Read CHAPTER XXI of The Daughters of Danaus , free online book, by Mona Caird, on ReadCentral.com.

Another year had blundered itself away, leaving little trace behind it, in Craddock Dene. The schoolmistress’s grave was greener and her child rosier than of yore. Little Martha had now begun to talk, and promised to be pretty and fair-haired like her mother.

The boys and Algitha had come to spend Saturday and Sunday at the Red House. Hadria hunted out a stupendous card-case (a wedding gift from Mrs. Gordon), erected on her head a majestic bonnet, and announced to the company that she was going for a round of visits.

There was a yell of laughter. Hadria advanced across the lawn with quiet dignity, bearing her card-case as one who takes part in a solemn ceremony.

“Where did you fall in with that casket?” enquired Fred.

“And who was the architect of the cathedral?” asked Ernest.

“This casket, as you call it, was presented to me by Mrs. Gordon. The cathedral I designed myself.”

They all crowded round to examine the structure. There were many derisive comments.

“Gothic,” said Ernest, “pure Gothic.”

“I should have described it as ‘Early Perpendicular,’” objected Fred.

“Don’t display your neglected education; it’s beyond all question Gothic. Look at the steeple and the gargoyles and the handsome vegetation. Ruskin would revel in it!”

“Are you really going about in that thing?” asked Algitha.

Hadria wished to know what was the use of designing a Gothic cathedral if one couldn’t go about in it.

The bonnet was, in truth, a daring caricature of the prevailing fashion, just sufficiently serious in expression to be wearable.

“Well, I never before met a woman who would deliberately flout her neighbours by wearing preposterous millinery!” Ernest exclaimed.

Hadria went her round of calls, and all eyes fixed themselves on her bonnet. Mrs. Allan, who had small opportunity of seeing the fashions, seemed impressed if slightly puzzled by it. Mrs. Jordan evidently thought it “loud.” Mrs. Walker supposed it fashionable, but regretted that this sort of thing was going to be worn this season. She hoped the girls would modify the style in adopting it.

Mrs. Walker had heard that the two Professors had arrived at Craddock Place yesterday afternoon, and the Engletons expected them to make a visit of some weeks. Hadria’s face brightened.

“And so at last we may hope that the Priory will be inhabited,” said the vicar’s wife.

“Of course you know,” she added in the pained voice that she always reserved for anecdotes of local ill-doing, “that Mrs. Fortescue committed suicide there.”

Madame Bertaux, the English wife of a French official, had chanced to call, and Mrs. Walker gave the details of the story for the benefit of the new-comer.

Madame Bertaux was a brisk, clever, good-looking woman, with a profound knowledge of the world and a corresponding contempt for it.

It appeared that the Professor’s wife, whom Madame Bertaux had happened to meet in Paris, was a young, beautiful, and self-willed girl, passionately devoted to her husband. She was piqued at his lack of jealousy, and doubted or pretended to doubt his love for her. In order to put him to the test, she determined to rouse his jealousy by violent and systematic flirtation. This led to an entanglement, and finally, in a fit of reckless anger, to an elopement with a Captain Bolton who was staying at the Priory at the time. Seized with remorse, she had returned home to kill herself. This was the tragedy that had kept the old house for so many years tenantless. Hadria’s music was the only sound that had disturbed its silence, since the day when the dead body of its mistress was found in the drawing-room, which she was supposed to have entered unknown to anyone, by the window that gave on to the terrace.

Valeria Du Prel was able to throw more light on the strange story. She had difficulty in speaking without rancour of the woman who had thrown away the love of such a man. She admitted that the girl was extremely fascinating, and had seemed to Valeria to have the faults of an impetuous rather than of a bad nature. She cherished that singular desire of many strong-willed women, to be ruled and mastered by the man she loved, and she had entirely failed to understand her husband’s attitude towards her. She resented it as a sign of indifference. She was like the Chinese wives, who complain bitterly of a husband’s neglect when he omits to beat them. She taunted the Professor for failing to assert his “rights.”

“Morally, I have no rights, except such as you choose to give me of your own free will,” he replied. “I am not your gaoler.”

“And even that did not penetrate to her better nature till it was too late,” Valeria continued. “But after the mischief was done, that phrase seems to have stung her to torment. Her training had blinded her, as one is blinded in coming out of darkness into a bright light. She was used to narrower hearts and smaller brains. Her last letter a terrible record of the miseries of remorse shews that she recognized at last what sort of a man he was whose heart she had broken. But even in her repentance, she was unable to conquer her egotism. She could not face the horrors of self-accusation; she preferred to kill herself.”

“What a shocking story!” cried Hadria.

“And all the more so because the Professor clings to her memory so faithfully. He blames himself for everything. He ought, he says, to have realized better the influence of her training; he ought to have made her understand that he could not assert what she called his ‘rights’ without insulting her and himself.”

“Whenever one hears anything new about the Professor, it is always something that makes one admire and love him more than ever!” cried Hadria.

