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- The Odd Women - 60/90 -

she heard a murmur from her companion's lips; he was speaking still, but in a voice only just audible.

'Come on Friday afternoon about four o'clock.'

Her heart began to throb painfully, and she knew that a treacherous colour had risen to her checks.

'Do come--once more--for the last time. It shall be just as before--just as before. An hour's talk, and we will say good-bye to each other.'

She was powerless to breathe a word. Bevis, noticing that Mrs. Cosgrove had thrown a look in their direction, suddenly laughed as if at some jest between them, and resumed his lively strain of talk. Monica also laughed. An interval of make-believe, and again the soft murmur fell upon her ear.

'I shall expect you. I know you won't refuse me this one last kindness. Some day,' his voice was all but extinguished, 'some day--who knows?'

Dreadful hope struck through her. A stranger's eyes turned their way, and again she laughed.

'On Friday, at four. I shall expect you.'

She rose, looked for an instant about the room, then offered him her hand, uttering some commonplace word of leave-taking. Their eyes did not meet. She went up to Mrs. Cosgrove, and as soon as possible left the house.

Widdowson met her as she crossed the threshold of home. His face told her that something extraordinary had happened, and she trembled before him.

'Back already?' he exclaimed, with a grim smile. 'Be quick, and take your things off, and come to the library.'

If he had discovered anything (the lie, for instance, that she told him a month ago, or that more recent falsehood when she pretended, without serious reason, to have been at Miss Barfoot's lecture), he would not look and speak thus. Hurrying, panting, she made a change of dress, and obeyed his summons.

'Miss Nunn has been here,' were his first words.

She turned pale as death. Of course he observed it; she was now preparing for anything.

'She wanted to see you because she is going away on Monday. What's the matter?'

'Nothing. You spoke so strangely--'

'Did I? And you _look_ very strangely. I don't understand you. Miss Nunn says that everybody has noticed how ill you seem. It's time we did something. To-morrow morning we are going down into Somerset, to Clevedon, to find a house.'

'I thought you had given up that idea.'

'Whether I had or not doesn't matter.'

In the determination to appear, and be, energetic, he spoke with a rough obstinacy, a doggedness that now and then became violence. 'I am decided on it now. There's a train to Bristol at ten-twenty. You will pack just a few things; we shan't be away for more than a day or two.'

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday--By Friday they might be back. Till now, in an anguish of uncertainty, Monica had made up her mind. She would keep the appointment on Friday, come of it what might. If she could not be back in time, she would write a letter.

'Why are you talking in this tone?' she said coldly.

'What tone? I am telling you what I have decided to do, that's all. I shall easily find a house down there, no doubt. Knowing the place, you will be able to suggest the likely localities.'

She sat down, for strength was failing her.

'It's quite true,' Widdowson went on, staring at her with inflamed eyes. 'You are beginning to look like a ghost. Oh, we'll have an end of this!' He cackled in angry laughter. 'Not a day's unnecessary delay! Write to both your sisters this evening and tell them. I wish them both to come and live with us.'

'Very well.'

'Now, won't you be glad? Won't it be better in every way?'

He came so near that she felt his feverish breath.

'I told you before,' she answered, 'to do just as you liked.'

'And you won't talk about being kept a prisoner?'

Monica laughed.

'Oh no, I won't say anything at all.'

She scarcely knew what words fell from her lips. Let him propose, let him do what he liked; to her it was indifferent. She saw something before her--something she durst not, even an hour ago, have steadily contemplated; it drew her with the force of fate.

'You know we couldn't go on living like this--don't you, Monica?'

'No, we couldn't.'

'You see!' He almost shouted in triumph, misled by the smile on her face. 'All that was needed was resolution on my part. I have been absurdly weak, and weakness in the husband means unhappiness in the wife. From today you look to me for guidance. I am no tyrant, but I shall rule you for your own good.'

Still she smiled.

'So there's an end of our misery--isn't it, darling? What misery! Good God, how I have suffered! Haven't you known it?'

'I have known it too well.'

'And now you will make up to me for it, Monica?'

Again prompted by the irresistible force, she answered mechanically,--

'I will do the best for both.'

He threw himself on the ground beside her and clasped her in his arms.

'No, that is my own dear wife once more! Your face has altogether changed. See how right it is that a husband should take the law into his own hands! Our second year of marriage shall be very different from the first. And yet we _were_ happy, weren't we, my beautiful? It's only this cursed London that has come between us. At Clevedon we shall begin our life over again--like we did at Guernsey. All our trouble, I am convinced, has come of your ill-health. This air has never suited you; you have felt miserable, and couldn't be at peace in your home. Poor little girl! My poor darling!'

Through the evening he was in a state of transport, due partly to the belief that Monica really welcomed his decision, partly to the sense of having behaved at length like a resolute man. His eyes were severely bloodshot, and before bedtime headache racked him intolerably.

Everything was carried out as he had planned it. They journeyed down into Somerset, put up at a Clevedon hotel, and began house-hunting. On Wednesday the suitable abode was discovered--a house of modest pretensions, but roomy and well situated. It could be made ready for occupation in a fortnight. Bent on continuing his exhibition of vigorous promptitude, Widdowson signed a lease that same evening.

'To-morrow we will go straight home and make our preparations for removal. When all is ready, you shall come down here and live at the hotel until the house is furnished. Go to your sister Virginia and simply bid her do as you wish. Imitate me!' He laughed fatuously. 'Don't listen to any objection. When you have once got her away she will thank you.'

By Thursday afternoon they were back at Herne Hill. Widdowson still kept up the show of extravagant spirits, but he was worn out. He spoke so hoarsely that one would have thought he had contracted a severe sore throat; it resulted merely from nervous strain. After a pretence of dinner, he seated himself as if to read; glancing at him a few minutes later, Monica found that he was fast asleep.

She could not bear to gaze at him, yet her eyes turned thither again and again. His face was repulsive to her; the deep furrows, the red eyelids, the mottled skin moved her to loathing. And yet she pitied him. His frantic exultation was the cruelest irony. What would he do? What would become of him? She turned away, and presently left the room, for the sound of his uneasy breathing made her suffer too much.

When he woke up, he came in search of her, and laughed over his involuntary nap.

'Well, now, you will go and see your sister to-morrow morning.'

'In the afternoon, I think.'

'Why? Don't let us have any procrastination. The morning, the morning!'

'Please do let me have my way in such a trifle as that,' Monica exclaimed nervously. 'I have all sorts of things to see to here before I can go out.'

He caressed her.

'You shan't say that I am unreasonable. In the afternoon, then. And don't listen to any objections.'

'No, no.'

The Odd Women - 60/90

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