The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
He met her by appointment on the first ridge of Bore Hill. A sunny summer morning smiled fresh after the rain. Bumble-bees bustled busily about the closed lips of the red-rattle, and ripe gorse pods burst with little elastic explosions in the basking sunlight.
When Alan reached the trysting-place, under a broad-armed oak, in a glade of the woodland, Herminia was there before him; a good woman always is, 'tis the prerogative of her affection. She was simply dressed in her dainty print gown, a single tea-rosebud peeped out from her bodice; she looked more lily-like, so Alan thought in his heart, than he had ever yet seen her. She held out her hand to him with parted lips and a conscious blush. Alan took it, but bent forward at the same time, and with a hasty glance around, just touched her rich mouth. Herminia allowed him without a struggle; she was too stately of mien ever to grant a favor without granting it of pure grace, and with queenly munificence.
Alan led her to a grassy bank where thyme and basil grew matted, and the hum of myriad wings stirred the sultry air; Herminia let him lead her. She was woman enough by nature to like being led; only, it must be the right man who led her, and he must lead her along the path that her conscience approved of. Alan seated himself by her side, and took her hand in his; Herminia let him hold it. This lovemaking was pure honey. Dappled spots of light and shade flecked the ground beneath the trees like a jaguar's skin. Wood-pigeons crooned, unseen, from the leafy covert. She sat there long without uttering a word. Once Alan essayed to speak, but Herminia cut him short. "Oh, no, not yet," she cried half petulantly; "this silence is so delicious. I love best just to sit and hold your hand like this. Why spoil it with language?"
So they sat for some minutes, Herminia with her eyes half-closed, drinking in to the full the delight of first love. She could feel her heart beating. At last Alan interposed, and began to speak to her. The girl drew a long breath; then she sighed for a second, as she opened her eyes again. Every curve of her bosom heaved and swayed mysteriously. It seemed such a pity to let articulate words disturb that reverie. Still, if Alan wished it. For a woman is a woman, let Girton do its worst; and Herminia not less but rather more than the rest of them.
Then Alan began. With her hand clasped in his, and fondling it while he spoke, he urged all he could urge to turn her from her purpose. He pointed out to her how unwise, how irretrievable her position would be, if she once assumed it. On such a road as that there is no turning back. The die once cast, she must forever abide by it. He used all arts to persuade and dissuade; all eloquence to save her from herself and her salvation. If he loved her less, he said with truth, he might have spoken less earnestly. It was for her own sake he spoke, because he so loved her. He waxed hot in his eager desire to prevent her from taking this fatal step. He drew his breath hard, and paused. Emotion and anxiety overcame him visibly.
But as for Herminia, though she listened with affection and with a faint thrill of pleasure to much that he said, seeing how deeply he loved her, she leaned back from time to time, half weary with his eagerness, and his consequent iteration. "Dear Alan," she said at last, soothing his hand with her own, as a sister might have soothed it, "you talk about all this as though it were to me some new resolve, some new idea of my making. You forget it is the outcome of my life's philosophy. I have grown up to it slowly. I have thought of all this, and of hardly anything else, ever since I was old enough to think for myself about anything. Root and branch, it is to me a foregone conclusion. I love you. You love me. So far as I am concerned, there ends the question. One way there is, and one way alone, in which I can give myself up to you. Make me yours if you will; but if not, then leave me. Only, remember, by leaving me, you won't any the more turn me aside from my purpose. You won't save me from myself, as you call it; you will only hand me over to some one less fit for me by far than you are." A quiet moisture glistened in her eyes, and she gazed at him pensively. "How wonderful it is," she went on, musing. "Three weeks ago, I didn't know there was such a man in the world at all as you; and now--why, Alan, I feel as if the world would be nothing to me without you. Your name seems to sing in my ears all day long with the song of the birds, and to thrill through and through me as I lie awake on my pillow with the cry of the nightjar. Yet, if you won't take me on my own terms, I know well what will happen. I shall go away, and grieve over you, of course, and feel bereaved for months, as if I could never possibly again love any man. At present it seems to me I never could love him. But though my heart tells me that, my reason tells me I should some day find some other soul I might perhaps fall back upon. But it would only be falling back. For the sake of my principles alone, and of the example I wish to set the world, could I ever fall back upon any other. Yet fall back I would. And what good would you have done me then by refusing me? You would merely have cast me off from the man I love best, the man who I know by immediate instinct, which is the voice of nature and of God within us, was intended from all time for me. The moment I saw you my heart beat quicker; my heart's evidence told me you were the one love meant for me. Why force me to decline upon some other less meet for me?"
