English Literature

The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen

The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen.jpg


Mrs. Dewsbury’s lawn was held by those who knew it the loveliest in Surrey. The smooth and springy sward that stretched in front of the house was all composed of a tiny yellow clover. It gave beneath the foot like the pile on velvet. One’s gaze looked forth from it upon the endless middle distances of the oak-clad Weald, with the uncertain blue line of the South Downs in the background. Ridge behind ridge, the long, low hills of paludina limestone stood out in successive tiers, each thrown up against its neighbor by the misty haze that broods eternally over the wooded valley; till, roaming across them all, the eye rested at last on the rearing scarp of Chanctonbury Ring, faintly pencilled on the furthest skyline. Shadowy phantoms of dim heights framed the verge to east and west. Alan Merrick drank it in with profound satisfaction. After those sharp and clear-cut Italian outlines, hard as lapis lazuli, the mysterious vagueness, the pregnant suggestiveness, of our English scenery strikes the imagination; and Alan was fresh home from an early summer tour among the Peruginesque solidities of the Umbrian Apennines. “How beautiful it all is, after all,” he said, turning to his entertainer. “In Italy ’tis the background the painter dwells upon; in England, we look rather at the middle distance.”

Mrs. Dewsbury darted round her the restless eye of a hostess, to see upon whom she could socially bestow him. “Oh, come this way,” she said, sweeping across the lawn towards a girl in a blue dress at the opposite corner. “You must know our new-comer. I want to introduce you to Miss Barton, from Cambridge. She’s SUCH a nice girl too,—the Dean of Dunwich’s daughter.”

Alan Merrick drew back with a vague gesture of distaste. “Oh, thank you,” he replied; “but, do you know, I don’t think I like deans, Mrs. Dewsbury.” Mrs. Dewsbury’s smile was recondite and diplomatic. “Then you’ll exactly suit one another,” she answered with gay wisdom. “For, to tell you the truth, I don’t think SHE does either.”

The young man allowed himself to be led with a passive protest in the direction where Mrs. Dewsbury so impulsively hurried him. He heard that cultivated voice murmuring in the usual inaudible tone of introduction, “Miss Barton, Mr. Alan Merrick.” Then he raised his hat. As he did so, he looked down at Herminia Barton’s face with a sudden start of surprise. Why, this was a girl of most unusual beauty!

She was tall and dark, with abundant black hair, richly waved above the ample forehead; and she wore a curious Oriental-looking navy-blue robe of some soft woollen stuff, that fell in natural folds and set off to the utmost the lissome grace of her rounded figure. It was a sort of sleeveless sack, embroidered in front with arabesques in gold thread, and fastened obliquely two inches below the waist with a belt of gilt braid, and a clasp of Moorish jewel-work. Beneath it, a bodice of darker silk showed at the arms and neck, with loose sleeves in keeping. The whole costume, though quite simple in style, a compromise either for afternoon or evening, was charming in its novelty, charming too in the way it permitted the utmost liberty and variety of movement to the lithe limbs of its wearer. But it was her face particularly that struck Alan Merrick at first sight. That face was above all things the face of a free woman. Something so frank and fearless shone in Herminia’s glance, as her eye met his, that Alan, who respected human freedom above all other qualities in man or woman, was taken on the spot by its perfect air of untrammelled liberty. Yet it was subtle and beautiful too, undeniably beautiful. Herminia Barton’s features, I think, were even more striking in their way in later life, when sorrow had stamped her, and the mark of her willing martyrdom for humanity’s sake was deeply printed upon them. But their beauty then was the beauty of holiness, which not all can appreciate. In her younger days, as Alan Merrick first saw her, she was beautiful still with the first flush of health and strength and womanhood in a free and vigorous English girl’s body. A certain lofty serenity, not untouched with pathos, seemed to strike the keynote. But that was not all. Some hint of every element in the highest loveliness met in that face and form,—physical, intellectual, emotional, moral.

“You’ll like him, Herminia,” Mrs. Dewsbury said, nodding. “He’s one of your own kind, as dreadful as you are; very free and advanced; a perfect firebrand. In fact, my dear child, I don’t know which of you makes my hair stand on end most.” And with that introductory hint, she left the pair forthwith to their own devices.

Mrs. Dewsbury was right. It took those two but little time to feel quite at home with one another. Built of similar mould, each seemed instinctively to grasp what each was aiming at. Two or three turns pacing up and down the lawn, two or three steps along the box-covered path at the side, and they read one another perfectly. For he was true man, and she was real woman.

