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

When Professor Fortescue called at the Red House, he found that the blinds, in the drawing-room, were all half down. Hadria held the conversation to the subject of his plans. He knew her well enough to read the meaning of that quiet tone, with a subtle cadence in it, just at the end of a phrase, that went to his heart. To him it testified to an unspeakable regret.

It was difficult to define the change in her manner, but it conveyed to the visitor the impression that she had lost belief in herself, or in some one; that she had received a severe shock, and knew no longer what to trust or how to steer. She seemed to speak across some vast spiritual distance, an effect not produced by reserve or coldness, but by a wistful, acquiescent, subdued quality, expressive of uncertainty, of disorder in her conceptions of things.

“How tempting those two easy-chairs look, under the old tree on your lawn,” said the Professor. “Wouldn’t it be pleasant to go out?”

Hadria hesitated for a second, and then rose. “Certainly; we will have tea there.”

When they were seated under the shade taking their tea, with the canopy of walnut leaves above their heads, the Professor saw that Hadria shewed signs of serious trouble. The haggard lines, the marks of suffering, were not to be hidden in the clear light of the summer afternoon. He insensibly shifted his chair so as not to have to gaze at her when he spoke. That seemed to be a relief to her.

“Valeria is here till the day after to-morrow,” she said. “She has gone for a walk, and has probably forgotten the tea-hour but I hope you will see her.”

“I want to find out what her plans are. It would be pleasant to come across one another abroad. I wish you were coming too.”

“Ah, so do I.”

“I suppose it’s impossible.”

“Absolutely.”

“For the mind, there is no tonic like travel,” he said.

“It must be a sovereign cure for egoism.”

“If anything will cure that disease.” Her face saddened.

“You believe it is quite incurable?”

“If it is constitutional.”

“Don’t you think that sometimes people grow egoistic through having to fight incessantly for existence I mean for individual existence?”

“It certainly is the instinct of moral self-preservation. It corresponds to the raised arm when a blow threatens.”

“One has the choice between egoism and extinction.”

“It almost amounts to that. Perhaps, after long experience and much suffering, the individuality may become secure, and the armour no longer necessary, but this is a bitter process. Most people become extinct, and then congratulate themselves on self-conquest.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Hadria musingly. “How dangerous it is to congratulate oneself on anything! One never is so near to folly as then.”

The Professor threw some crumbs to a chaffinch, which had flown down within a few yards of the tea-table.

“I think you are disposed, at present, to criticise yourself too mercilessly,” he said in a tone that had drawn forth many a confidence. It was not to be resisted.

“No; that would be difficult.”

“Your conscience may accuse you severely, but who of us escapes such accusations? Be a little charitable with yourself, as you would with others. Life, you know, is not such an easy game to play. Beginners must make wrong moves now and then.”

There was a long pause.

“It sounds so mild when you put it like that. But I am not a beginner. I am quite a veteran, yet I am not seasoned. My impulses are more imperious, more blinding than I had the least idea of.” (The words hastened on.) “Life comes and pulls one by the sleeve; stirs, prompts, bewilders, tempts in a thousand ways; emotion rises in whirlwinds and one is confused, and reels and gropes and stumbles, and then some cruel, clear day one awakes to find the print of intoxicated footsteps in the precincts of the sanctuary, and recognises oneself as desecrator.”

The Professor leant forward in his low chair. The chaffinch gave a light chirp, as if to recall him to his duty. Hadria performed it for him. The chaffinch flew off with the booty.

“There is no suffering so horrible as that which involves remorse or self-contempt,” he said, and his voice trembled. “To have to settle down to look upon some part of one’s action, of one’s moral self, with shame or scorn, is almost intolerable.”

“Quite intolerable!”

“We will not extend to ourselves the forbearance due to erring humanity. This puts us too much on a level with the rest is that not often the reason of our harsh self-judgments?”

“Oh, I have no doubt there is something mean and conceited at the bottom of it!” exclaimed Hadria.

There was a step on the lawn behind them.

The Professor sprang up. He went to meet Valeria and they came to the table together, talking. Valeria’s eyes were bright and her manner animated. Yes, she was going abroad. It would be delightful to meet somewhere, if chance favoured them. She thought of Italy. And at that magic name, they fell into reminiscences of former journeyings; they talked of towns and temples and palaces, of art, of sunshine; and Hadria listened silently.

