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- The Odd Women - 80/90 -

Monica as she was turning away.

'You wouldn't mind telling me what your married name may be?'

'That really doesn't concern you, Miss Eade,' replied the other stiffly. 'I must go--'

'If you don't tell me, I'll follow you till I find out, and chance it!'

The change from tolerable civility to coarse insolence was so sudden that Monica stood in astonishment. There was unconcealed malignity in the gaze fixed upon her.

'What do you mean? What interest have you in learning my name?'

The girl brought her face near, and snarled in the true voice of the pavement--

'Is it a name as you're ashamed to let out?'

Monica walked away to the bookstall. When she had joined her sister, she became aware that Miss Eade was keeping her in sight.

'Let us buy a book,' she said, 'and go home again. The rain won't stop.'

They selected a cheap volume, and, having their return tickets, moved towards the departure platform. Before she could reach the gates Monica heard Miss Eade's voice just behind her; it had changed again, and the appealing note reminded her of many conversations in Walworth Road.

'Do tell me! I beg your pardon for bein' rude. Don't go without telling me.'

The meaning of this importunity had already flashed upon Monica, and now she felt a slight pity for the tawdry, abandoned creature, in whom there seemed to survive that hopeless passion of old days.

'My name,' she said abruptly, 'is Mrs. Widdowson.'

'Are you telling me the truth?'

'I have told you what you wish to know. I can't talk--'

'And you don't really know nothing about _him_?'

'Nothing whatever.'

Miss Eade moved sullenly away, not more than half convinced. Long after Monica's disappearance she strayed about the platform and the approaches to the station. Her brother was slow in arriving. Once or twice she held casual colloquy with men who also stood waiting-- perchance for their sisters; and ultimately one of these was kind enough to offer her refreshment, which she graciously accepted. Rhoda Nunn would have classed her and mused about her: a not unimportant type of the odd woman.

* * *

After this Monica frequently went out, always accompanied by her sister. It happened more than once that they saw Widdowson, who walked past the house at least every other day; he didn't approach them, and had he done so Monica would have kept an obstinate silence.

For more than a fortnight he had not written to her. At length there came a letter, merely a repetition of his former appeals.

'I hear,' he wrote, 'that your elder sister is coming to London. Why should she live here in lodgings, when a comfortable house is at the disposal of you all? Let me again entreat you to go to Clevedon. The furniture shall be moved any moment you wish. I solemnly promise not to molest you in any way, not even by writing. It shall be understood that business makes it necessary for me to live in London. For your sister's sake do accept this offer. If I could see you in private, I should be able to give you a very good reason why your sister Virginia would benefit by the change; perhaps you yourself know of it. Do answer me, Monica. Never again will I refer by word or look to what has passed. I am anxious only to put an end to the wretched life that you are leading. Do go to the house at Clevedon, I implore you.'

It was not the first time he had hinted darkly at a benefit that might accrue to Virginia if she left London. Monica had no inkling of what he meant. She showed her sister this communication, and asked if she could understand the passage which concerned her.

'I haven't the least idea,' Virginia replied, her hand trembling as she held the paper. 'I can only suppose that he thinks that I am not looking well.'

The letter was burnt, as all the others had been, no answer vouchsafed. Virginia's mind seemed to waver with regard to the proposed settlement at Clevedon. Occasionally she had urged Monica, with extreme persistence, to accept what was offered; at other times, as now, for instance, she said nothing. Yet Alice had written beseeching her to use all means for Monica's persuasion. Miss Madden infinitely preferred the thought of dwelling at Clevedon--however humble the circumstances had been--to that of coming back into London lodgings whilst she sought for a new engagement. The situation she was about to quit had proved more laborious than any in her experience. At first merely a governess, she had gradually become children's nurse as well, and for the past three months had been expected to add the tendance of a chronic invalid to her other duties. Not a day's holiday since she came. She was broken down and utterly woebegone.