“Then you were at Girton?” Alan asked, as he paused with one hand on the rustic seat that looks up towards Leith Hill, and the heather-clad moorland.

“Yes, at Girton,” Herminia answered, sinking easily upon the bench, and letting one arm rest on the back in a graceful attitude of unstudied attention. “But I didn’t take my degree,” she went on hurriedly, as one who is anxious to disclaim some too great honor thrust upon her. “I didn’t care for the life; I thought it cramping. You see, if we women are ever to be free in the world, we must have in the end a freeman’s education. But the education at Girton made only a pretence at freedom. At heart, our girls were as enslaved to conventions as any girls elsewhere. The whole object of the training was to see just how far you could manage to push a woman’s education without the faintest danger of her emancipation.”

“You are right,” Alan answered briskly, for the point was a pet one with him. “I was an Oxford man myself, and I know that servitude. When I go up to Oxford now and see the girls who are being ground in the mill at Somerville, I’m heartily sorry for them. It’s worse for them than for us; they miss the only part of university life that has educational value. When we men were undergraduates, we lived our whole lives, lived them all round, developing equally every fibre of our natures. We read Plato, and Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill, to be sure,—and I’m not quite certain we got much good from them; but then our talk and thought were not all of books, and of what we spelt out in them. We rowed on the river, we played in the cricket-field, we lounged in the billiard-rooms, we ran up to town for the day, we had wine in one another’s rooms after hall in the evening, and behaved like young fools, and threw oranges wildly at one another’s heads, and generally enjoyed ourselves. It was all very silly and irrational, no doubt, but it was life, it was reality; while the pretended earnestness of those pallid Somerville girls is all an affectation of one-sided culture.”

“That’s just it,” Herminia answered, leaning back on the rustic seat like David’s Madame Recamier. “You put your finger on the real blot when you said those words, developing equally every fibre of your natures. That’s what nobody yet wants us women to do. They’re trying hard enough to develop us intellectually; but morally and socially they want to mew us up just as close as ever. And they won’t succeed. The zenana must go. Sooner or later, I’m sure, if you begin by educating women, you must end by emancipating them.”

“So I think too,” Alan answered, growing every moment more interested. “And for my part, it’s the emancipation, not the mere education, that most appeals to me.”

“Yes, I’ve always felt that,” Herminia went on, letting herself out more freely, for she felt she was face to face with a sympathetic listener. “And for that reason, it’s the question of social and moral emancipation that interests me far more than the mere political one,—woman’s rights as they call it. Of course I’m a member of all the woman’s franchise leagues and everything of that sort,—they can’t afford to do without a single friend’s name on their lists at present; but the vote is a matter that troubles me little in itself, what I want is to see women made fit to use it. After all, political life fills but a small and unimportant part in our total existence. It’s the perpetual pressure of social and ethical restrictions that most weighs down women.”

Alan paused and looked hard at her. “And they tell me,” he said in a slow voice, “you’re the Dean of Dunwich’s daughter!”

Herminia laughed lightly,—a ringing girlish laugh. Alan noticed it with pleasure. He felt at once that the iron of Girton had not entered into her soul, as into so many of our modern young women’s. There was vitality enough left in her for a genuine laugh of innocent amusement. “Oh yes,” she said, merrily; “that’s what I always answer to all possible objectors to my ways and ideas. I reply with dignity, ‘I was brought up in the family of a clergyman of the Church of England.'”

“And what does the Dean say to your views?” Alan interposed doubtfully.

Herminia laughed again. If her eyes were profound, two dimples saved her. “I thought you were with us,” she answered with a twinkle; “now, I begin to doubt it. You don’t expect a man of twenty-two to be governed in all things, especially in the formation of his abstract ideas, by his father’s opinions. Why then a woman?”

“Why, indeed?” Alan answered. “There I quite agree with you. I was thinking not so much of what is right and reasonable as of what is practical and usual. For most women, of course, are—well, more or less dependent upon their fathers.”

“But I am not,” Herminia answered, with a faint suspicion of just pride in the undercurrent of her tone. “That’s in part why I went away so soon from Girton. I felt that if women are ever to be free, they must first of all be independent. It is the dependence of women that has allowed men to make laws for them, socially and ethically. So I wouldn’t stop at Girton, partly because I felt the life was one-sided,—our girls thought and talked of nothing else on earth except Herodotus, trigonometry, and the higher culture,—but partly also because I wouldn’t be dependent on any man, not even my own father. It left me freer to act and think as I would. So I threw Girton overboard, and came up to live in London.”

