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—'
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.
'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!'