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- Celibates - 2/57 -
word. I waited and waited to see if she would speak--no, not a word. She sat reading. Occasionally she would look up, stare at the ceiling, and then take a note. I wonder what she put down on that slip of paper? But when I spoke she seemed glad to talk, and she told me about Oxford. It evidently was the pleasantest time of her life. It must have been very curious. There were a hundred girls, and they used to run in and out of each other's rooms, and they had dances; they danced with each other, and never thought about men. She told me she never enjoyed any dances so much as those; and they had a gymnasium, and special clothes to wear there--a sort of bloomer costume. It must have been very jolly. I wish I had gone to Oxford. Girls dancing together, and never thinking about men. How nice!
'At Oxford they say that marriage is not the only mission for women-- that is to say, for some women. They don't despise marriage, but they think that for some women there is another mission. When I spoke to Mrs. Fargus about her marriage, she had to admit that she had written to her college friends to apologise--no, not to apologise, she said, but to explain. She was not ashamed, but she thought she owed them an explanation. Just fancy any of the girls in Sutton being ashamed of being married!'
The darkness was thick with wandering scents, and Mildred's thoughts withered in the heat. She closed her eyes; she lay quite still, but the fever of the night devoured her; the sheet burned like a flame; she opened her eyes, and was soon thinking as eagerly as before.
She thought of the various possibilities that marriage would shut out to her for ever. She reproached herself for having engaged herself to Alfred Stanby, and remembered that Harold had been opposed to the match, and had refused to give his consent until Alfred was in a position to settle five hundred a year upon her. ... Alfred would expect her to keep house for him exactly as she was now keeping house for her brother. Year after year the same thing, seeing Alfred go away in the morning, seeing him come home in the evening. That was how her life would pass. She did not wish to be cruel; she knew that Alfred would suffer terribly if she broke off her engagement, but it would be still more cruel to marry him if she did not think she would make him happy, and the conviction that she would not make him happy pressed heavily upon her. What was she to do? She could not, she dared not, face the life he offered her. It would be selfish of her to do so.
The word 'selfish' suggested a new train of thought to Mildred. She argued that it was not for selfish motives that she desired freedom. If she thought that, she would marry him to-morrow. It was because she did not wish to lead a selfish life that she intended to break off her engagement. She wished to live for something; she wished to accomplish something; what could she do? There was art. She would like to be an artist! She paused, astonished at the possibility. But why not she as well as the other women whom she had met at Mrs. Fargus'? She had met many artists--ladies who had studios--at Mrs. Fargus'.
She had been to their studios and had admired their independence. They had spoken of study in Paris, and of a village near Paris where they went to paint landscape. Each had a room at the inn; they met at meal times, and spent the day in the woods and fields. Mildred had once been fond of drawing, and in the heat of the summer night she wondered if she could do anything worth doing. She knew that she would like to try. She would do anything sooner than settle down with Alfred. Marriage and children were not the only possibilities in woman's life. The girls she knew thought so, but the girls Mrs. Fargus knew didn't think so.
And rolling over in her hot bed she lamented that there was no escape for a girl from marriage. If so, why not Alfred Stanby--he as well as another? But no, she could not settle down to keep house for Alfred for the rest of her life. She asked herself again why she should marry at all--what it was that compelled all girls, rich or poor, it was all the same, to marry and keep house for their husbands. She remembered that she had five hundred a year, and that she would have four thousand a year if her brother died--the distillery was worth that. But money made no difference. There was something in life which forced all girls into marriage, with their will or against their will. Marriage, marriage, always marriage--always the eternal question of sex, as if there was nothing else in the world. But there was much else in life. There was a nobler purpose in life than keeping house for a man. Of that she felt quite sure, and she hoped that she would find a vocation. She must first educate herself, so far she knew, and that was all that was at present necessary for her to know.
'But how hot it is; I shan't be able to go out in the cart to-morrow. ... I wish everything would change, especially the weather. I want to go away. I hate living in a house without another woman. I wish Harold would let me have a companion--a nice elderly lady, but not too elderly--a woman about forty, who could talk; some one like Mrs. Fargus. When mother was alive it was different. She has been dead now three years. How long it seems! ... Poor mother! I wish she were here. I scarcely knew much of father; he went to the city every morning, just as Harold does, by that dreadful ten minutes past nine. It seems to me that I have never heard of anything all my life but that horrible ten minutes past nine and the half-past six from London Bridge. I don't hear so much about the half-past six, but the ten minutes past nine is never out of my head. Father is dead seven years, mother is dead three, and since her death I have kept house for Harold.'
