The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
A change came at last, when Dolly was ten years old. Among the men of whom Herminia saw most in these later days, were the little group of advanced London socialists who call themselves the Fabians. And among her Fabian friends one of the most active, the most eager, the most individual, was Harvey Kynaston.
He was a younger man by many years than poor Alan had been; about Herminia's own age; a brilliant economist with a future before him. He aimed at the Cabinet. When first he met Herminia he was charmed at one glance by her chastened beauty, her breadth and depth of soul, her transparent sincerity of purpose and action. Those wistful eyes captured him. Before many days passed he had fallen in love with her. But he knew her history; and, taking it for granted she must still be immersed in regret for Alan's loss, he hardly even reckoned the chances of her caring for him.
'Tis a common case. Have you ever noticed that if you meet a woman, famous for her connection with some absorbing grief, some historic tragedy, you are half appalled at first sight to find that at times she can laugh, and make merry, and look gay with the rest of us. Her callous glee shocks you. You mentally expect her to be forever engaged in the tearful contemplation of her own tragic fate; wrapt up in those she has lost, like the mourners in a Pieta. Whenever you have thought of her, you have connected her in your mind with that one fact in her history, which perhaps may have happened a great many years ago. But to you, it is as yesterday. You forget that since then many things have occurred to her. She has lived her life; she has learned to smile; human nature itself cannot feed for years on the continuous contemplation of its own deepest sorrows. It even jars you to find that the widow of a patriotic martyr, a murdered missionary, has her moments of enjoyment, and must wither away without them.
So, just at first, Harvey Kynaston was afraid to let Herminia see how sincerely he admired her. He thought of her rather as one whose life is spent, who can bring to the banquet but the cold dead ashes of a past existence. Gradually, however, as he saw more and more of her, it began to strike him that Herminia was still in all essentials a woman. His own throbbing heart told him so as he sat and talked with her. He thrilled at her approach. Bit by bit the idea rose up in his mind that this lonely soul might still be won. He set to work in earnest to woo and win her.
As for Herminia, many men had paid her attentions already in her unwedded widowhood. Some of them, after the fashion of men, having heard garbled versions of her tragic story, and seeking to gain some base advantage for themselves from their knowledge of her past, strove to assail her crudely. Them, with unerring womanly instinct, she early discerned, and with unerring feminine tact, undeceived and humbled. Others, genuinely attracted by her beauty and her patience, paid real court to her heart; but all these fell far short of her ideal standard. With Harvey Kynaston it was different. She admired him as a thinker; she liked him as a man; and she felt from the first moment that no friend, since Alan died, had stirred her pulse so deeply as he did.
For some months they met often at the Fabian meetings and elsewhere; till at last it became a habit with them to spend their Sunday mornings on some breezy wold in the country together. Herminia was still as free as ever from any shrinking terror as to what "people might say;" as of old, she lived her life for herself and her conscience, not for the opinion of a blind and superstitious majority. On one such August morning, they had taken the train from London to Haslemere, with Dolly of course by their side, and then had strolled up Hind Head by the beautiful footpath which mounts at first through a chestnut copse, and then between heather-clad hills to the summit. At the loneliest turn of the track, where two purple glens divide, Harvey Kynaston seated himself on the soft bed of ling; Herminia sank by his side; and Dolly, after awhile, not understanding their conversation, wandered off by herself a little way afield in search of harebells and spotted orchises. Dolly found her mother's friends were apt to bore her; she preferred the society of the landlady's daughters.
It was a delicious day. Hard by, a slow-worm sunned himself on the basking sand. Blue dragon-flies flashed on gauze wings in the hollows. Harvey Kynaston looked on Herminia's face and saw that she was fair. With an effort he made up his mind to speak at last. In plain and simple words he asked her reverently the same question that Alan had asked her so long ago on the Holmwood.
Herminia's throat flushed a rosy red, and an unwonted sense of pleasure stole over that hard-worked frame as she listened to his words; for indeed she was fond of him. But she answered him at once without a moment's hesitation. "Harvey, I'm glad you ask me, for I like and admire you. But I feel sure beforehand my answer must be no. For I think what you mean is to ask, will I marry you?"
