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- The Odd Women - 10/90 -


'Perhaps so. But there are things you might manage. No doubt your sister told you how I get my living. There's a good deal of employment for women who learn to use a typewriter. Did you ever have piano lessons?'

'No.'

'No more did I, and I was sorry for it when I went to typewriting. The fingers have to be light and supple and quick. Come with me, and I'll show you one of the machines.'

They went to a room downstairs--a bare little room by the library. Here were two Remingtons, and Rhoda patiently explained their use.

'One must practise until one can do fifty words a minute at least. I know one or two people who have reached almost twice that speed. It takes a good six months' work to learn for any profitable use. Miss Barfoot takes pupils.'

Monica, at first very attentive, was growing absent. Her eyes wandered about the room. The other observed her closely, and, it seemed, doubtfully.

'Do you feel any impulse to try for it?'

'I should have to live for six months without earning anything.'

'That is by no means impossible for you, I think?'

'Not really impossible,' Monica replied with hesitation.

Something like dissatisfaction passed over Miss Nunn's face, though she did not allow Monica to see it. Her lips moved in a way that perhaps signified disdain for such timidity. Tolerance was not one of the virtues expressed in her physiognomy.

'Let us go back to the drawing-room and have some tea.'

Monica could not become quite at ease. This energetic woman had little attraction for her. She saw the characteristics which made Virginia enthusiastic, but feared rather than admired them. To put herself in Miss Nunn's hands might possibly result in a worse form of bondage than she suffered at the shop; she would never be able to please such a person, and failure, she imagined, would result in more or less contemptuous dismissal.

Then of a sudden, as it she had divined these thoughts, Rhoda assumed an air of gaiety of frank kindness.

'So it is your birthday? I no longer keep count of mine, and couldn't tell you without a calculation what I am exactly. It doesn't matter, you see. Thirty-one or fifty-one is much the same for a woman who has made up her mind to live alone and work steadily for a definite object. But you are still a young girl, Monica. My best wishes!'

Monica emboldened herself to ask what the object was for which her friend worked.

'How shall I put it?' replied the other, smiling. 'To make women hard-hearted.'

'Hard-hearted? I think I understand.'

'Do you?'

'You mean that you like to see them live unmarried.'

Rhoda laughed merrily.

'You say that almost with resentment.'

'No--indeed--I didn't intend it.'

Monica reddened a little.

'Nothing more natural if you have done. At your age, I should have resented it.'

'But--' the girl hesitated--'don't you approve of any one marrying?'

'Oh, I'm not so severe! But do you know that there are half a million more women than men in this happy country of ours?'

'Half a million!'

Her naive alarm again excited Rhoda to laughter.

'Something like that, they say. So many _odd_ women--no making a pair with them. The pessimists call them useless, lost, futile lives. I, naturally--being one of them myself--take another view. I look upon them as a great reserve. When one woman vanishes in matrimony, the reserve offers a substitute for the world's work. True, they are not all trained yet--far from it. I want to help in that--to train the reserve.'

'But married woman are not idle,' protested Monica earnestly.

'Not all of them. Some cook and rock cradles.'

Again Miss Nunn's mood changed. She laughed the subject away, and abruptly began to talk of old days down in Somerset, of rambles about Cheddar Cliffs, or at Glastonbury, or on the Quantocks. Monica, however, could not listen, and with difficulty commanded her face to a pleasant smile.

'Will you come and see Miss Barfoot?' Rhoda asked, when it had become clear to her that the girl would gladly get away. 'I am only her subordinate, but I know she will wish to be of all the use to you she can.'

Monica expressed her thanks, and promised to act as soon as possible on any invitation that was sent her. She took leave just as the servant announced another caller.

CHAPTER V

THE CASUAL ACQUAINTANCE

At that corner of Battersea Park which is near Albert Bridge there has lain for more than twenty years a curious collection of architectural fragments, chiefly dismembered columns, spread in order upon the ground, and looking like portions of a razed temple. It is the colonnade of old Burlington House, conveyed hither from Piccadilly who knows why, and likely to rest here, the sporting ground for adventurous infants, until its origin is lost in the abyss of time.

It was at this spot that Monica had agreed to meet with her casual acquaintance, Edmund Widdowson, and there, from a distance, she saw his lank, upright, well-dressed figure moving backwards and forwards upon the grass. Even at the last moment Monica doubted whether to approach. Emotional interest in him she had none, and the knowledge of life she had gained in London assured her that in thus encouraging a perfect stranger she was doing a very hazardous thing. But the evening must somehow be spent, and is she went off in another direction it would only be to wander about with an adventurous mind; for her conversation with Miss Nunn had had precisely the opposite effect of that which Rhoda doubtless intended; she felt something of the recklessness which formerly excited her wonder when she remarked it in the other shop-girls. She could no longer be without a male companion, and as she had given her promise to this man--

He had seen her, and was coming forward. Today he carried a walking-stick, and wore gloves; otherwise his appearance was the same as at Richmond. At the distance of a few yards he raised his hat, not very gracefully. Monica did not offer her hand, nor did Widdowson seem to expect it. But he gave proof of an intense pleasure in the meeting; his sallow cheeks grew warm, and in the many wrinkles about his eyes played a singular smile, good-natured but anxious, apprehensive.

'I am so glad you were able to come,' he said in a low voice, bending towards her.

'It has been even finer than last Sunday,' was Monica's rather vague reply, as she glanced at some people who were passing.

'Yes, a wonderful day. But I only left home an hour ago. Shall we walk this way?'

They went along the path by the river. Widdowson exhibited none of the artifices of gallantry practised by men who are in the habit of picking up an acquaintance with shop-girls. His smile did not return; an extreme sobriety characterized his manner and speech; for the most part he kept his eyes on the ground, and when silent he had the look of one who inwardly debates a grave question.

'Have you been into the country?' was one of his first inquiries.

'No. I spent the morning with my sisters, and in the afternoon I had to see a lady in Chelsea.'

'Your sisters are older than yourself?'

'Yes, some years older.'

'Is it long since you went to live apart from them?'

'We have never had a home of our own since I was quite a child.'

And, after a moment's hesitation, she went on to give a brief account of her history. Widdowson listened with the closest attention, his lips twitching now and then, his eyes half closed. But for cheek-bones that were too prominent and nostrils rather too large, he was not ill-featured. No particular force of character declared itself in his countenance, and his mode of speech did not suggest a very active brain. Speculating again about his age, Monica concluded that he must be two or three and forty, in spite of the fact that his grizzled beard argued for a higher figure. He had


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