Her first meeting with him was in the old Yew Avenue in the Priory garden. He was on his way to call at the Red House. She stood on a patch of grass by a rustic seat commanding the vista of yews, and above them, a wilderness of lilacs and laburnums, in full flower. It looked to her like a pathway that led to some exquisite fairy palace of one’s childhood.

Almost with the first word that the Professor uttered, Hadria felt a sense of relief and hope. The very air seemed to grow lighter, the scent of the swaying flowers sweeter. She always afterwards associated this moment of meeting with the image of that avenue of mourning yews, crowned with the sunlit magnificence of an upper world of blossom.

What had she been thinking of to run so close to despair during these years? A word, a smile, and the dead weight swerved, swung into balance, and life lifted up its head once more. She remembered now, not her limitations, but the good things of her lot; the cruelties that Fate had spared her, the miseries that the ruthless goddess had apportioned to others. But the Professor’s presence did not banish, but rather emphasized, the craving to take part in the enriching of that general life which was so poor and sad. He strengthened her disposition to revolt against the further impoverishment of it, through the starving of her own nature. He would not blame her simply on account of difference from others. She felt sure of that. He would not be shocked if she had not answered to the stimulus of surroundings as faithfully as most women seemed to answer to them. Circumstance had done its usual utmost to excite her instinct to beat down the claims of her other self, but for once, circumstance had failed. It was a solitary failure among a creditable multitude of victories. But if instinct had not responded to the imperious summons, the other self had been suffering the terrors of a siege, and the garrison had grown starved and weakly. What would be the end of it? And the little cynical imp that peeped among her thoughts, as a monkey among forest boughs, gibbered his customary “What matters it? One woman’s destiny is but a small affair. If I were you I would make less fuss about it.” The Professor would understand that she did not wish to make a fuss. He would not be hard upon any human being. He knew that existence was not such an easy affair to manage. She wished that she could tell him everything in her life its struggle, its desperate longing and ambition, its hatred, its love: only he would understand all the contradictions and all the pain. She would not mind his blame, because he would understand, and the blame would be just.

They walked together down the avenue towards the beautiful old Tudor house, which stood on the further side of a broad lawn.

The Professor looked worn and thin. He owned to being very tired of the hurry and struggle of town. He was sick of the conflict of jealousies and ambitions. It seemed so little worth while, this din of voices that would so soon be silenced.

“I starve for the sight of a true and simple face, for the grasp of a brotherly hand.”

You?” exclaimed Hadria.

“There are so few, so very few, where the throng is thick and the battle fierce. It saddens me to see good fellows trampling one another down, growing hard and ungenerous. And then the vulgarity, the irreverence: they are almost identical, I think. One grows very sick and sorry at times amidst the cruelty and the baseness that threaten to destroy one’s courage and one’s hope. I know that human nature has in it a germ of nobility that will save it, in the long run, but meanwhile things seem sadly out of joint.”

“Is that the order of the universe?” asked Hadria.

“No, I think it is rather the disorder of man’s nature,” he replied.

Hadria asked if he would return to tea at the Red House. The Professor said he would like to call and see Hubert, but proposed a rest on the terrace, as it was still early in the afternoon.

“I used to avoid the place,” he said, “but I made a mistake. I have resolved to face the memories: it is better.”

It was the first time that he had ever referred, in Hadria’s presence, to the tragedy of the Priory.

“I have often wished to speak to you about my wife,” he said slowly, as they sat down on the old seat, on the terrace. “I have felt that you would understand the whole sad story, and I hoped that some day you would know it.” He paused and then added, “It has often been a comfort to me to remember that you were in the world, for it made me feel less lonely. I felt in you some new what can I call it? instinct, impulse, inspiration, which ran you straight against all the hardest stone walls that intersect the pathways of this ridiculous old world. And, strange to say, it is the very element in you that sets you at loggerheads with others, that enabled me to understand you.”

Hadria looked bewildered.

“To tell you the truth, I have always wondered why women have never felt as I am sure you feel towards life. You remember that day at Dunaghee when you were so annoyed at my guessing your thoughts. They were unmistakeable to one who shared them. Your sex has always been a riddle to me; there seemed to be something abject in their nature, even among the noblest of them. But you are no riddle. While I think you are the least simple woman I ever met, you are to me the easiest to understand.”

“And yet I remember your telling me the exact contrary,” said Hadria.

“That was before I had caught the connecting thread. Had I been a woman, I believe that life and my place in it would have affected me exactly as it affects you.”

Hadria coloured over cheek and brow. It was so strange, so startling, so delicious to find, for the first time in her life, this intimate sympathy.

“I wish my wife had possessed your friendship,” he said. “I believe you would have saved us.” He passed his hands over his brow, looking round at the closed windows of the drawing-room. “I almost feel as if she were near us now on this old terrace that she loved so. She planted these roses herself how they have grown!” They were white cluster roses and yellow banksias, which had strayed far along the balustrade, clambering among the stone pillars.