The man gazed at her hard. He spoke low and deferentially. "Yes, Herminia," he replied. "I do mean, will you marry me? I know, of course, how you feel about this matter; I know what you have sacrificed, how deeply you have suffered, for the sake of your principles. And that's just why I plead with you now to ignore them. You have given proof long ago of your devotion to the right. You may surely fall back this second time upon the easier way of ordinary humanity. In theory, Herminia, I accept your point of view; I approve the equal liberty of men and women, politically, socially, personally, ethically. But in practice, I don't want to bring unnecessary trouble on the head of a woman I love; and to live together otherwise than as the law directs does bring unnecessary trouble, as you know too profoundly. That is the only reason why I ask you to marry me. And Herminia, Herminia," he leant forward appealingly, "for the love's sake I bear you, I hope you will consent to it."
His voice was low and tender. Herminia, sick at heart with that long fierce struggle against overwhelming odds, could almost have said yes to him. Her own nature prompted her; she was very, very fond of him. But she paused for a second. Then she answered him gravely.
"Harvey," she said, looking deep into his honest brown eyes, "as we grow middle-aged, and find how impossible it must ever be to achieve any good in a world like this, how sad a fate it is to be born a civilized being in a barbaric community, I'm afraid moral impulse half dies down within us. The passionate aim grows cold; the ardent glow fades and flickers into apathy. I'm ashamed to tell you the truth, it seems such weakness; yet as you ask me this, I think I will tell you. Once upon a time, if you had made such a proposal to me, if you had urged me to be false to my dearest principles, to sin against the light, to deny the truth, I would have flashed forth a no upon you without one moment's hesitation. And now, in my disillusioned middle age what do I feel? Do you know, I almost feel tempted to give way to this Martinmas summer of love, to stultify my past by unsaying and undoing everything. For I love you, Harvey. If I were to give way now, as George Eliot gave way, as almost every woman who once tried to live a free life for her sisters' sake, has given way in the end, I should counteract any little good my example has ever done or may ever do in the world; and Harvey, strange as it sounds, I feel more than half inclined to do it. But I will not, I will not; and I'll tell you why. It's not so much principle that prevents me now. I admit that freely. The torpor of middle age is creeping over my conscience. It's simple regard for personal consistency, and for Dolly's position. How can I go back upon the faith for which I have martyred myself? How can I say to Dolly, 'I wouldn't marry your father in my youth, for honor's sake; but I have consented in middle life to sell my sisters' cause for a man I love, and for the consideration of society; to rehabilitate myself too late with a world I despise by becoming one man's slave, as I swore I never would be.' No, no, dear Harvey; I can't do that. Some sense of personal continuity restrains me still. It is the Nemesis of our youth; we can't go back in our later life on the holier and purer ideals of our girlhood."
"Then you say no definitely?" Harvey Kynaston asked.
Herminia's voice quivered. "I say no definitely," she answered; "unless you can consent to live with me on the terms on which I lived with Dolly's father."
The man hesitated a moment. Then he began to plead hard for reconsideration. But Herminia's mind was made up. She couldn't belie her past; she couldn't be false to the principles for whose sake she had staked and lost everything. "No, no," she said firmly, over and over again. "You must take me my own way, or you must go without me."
And Harvey Kynaston couldn't consent to take her her own way. His faith was too weak, his ambitions were too earthly. "Herminia," he said, before they parted that afternoon, "we may still be friends; still dear friends as ever? This episode need make no difference to a very close companionship?"
"It need make no difference," Herminia answered, with a light touch of her hand. "Harvey, I have far too few friends in the world willingly to give up one of them. Come again and go down with Dolly and me to Hind Head as usual next Sunday."
"Thank you," the man answered. "Herminia, I wish it could have been otherwise. But since I must never have you, I can promise you one thing; I will never marry any other woman."
Herminia started at the words. "Oh, no," she cried quickly. "How can you speak like that? How can you say anything so wrong, so untrue, so foolish? To be celibate is a very great misfortune even for a woman; for a man it is impossible, it is cruel, it is wicked. I endure it myself, for my child's sake, and because I find it hard to discover the help meet for me; or because, when discovered, he refuses to accept me in the only way in which I can bestow myself. But for a man to pretend to live celibate is to cloak hateful wrong under a guise of respectability. I should be unhappy if I thought any man was doing such a vicious thing out of desire to please me. Take some other woman on free terms if you can; but if you cannot, it is better you should marry than be a party to still deeper and more loathsome slavery."
And from that day forth they were loyal friends, no more, one to the other.