Chapter VI.

Thus, half against his will, Alan Merrick was drawn into this irregular compact.

Next came that more difficult matter, the discussion of ways and means, the more practical details. Alan hardly knew at first on what precise terms it was Herminia's wish that they two should pass their lives together. His ideas were all naturally framed on the old model of marriage; in that matter, Herminia said, he was still in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity. He took it for granted that of course they must dwell under one roof with one another. But that simple ancestral notion, derived from man's lordship in his own house, was wholly adverse to Herminia's views of the reasonable and natural. She had debated these problems at full in her own mind for years, and had arrived at definite and consistent solutions for every knotty point in them. Why should this friendship differ at all, she asked, in respect of time and place, from any other friendship? The notion of necessarily keeping house together, the cramping idea of the family tie, belonged entirely to the regime of the manmade patriarchate, where the woman and the children were the slaves and chattels of the lord and master. In a free society, was it not obvious that each woman would live her own life apart, would preserve her independence, and would receive the visits of the man for whom she cared,--the father of her children? Then only could she be free. Any other method meant the economic and social superiority of the man, and was irreconcilable with the perfect individuality of the woman.

So Herminia reasoned. She rejected at once, therefore, the idea of any change in her existing mode of life. To her, the friendship she proposed with Alan Merrick was no social revolution; it was but the due fulfilment of her natural functions. To make of it an occasion for ostentatious change in her way of living seemed to her as unnatural as is the practice of the barbarians in our midst who use a wedding--that most sacred and private event in a young girl's life--as an opportunity for display of the coarsest and crudest character. To rivet the attention of friends on bride and bridegroom is to offend against the most delicate susceptibilities of modesty. From all such hateful practices, Herminia's pure mind revolted by instinct. She felt that here at least was the one moment in a woman's history when she would shrink with timid reserve from every eye save one man's,--when publicity of any sort was most odious and horrible.

Only the blinding effect of custom, indeed, could ever have shut good women's eyes to the shameful indecorousness of wedding ceremonial. We drag a young girl before the prying gaze of all the world at the very crisis in her life, when natural modesty would most lead her to conceal herself from her dearest acquaintance. And our women themselves have grown so blunted by use to the hatefulness of the ordeal that many of them face it now with inhuman effrontery. Familiarity with marriage has almost killed out in the maidens of our race the last lingering relics of native modesty.

Herminia, however, could dispense with all that show. She had a little cottage of her own, she told Alan,--a tiny little cottage, in a street near her school-work; she rented it for a small sum, in quite a poor quarter, all inhabited by work-people. There she lived by herself; for she kept no servants. There she should continue to live; why need this purely personal compact between them two make any difference in her daily habits? She would go on with her school-work for the present, as usual. Oh, no, she certainly didn't intend to notify the head-mistress of the school or any one else, of her altered position. It was no alteration of position at all, so far as she was concerned; merely the addition to life of a new and very dear and natural friendship. Herminia took her own point of view so instinctively indeed,--lived so wrapped in an ideal world of her own and the future's,--that Alan was often quite alarmed in his soul when he thought of the rude awakening that no doubt awaited her. Yet whenever he hinted it to her with all possible delicacy, she seemed so perfectly prepared for the worst the world could do, so fixed and resolved in her intention of martyrdom, that he had no argument left, and could only sigh over her.

It was not, she explained to him further, that she wished to conceal anything. The least tinge of concealment was wholly alien to that frank fresh nature. If her head-mistress asked her a point-blank question, she would not attempt to parry it, but would reply at once with a point blank answer. Still, her very views on the subject made it impossible for her to volunteer information unasked to any one. Here was a personal matter of the utmost privacy; a matter which concerned nobody on earth, save herself and Alan; a matter on which it was the grossest impertinence for any one else to make any inquiry or hold any opinion. They two chose to be friends; and there, so far as the rest of the world was concerned, the whole thing ended. What else took place between them was wholly a subject for their own consideration. But if ever circumstances should arise which made it necessary for her to avow to the world that she must soon be a mother, then it was for the world to take the first step, if it would act upon its own hateful and cruel initiative. She would never deny, but she would never go out of her way to confess. She stood upon her individuality as a human being.