Once, in her girlhood, when she was scarcely sixteen, she had gone with her parents and Algitha for a tour in Italy. It was a short but vivid experience which had tinged her life, leaving a memory and a longing that never died. The movement of travel, the sense of change and richness offered to eye and mind, remained with her always; the vision of a strange, tumultuous, beautiful world; of exquisite Italian cities, of forests and seas; of classic plains and snow-capped mountains; of treasures of art the eternal evidence of man’s aloofness, on one side of him, from the savage element in nature and glimpses of cathedral domes and palace walls; and villages clinging like living things to the hill-sides, or dreaming away their drowsy days in some sunny valley. And then the mystery that every work of man enshrines; the life, the thought, the need that it embodies, and the passionate histories that it hides! It was as if the sum and circumstance of life had mirrored itself in the memory, once and for all. The South lured her with its languor, its colour, its hot sun, and its splendid memories. It was exquisite pleasure and exquisite pain to listen to the anticipations of these two, who were able to wander as they would.

“Siena?” said Valeria with a sigh, “I used to know Siena when I was young and happy. That was where I made the fatal mistake in my life. It is all a thing of the past now. I might have married a good and brilliantly intellectual man, whom I could respect and warmly admire; for whom I had every feeling but the one that we romantic women think so essential, and that people assure us is the first to depart.”

“You regret that you held fast to your own standard?” said Hadria.

“I regret that I could not see the wisdom of taking the good that was offered to me, since I could not have that which I wished. Now I have neither.”

“How do you know you would have found the other good really satisfactory!”

“I believe in the normal,” said Valeria, “having devoted my existence to an experiment of the abnormal.”

“I don’t think what we call the normal is, by any means, so safe as it sounds, for civilized women at any rate,” observed the Professor.

Valeria shook her head, and remained silent. But her face expressed the sad thoughts left unsaid. In youth, it was all very well. One had the whole world before one, life to explore, one’s powers to test. But later on, when all that seemed to promise fades away, when the dreams drift out of sight, and strenuous efforts repeated and repeated, are beaten down by the eternal obstacles; when the heart is wearied by delay, disappointment, infruition, vain toil, then this once intoxicating world becomes a place of desolation to the woman who has rebelled against the common lot. And all the old instincts awake, to haunt and torment; to demand that which reason has learnt to deny or to scorn; to burden their victims with the cruel heritage of the past; to whisper regrets and longings, and sometimes to stir to a conflict and desperation that end in madness.

“I believe I should have been happier, if I had married some commonplace worthy in early life, and been the mother of ten children,” Valeria observed, aloud.

Hadria laughed. “By this time, you or the ten children would have come to some tragic end. I don’t know which I would pity most.”

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to do what other women have done,” cried Valeria.

“A good deal more. But think, Valeria, of ten particular constitutions to grapple with, ten sets of garments to provide, ten series of ailments to combat, ten no, let me see, two hundred and forty teeth to take to the dentist, not to mention characters and consciences in all their developments and phases, rising, on this appalling decimal system of yours, to regions of arithmetic far beyond my range.”

“You exaggerate preposterously!” cried Valeria, half annoyed, although she laughed. She had the instinctive human desire to assert her ability in the direction where of all others it was lacking.

“And think of the uprush of impulse, good and evil; the stirring of the thought, the movements of longing and wonder, and then all the greedy selfishness of youth, with its untamed vigours and its superb hopes. What help does a child get from its parents, in the midst of this tumult, out of which silently, the future man or woman emerges and grows, remember, according to the manner in which the world meets these generous or these baser movements of the soul?”

“You would frighten anyone from parenthood!” cried Valeria, discontentedly.

“Admit at least, that eight, or even seven, would have satisfied you.”

“Well, I don’t mind foregoing the last three or four,” said Valeria. “But seriously, I think that a home and so forth, is the best that life has to offer to us women. It is, perhaps, not asking much, but I believe if one goes further, one fares worse.”

“We all think the toothache would be so much more bearable, if it were only in the other tooth,” said the Professor.

A silence fell upon the three. Their thoughts were evidently busy.

“I feel sorry,” the Professor said at last, “that this should be your testimony. It has always seemed to me ridiculous that a woman could not gratify her domestic sentiments, without being claimed by them, body and soul. But I hoped that our more developed women would show us that they could make a full and useful and interesting life for themselves, even if that particular side of existence were denied them. I thought they might forego it for the sake of other things.”

“Not without regretting it.”

“Yet I have met women who held different opinions.”

“Probably rather inexperienced women,” said Valeria.

“Young women, but

“Ah, young women. What do they know? The element of real horror in a woman’s life does not betray itself, until the moment when the sense of age approaches. Then, and not till then, she knows how much mere superficial and transitory attractions have had to do with making her life liveable and interesting. Then, and not till then, she realizes that she has unconsciously held the position of adventuress in society, getting what she could out of it, by means of personal charm; never resting on established right, for she has none. As a wife, she acquires a sort of reflected right. One must respect her over whom Mr. So-and-So has rights of property. Well, is it not wise to take what one can get the little glory of being the property of Mr. So-and-So? I have scorned this opportunism all my life, and now I regret having scorned it. And I think, if you could get women to be sincere, they would tell you the same tale.”

