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- The Odd Women - 20/90 -
people about you! I hated every face of man or woman that passed along the street.'
'I didn't like the society.'
'I should hope not. Of course, I know you didn't. Why did you ever come to such a place?'
There was severity rather than sympathy in his look.
'I was tired of the dull country life,' Monica replied frankly. 'And then I didn't know what the shops and the people were like.'
'Do you need a life of excitement?' he asked, with a sidelong glance.
'Excitement? No, but one must have change.'
When they reached Herne Hill, Widdowson became silent, and presently he allowed the horse to walk.
'That is my house, Miss Madden--the right-hand one.
Monica looked, and saw two little villas, built together with stone facings, porches at the doors and ornamented gables.
'I only wanted to show it you,' he added quickly. 'There's nothing pretty or noticeable about it, and it isn't at all grandly furnished. My old housekeeper and one servant manage to keep it in order.'
They passed, and Monica did not allow herself to look back.
'I think it's a nice house,' she said presently.
'All my life I have wished to have a house of my own, but I didn't dare to hope I ever should. Men in general don't seem to care so long as they have lodgings that suit them--I mean unmarried men. But I always wanted to live alone--without strangers, that is to say. I told you that I am not very sociable. When I got my house, I was like a child with a toy; I couldn't sleep for satisfaction. I used to walk all over it, day after day, before it was furnished. There was something that delighted me in the sound of my footsteps on the staircases and the bare floors. Here I shall live and die, I kept saying to myself. Not in solitude, I hoped. Perhaps I might meet some one--'
Monica interrupted him to ask a question about some object in the landscape. He answered her very briefly, and for a long time neither spoke. Then the girl, glancing at him with a smile of apology, said in a gentle tone--
'You were telling me how the house pleased you. Have you still the same pleasure in living there?'
'Yes. But lately I have been hoping--I daren't say more. You will interrupt me again.'
'Which way are we going now, Mr. Widdowson?'
'To Streatham, then on to Carshalton. At five o'clock we will use our right as travellers, and get some innkeeper to make tea for us. Look, the sun is trying to break through; we shall have a fine evening yet. May I, without rudeness, say that you look better since you left that abominable place.'
'Oh, I feel better.'
After keeping his look fixed for a long time on the horse's ears, Widdowson turned gravely to his companion.
'I told you about my sister-in-law. Would you be willing to make her acquaintance?'
'I don't feel able to do that, Mr. Widdowson,' Monica answered with decision.
Prepared for this reply, he began a long and urgent persuasion. It was useless; Monica listened quietly, but without sign of yielding. The subject dropped, and they talked of indifferent things.
On the homeward drive, when the dull sky grew dusk about them, and the suburban street-lamps began to show themselves in long glimmering lines, Widdowson returned with shamefaced courage to the subject which for some hours had been in abeyance.
'I can't part from you this evening without a word of hope to remember. You know that I want you to be my wife. Will you tell me if there is anything I can say or do to make your consent possible? Have you any doubt of me?'
'No doubt whatever of your sincerity.'
'In one sense, I am still a stranger to you. Will you give me the Opportunity of making things between us more regular? Will you allow me to meet some friend of yours whom you trust?'
'I had rather you didn't yet.'
'You wish to know still more of me, personally?'
'Yes--I think I must know you much better before I can consent to any step of that kind.'
'But,' he urged, 'if we became acquaintances in the ordinary way, and knew each other's friends, wouldn't that be most satisfactory to you?'
'It might be. But you forget that so much would have to be explained. I have behaved very strangely. If I told everything to my friends I should leave myself no choice.'
'Oh, why not? You would be absolutely free. I could no more than try to recommend myself to you. If I am so unhappy as to fail, how would you be anything but quite free?'
'But surely you must understand me. In this position, I must either not speak of you at all, or make it known that I am engaged to you. I can't have it taken for granted that I am engaged to you when I don't wish to be.'
Widdowson's head drooped; he set his lips in a hard gloomy expression.
'I have behaved very imprudently,' continued the girl. But I don't see--I can't see--what else I could have done. Things are so badly arranged. It wasn't possible for us to be introduced by any one who knew us both, so I had either to break off your acquaintance after that first conversation, or conduct myself as I have been doing. I think it's a very hard position. My sisters would call me an immodest girl, but I don't think it is true. I may perhaps come to feel you as a girl ought to when she marries, and how else can I tell unless I meet you and talk with you? And your position is just the same. I don't blame you for a moment; I think it would be ridiculous to blame you. Yet we have gone against the ordinary rule, and people would make us suffer for it--or me, at all events.
Her voice at the close was uncertain. Widdowson looked at her with eyes of passionate admiration.
'Thank you for saying that--for putting it so well, and so kindly for me. Let us disregard people, then. Let us go on seeing each other. I love you with all my soul'--he choked a little at this first utterance of the solemn word--'and your rules shall be mine. Give me a chance of winning you. Tell me if I offend you in anything--if there's anything you dislike in me.'
'Will you cease coming to look for me when I don't know of it?'
'I promise you. I will never come again. And you will meet me a little oftener?'
'I will see you once every week. But I must still be perfectly free.'
'Perfectly! I will only try to win you as any man may who loves a woman.'
The tired horse clattered upon the hard highway and clouds gathered for a night of storm.
As Miss Barfoot's eye fell on the letters brought to her at breakfast-time, she uttered an exclamation, doubtful in its significance. Rhoda Nunn, who rarely had a letter from any one, looked up inquiringly.
'I am greatly mistaken if that isn't my cousin Everard's writing. I thought so. He is in London.'
Rhoda made no remark.
'Pray read it,' said the other, handing her friend the epistle after she had gone through it.
The handwriting was remarkably bold, but careful. Punctuation was strictly attended to, and in places a word had been obliterated with a circular scrawl which left it still legible.
'DEAR COUSIN MARY,--I hear that you are still active in an original way, and that civilization is more and more indebted to you. Since my arrival in London a few weeks ago, I have several times been on the point of calling at your house, but scruples withheld me. Our last interview was not quite friendly on your side, you will remember, and perhaps your failure to write to me means continued displeasure; in that case I might be rejected at your door, which I shouldn't like, for I am troubled with a foolish sense of personal dignity. I have taken a flat, and mean to stay in London for at least half a year. Please let me know whether I may see you. Indeed I should like to. Nature meant us for good friends, but
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