Monica. Whether he could believe what sh_ad to tell him or not, it would be worse if she were to die before he coul_ear her exculpation. The anguish of remorse would seize upon him.
  • Alone in his compartment, he did not sit down, but stamped backwards an_orwards on the floor, and before the train stopped he jumped out. No cab wa_rocurable; he left his bag at the station, and hastened with all speed in th_irection that he remembered. But very soon the crossways had confused him. A_e met no one whom he could ask to direct him, he had to knock at a door.
  • Streaming with perspiration, he came at length within sight of his own house.
  • A church clock was striking eleven.
  • Alice and Virginia were both standing in the hall when the door was opened; they beckoned him into a room.
  • 'Is it over?' he asked, staring from one to the other with his dazzled eyes.
  • 'At four this afternoon,' answered Alice, scarce able to articulate. 'A littl_irl.'
  • 'She had to have chloroform,' said Virginia, who looked a miserable, lifeles_bject, and shook like one in an ague.
  • 'And all's well?'
  • 'We think so—we hope so,' they stammered together.
  • Alice added that the doctor was to make another call to-night. They had a goo_urse. The infant seemed healthy, but was a very, very little mite, and ha_nly made its voice heard for a few minutes.
  • 'She knows you sent for me?'
  • 'Yes. And we have something to give you. You were to have this as soon as yo_rrived.'
  • Miss Madden handed him a sealed envelope; then both the sisters drew away, a_f fearing the result of what they had done. Widdowson just glanced at th_naddressed missive and put it into his pocket.
  • 'I must have something to eat,' he said, wiping his forehead. 'When the docto_omes I'll see him.'
  • This visit took place while he was engaged on his supper. On coming down fro_he patient the doctor gave him an assurance that things were progressing
  • 'fairly well'; the morning, probably, would enable him to speak with yet mor_onfidence. Widdowson had another brief conversation with the sisters, the_ade them good-night, and went to the room that had been prepared for him. A_e closed the door he heard a thin, faint wail, and stood listening until i_eased; it came from a room on the floor below.
  • Having brought himself with an effort to open the envelope he had received, h_ound several sheets of notepaper, one of them, remarked immediately, in _an's writing. At this he first glanced, and the beginning showed him that i_as a love-letter written to Monica. He threw it aside and took up the othe_heets, which contained a long communication from his wife; it was dated tw_onths ago. In it Monica recounted to him, with scrupulous truthfulness, th_hole story of her relations with Bevis.
  • 'I only make this confession'—so she concluded—'for the sake of the poor chil_hat will soon be born. The child is yours, and ought not to suffer because o_hat I did. The enclosed letter will prove this to you, if anything can. Fo_yself I ask nothing. I don't think I shall live. If I do I will consent t_nything you propose. I only ask you to behave without any pretence; if yo_annot forgive me, do not make a show of it. Say what your will is, and tha_hall be enough'.
  • He did not go to bed that night. There was a fire in the room, and he kept i_light until daybreak, when he descended softly to the hall and let himsel_ut of the house.
  • In a fierce wind that swept from the north-west down the foaming Channel, h_alked for an hour or two, careless whither the roads directed him. All h_esired was to be at a distance from that house, with its hideous silence an_he faint cry that could scarcely be called a sound. The necessity o_eturning, of spending days there, was an Oppression which held him like _ightmare.
  • Monica's statement he neither believed nor disbelieved; he simply could no_ake up his mind about it. She had lied to him so resolutely before; was sh_ot capable of elaborate falsehood to save her reputation and protect he_hild? The letter from Bevis might have been a result of conspiracy betwee_hem.
  • That Bevis was the man against whom his jealousy should have been directed a_irst astounded him. By now he had come to a full perception of his stupidit_n never entertaining such a thought. The revelation was equivalent to _econd offence just discovered; for he found it impossible to ignore his long- cherished suspicion of Barfoot, and he even surmised the possibility o_onica's having listened to love-making from that quarter previously to he_ntimacy with Bevis. He loathed the memory of his life since marriage; and a_or pardoning his wife, he could as soon pardon and smile upon the author o_hat accursed letter from Bordeaux.
  • But go back to the house he must. By obeying his impulse, and straightwa_eturning to London, he might be the cause of a fatal turn in Monica'_llness. Constraint of bare humanity would keep him here until his wife wa_ut of danger. But he could not see her, and as soon as possible he mus_scape from such unendurable circumstances.
  • Re-entering at half-past eight, he was met by Alice, who seemed to have slep_s little as he himself had done. They went into the dining-room.
  • 'She has been inquiring about you,' began Miss Madden timorously.
  • 'How is she?'
  • 'Not worse, I believe. But so very weak. She wishes me to ask you—'
  • 'What?'
  • His manner did not encourage the poor woman.
  • 'I shall be obliged to tell her something. If I have nothing to say she wil_ret herself into a dangerous state. She wants to know if you have read he_etter, and if—if you will see the child.'
  • Widdowson turned away and stood irresolute. He felt Miss Madden's hand upo_is arm.
  • 'Oh, don't refuse! Let me give her some comfort.'
  • 'It's the child she's anxious about?'
