The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen
The next six months were the happiest time of her life, for Herminia. All day long she worked hard with her classes; and often in the evenings Alan Merrick dropped in for sweet converse and companionship. Too free from any taint of sin or shame herself ever to suspect that others could misinterpret her actions, Herminia was hardly aware how the gossip of Bower Lane made free in time with the name of the young lady who had taken a cottage in the row, and whose relations with the tall gentleman that called so much in the evenings were beginning to attract the attention of the neighborhood. The poor slaves of washer-women and working men's wives all around, with whom contented slavery to a drunken, husband was the only "respectable" condition,--couldn't understand for the life of them how the pretty young lady could make her name so cheap; "and her that pretends to be so charitable and that, and goes about in the parish like a district visitor!" Though to be sure it had already struck the minds of Bower Lane that Herminia never went "to church nor chapel;" and when people cut themselves adrift from church and chapel, why, what sort of morality can you reasonably expect of them? Nevertheless, Herminia's manners were so sweet and engaging, to rich and poor alike, that Bower Lane seriously regretted what it took to be her lapse from grace. Poor purblind Bower Lane! A life-time would have failed it to discern for itself how infinitely higher than its slavish "respectability" was Herminia's freedom. In which respect, indeed, Bower Lane was no doubt on a dead level with Belgravia, or, for the matter of that, with Lambeth Palace.
But Herminia, for her part, never discovered she was talked about. To the pure all things are pure; and Herminia was dowered with that perfect purity. And though Bower Lane lay but some few hundred yards off from the Carlyle Place Girl's School, the social gulf between them yet yawned so wide that good old Miss Smith-Waters from Cambridge, the head-mistress of the school, never caught a single echo of the washerwomen's gossip. Herminia's life through those six months was one unclouded honeymoon. On Sundays, she and Alan would go out of town together, and stroll across the breezy summit of Leith Hill, or among the brown heather and garrulous pine-woods that perfume the radiating spurs of Hind Head with their aromatic resins. Her love for Alan was profound and absorbing; while as for Alan, the more he gazed into the calm depths of that crystal soul, the more deeply did he admire it. Gradually she was raising him to her own level. It is impossible to mix with a lofty nature and not acquire in time some tincture of its nobler and more generous sentiments. Herminia was weaning Alan by degrees from the world; she was teaching him to see that moral purity and moral earnestness are worth more, after all, than to dwell with purple hangings in all the tents of iniquity. She was making him understand and sympathize with the motives which led her stoutly on to her final martyrdom, which made her submit without a murmur of discontent to her great renunciation.
As yet, however, there was no hint or forecast of actual martyrdom. On the contrary, her life flowed in all the halo of a honeymoon. It was a honeymoon, too, undisturbed by the petty jars and discomforts of domestic life; she saw Alan too seldom for either ever to lose the keen sense of fresh delight in the other's presence. When she met him, she thrilled to the delicate fingertips. Herminia had planned it so of set purpose. In her reasoned philosophy of life, she had early decided that 'tis the wear and tear of too close daily intercourse which turns unawares the lover into the husband; and she had determined that in her own converse with the man she loved that cause of disillusion should never intrude itself. They conserved their romance through all their plighted and united life. Herminia had afterwards no recollections of Alan to look back upon save ideally happy ones.
So six months wore away. On the memory of those six months Herminia was to subsist for half a lifetime. At the end of that time, Alan began to fear that if she did not soon withdraw from the Carlyle Place School, Miss Smith-Waters might begin to ask inconvenient questions. Herminia, ever true to her principles, was for stopping on till the bitter end, and compelling Miss Smith-Waters to dismiss her from her situation. But Alan, more worldly wise, foresaw that such a course must inevitably result in needless annoyance and humiliation for Herminia; and Herminia was now beginning to be so far influenced by Alan's personality that she yielded the point with reluctance to his masculine judgment. It must be always so. The man must needs retain for many years to come the personal hegemony he has usurped over the woman; and the woman who once accepts him as lover or as husband must give way in the end, even in matters of principle, to his virile self-assertion. She would be less a woman, and he less a man, were any other result possible. Deep down in the very roots of the idea of sex we come on that prime antithesis,--the male, active and aggressive; the female, sedentary, passive, and receptive.
And even on the broader question, experience shows one it is always so in the world we live in. No man or woman can go through life in consistent obedience to any high principle,--not even the willing and deliberate martyrs. We must bow to circumstances. Herminia had made up her mind beforehand for the crown of martyrdom, the one possible guerdon this planet can bestow upon really noble and disinterested action. And she never shrank from any necessary pang, incidental to the prophet's and martyr's existence. Yet even so, in a society almost wholly composed of mean and petty souls, incapable of comprehending or appreciating any exalted moral standpoint, it is practically impossible to live from day to day in accordance with a higher or purer standard. The martyr who should try so to walk without deviation of any sort, turning neither to the right nor to the left in the smallest particular, must accomplish his martyrdom prematurely on the pettiest side-issues, and would never live at all to assert at the stake the great truth which is the lodestar and goal of his existence.
