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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Odd Women - Chapter 30. Retreat With Honour
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The Odd Women - Chapter 30. Retreat With Honour Post by :artfig Category :Long Stories Author :George Gissing Date :May 2012 Read :1153

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The Odd Women - Chapter 30. Retreat With Honour


Alighting, on his return to London, at the Savoy Hotel, Barfoot insensibly prolonged his stay there. For the present he had no need of a more private dwelling; he could not see more than a few days ahead; his next decisive step was as uncertain as it had been during the first few months after his coming back from the East.

Meantime, he led a sufficiently agreeable life. The Brissendens were not in town, but his growing intimacy with that family had extended his social outlook, and in a direction correspondent with the change in his own circumstances. He was making friends in the world with which he had a natural affinity; that of wealthy and cultured people who seek no prominence, who shrink from contact with the circles known as 'smart,' who possess their souls in quiet freedom. It is a small class, especially distinguished by the charm of its women. Everard had not adapted himself without difficulty to this new atmosphere; from the first he recognized its soothing and bracing quality, but his experiences had accustomed him to an air more rudely vigorous; it was only after those weeks spent abroad in frequent intercourse with the Brissendens that he came to understand the full extent of his sympathy with the social principles these men and women represented.

In the houses where his welcome was now assured he met some three of four women among whom it would have been difficult to assign the precedence for grace of manner and of mind. These persons were not in declared revolt against the order of things, religious, ethical, or social; that is to say, they did not think it worthwhile to identify themselves with any 'movement'; they were content with the unopposed right of liberal criticism. They lived placidly; refraining from much that the larger world enjoined, but never aggressive. Everard admired them with increasing fervour. With one exception they were married, and suitably married; that member of the charming group who kept her maiden freedom was Agnes Brissenden, and it seemed to Barfoot that, if preference were at all justified, Agnes should receive the palm. His view of her had greatly changed since the early days of their acquaintance; in fact, he perceived that till of late he had not known her at all. His quick assumption that Agnes was at his disposal if he chose to woo her had been mere fatuity; he misread her perfect simplicity of demeanour, the unconstraint of her intellectual sympathies. What might now be her personal attitude to him he felt altogether uncertain, and the result was a genuine humility such as he had never known. Nor was it Agnes only that subdued his masculine self-assertiveness; her sisters in grace had scarcely less dominion over him; and at times, as he sat conversing in one of these drawing-rooms, he broke off to marvel at himself, to appreciate the perfection of his own suavity, the vast advance he had been making in polished humanism.

Towards the end of November he learnt that the Brissendens were at their town house, and a week later he received an invitation to dine with them.

Over his luncheon at the hotel Everard reflected with some gravity, for, if he were not mistaken, the hour had come when he must make up his mind on a point too long in suspense. What was Rhoda Nunn doing? He had heard nothing whatever of her. His cousin Mary wrote to him, whilst he was at Ostend, in a kind and friendly tone, informing him that his simple assurance with regard to a certain disagreeable matter was all she had desired, and hoping that he would come and see her as usual when he found himself in London. But he had kept away from the house in Queen's Road, and it was probable that Mary did not even know his address. As the result of meditation he went to his sitting-room, and with an air of reluctance sat down to write a letter. It was a request that Mary would let him see her somewhere or other--not at her house. Couldn't they have a talk at the place in Great Portland Street, when no one else was there?

Miss Barfoot answered with brief assent. If he liked to come to Great Portland Street at three o'clock on Saturday she would be awaiting him.

On arriving, he inspected the rooms with curiosity.

'I have often wished to come here, Mary. Show me over the premises, will you?'

'That was your purpose--?'

'No, not altogether. But you know how your work interests me.'

Mary compiled, and freely answered his various questions. Then they sat down on hard chairs by the fire, and Everard, leaning forward as if to warm his hands, lost no more time in coming to the point.

'I want to hear about Miss Nunn.'

'To hear about her? Pray, what do you wish to hear?'

'Is she well?'

'Very well indeed.'

'I'm very glad of that. Does she ever speak of me?'

'Let me see--I don't think she has referred to you lately.'

Everard looked up.

'Don't let us play a comedy, Mary. I want to talk very seriously. Shall I tell you what happened when I went to Seascale?'

