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- The Odd Women - 50/90 -
strange, unreasoning assurance of it. Perhaps the obstinacy of his temper supplied him with that confident expectation. He no longer cared on what terms he obtained her--legal marriage or free union--it was indifferent to him. But her life should be linked with his if fierce energy of will meant anything.
Miss Barfoot arrived at half-past eleven, after many delays on her journey. She was pierced with cold, choked with the poisonous air, and had derived very little satisfaction from her visit to Faversham.
'What happened?' was her first question, as Rhoda came out into the hall with sympathy and solicitude. 'Did the fog keep our guest away?'
'No; he dined here.'
'It was just as well. You haven't been lonely.'
They spoke no more on the subject until Miss Barfoot recovered from her discomfort, and was enjoying a much needed supper.
'Did he offer to go away?'
'It was really impossible. It took him more than half an hour to get here from Sloane Square.'
'Foolish fellow! Why didn't he take a train back at once?'
There was a peculiar brightness in Rhoda's countenance, and Miss Barfoot had observed it from the first.
'Did you quarrel much?'
'Not more than was to be expected.'
'He didn't think of staying for my return?'
'He left about ten o'clock.'
'Of course. Quite late enough, under the circumstances. It was very unfortunate, but I don't suppose Everard cared much. He would enjoy the opportunity of teasing you.'
A glance told her that Everard was not alone in his enjoyment of the evening. Rhoda led the talk into other channels, but Miss Barfoot continued to reflect on what she had perceived.
A few evenings after, when Miss Barfoot had been sitting alone for an hour or two, Rhoda came to the library and took a place near her. The elder woman glanced up from her book, and saw that her friend had something special to say.
'What is it, dear?'
'I am going to tax your good-nature, to ask you about unpleasant things.'
Miss Barfoot knew immediately what this meant. She professed readiness to answer, but had an uneasy look.
'Will you tell me in plain terms what it was that your cousin did when he disgraced himself?'
'Must you really know?'
'I wish to know.'
There was a pause. Miss Barfoot kept her eyes on the page open before her.
'Then I shall take the liberty of an old friend, Rhoda. Why do you wish to know?'
'Mr. Barfoot,' answered the other dryly, 'has been good enough to say that he is in love with me.'
Their eyes met.
'I suspected it. I felt sure it was coming. He asked you to marry him?'
'No, he didn't,' replied Rhoda in purposely ambiguous phrase.
'You wouldn't allow him to?'
'At all events, it didn't come to that. I should be glad if you would let me know what I asked.'
Miss Barfoot deliberated, but finally told the story of Amy Drake. Her hands supporting one knee, her head bent, Rhoda listened without comment, and, to judge from her features, without any emotion of any kind.
'That,' said her friend at the close, 'is the story as it was understood at the time--disgraceful to him in every particular. He knew what was said of him, and offered not a word of contradiction. But not very long ago he asked me one evening if you had been informed of this scandal. I told him that you knew he had done something which I thought very base. Everard was hurt, and thereupon he declared that neither I nor any other of his acquaintances knew the truth--that he had been maligned. He refused to say more, and what am I to believe?'
Rhoda was listening with livelier attention.
'He declared that he wasn't to blame?'
'I suppose he meant that. But it is difficult to see--'
'Of course the truth can never be known,' said Rhoda, with sudden indifference. 'And it doesn't matter. Thank you for satisfying my curiosity.'
Miss Barfoot waited a moment, then laughed.
'Some day, Rhoda, you shall satisfy mine.'
'Yes--if we live long enough.'
What degree of blame might have attached to Barfoot, Rhoda did not care to ask herself; she thought no more of the story. Of course there must have been other such incidents in his career; morally he was neither better nor worse than men in general. She viewed with contempt the women who furnished such opportunities; in her judgment of the male offenders she was more lenient, more philosophical, than formerly.
She had gained her wish, had enjoyed her triumph. A raising of the finger and Everard Barfoot would marry her. Assured of that, she felt a new contentment in life; at times when she was occupied with things as far as possible from this experience, a rush of joy would suddenly fill her heart, and make her cheek glow. She moved among people with a conscious dignity quite unlike that which had only satisfied her need of distinction. She spoke more softly, exercised more patience, smiled where she had been wont to scoff. Miss Nunn was altogether a more amiable person.
Yet, she convinced herself, essentially quite unchanged. She pursued the aim of her life with less bitterness, in a larger spirit, that was all. But pursued it, and without fear of being diverted from the generous path.
Throughout January, Barfoot was endeavouring to persuade his brother Tom to leave London, where the invalid's health perceptibly grew worse. Doctors were urgent to the same end, but ineffectually; for Mrs. Thomas, though she professed to be amazed at her husband's folly in remaining where he could not hope for recovery, herself refused to accompany him any whither. This pair had no children. The lady always spoke of herself as a sad sufferer from mysterious infirmities, and had, in fact, a tendency to hysteria, which confused itself inextricably with the results of evil nurture and the impulses of a disposition originally base; nevertheless she made a figure in a certain sphere of vulgar wealth, and even gave opportunity to scandalous tongues. Her husband, whatever his secret thought, would hear nothing against her; his temper, like Everard's, was marked with stubbornness, and after a good deal of wrangling he forbade his brother to address him again on the subject of their disagreement.
'Tom is dying,' wrote Everard, early in February, to his cousin in Queen's Road. 'Dr. Swain assures me that unless he be removed he cannot last more than a month or two. This morning I saw the woman'--it was thus he always referred to his sister-in-law--'and talked to her in what was probably the plainest language she ever had the privilege of hearing. It was a tremendous scene, brought to a close only by her flinging herself on the sofa with shrieks which terrified the whole household. My idea is that we must carry the poor fellow away by force. His infatuation makes me rage and curse, but I am bent on trying to save his life. Will you come and give your help?'
A week later they succeeded in carrying the invalid back to Torquay. Mrs. Barfoot had abandoned him to his doctors, nurses, and angry relatives; she declared herself driven out of the house, and went to live at a fashionable hotel. Everard remained in Devon for more than a month, devoting himself with affection, which the trial of his temper seemed only to increase, to his brother's welfare. Thomas improved a little; once more there was hope. Then on a sudden frantic impulse, after writing fifty letters which elicited no reply, he travelled in pursuit of his wife; and three days after his arrival in London he was dead.
By a will, executed at Torquay, he bequeathed to Everard about a quarter of his wealth. All the rest went to Mrs. Barfoot, who had declared herself too ill to attend the funeral, but in a fortnight was sufficiently recovered to visit one of her friends in the country.
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