  • Alice admitted it, looking into her brother-in-law's face with woeful appeal.
  • 'Say I will see it,' he answered, 'and have it brought into some room—then sa_  _have_  seen it.'
  • 'Mayn't I take her a word of forgiveness?'
  • 'Yes, say I forgive her. She doesn't wish me to go to her?'
  • Alice shook her head.
  • 'Then say I forgive her.'
  • As he directed so it was done; and in the course of the morning Miss Madde_rought word to him that her sister had experienced great relief. She wa_leeping.
  • But the doctor thought it necessary to make two visits before nightfall, an_ate in the evening he came again. He explained to Widdowson that there wer_omplications, not unlikely to be dangerous, and finally he suggested that, i_he morrow brought no decided improvement, a second medical man should b_alled in to consult. This consultation was held. In the afternoon Virgini_ame weeping to her brother-in-law, and told him that Monica was delirious.
  • That night the whole household watched. Another day was passed in the graves_nxiety, and at dusk the medical attendant no longer disguised his opinio_hat Mrs. Widdowson was sinking. She became unconscious soon after, and in th_arly morning breathed her last.
  • Widdowson was in the room, and at the end sat by the bedside for an hour. Bu_e did not look upon his wife's face. When it was told him that she had cease_o breathe, he rose and went into his own chamber, death-pale, but tearless.
  • On the day after the funeral—Monica was buried in the cemetery, which is har_y the old church—Widdowson and the elder sister had a long conversation i_rivate. It related first of all to the motherless baby. Widdowson's desir_as that Miss Madden should undertake the care of the child. She and Virgini_ight live wherever they preferred; their needs would be provided for. Alic_ad hardly dared to hope for such a proposal—as it concerned the child, tha_s to say. Gladly she accepted it.
  • 'But there's something I must tell you,' she said, with embarrassed appeal i_er wet eyes. 'Poor Virginia wishes to go into an institution.'
  • Widdowson looked at her, not understanding; whereupon she broke into tears, and made known that her sister was such a slave to strong drink that they bot_espaired of reformation unless by help of the measure she had indicated.
  • There were people, she had heard, who undertook the care of inebriates.
  • 'You know that we are by no means penniless,' sobbed Alice. 'We can very wel_ear the expense. But will you assist us to find a suitable place?'
  • He promised to proceed at once in the matter.
  • 'And when she is cured,' said Miss Madden, 'she shall come and live with me.
  • And when baby is about two years old we will do what we have been purposin_or a long time. We will open a school for young children, either here or a_eston. That will afford my poor sister occupation. Indeed, we shall both b_etter for the exertion of such an undertaking—don't you think so?'
  • 'It would be a wise thing, I have no doubt whatever.'
  • The large house was to be abandoned, and as much of the furniture as seeme_eedful transported to a smaller dwelling in another part of Clevedon. Fo_lice resolved to stay here in spite of painful associations. She loved th_lace, and looked forward with quiet joy to the life that was prepared fo_er. Widdowson's books would go back to London; not to the Hampstead lodgings, however. Fearful of solitude, he proposed to his friend Newdick that the_hould live together, he, as a man of substance, bearing the larger share o_he expense. And this plan also came into execution.
  • Three months went by, and on a day of summer, when the wooded hills and gree_anes and rich meadows of Clevedon looked their best, when the Channel wa_till and blue, and the Welsh mountains loomed through a sunny haze, Rhod_unn came over from the Mendips to see Miss Madden. It could not be a gladsom_eeting, but Rhoda was bright and natural, and her talk as inspiriting a_ver. She took the baby in her arms, and walked about with it for a long tim_n the garden, often murmuring, 'Poor little child! Dear little child!' Ther_ad been doubt whether it would live, but the summer seemed to be fortifyin_ts health. Alice, it was plain, had found her vocation; she looked bette_han at any time since Rhoda had known her. Her complexion was losing it_uddiness and spottiness; her step had become light and brisk.
  • 'And where is your sister?' inquired Miss Nunn.
  • 'Staying with friends at present. She will be back before long, I hope. And a_oon as baby can walk we are going to think very seriously about the school.
  • You remember?'
  • 'The school? You will really make the attempt?'
  • 'It will be so good for us both. Why, look,' she added laughingly, 'here i_ne pupil growing for us!'
  • 'Make a brave woman of her,' said Rhoda kindly.
  • 'We will try—ah, we will try! And is your work as successful as ever?'
  • 'More!' replied Rhoda. 'We flourish like the green bay-tree. We shall have t_ake larger premises. By-the-bye, you must read the paper we are going t_ublish; the first number will be out in a month, though the name isn't quit_ecided upon yet. Miss Barfoot was never in such health and spirit—nor _yself. The world is moving!'
  • Whilst Miss Madden went into the house to prepare hospitalities, Rhoda, stil_ursing, sat down on a garden bench. She gazed intently at those diminutiv_eatures, which were quite placid and relaxing in soft drowsiness. The dark, bright eye was Monica's. And as the baby sank into sleep, Rhoda's vision gre_im; a sigh made her lips quiver, and once more she murmured, 'Poor littl_hild!'