Then as sleep pressed upon her eyelids Mildred's thoughts grew disjointed. ... 'Alfred, I have thought it all over. I cannot marry you. ... Do not reproach me,' she said between dreaming and waking; and as the purple space of sky between the trees grew paler, she heard the first birds. Then dream and reality grew undistinguishable, and listening to the carolling of a thrush she saw a melancholy face, and then a dejected figure pass into the twilight.
'What a fright I am looking! I did not get to sleep till after two o'clock; the heat was something dreadful, and to-day will be hotter still. One doesn't know what to wear.'
She settled the ribbons in her white dress, and looked once again in the glass to see if the soft, almost fluffy, hair, which the least breath disturbed was disarranged. She smoothed it with her short white hand. There was a wistful expression in her brown eyes, a little pathetic won't-you-care-for-me expression which she cultivated, knowing its charm in her somewhat short, rather broad face, which ended in a pointed chin: the nose was slightly tip-tilted, her teeth were white, but too large. Her figure was delicate, and with quick steps she hurried along the passages and down the high staircase. Harold was standing before the fireplace, reading the _Times,_ when she entered.
'You are rather late, Mildred. I am afraid I shall lose the ten minutes past nine.'
'My dear Harold, you have gone up to town for the last ten years by that train, and every day we go through a little scene of fears and doubts; you have never yet missed it, I may safely assume you will not miss it this morning.'
'I'm afraid I shall have to order the cart, and I like to get a walk if possible in the morning.'
'I can walk it in twelve minutes.'
'I shouldn't like to walk it in this broiling sun in fifteen. ... By the way, have you looked at the glass this morning?'
'No; I am tired of looking at it. It never moves from "set fair."'
'It is intolerably hot--can you sleep at night?'
'No; I didn't get to sleep till after two. I lay awake thinking of Mrs. Fargus.'
'I never saw you talk to a woman like that before. I wonder what you see in her. She's very plain. I daresay she's very clever, but she never says anything--at least not to me.'
'She talks fast enough on her own subjects. You didn't try to draw her out. She requires drawing out. ... But it wasn't so much Mrs. Fargus as having a woman in the house. It makes one's life so different; one feels more at ease. I think I ought to have a companion.'
'Have a middle-aged lady here, who would bore me with her conversation all through dinner when I come home from the City tired and worn out!'
'But you don't think that your conversation when you "come home from the City tired and worn out" has no interest whatever for me; that this has turned out a good investment; that the shares have gone up, and will go up again? I should like to know how I am to interest myself in all that. What has it to do with me?'
'What has it to do with you! How do you think that this house and grounds, carriages and horses and servants, glasshouses without end, are paid for? Do I ever grumble about the dressmakers' bills?--and heaven knows they are high enough. I believe all your hats and hosiery are put down to house expenses, but I never grumble. I let you have everything you want--horses, carriages, dresses, servants. You ought to be the happiest girl in the world in this beautiful place.'
'Beautiful place! I hate the place; I hate it--a nasty, gaudy, vulgar place, in a vulgar suburb, where nothing but money-grubbing is thought of from morning, noon, till night; how much percentage can be got out of everything; cut down the salaries of the employees; work everything on the most economic basis; it does not matter what the employees suffer so long as seven per cent. dividend is declared at the end of the year. I hate the place.'
'My dear, dear Mildred, what are you saying? I never heard you talk like this before. Mrs. Fargus has been filling your head with nonsense. I wish I had never asked her to the house; absurd little creature, with her eternal talk about culture, her cropped hair, and her spectacles glimmering. What nonsense she has filled your head with!'
'Mrs. Fargus is a very clever woman. ... I think I should like go to Girton.'
'Go to Girton!'
'Yes, go to Girton. I've never had any proper education. I should like to learn Greek. Living here, cooped up with a man all one's life isn't my idea. I should like to see more of my own sex. Mrs. Fargus told me about the emulation of the class-rooms, about the gymnasium, about the dances the girls had in each other's rooms. She never enjoyed any
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