But Monica could not be moved. She refused to go again under her husband's roof until he had stated that his charge against her was absolutely unfounded. This concession went beyond Widdowson's power; he would forgive, but still declined to stultify himself by a statement that could have no meaning. To what extent his wife had deceived him might be uncertain, but the deception was a proved fact. Of course it never occurred to him that Monica's demand had a significance which emphasized the name of Barfoot. Had he said, 'I am convinced that your relations with Barfoot were innocent,' he would have seemed to himself to be acquitting her of all criminality; whereas Monica, from her point of view, illogically supposed that he might credit her on this one issue without overthrowing all the evidence that declared her untrustworthy. In short, she expected him to read a riddle which there was scarcely a possibility of his understanding.

Alice was in correspondence with the gloomy husband. She promised him to use every effort to gain Monica's confidence. Perhaps as the eldest sister she might succeed where Virginia had failed. Her faith in Monica's protestations had been much shaken by the item of intelligence which Virginia secretly communicated; she thought it too likely that her unhappy sister saw no refuge from disgrace but in stubborn denial of guilt. And in the undertaking that was before her she had no hope save through the influence of religion--with her a much stronger force than with either of the others.

Her arrival was expected on the last day of September. The evening before, Monica went to bed soon after eight o'clock; for a day or two she had suffered greatly, and at length had allowed a doctor to be called. Whenever her sister retired very early, Virginia also went to her own bedroom, saying that she preferred to sit there.

The room much surpassed in comfort that which she had occupied at Mrs. Conisbee's; it was spacious, and provided with a couple of very soft armchairs. Having locked her door, Virginia made certain preparations which had nothing to do with natural repose. From the cupboard she brought out a little spirit-kettle, and put water to boil. Then from a more private repository were produced a bottle of gin and a sugar-basin, which, together with a tumbler and spoon, found a place on a little table drawn up within reach of the chair where she was going to sit. On the same table lay a novel procured this afternoon from the library. Whilst the water was boiling, Virginia made a slight change of dress, conducive to bodily ease. Finally, having mixed a glass of gin and water--one-third only of the diluent--she sat down with one of her frequent sighs and began to enjoy the evening.

The last, the very last, of such enjoyment; so she assured herself. Alice's presence in the house would render impossible what she had hitherto succeeded in disguising from Monica. Her conscience welcomed the restraint, which was coming none too soon, for her will could no longer be depended upon. If she abstained from strong liquors for three or four days it was now a great triumph; yet worthless, for even in abstaining she knew that the hour of indulgence had only been postponed. A fit of unendurable depression soon drove her to the only resource which had immediate efficacy. The relief, she knew, was another downward step; but presently she would find courage to climb back again up to the sure ground. Save for her trouble on Monica's account the temptation would already have been conquered. And now Alice's arrival made courage a mere necessity.

Her bottle was all but empty; she would finish it to-night, and in the morning, as her custom was, take it back to the grocer's in her little hand-bag. How convenient that this kind of thing could be purchased at the grocer's! In the beginning she had chiefly made use of railway refreshment rooms. Only on rare occasions did she enter a public-house, and always with the bitterest sense of degradation. To sit comfortably at home, the bottle beside her, and a novel on her lap, was an avoidance of the worst shame attaching to this vice; she went to bed, and in the morning--ah, the morning brought its punishment, but she incurred no risk of being detected.

Brandy had first of all been her drink, as is generally the case with women of the educated class. There are so many plausible excuses for taking a drop of brandy. But it cost too much. Whisky she had tried, and did not like. Finally she had recourse to gin, which was palatable and very cheap. The name, debased by such foul associations, still confused her when she uttered it; as a rule, she wrote it down in a list of groceries which she handed over the counter.

To-night she drank her first glass quickly; a consuming thirst was upon her. By half-past eight the second was gently steaming at her elbow. At nine she had mixed the third; it must last a long time, for the bottle was now empty.

The novel entertained her, but she often let her thoughts stray from it; she reflected with exultation that to-night's indulgence was her very last. On the morrow she would be a new woman. Alice and she would devote themselves to their poor sister, and never rest till

The Odd Women - 80/90

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