The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
That night Alan slept little. Even at dinner his hostess, Mrs. Waterton, noticed his preoccupation; and, on the pretext of a headache, he retired early to his own bedroom. His mind was full of Herminia and these strange ideas of hers; how could he listen with a becoming show of interest to Ethel Waterton's aspirations on the grand piano after a gipsy life,--oh, a gipsy life for her!-- when in point of fact she was a most insipid blonde from the cover of a chocolate box? So he went to bed betimes, and there lay long awake, deep wondering to himself how to act about Herminia.
He was really in love with her. That much he acknowledged frankly. More profoundly in love than he had ever conceived it possible he could find himself with any one. Hitherto, he had "considered" this girl or that, mostly on his mother's or sister's recommendation; and after observing her critically for a day or two, as he might have observed a horse or any other intended purchase, he had come to the conclusion "she wouldn't do," and had ceased to entertain her. But with Herminia, he was in love. The potent god had come upon him. That imperious inner monitor which cries aloud to a man, "You must have this girl, because you can't do without her; you must strive to make her happy, because her happiness is more to you now ten thousand fold than your own," that imperious inner monitor had spoken out at last in no uncertain tone to Alan Merrick. He knew for the first time what it is to be in love; in love with a true and beautiful woman, not with his own future convenience and comfort. The keen fresh sense it quickened within him raised him for the moment some levels above himself. For Herminia's sake, he felt, he could do or dare anything.
Nay, more; as Herminia herself had said to him, it was her better, her inner self he was in love with, not the mere statuesque face, the full and faultless figure. He saw how pure, how pellucid, how noble the woman was; treading her own ideal world of high seraphic harmonies. He was in love with her stainless soul; he could not have loved her so well, could not have admired her so profoundly, had she been other than she was, had she shared the common prejudices and preconceptions of women. It was just because she was Herminia that he felt so irresistibly attracted towards her. She drew him like a magnet. What he loved and admired was not so much the fair, frank face itself, as the lofty Cornelia-like spirit behind it.
And yet,--he hesitated.
Could he accept the sacrifice this white soul wished to make for him? Could he aid and abet her in raising up for herself so much undeserved obloquy? Could he help her to become Anathema maranatha among her sister women? Even if she felt brave enough to try the experiment herself for humanity's sake, was it not his duty as a man to protect her from her own sublime and generous impulses? Is it not for that in part that nature makes us virile? We must shield the weaker vessel. He was flattered not a little that this leader among women should have picked him out for herself among the ranks of men as her predestined companion in her chosen task of emancipating her sex. And he was thoroughly sympathetic (as every good man must needs be) with her aims and her method. Yet, still he hesitated. Never before could he have conceived such a problem of the soul, such a moral dilemma possible. It rent heart and brain at once asunder. Instinctively he felt to himself he would be doing wrong should he try in any way to check these splendid and unselfish impulses which led Herminia to offer herself willingly up as a living sacrifice on behalf of her enslaved sisters everywhere. Yet the innate feeling of the man, that 'tis his place to protect and guard the woman, even from her own higher and purer self, intervened to distract him. He couldn't bear to feel he might be instrumental in bringing upon his pure Herminia the tortures that must be in store for her; he couldn't bear to think his name might be coupled with hers in shameful ways, too base for any man to contemplate.
And then, intermixed with these higher motives, came others that he hardly liked to confess to himself where Herminia was concerned, but which nevertheless would obtrude themselves, will he, nill he, upon him. What would other people say about such an innocent union as Herminia contemplated? Not indeed, "What effect would it have upon his position and prospects?" Alan Merrick's place as a barrister was fairly well assured, and the Bar is luckily one of the few professions in lie-loving England where a man need not grovel at the mercy of the moral judgment of the meanest and grossest among his fellow-creatures, as is the case with the Church, with medicine, with the politician, and with the schoolmaster. But Alan could not help thinking all the same how people would misinterpret and misunderstand his relations with the woman he loved, if he modelled them strictly upon Herminia's wishes. It was hateful, it was horrible to have to con the thing over, where that faultless soul was concerned, in the vile and vulgar terms other people would apply to it; but for Herminia's sake, con it over so he must; and though he shrank from the effort with a deadly shrinking, he nevertheless faced it. Men at the clubs would say he had seduced Herminia. Men at the clubs would lay the whole blame of the episode upon him; and he couldn't bear to be so blamed for the sake of a woman, to save whom from the faintest shadow of disgrace or shame he would willingly have died a thousand times over. For since Herminia had confessed her love to him yesterday, he had begun to feel how much she was to him. His admiration and appreciation of her had risen inexpressibly. And was he now to be condemned for having dragged down to the dust that angel whose white wings he felt himself unworthy to touch with the hem of his garment?
And yet, once more, when he respected her so much for the sacrifice she was willing to make for humanity, would it be right for him to stand in her way, to deter her from realizing her own highest nature? She was Herminia just because she lived in that world of high hopes, just because she had the courage and the nobility to dare this great thing. Would it be right of him to bring her down from that pedestal whereon she stood so austere, and urge upon her that she should debase herself to be as any other woman,--even as Ethel Waterton? For the Watertons had brought him there to propose to Ethel.
For hours he tossed and turned and revolved these problems. Rain beat on the leaded panes of the Waterton dormers. Day dawned, but no light came with it to his troubled spirit. The more he thought of this dilemma, the more profoundly he shrank from the idea of allowing himself to be made into the instrument for what the world would call, after its kind, Herminia's shame and degradation. For even if the world could be made to admit that Herminia had done what she did from chaste and noble motives,--which considering what we all know of the world, was improbable,--yet at any rate it could never allow that he himself had acted from any but the vilest and most unworthy reasons. Base souls would see in the sacrifice he made to Herminia's ideals, only the common story of a trustful woman cruelly betrayed by the man who pretended to love her, and would proceed to treat him with the coldness and contempt with which such a man deserves to be treated.
As the morning wore on, this view of the matter obtruded itself more and more forcibly every moment on Alan. Over and over again he said to himself, let come what come might, he must never aid and abet that innocent soul in rushing blindfold over a cliff to her own destruction. It is so easy at twenty-two to ruin yourself for life; so difficult at thirty to climb slowly back again. No, no, holy as Herminia's impulses were, he must save her from herself; he must save her from her own purity; he must refuse to be led astray by her romantic aspirations. He must keep her to the beaten path trod by all petty souls, and preserve her from the painful crown of martyrdom she herself designed as her eternal diadem.
Full of these manful resolutions, he rose up early in the morning. He would be his Herminia's guardian angel. He would use her love for him,--for he knew she loved him,--as a lever to egg her aside from these slippery moral precipices.
He mistook the solid rock of ethical resolution he was trying to disturb with so frail an engine. The fulcrum itself would yield far sooner to the pressure than the weight of Herminia's uncompromising rectitude. Passionate as she was,--and with that opulent form she could hardly be otherwise,--principle was still deeper and more imperious with her than passion.