“And what do you think of the scheme of life, which almost forces upon our finest women, or tempts them to practise, this sort of opportunism?”

“I think it is simply savage,” answered Valeria.

Again a silence fell on the little group. The spoken words seemed to call up a host of words unspoken. There was to Hadria, a personal as well as a general significance in each sentence, that made her listen breathlessly for the next.

“How would you define a good woman?” she asked.

“Precisely as I would define a good man,” replied the Professor.

“Oh, I think we ask more of the woman,” said Valeria.

“We do indeed!” cried Hadria, with a laugh.

“One may find people with a fussy conscience, a nervous fear of wrong-doing, who are without intelligence and imagination, but you never meet the noblest, and serenest, and largest examples of goodness without these attributes,” said the Professor.

“This is not the current view of goodness in women,” said Hadria.

“Naturally. The less intelligence and imagination the better, if our current morality is to hold its own. We want our women to accept its dogmas without question. We tell them how to be good, and if they don’t choose to be good in that way, we call them bad. Nothing could be simpler.”

“I believe,” said Hadria, “that the women who are called good have much to do with the making of those that are called bad. The two kinds are substance and shadow. We shall never get out of the difficulty till they frankly shake hands, and admit that they are all playing the same game.”

“Oh, they will never do that,” exclaimed Valeria, laughing and shaking her head. “What madness!”

“Why not? The thing is so obvious. They are like the two sides of a piece of embroidery: one all smooth and fair, the other rough and ugly, showing the tag ends and the fastenings. But since the embroidery is insisted on, I can’t see that it is of any moral consequence on which side of the canvas one happens to be.”

“It is chiefly a matter of luck,” said the Professor.

A long shadow fell across Hadria as she spoke, blotting out the little flicker of the sunlight that shone through the stirring leaves. Professor Theobald had crept up softly across the lawn, and as the chairs were turned towards the flower-borders, he had approached unobserved.

Hadria gave so violent a start when she heard his voice, that Professor Fortescue looked at her anxiously. He thought her nerves must be seriously out of order. The feverish manner of her greeting to the new-comer, confirmed his fear. Professor Theobald apologized for intruding. He had given up his intention of going up to town to-day. He meant to put it off till next week. He could not miss Fortescue’s visit. One could not tell when one might see him again.

And Professor Theobald led the conversation airily on; talking fluently, and at times brilliantly, but always with that indefinable touch of something ignoble, something coarse, that now filled Hadria with unspeakable dismay. She was terrified lest the other two should go, and he should remain. And yet she ought to speak frankly to him. His conversation was full of little under-meanings, intended for her only to understand; his look, his manner to her made her actually hate him. Yet she felt the utter inconsequence and injustice of her attitude. He had not changed. There was nothing new in him. The change was in herself. Professor Fortescue had awakened her. But, of course, he was one in ten thousand. It was not fair to make the comparison by which Professor Theobald suffered so pitiably. At that moment, as if Fate had intended to prove to her how badly Professor Theobald really stood comparison with any thoroughly well-bred man, even if infinitely beneath him intellectually, Joseph Fleming happened to call. He was his old self again, simple, friendly, contented. Theobald was in one of his self-satisfied moods. Perhaps he enjoyed the triumph of his position in regard to Hadria. At any rate, he seemed to pounce on the new-comer as a foil to his own brilliancy. Joseph had no talent to oppose to it, but he had a simple dignity, the offspring of a kind and generous nature, which made Professor Theobald’s conduct towards him appear contemptible. Professor Fortescue shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Hadria tried to change the topic; the flush deepening in her cheeks. Professor Fortescue attempted to come to her aid. Joseph Fleming laughed good-naturedly.

They sat late into the evening. Theobald could not find an excuse to outstay his colleague, since they were both guests at the same house.

“I must see you alone some time to-morrow,” he managed to whisper. There was no time for a reply.

“I shall go and rest before dinner,” said Valeria.

Hadria went into the house by the open window of the drawing-room. She sank back on the sofa; a blackness came before her eyes.

“No, no, I won’t, I won’t. Let me learn not to let things overpower me, in future.”

When Valeria entered, dressed for dinner, she found Hadria, deadly pale, standing against the sofa, whose arm she was grasping with both hands, as if for dear life. Valeria rushed forward.

“Good heavens, Hadria! are you going to faint?”

“No,” said Hadria, “I am not going to faint, if there is such a thing as human will.”