As to other practical matters, about which Alan ventured delicately to throw out a passing question or two, Herminia was perfectly frank, with the perfect frankness of one who thinks and does nothing to be ashamed of. She had always been self-supporting, she said, and she would be self-supporting still. To her mind, that was an essential step towards the emancipation of women. Their friendship implied for her no change of existence, merely an addition to the fulness of her living. He was the complement of her being. Every woman should naturally wish to live her whole life, to fulfil her whole functions; and that she could do only by becoming a mother, accepting the orbit for which nature designed her. In the end, no doubt, complete independence would be secured for each woman by the civilized state, or in other words by the whole body of men, who do the hard work of the world, and who would collectively guarantee every necessary and luxury to every woman of the community equally. In that way alone could perfect liberty of choice and action be secured for women; and she held it just that women should so be provided for, because the mothers of the community fulfil in the state as important and necessary a function as the men themselves do. It would be well, too, that the mothers should be free to perform that function without preoccupation of any sort. So a free world would order things. But in our present barbaric state of industrial slavery, capitalism, monopoly,--in other words under the organized rule of selfishness,--such a course was impossible. Perhaps, as an intermediate condition, it might happen in time that the women of certain classes would for the most part be made independent at maturity each by her own father; which would produce for them in the end pretty much the same general effect of freedom. She saw as a first step the endowment of the daughter. But meanwhile there was nothing for it save that as many women as could should aim for themselves at economic liberty, in other words at self-support. That was an evil in itself, because obviously the prospective mothers of a community should be relieved as far as possible front the stress and strain of earning a livelihood; should be set free to build up their nervous systems to the highest attainable level against the calls of maternity. But above all things we must be practical; and in the practical world here and now around us, no other way existed for women to be free save the wasteful way of each earning her own livelihood. Therefore she would continue her schoolwork with her pupils as long as the school would allow her; and when that became impossible, would fall back upon literature.

One other question Alan ventured gently to raise,--the question of children. Fools always put that question, and think it a crushing one. Alan was no fool, yet it puzzled him strangely. He did not see for himself how easy is the solution; how absolutely Herminia's plan leaves the position unaltered. But Herminia herself was as modestly frank on the subject as on every other. It was a moral and social point of the deepest importance; and it would be wrong of them to rush into it without due consideration. She had duly considered it. She would give her children, should any come, the unique and glorious birthright of being the only human beings ever born into this world as the deliberate result of a free union, contracted on philosophical and ethical principles. Alan hinted certain doubts as to their up-bringing and education. There, too, Herminia was perfectly frank. They would be half hers, half his; the pleasant burden of their support, the joy of their education, would naturally fall upon both parents equally. But why discuss these matters like the squalid rich, who make their marriages a question of settlements and dowries and business arrangements? They two were friends and lovers; in love, such base doubts could never arise. Not for worlds would she import into their mutual relations any sordid stain of money, any vile tinge of bargaining. They could trust one another; that alone sufficed for them.

So Alan gave way bit by bit all along the line, overborne by Herminia's more perfect and logical conception of her own principles. She knew exactly what she felt and wanted; while he knew only in a vague and formless way that his reason agreed with her.

A week later, he knocked timidly one evening at the door of a modest little workman-looking cottage, down a small side street in the back-wastes of Chelsea. 'Twas a most unpretending street; Bower Lane by name, full of brown brick houses, all as like as peas, and with nothing of any sort to redeem their plain fronts from the common blight of the London jerry-builder. Only a soft serge curtain and a pot of mignonette on the ledge of the window, distinguished the cottage at which Alan Merrick knocked from the others beside it. Externally that is to say; for within it was as dainty as Morris wall-papers and merino hangings and a delicate feminine taste in form and color could make it. Keats and Shelley lined the shelves; Rossetti's wan maidens gazed unearthly from the over-mantel. The door was opened for him by Herminia in person; for she kept no servant,--that was one of her principles. She was dressed from head to foot in a simple white gown, as pure and sweet as the soul it covered. A white rose nestled in her glossy hair; three sprays of white lily decked a vase on the mantel-piece. Some dim survival of ancestral ideas made Herminia Barton so array herself in the white garb of affiance for her bridal evening. Her cheek was aglow with virginal shrinking as she opened the door, and welcomed Alan in. But she held out her hand just as frankly as ever to the man of her free choice as he advanced to greet her. Alan caught her in his arms and kissed her forehead tenderly. And thus was Herminia Barton's espousal consummated.