'Ah, you went to Seascale, did you?'

'Didn't you know that?' he asked, unable to decide the question from his cousin's face, which was quite friendly, but inscrutable.

'You went when Miss Nunn was there?'

'Of course. You must have known I was going, when I asked you for her Seascale address.'

'And what did happen? I shall be glad to hear--if you feel at liberty to tell me.'

After a pause, Everard began the narrative. But he did not see fit to give it with all the detail which Mary had learnt from her friend. He spoke of the excursion to Wastwater, and of the subsequent meeting on the shore.

'The end of it was that Miss Nunn consented to marry me.'

'She consented?'

'That comes as a surprise?'

'Please go on.'

'Well, we arranged everything. Rhoda was to stay till the fifteen days were over, and the marriage would have been there. But then arrived your letter, and we quarrelled about it. I wasn't disposed to beg and pray for justice. I told Rhoda that her wish for evidence was an insult, that I would take no step to understand Mrs. Widdowson's behaviour. Rhoda was illogical, I think. She did not refuse to take my word, but she wouldn't marry me until the thing was cleared up. I told her that she must investigate it for herself, and so we parted in no very good temper.'

Miss Barfoot smiled and mused. Her duty, she now felt convinced, was to abstain from any sort of meddling. These two people must settle their affairs as they chose. To interfere was to incur an enormous responsibility. For what she had already done in that way Mary reproved herself.

'Now I want to ask you a plain question,' Everard resumed. 'That letter you wrote to me at Ostend--did it represent Rhoda's mind as well as your own?'

'It's quite impossible for me to say. I didn't know Rhoda's mind.'

'Well, perhaps that is a satisfactory answer. It implies, no doubt, that she was still resolved not to concede the point on which I insisted. But since then? Has she come to a decision?'

It was necessary to prevaricate. Mary knew of the interview between Miss Nunn and Mrs. Widdowson, knew its result; but she would not hint at this.

'I have no means of judging how she regards you, Everard.'

'It is possible she even thinks me a liar?'

'I understood you to say that she never refused to believe you.'

He made a movement of impatience.

'Plainly--you will tell me nothing?'

'I have nothing to tell.'

'Then I suppose I must see Rhoda. Perhaps she will refuse to admit me?'

'I can't say. But if she does her meaning would be unmistakable.'

'Cousin Mary'--he looked at her and laughed--'I think you will be very glad if she _does refuse.'

She seemed about to reply with some pleasantry, but checked herself, and spoke in a serious voice.

'No. I have no such feeling. Whatever you both agree upon will satisfy me. So come by all means if you wish. I can have nothing to do with it. You had better write and ask her if she will see you, I should think.'

Barfoot rose from his seat, and Mary was glad to be released so quickly from a disagreeable situation. For her own part she had no need to put indiscreet questions; Everard's manner acquainted her quite sufficiently with what was going on in his thoughts. However, he had still something to say.

'You think I have behaved rather badly--let us say, harshly?'

'I am not so foolish as to form any judgment in such a case, cousin Everard.'

'Speaking as a woman, should you say that Rhoda had reason on her side--in the first instance?'

'I think,' Mary replied, with reluctance, but deliberately, 'that she was not unreasonable in wishing to postpone her marriage until she knew what was to be the result of Mrs. Widdowson's indiscreet behaviour.'

'Well, perhaps she was not,' Everard admitted thoughtfully.

'And what _has been the result?'

'I only know that Mrs. Widdowson has left London and gone to live at a house her husband has taken somewhere in the country.'

'I'm relieved to hear that. By-the-bye, the little lady's "indiscreet behaviour" is as much a mystery to me as ever.'

'And to me,' Mary replied with an air of indifference.

'Well, then, let us take it for granted that I was rather harsh with Rhoda. But suppose she still meets me with the remark that things are just as they were--that nothing has been explained?'

'I can't discuss your relations with Miss Nunn.'

'However, you defend her original action. Be so good as to admit that I can't go to Mrs. Widdowson and request her to publish a statement that I have never--'

'I shall admit nothing,' interrupted Miss Barfoot rather tartily. 'I have advised you to see Miss Nunn--if she is willing. And there's nothing more to be said.'

'Good. I will write to her.'