So Herminia gave way. Sadly against her will she gave way. One morning in early March, she absented herself from her place in the class-room without even taking leave of her beloved schoolgirls, whom she had tried so hard unobtrusively to train up towards a rational understanding of the universe around them, and sat down to write a final letter of farewell to poor straight-laced kind-hearted Miss Smith-Waters. She sat down to it with a sigh; for Miss Smith-Waters, though her outlook upon the cosmos was through one narrow chink, was a good soul up to her lights, and had been really fond and proud of Herminia. She had rather shown her off, indeed, as a social trump card to the hesitating parent,--"This is our second mistress, Miss Barton; you know her father, perhaps; such an excellent man, the Dean of Dunwich." And now, Herminia sat down with a heavy heart, thinking to herself what a stab of pain the avowal she had to make would send throbbing through that gentle old breast, and how absolutely incapable dear Miss Smith-Waters could be of ever appreciating the conscientious reasons which had led her, Iphigenia-like, to her self-imposed sacrifice.
But, for all that, she wrote her letter through, delicately, sweetly, with feminine tact and feminine reticence. She told Miss Smith-Waters frankly enough all it was necessary Miss Smith-Waters should know; but she said it with such daintiness that even that conventionalized and hide-bound old maid couldn't help feeling and recognizing the purity and nobility of her misguided action. Poor child, Miss Smith-Waters thought; she was mistaken, of course, sadly and grievously mistaken; but, then, 'twas her heart that misled her, no doubt; and Miss Smith-Waters, having dim recollections of a far-away time when she herself too possessed some rudimentary fragment of such a central vascular organ, fairly cried over the poor girl's letter with sympathetic shame, and remorse, and vexation. Miss Smith-Waters could hardly be expected to understand that if Herminia had thought her conduct in the faintest degree wrong, or indeed anything but the highest and best for humanity, she could never conceivably have allowed even that loving heart of hers to hurry her into it. For Herminia's devotion to principle was not less but far greater than Miss Smith-Waters's own; only, as it happened, the principles themselves were diametrically opposite.
Herminia wrote her note with not a few tears for poor Miss Smith-Waters's disappointment. That is the worst of living a life morally ahead of your contemporaries; what you do with profoundest conviction of its eternal rightness cannot fail to arouse hostile and painful feelings even in the souls of the most right-minded of your friends who still live in bondage to the conventional lies and the conventional injustices. It is the good, indeed, who are most against you. Still, Herminia steeled her heart to tell the simple truth,--how, for the right's sake and humanity's she had made up her mind to eschew the accursed thing, and to strike one bold blow for the freedom and unfettered individuality of women. She knew in what obloquy her action would involve her, she said; but she knew too, that to do right for right's sake was a duty imposed by nature upon every one of us; and that the clearer we could see ahead, and the farther in front we could look, the more profoundly did that duty shine forth for us. For her own part, she had never shrunk from doing what she knew to be right for mankind in the end, though she felt sure it must lead her to personal misery. Yet unless one woman were prepared to lead the way, no freedom was possible. She had found a man with whom she could spend her life in sympathy and united usefulness; and with him she had elected to spend it in the way pointed out to us by nature. Acting on his advice, though somewhat against her own judgment, she meant to leave England for the present, only returning again when she could return with the dear life they had both been instrumental in bringing into the world, and to which henceforth her main attention must be directed. She signed it, "Your ever-grateful and devoted Herminia."
Poor Miss Smith-Waters laid down that astonishing, that incredible letter in a perfect whirl of amazement and stupefaction. She didn't know what to make of it. It seemed to run counter to all her preconceived ideas of moral action. That a young girl should venture to think for herself at all about right and wrong was passing strange; that she should arrive at original notions upon those abstruse subjects, which were not the notions of constituted authority and of the universal slave-drivers and obscurantists generally,--notions full of luminousness upon the real relations and duties of our race,--was to poor, cramped Miss Smith-Waters well-nigh inconceivable. That a young girl should prefer freedom to slavery; should deem it more moral to retain her divinely-conferred individuality in spite of the world than to yield it up to a man for life in return for the price of her board and lodging; should refuse to sell her own body for a comfortable home and the shelter of a name,--these things seemed to Miss Smith-Waters, with her smaller-catechism standards of right and wrong, scarcely short of sheer madness. Yet Herminia had so endeared herself to the old lady's soul that on receipt of her letter Miss Smith-Waters went upstairs to her own room with a neuralgic headache, and never again in her life referred to her late second mistress in any other terms than as "my poor dear sweet misguided Herminia."
But when it became known next morning in Bower Lane that the queenly-looking school-mistress who used to go round among "our girls" with tickets for concerts and lectures and that, had disappeared suddenly with the nice-looking young man who used to come a-courting her on Sundays and evenings, the amazement and surprise of respectable Bower Lane was simply unbounded. "Who would have thought," the red-faced matrons of the cottages remarked, over their quart of bitter, "the pore thing had it in her! But there, it's these demure ones as is always the slyest!" For Bower Lane could only judge that austere soul by its own vulgar standard (as did also Belgravia). Most low minds, indeed, imagine absolute hypocrisy must be involved in any striving after goodness and abstract right-doing on the part of any who happen to disbelieve in their own blood-thirsty deities, or their own vile woman-degrading and prostituting morality. In the topsy-turvy philosophy of Bower Lane and of Belgravia, what is usual is right; while any conscious striving to be better and nobler than the mass around one is regarded at once as either insane or criminal.