Alan gazed at her, irresolute. "But if you love me so much," he said, "surely, surely, it is a small thing to trust your future to me."
The tenderness of woman let her hand glide over his cheek. She was not ashamed of her love. "O Alan," she cried, "if it were only for myself, I could trust you with my life; I could trust you with anything. But I haven't only myself to think of. I have to think of right and wrong; I have to think of the world; I have to think of the cause which almost wholly hangs upon me. Not for nothing are these impulses implanted in my breast. They are the voice of the soul of all women within me. If I were to neglect them for the sake of gratifying your wishes,--if I were to turn traitor to my sex for the sake of the man I love, as so many women have turned before me, I should hate and despise myself. I couldn't love you, Alan, quite so much, loved I not honor more, and the battle imposed upon me."
Alan wavered as she spoke. He felt what she said was true; even if he refused to take her on the only terms she could accept, he would not thereby save her. She would turn in time and bestow herself upon some man who would perhaps be less worthy of her,--nay even on some man who might forsake her in the sequel with unspeakable treachery. Of conduct like that, Alan knew himself incapable. He knew that if he took Herminia once to his heart, he would treat her with such tenderness, such constancy, such devotion as never yet was shown to living woman. (Love always thinks so.) But still, he shrank from the idea of being himself the man to take advantage of her; for so in his unregenerate mind he phrased to himself their union. And still he temporized. "Even so, Herminia," he cried, bending forward and gazing hard at her, "I couldn't endure to have it said it was I who misled you."
Herminia lifted her eyes to his with just a tinge of lofty scorn, tempered only by the womanliness of those melting lashes. "And you can think of that?" she murmured, gazing across at him half in tears. "O Alan, for my part I can think of nothing now but the truths of life and the magnitude of the issues. Our hearts against the world,--love and duty against convention."
Then Alan began again and talked all he knew. He urged, he prayed, he bent forward, he spoke soft and low, he played on her tenderest chords as a loving woman. Herminia was moved, for her heart went forth to him, and she knew why he tried so hard to save her from her own higher and truer nature. But she never yielded an inch. She stood firm to her colors. She shook her head to the last, and murmured over and over again, "There is only one right way, and no persuasion on earth will ever avail to turn me aside from it."
The Truth had made her Free, and she was very confident of it.
At last, all other means failing, Alan fell back on the final resort of delay. He saw much merit in procrastination. There was no hurry, he said. They needn't make up their minds, one way or the other, immediately. They could take their time to think. Perhaps, with a week or two to decide in, Herminia might persuade him; or he might persuade her. Why rush on fate so suddenly?
But at that, to his immense surprise, Herminia demurred. "No, no," she said, shaking her head, "that's not at all what I want. We must decide to-day one way or the other. Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation. I couldn't let you wait, and slip by degrees into some vague arrangement we hardly contemplated definitely. To do that would be to sin against my ideas of decorum. Whatever we do we must do, as the apostle says, decently and in order, with a full sense of the obligations it imposes upon us. We must say to one another in so many words, 'I am yours; you are mine;' or we must part forever. I have told you my whole soul; I have bared my heart before you. You may take it or leave it; but for my dignity's sake, I put it to you now, choose one way or the other."