“You doubtless know the bare facts of her life, but nothing is so misleading as bare fact. My wife was one of the positive natures, capable of great nobility, but liable to glaring error and sin! She held ideas passionately. She had the old barbaric notion that a husband was a sort of master, and must assert his authority and rights. It was the result of her training. I saw that a great development was before her. I pleased myself with the thought of watching and helping it. She was built on a grand scale. To set her free from prejudice, from her injustice to herself, from her dependence on me; to teach her to breathe deep with those big lungs of hers and think bravely with that capacious brain: that was my dream. I hoped to hear her say to me some day, what I fear no woman has yet been able to say to her husband, ’The day of our marriage was the birthday of my freedom.’”

Hadria drew a long breath. It seemed to overwhelm her that a man, even the Professor, could utter such a sentiment. All the old hereditary instincts of conquest and ownership appeared to be utterly dead in him.

No wonder he had found life a lonely pilgrimage! He lived before his time. His wife had taunted him because he would not treat her as his legal property, or rule her through the claims and opportunities that popular sentiment assigned to him.

When a woman as generous as himself, as just, as gentle-hearted, had appeared on the horizon of the world, the advent of a nobler social order might be hoped for. The two were necessary for the new era.

Then, not only imagination, but cold reason herself grew eloquent with promises.

“It was in there, in the old drawing-room, where we had sat together evening after evening, that they found her dead, the very type of all that is brilliant and exquisite and living. To me she was everything. All my personal happiness was centred in her. I cared for nothing so long as she was in the same world as myself, and I might love her. In the darkness that followed, I was brought face to face with the most terrible problems of human fate. I had troubled myself but little about the question of the survival of the personality after death; I had been pre-occupied with life. Now I realized out of what human longings and what human desperation our religions are built. For one gleam of hope that we should meet again what would I not have given? But it never came. The trend of my thought made all such hopes impossible. I have grown charier of the word ‘impossible’ now. We know so infinitesimally little. I had to learn to live on comfortless. All that was strongly personal in me died. All care about myself went out suddenly, as in other cases I think it goes out slowly, beaten down by the continued buffetings of life. I gave myself to my work, and then a curious decentralizing process took place. I ceased to be the point round which the world revolved, in my own consciousness. We all start our career as pivots, if I am not mistaken. The world span, and I, in my capacity of atomic part, span with it. I mean that this was a continuous, not an occasional state of consciousness. After that came an unexpected peace.”

“You have travelled a long and hard road to find it!” cried Hadria.

“Not a unique fate,” he said with a smile.

“It must be a terrible process that quite kills the personal in one, it is so strong. With me the element is clamorous.”

“It has its part to play.”

“Surely the gods must be jealous of human beings. Why did they destroy the germ of such happiness as you might have had?”

“The stern old law holds for ever; wrong and error have to be expiated.”

The Professor traced the history of his wife’s family, shewing the gradual gathering of Fate to its culmination in the tragedy of her short life. Her father and grandfather had both been men of violent and tyrannical temper, and tradition gave the same character to their forefathers. Eleanor’s mother was one of the meek and saintly women who almost invariably fall to the lot of overbearing men. She had made a virtue of submitting to tyranny, and even to downright cruelty, thus almost repeating the story of her equally meek predecessor, of whose ill-treatment stories were still current in the district.

“When death put an end to their wretchedness, one would suppose that the evil of their lives was worked out and over, but it was not so. The Erinnys were still unsatisfied. My poor wife became the victim of their fury. And every new light that science throws upon human life shews that this must be so. The old Greeks saw that unconscious evil-doing is punished as well as that which is conscious. These poor unselfish women, piling up their own supposed merit, at the expense of the character of their tyrants, laid up a store of misery for their descendant, my unhappy wife. Imagine the sort of training and tradition that she had to contend with; her mother ignorant and supine, her father violent, bigoted, almost brutal. Eleanor’s nature was obscured and distorted by it. Having inherited the finer and stronger qualities of her father’s race, with much of its violence, she was going through a struggle at the time of our marriage: training, native vigour and nobility all embroiled in a desperate civil war. It was too much. There is no doubt as to the ultimate issue, but the struggle killed her. It is a common story: a character militant which meets destruction in the struggle for life. The past evil pursues and throttles the present good.”

“This takes away the last consolation from women who have been forced to submit to evil conditions,” said Hadria.

“It is the truth,” said the Professor. “The Erinnys are no mere fancy of the Greek mind. They are symbols of an awful fact of life that no one can afford to ignore.”

“What insensate fools we all are!” Hadria exclaimed. “I mean women.”

The Professor made no polite objection to the statement.

As they were wending their way towards the Red House, the Professor reminded his companion of the old friendship that had existed between them, ever since Hadria was a little girl. He had always cherished towards her that sentiment of affectionate good-fellowship. She must check him if he seemed to presume upon it, in seeking sympathy or offering it. He watched her career with the deepest interest and anxiety. He always believed that she would give some good gift to the world. And he still believed it. Like the rest of us, she needed sympathy at the right moment.

“We need to feel that there is someone who believes in us, in our good faith, in our good will, one who will not judge according to outward success or failure. Remember,” he said, “that I have that unbounded faith in you. Nothing can move it. Whatever happens and wherever you may be led by the strange chances of life, don’t forget the existence of one old friend, or imagine that anything can shake his friendship or his desire to be of service.”