“I see,” Alan replied. “You wouldn’t let your schooling interfere with your education. And now you support yourself?” he went on quite frankly.

Herminia nodded assent.

“Yes, I support myself,” she answered; “in part by teaching at a high school for girls, and in part by doing a little hack-work for newspapers.”

“Then you’re just down here for your holidays, I suppose?” Alan put in, leaning forward.

“Yes, just down here for my holidays. I’ve lodgings on the Holmwood, in such a dear old thatched cottage; roses peep in at the porch, and birds sing on the bushes. After a term in London, it’s a delicious change for one.”

“But are you alone?” Alan interposed again, still half hesitating.

Herminia smiled once more; his surprise amused her. “Yes, quite alone,” she answered. “But if you seem so astonished at that, I shall believe you and Mrs. Dewsbury have been trying to take me in, and that you’re not really with us. Why shouldn’t a woman come down alone to pretty lodgings in the country?”

“Why not, indeed?” Alan echoed in turn. “It’s not at all that I disapprove, Miss Barton; on the contrary, I admire it; it’s only that one’s surprised to find a woman, or for the matter of that anybody, acting up to his or her convictions. That’s what I’ve always felt; ’tis the Nemesis of reason; if people begin by thinking rationally, the danger is that they may end by acting rationally also.”

Herminia laughed. “I’m afraid,” she answered, “I’ve already reached that pass. You’ll never find me hesitate to do anything on earth, once I’m convinced it’s right, merely because other people think differently on the subject.”

Alan looked at her and mused. She was tall and stately, but her figure was well developed, and her form softly moulded. He admired her immensely. How incongruous an outcome from a clerical family! “It’s curious,” he said, gazing hard at her, “that you should be a dean’s daughter.”

“On the contrary,” Herminia answered, with perfect frankness, “I regard myself as a living proof of the doctrine of heredity.”

“How so?” Alan inquired.

“Well, my father was a Senior Wrangler,” Herminia replied, blushing faintly; “and I suppose that implies a certain moderate development of the logical faculties. In HIS generation, people didn’t apply the logical faculties to the grounds of belief; they took those for granted; but within his own limits, my father is still an acute reasoner. And then he had always the ethical and social interests. Those two things—a love of logic, and a love of right—are the forces that tend to make us what we call religious. Worldly people don’t care for fundamental questions of the universe at all; they accept passively whatever is told them; they think they think, and believe they believe it. But people with an interest in fundamental truth inquire for themselves into the constitution of the cosmos; if they are convinced one way, they become what we call theologians; if they are convinced the other way, they become what we call free-thinkers. Interest in the problem is common to both; it’s the nature of the solution alone that differs in the two cases.”

“That’s quite true,” Alan assented. “And have you ever noticed this curious corollary, that you and I can talk far more sympathetically with an earnest Catholic, for example, or an earnest Evangelical, than we can talk with a mere ordinary worldly person.”

“Oh dear, yes,” Herminia answered with conviction. “Thought will always sympathize with thought. It’s the unthinking mass one can get no further with.”

Alan changed the subject abruptly. This girl so interested him. She was the girl he had imagined, the girl he had dreamt of, the girl he had thought possible, but never yet met with. “And you’re in lodgings on the Holmwood here?” he said, musing. “For how much longer?”

“For, six weeks, I’m glad to say,” Herminia answered, rising.

“At what cottage?”

“Mrs. Burke’s,—not far from the station.”

“May I come to see you there?”

Herminia’s clear brown eyes gazed down at him, all puzzlement. “Why, surely,” she answered; “I shall be delighted to see you!” She paused for a second. “We agree about so many things,” she went on; “and it’s so rare to find a man who can sympathize with the higher longings in women.”

“When are you likeliest to be at home?” Alan asked.

“In the morning, after breakfast,—that is, at eight o’clock,” Herminia answered, smiling; “or later, after lunch, say two or thereabouts.”

“Six weeks,” Alan repeated, more to himself than to her. Those six week were precious. Not a moment of them must be lost. “Then I think,” he went on quietly, “I shall call tomorrow.”

A wave of conscious pleasure broke over Herminia’s cheek, blush rose on white lily; but she answered nothing. She was glad this kindred soul should seem in such a hurry to renew her acquaintance.


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