* * *

He did so, in the fewest possible words, and received an answer of equal brevity. In accordance with permission granted, on the Monday evening he found himself once more in his cousin's drawing-room, sitting alone, waiting Miss Nunn's appearance. He wondered how she would present herself, in what costume. Her garb proved to be a plain dress of blue serge, certainly not calculated for effect; but his eye at once distinguished the fact that she had arranged her hair as she wore it when he first knew her, a fashion subsequently abandoned for one that he thought more becoming.

They shook hands. Externally Barfoot was the more agitated, and his embarrassment appeared in the awkward words with which he began.

'I had made up my mind never to come until you let me know that I was tried and acquitted But after all it is better to have reason on one's side.'

'Much better,' replied Rhoda, with a smile which emphasized her ambiguity.

She sat down, and he followed her example. Their relative positions called to mind many a conversation they had held in this room. Barfoot--he wore evening-dress--settled in the comfortable chair as though he were an ordinary guest.

'I suppose you would never have written to me?'

'Never,' she answered quietly.

'Because you are too proud, or because the mystery is still a mystery?'

'There is no longer any mystery.'

Everard made a movement of surprise.

'Indeed? You have discovered what it all meant?'

'Yes, I know what it all meant.'

'Can you gratify my not unnatural curiosity?'

'I can say nothing about it, except that I know how the misunderstanding arose.'

Rhoda was betraying the effort it had cost her to seem so self- possessed when she entered. Her colour had deepened, and she spoke hurriedly, unevenly.

'And it didn't occur to you that it would be a kindness, not inconsistent with your dignity, to make me in some way acquainted with this fact?'

'I feel no uneasiness on your account.'

Everard laughed.

'Splendidly frank, as of old. You really didn't care in the least how much I suffered?'

'You misunderstand me. I felt sure that you didn't suffer at all.'

'Ah, I see. You imagined me calm in the assurance that I should some day be justified.'

'I had every reason for imagining it,' rejoined Rhoda. 'Other wise, you would have given some sign.'

Of course he had deeply offended her by his persistent silence. He had intended to do so first of all; and afterwards--had thought it might be as well. Now that he had got over the difficulty of the meeting he enjoyed his sense of security. How the interview would end he know not; but on his side there would be nothing hasty, unconsidered, merely emotional. Had Rhoda any new revelation of personality within her resources?--that was the question. If so, he would be pleased to observe it. If not--why, it was only the end to which he had long ago looked forward.

'It was not for me to give any sign,' he remarked.

'Yet you have said that it is well to have reason on one's side.'

Perhaps a softer note allowed itself to be detected in these words. In any case, they were not plainly ironical.

'Admit, then, that an approach was due from me. I have made it. I am here.'

Rhoda said nothing. Yet she had not an air of expectancy. Her eye was grave, rather sad, as though for the moment she had forgotten what was at issue, and had lost herself in remoter thought. Regarding her, Everard felt a nobility in her countenance which amply justified all he had ever felt and said. But was there anything more--any new power?

'So we go back,' he pursued, 'to our day at Wastwater. The perfect day--wasn't it?'

'I shall never wish to forget it,' said Rhoda reflectively.

'And we stand as when we quitted each other that night--do we?'

She glanced at him.

'I think not.'

'Then what is the difference?'

He waited some seconds, and repeated the question before Rhoda answered.

'You are conscious of no difference?' she said.

'Months have lapsed. We are different because we are older. But you speak as if you were conscious of some greater change.'

'Yes, you are changed noticeably. I thought I knew you; perhaps I did. Now I should have to learn you all over again. It is difficult, you see, for me to keep pace with you. Your opportunities are so much wider.'

This was puzzling. Did it signify mere jealousy, or a profounder view of things? Her voice had something even of pathos, as though she uttered a simple thought, without caustic intention.

'I try not to waste my life,' he answered seriously. 'I have made new acquaintances.'

'Will you tell me about them?'

'Tell me first about yourself. You say you would never have written to me. That means, I think, that you never loved me. When you found that I had been wrongly suspected--and you suspected me yourself, say what you will--if you had loved me, you would have asked forgiveness.'

'I have a like reason for doubting _your love. If you had loved me you could never have waited so long without trying to remove the obstacle that was between us.'