Alan looked at her hard. Her face was crimson by this with maidenly shame; but she made no effort to hide or avert it. For the good of humanity, this question must be settled once for all; and no womanish reserve should make her shrink from settling it. Happier maidens in ages to come, when society had reconstructed itself on the broad basis of freedom, would never have to go through what she was going through that moment. They would be spared the quivering shame, the tingling regret, the struggle with which she braced up her maiden modesty to that supreme effort. But she would go through with it all the same. For eternal woman's sake she had long contemplated that day; now it had come at last, she would not weakly draw back from it.
Alan's eyes were all admiration. He stood near enough to her level to understand her to the core. "Herminia," he cried, bending over her, "you drive me to bay. You press me very hard. I feel myself yielding. I am a man; and when you speak to me like that, I know it. You enlist on your side all that is virile within me. Yet how can I accept the terms you offer? For the very love I bear you, how do you this injustice? If I loved you less, I might perhaps say yes; because I love you so well, I feel compelled to say no to you."
Herminia looked at him hard in return. Her cheeks were glowing now with something like the shame of the woman who feels her love is lightly rejected. "Is that final?" she asked, drawing herself up as she sat, and facing him proudly.
"No, no, it's not final," Alan answered, feeling the woman's influence course through body and blood to his quivering fingertips. Magical touches stirred him. "How can it be final, Herminia, when you look at me like that? How can it be final, when you're so gracious, so graceful, so beautiful? Oh, my child, I am a man; don't play too hard on those fiercest chords in my nature."
Herminia gazed at him fixedly; the dimples disappeared. Her voice was more serious now, and had nothing in it of pleading. "It isn't like that that I want to draw you, Alan," she answered gravely. "It isn't those chords I want to play upon. I want to convince your brain, your intellect, your reason. You agree with me in principle. Why then, should you wish to draw back in practice?"
"Yes, I agree with you in principle," Alan answered. "It isn't there that I hesitate. Even before I met you, I had arrived at pretty much the same ideas myself, as a matter of abstract reasoning. I saw that the one way of freedom for the woman is to cast off, root and branch, the evil growth of man's supremacy. I saw that the honorableness of marriage, the disgrace of free union, were just so many ignoble masculine devices to keep up man's lordship; vile results of his determination to taboo to himself beforehand and monopolize for life some particular woman. I know all that; I acknowledge all that. I see as plainly as you do that sooner or later there must come a revolution. But, Herminia, the women who devote themselves to carrying out that revolution, will take their souls in their hands, and will march in line to the freeing of their sex through shame and calumny and hardships innumerable. I shrink from letting you, the woman that I love, bring that fate upon yourself; I shrink still more from being the man to aid and abet you in doing it."
Herminia fixed her piercing eyes upon his face once more. Tears stood in them now. The tenderness of woman was awakened within her. "Dear Alan," she said gently, "don't I tell you I have thought long since of all that? I am prepared to face it. It is only a question of with whom I shall do so. Shall it be with the man I have instinctively loved from the first moment I saw him, better than all others on earth, or shall it be with some lesser? If my heart is willing, why should yours demur to it?"
"Because I love you too well," Alan answered doggedly.
Herminia rose and faced him. Her hands dropped by her side. She was splendid when she stood so with her panting bosom. "Then you decide to say good-bye?" she cried, with a lingering cadence.
Alan seized her by both wrists, and drew her down to his side. "No, no, darling," he answered low, laying his lips against hers. "I can never say good-bye. You have confessed you love me. When a woman says that, what can a man refuse her? From such a woman as you, I am so proud, so proud, so proud of such a confession; how could I ever cease to feel you were mine,--mine, mine, wholly mine for a lifetime?"
"Then you consent?" Herminia cried, all aglow, half nestling to his bosom.
"I consent," Alan answered, with profound misgivings. "What else do you leave open to me?"
Herminia made no direct answer; she only laid her head with perfect trust upon the man's broad shoulder. "O Alan," she murmured low, letting her heart have its way, "you are mine, then; you are mine. You have made me so happy, so supremely happy."