'It was you who put the obstacle there,' said Everard, smiling.

'No. An unlucky chance did that. Or a lucky one. Who knows?'

He began to think: If this woman had enjoyed the social advantages to which Agnes Brissenden and those others were doubtless indebted for so much of their charm, would she not have been their equal, or more? For the first time he compassionated Rhoda. She was brave, and circumstances had not been kind to her. At this moment, was she not contending with herself? Was not her honesty, her dignity, struggling against the impulses of her heart? Rhoda's love had been worth more than his, and it would be her one love in life. A fatuous reflection, perhaps; yet every moment's observation seemed to confirm it.

'Well, now,' he said, 'there's the question which we must decide. If you incline to think that the chance was fortunate--'

She would not speak.

'We must know each other's mind.'

'Ah, that is so difficult!' Rhoda murmured, just raising her hand and letting it fall.

'Yes, unless we give each other help. Let us imagine ourselves back at Seascale, down by the waves. (How cold and grim it must be there to-night!) I repeat what I said then: Rhoda, will you marry me?'

She looked fixedly at him.

'You didn't say that then.'

'What do the words matter?'

'That was not what you said.'

He watched the agitation of her features, until his gaze seemed to compel her to move. She stepped towards the fireplace, and moved a little screen that stood too near the fender.

'Why do you want me to repeat exactly what I said?' Everard asked, rising and following her.

'You speak of the "perfect day." Didn't the day's perfection end before there was any word of marriage?'

He looked at her with surprise. She had spoken without turning her face towards him; it was visible now only by the glow of the fire. Yes, what she said was true, but a truth which he had neither expected nor desired to hear. Had the new revelation prepared itself?

'Who first used the word, Rhoda?'

'Yes; I did.'

There was silence. Rhoda stood unmoving, the fire's glow upon her face, and Barfoot watched her.

'Perhaps,' he said at length, 'I was not quite serious when I--'

She turned sharply upon him, a flash of indignation in her eyes.

'Not quite serious? Yes, I have thought that. And were you quite serious in _anything you said?'

'I loved you,' he answered curtly, answering her steady look.

'Yet wanted to see whether--'

She could not finish the sentence; her throat quivered.

'I loved you, that's all. And I believe I still love you.'

Rhoda turned to the fire again.

'Will you marry me?' he asked, moving a step nearer.

'I think you are "not quite serious".'

'I have asked you twice. I ask for the third time.'

'I won't marry you with the forms of marriage,' Rhoda answered in an abrupt, harsh tone.

'Now it is you who play with a serious matter.'

'You said we had both changed. I see now that our "perfect day" was marred by my weakness at the end. If you wish to go back in imagination to that summer night, restore everything, only let _me be what I now am.'

Everard shook his head.

'Impossible. It must be then or now for both of us.'

'Legal marriage,' she said, glancing at him, 'has acquired some new sanction for you since then?'

'On the whole, perhaps it has.'

'Naturally. But I shall never marry, so we will speak no more of it.'

As if finally dismissing the subject she walked to the opposite side of the hearth, and there turned towards her companion with a cold smile.

'In other words, then, you have ceased to love me?'

'Yes, I no longer love you.'

'Yet, if I had been willing to revive that fantastic idealism--as you thought it--'

She interrupted him sternly.

'What _was it?'

'Oh, a kind of idealism undoubtedly. I was so bent on making sure that you loved me.'

She laughed.

'After all, the perfection of our day was half make-believe. You never loved me with entire sincerity. And you will never love any woman--even as well as you loved me.'

'Upon my soul, I believe it, Rhoda. And even now--'

'And even now it is just possible for us to say goodbye with so mething like friendliness. But not if you talk longer. Don't let us spoil it; things are so straight--and clear--'

A threatened sob made her break off, but she recovered herself and offered him her hand.

* * *

He walked all the way back to his hotel, and the cold, clammy night restored his equanimity. A fortnight later, sending a Christmas present, with greetings, to Mr. and Mrs. Micklethwaite, he wrote thus--

'I am about to do my duty--as you put it--that is, to marry. The name of my future wife is Miss Agnes Brissenden. It will be in March, I think. But I shall see you before then, and give you a fuller account of myself.'

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